DEIR EZ-ZOR — On a pitch-black night, we wait in our taxi on the embankment. A fighter informs us there are wounded on the bridge, and that his comrades are trying to reach them. The official name of this deadly crossing — Siyasiyeh Bridge — has been discarded in favor of something much more apt: the bridge of death.
Syria’s eastern city of Deir ez-Zor is effectively divided, split between government-run and opposition-held areas.
The rebels briefly gained an upper hand when they captured the Siyasiyeh Bridge in late January, effectively cutting off regime supplies to the adjoining province of Hasakeh. But the price was steep.
Snipers and rocket launchers constantly target the bridge, and many who try to navigate the dangerous path are killed before reaching the opposite embankment. Crossing is only really possible at the darkest hour of the night. On moonlit nights, rebel brigades prevent civilians from crossing, as any wrong move could lead to injury, or even death.
Our taxi driver Abu Abdullah, in his 40s, says a sniper has been shooting at the bridge all day. “More than five cars have tried crossing the bridge today,” he says, “and each one was hit. Some passengers even fell into the water.”
I ask if they can be rescued. Abdullah replies that there is not much that can be done. But they have no choice but to try the crossing. As he explains, “This bridge is the last entry point to the city after the suspension bridge was destroyed.”
Deir ez-Zor’s historic pedestrian suspension bridge, dating back to 1927 and once a major attraction for visitors, was pummeled into the river by regime shelling in May. Even bridges connecting neighborhoods within the city have been destroyed by similar bombardments.
The Deir ez-Zor 1927 suspension bridge — Photo: Chadi Samaan
The “death bridge” was also heavily damaged, but the rebels built a small wooden extension to span the remaining distance. At that point, the journey on foot begins.
The fateful crossing
One fighter walks up to Abdullah to say we can now cross the bridge. He checks that we have all our lights off, then signals us to move forward. Abdullah utters the shahada (the Muslim profession of faith) before driving at an insane speed across. He doesn’t pay attention to the potholes left by rockets.
We miraculously survive and reach a wooded area where Abdullah asks us to get out before parking his taxi among the trees. He joins us as we walk over the wooden portion of the bridge, which is crowded with young people working to transport goods into the city. We stop to speak to one of Abdullah’s relatives, and I overhear 21-year-old Sufian talking about work. They hadn’t had work in three days because the bridge was blocked due to shelling and because flour was being transported into the city.
“Now we’re back to work,” he says. “A few of the guys got hit today, but we continue doing what we do.” He says he was targeted by a rocket, but the fridge he was carrying on his back protected him from the flying shrapnel.
“Only four guys were injured lightly because the mortar fell far from us. Those targeting us don’t even know how to use a rocket launcher. Some mortars fell in the water, others fell far off or at the edges of the bridge,” he says mockingly.
We leave Sufian at the bridge and continue our journey. As we enter the destroyed Houeika neighborhood, we see the Bilal mosque, which is now in ruins. The area is silent and lifeless, despite the many people who still live here.
No choice of work
We get to the Sheikh Yaseen neighborhood, which is our final destination. We ask Abdullah to join us, and as we sit in a building whose top floor has been destroyed, I ask him why he chose to take up such dangerous work.
“I can’t work anywhere else,” he says. “There isn’t work but at the bridge. I work so I can feed my three children. I used to have a chicken shop. Now there’s no more chicken or any work to do other than transport people. I do it at night, and I get to make two rounds as allowed by the fighters. I start work at 2 a.m., and the last chance to come back is just before 4 a.m. In these two hours we help move aid and food to the people in the city. The problem is only one car can be on the bridge at any given time. Two cars going in opposite directions is forbidden, so as to minimize casualties.”
Abdullah says that he is among a many whose work now revolves around getting goods back and forth across the bridge. “They have to carry all that stuff over the wooden bridge, which makes them more vulnerable than us taxi drivers,” he says of his comrades on foot. “They are constantly hit by shrapnel. They move slowly and that makes them easier targets. Today, we don’t have any source of income other than transporting people across the notorious death bridge.”
He goes quiet for a moment, and then says, “I wish I could go to the stadium to watch a soccer game. This saddens me even more than my life-threatening job. Since I was a child, I used to skip school to watch the Al-Futuah team’s matches. I know all the players, and I memorized all the chants. I remember all their goals and games. I even know the referees who have been unjust to us.” He adds, “Despite all our losses, the worst is losing those cherished moments. I would drop everything just to be able to go watch a match.”
His mood turns sour when the memories fade into the agonizing reality of the present.
“I could say we should go back to the way things were, but that’s impossible because the regime is deceitful. The regime forced us to carry arms and prolong this conflict,” he says.
The father of three is painfully conscious of the daily dangers of his work and senselessness of his situation.
“I know exactly what is happening now: We are risking our lives to cross a bridge for a bit of money, a part of which will go to the fighters … but the important thing is to put bread on the table for my family.”
*This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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