A Race against Time

A personal story about the challenges of travelling from regime-held regions in Syria to Turkey, only four days before the Turkish Government enforced the new visa requirements for Syrians entering the country by sea or air.

(Photo: A new coerced beginning, the plane landing at Adana Airport – Turkey – 7-1-2016 [Ramiz al-Bunni/Good Morning Syria]).

(Adana, Turkey – Thursday 7 January 2016 at 11:45 pm) After three days of travelling, I finally arrived at Adana Airport. The rain is heavy and the weather is very cold.

“Hurry up boys! You must get your admission stamps as soon as possible. Only 15 minutes and Syrians are banned from entering Turkish territories until the instructions for the new visa requirements are issued (1),” the travel company employee said.

The small Adana Airport resembles the Pullman bus station in Damascus. There are Syrians everywhere coming from across the country: large numbers of children, women, and youths fleeing reserve duty; a wide range of different Syrian “spectrums” that you could not find anywhere in Syria nowadays.

After receiving the admission stamp, you find piles of luggage arrived before their Syrian owners, who are still stuck in the mess at Beirut Airport. Thank God my luggage was there!

Outside the airport, you can see hundreds of Syrians standing in the rain, eagerly waiting for their friends or families, rejoicing over the sight of any plane. You can sense a strange mixture of joy and sadness. After all, this was a Syrian’s last trip to Turkey without a visa.

I got into the taxi, laid my head back and told the driver: “To Gaziantep, please.” Then, I fell asleep.

(Aleppo, Syria – Monday 4 January at 7 am) We left the temporary Pullman bus station and took the Khanaser-Ithriyah road, which is the only way from the regime-held neighbourhoods in Aleppo to the outside world. The journey to Hama will take around five hours if things go as planned. Then, I will find a hotel to spend my last night in Syria before heading to Lebanon tomorrow – given the political conflict between Syria and Turkey, there are no flights between the two countries, and my plane departs to Turkey from Beirut Airport on Wednesday evening. I really hope things run smoothly so I arrive on time.

I arrived in Hama at roughly 1 pm and took a taxi to Cairo Hotel at the al-ʿAssi Square.

(Beirut Taxi Station, Hama, Syria – Tuesday 5 January at 9 am) The sky is clear blue after a rainy day and the weather is cold. At the station’s entrance, I found sandbag barricades and a big photo of Bashar Al-Asad that captured the situation in Syria over the past years. A great number of cars and an even greater number of people filled the station, all headed to Beirut or, actually, to Turkey.

“Over 50 cars left to Beirut yesterday. The same number will depart today, if not more,” the driver told us while standing in the lookup (tafyich) (2) line to have our identity cards checked before leaving the station. I started imagining the mass migration from other Syrian cities – from Homs, Damascus, Latakia and others.

Each passenger had to pay up to 20,000 SYP (the equivalent of 50 USD, which is double the regular fare). Drivers do not come across an opportunity like this every day, since those who have to travel would pay the fee, even if it reached 100,000 SYP (250 USD).

(The ad-Dabbusiyyah crossing at the Syrian-Lebanese border – On the same day at 2:30 pm) At the last Syrian checkpoint before the Lebanese border – there were about 40 checkpoints on the way – a soldier stood by, collecting 1,000 SYP (25 USD) from each young man as a bribe so as not to look them up for reserve duty. “The men are leaving the country, what a shame! Where are you going?” he said.

This is when a new kind of suffering began: the access of Syrians to Lebanese territories. Cars were parked, waiting for a Lebanese private to allow them in. “We come from Homs. We’ve been here for two days, I swear to you. We missed our flight. We just want to get in and we’ll figure things out after that,” said the first person I met at the border. Such reassuring news!

After only three hours of waiting, we were the only car that passed: apparently, one of my fellow passengers knew a Lebanese Security officer. All eyes were on us as people tried to figure out which group we were affiliated to, but none of this mattered to me as happy as I was to enter Lebanon.

(The Port of Beirut, Lebanon – On the same day at 7:50 pm) I cannot believe I am here. My friends who had left on the same day as me or a day before are still stuck at the ad-Dabbusiyyah crossing.

I called the travel company to confirm my flight reservations for tomorrow and the transportation arrangements to the airport, but I was surprised to hear the following answer: “My apologies, sir. The flight was postponed until Thursday at 6 pm for technical reasons.” One more day in Beirut is really not a great deal after having crossed the border. All I was thinking about was reaching Turkey before January 8.

(Beirut International Airport, Lebanon – Thursday 7 January at 2 pm) This place is anything but an airport: there is chaos everywhere, and there are no sanitation workers or even airport staffs; only innumerable Syrians waiting for the hop hop (3)… I mean, the plane to Adana or Istanbul.

You have to stand in line and wait for hours to get to the departure gate and weigh your luggage. Then again, you play the passenger, the policeman, the organiser and even the sanitation worker sometimes. Numbers or flight schedules do not matter; the first one to weigh their luggage gets on the first plane to Turkey. Overweight baggage is left behind on the airport’s floor since their owners cannot afford the additional fees.

After my plane was rescheduled for the second time, it took off at last at 10:15 pm.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are kindly asked not to steal the life jackets, or we will otherwise regret returning all passengers caught with a stolen life jacket to Beirut,” the captain announced before landing in Adana, and what a tragicomic warning it was. Life vests have been stolen from airplanes lately instead of buying them from smugglers in Izmir, where most trips to Europe are organised.

(Gaziantep, Turkey – Friday 8 January at 4:30 am) I open my eyes to the first sign: “Aleppo – 130 km.” I look at my watch, today is Friday, and I remember I left Aleppo four days ago to reach a city that is usually only an hour and half’s drive from my house, or maybe less. I recall the memories of the past four days and I smile, thanking God for arriving safely. Now I know that the Earth is round.

The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Tuesday 29 December 2015 the issuance of new visa requirements for Syrians entering Turkish territories. The decree came into force on 8 January 2016. The Turkish authorities stated that this visa was not required for Syrians travelling by land, explaining that “the visa may be obtained through Turkish embassies and general consulates.” However, residents of central and southern Syria cannot reach the borders by land and thus have to travel by sea or air.
“Tafyich” (lookup) is a term used by the Syrian security forces, it refers to where the computer is located at a checkpoint.
“Hop hop” is an old and slow bus that transports people in the villages of the Syrian countryside. It is a colloquial term that refers to the vehicle’s many stops.