In the northern city of Mosul, nervous men and women clutch bus tickets that will take them out of their native Iraq, many for the first time.
None have passports and all are excited by the prospect that within hours they will cross the border into Syria.
“I’m going to stay in a hotel, visit some historic tourist sites, and just lie on the beach!” Firas Mustafa, who is 35 and has never left Iraq, told Reuters.
A typist, Mustafa is taking advantage of an arrangement between Damascus and Baghdad to allow a limited number of Iraqis a taste of life outside their own borders.
“The Syrians will probably be surprised to see me there, but they are nice people and have a similar culture to ours”
Under the agreement, passengers on buses are allowed to enter Syria, which borders Iraq along the western desert, without visas or passports. They can stay for a maximum of 10 days.
“The Syrians will probably be surprised to see me there, but they are nice people and have a similar culture to ours,” Mustafa said.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he added.
For most Iraqis, about 70% of whom are unemployed, a vacation such as this is expensive. The ticket for the eight-hour bus journey to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo costs $20 – almost equivalent to two weeks’ wages in Mosul – and there are only 270 sold for each trip.
There are many reasons why Iraqis are taking advantage of the accord with Syria. Access to superior medical supplies is one common reason, as is the import/export business.
One passenger, interviewed by Reuters is heading over the border to get a kidney removed.
For many though, the journey is, above all, a chance just to relish the atmosphere in another country.
“I’d like to go for more time but due to the cost it’s probably for the best”
“Our best holiday spot is the mountains here up north. But this can get dull after a while and there aren’t many other places to relax,” said Mustafa’s travelling companion, Basman Salah.
He has been saving for three months for the holiday and has a budget of $150.
“I’d like to go for more time but due to the cost it’s probably for the best,” he said.
Happy bus driver
The system might not be perfect, but those taking the bus appear to be grateful. And bus driver Matlub Ali certainly relishes his job.
“Now the gate is open for Iraqis to share experiences with other people and relax somewhere different,” he added.