74km Raqqa to Thawrah
What a mess. We handled our police escort in good humour the first day, reluctantly the second day and by today we were fed up. When we first left the hotel this morning we thought we’d been set free but before long a motorcycle was on our tail. “Enough,” we said to him as he pulled up beside us on the edge of town. “No police. Finish,” we added in broken but basic English to get our point across. The only thing we achieved was to make our minder drop back a bit further, a small concession as our frustration grew. It’s hard to be followed everywhere you go on a bicycle. We feel like unwilling contestants on Big Brother. Our enjoyment in exploring this wonderful country is gone now that the police are always watching us, scaring away locals who dare approach and making bathroom stops nearly impossible. There has been no real explanation as to why this started or what the “ground rules” are. None of the police officers have spoken English beyond some rough basics.
We were trailed throughout the day and by late afternoon, as in any bad relationship, we decided a talk was needed. A local football game was on and our minders had driven a small way ahead to watch the action while they waited for us to catch up. We stopped beside them and asked for a translator. A doctor appeared after some time and kindly helped to interpret. We were told we were being followed by the tourism police, that this was a service to keep us safe “just in case” and that we could ask for it to stop if we were unhappy. We made it clear that we were indeed very unhappy and that we would not go on if we were being followed all the time. We were seriously considering abandonning our trip in Syria altogether or at the very least taking the fastest route possible back to Aleppo. The reply came back that they would respect our wishes. No more. We checked again, just to be sure. “Finish,” was the answer once again and we set off on our own, intending to find a quiet spot to camp.
The promise proved to be very short-lived. Not five minutes down the road our minders were trailing behind once again and by now we’d really had enough. The reason we’d taken the trouble to get a translator earlier was that we suspected we would not be allowed to wild camp and this would of course affect whether we would continue on from the town or not. Now, with the police tracking us to the last ray of light, our only option was to put our tent up and see what would happen.
We found a spot, hidden from the road, and made camp as normal. In the distance, when we peeked round the unfinished house we were behind, we could see the police pacing up and down the road. A few minutes later a man appeared, claiming to be the owner of the land. “You can’t sleep here,” he said in Arabic, making motions with his hands to indicate that snakes would come and bite us during the night. It was an innovative excuse but we assured him we would be fine and eventually he went away, only to be dragged back a few minutes later by the police. “Please go sleep at this man’s home,” they said. A beautiful house, they said. Meet his family, his children. But we were in no mood to play their games anymore, especially after being lied to earlier. We were in the middle of making supper. The spaghetti was boiling away. We were starving and only wanted to eat. What incentive did we have to drop everything and pack up our tent and bags – a good hour of work – before cycling off to someone’s house in the dark?
Next came the offer of a hotel room in the town. They would pay. No, we didn’t want that either. We just wanted to be left in peace. There was a small break in the pressure before the police returned again. “This is a military zone. You can’t sleep here,” they said, throwing their hands into the air. We laughed. There were no signs to indicate anything of the sort and this was clearly a late excuse to try and move us on. They dropped this argument quickly. More hand motions. Everything could go in the police car, they said, and they’d drive us to the hotel. They offered to strap our bikes to the roof of the car, which was clearly too small to transport us, our bags and our bikes.
Through all of this, language was a problem. How to explain that we were not looking for a nice house or free hotel room to spend the night in? No, we just wanted to be left alone to continue our trip as we had done for the last month, or at least to understand why we were being tailed and the conditions that would go with that. We offered the phone number of a friend in Damascus who could translate. The police officer refused, saying there was no credit left on his phone. He then went and made several calls on it, which made us suspicious of this excuse.
By now it was well and truly dark. Frustrated, stressed and angry we sat down in our tent, not knowing what to do next. By some miracle our police duo just seemed to give up on us and go away. Now only the rest of the night will reveal whether we’ll actually be left in peace for a few hours or not.