(Aleppo, Syria) As a new day dawned in Aleppo, a city drained by explosive barrels and rockets, I had already planned my travel to Turkey as usual. My family escaped to Istanbul just like many Syrians who grew tired of the smell of gunpowder and blood. In Aleppo death has become a daily routine thanks to the Asad regime.
Mohammad(1), the driver who takes me to the Syrian-Turkish borders, arrived at dawn. I was used to travelling with him since he was a neighbour of mine in the Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood and had good connections with smugglers at the borders.
I got into the taxi, along with my neighbour Ahmad and his friend Dhulfiqar– they both worked at a weaving factory in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. As always, once we left for the homeland of Ataturk, I gazed at the demolished houses of Aleppo and its deserted streets. I was devastated, heartbroken to leave again, but I also felt a terrible burden on my shoulders for having been away from my family for three long months.
Mohammad kept driving until we reached the Castello road, the only way from Aleppo to the Turkish border. There used to be four roads leading there, but the opposition lost control over three of them, due to its military losses against the regime troops.
The Castello road is now the only source of air. It is the vein that nurtures the neighbourhoods controlled by the opposition in the city of Aleppo, providing access to all the necessary products and materials. It is also the only way out for displaced people and refugees, headed to the far north of Syria and its neighbour Turkey.
“How are things at the borders these days?” Dhulfiqar asked the driver, smiling. The latter seemed confused. “They’re okay, but the Turks started making things difficult over the last two or three days,” he replied stuttering. Dhulfiqar chuckled and said: “No problem!”
The Turkish government had reportedly closed the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa crossings. It had also taken strict measures at the border – bullets were even fired on some of those who disobeyed orders while crossing. There was no official explanation as to why the crossings were closed or the measures at the border tightened. A large number of Syrians, however, suggested that the reason was to be traced in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Turkey.
We reached the border village of Hawr Kilis, as the driver knew the border was open there. I carried my small bag over my shoulder and got out of the taxi, Ahmad and Dhulfiqar did the same. We were greeted by a group of young men, barely 18-year-old, who worked as smugglers at the border. Farther away, a tall dark-skinned man was standing. He was in his forties, a bony face with thick moustaches, wearing an Australian Akubra hat and soviet military binoculars around his neck. It looked as if he were an army officer and the boys his soldiers, following his orders.
All travellers were divided into groups. We were taken to spot 63, as the smugglers referred to it. “You’re so lucky! This one is very good,” one of the boys said. Dhulfiqar chuckled and told him: “No problem!”
I walked beside my cab mates, together with two young newly-weds from the village of Kafr Hamrah (north-west of Aleppo), an 18-year-old boy who used to fight in a Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade before he decided to travel to Turkey and work there, and a 25-year-old economy graduate who was a government employee, but he left his job to become a construction worker in the Turkish city of Mersin.
We headed to that particular spot. The young smuggler spoke with two Turkish soldiers, but they shouted at him, yelling like raging bulls, and told us to go back. I tried to reason with them myself, since I speak Turkish, but they said they would not let us through. The smuggler asked us to reach the refugees’ tent since we could not cross the border, Dhulfiqar chuckled and said: “No problem!”
At the borders, people who do not have jobs become smugglers. Residents of border villages took advantage of the location of their agricultural lands to exploit the people’s need to cross the borders and escape the smell of death. In fact, the smuggler only takes you up to 25 meters from the border and then leaves, telling you to run like a panting dog, jump into the trench at light speed and get out of it on the Turkish side – the trench is over three and a half meters deep and about three meters wide.
After receiving his payment, the smuggler leaves you to your fate and to the conscience of the Turkish soldier and his sense of humanity. Very few smugglers actually coordinate with the Turkish army and spare you the beatings, the curses, the robberies, the mockeries, the extortions, and the intimidations, not to mention the financial blackmail on the part of the smuggler himself.
We sat in the tent waiting for the opening of the border, a heart-warming piece of news that would have eased our tension, but the crossings remained closed. “We wait until the evening,” the smugglers said. As we sat there, travellers kept flocking to the tent– women, children and elderly – until they reached about 300 “chaps” (nafar)(2), a term used by smugglers when referring to those crossing the border.
In the tent, we had the chance to get to know each other better. I even became friend with the guy who used to fight in the FSA. We had a long talk about Aleppo, as he was from the town of Anadan (12 km north of Aleppo). A man then sat next to us and kept whining about his past: “How could this happen to me, Abu Hasan?! Life is so… If only..!”
Abu Hasan was a man in his forties with five kids. He hailed from the neighbourhood of al-Julum in Aleppo’s old city, where he owned a food warehouse. Even after the Asad troops began shelling the city in July 2012, he did not leave, until the day the bombardments reached his own warehouse and burned it to the ground. That was when he decided to leave for Turkey where his siblings lived.
Abu Hasan was still under shock. He had been waiting with his family at the border for over 24 hours and had spent most of his money. He seemed to me like the typical Syrian man that all nations plotted against, east to west, some in the name of religion and others in the name of democracy or human rights.
At 9 pm, the smuggler told us it was time we went to the border. We were once again divided into groups and sent to different spots. Still, we did not manage to cross to the other side, because the Turkish soldiers arrested the first person who went down into the trench. Therefore, we went back to our tent.
At 10:30 pm, I was sitting on the ground, my back against the tent, gazing at the star-filled sky and dreaming of seeing my family tomorrow. You could no longer see any stars in Aleppo; the sky had become a playground for explosive barrels. It was very cold outside. Children were crying. Crowds of women were sitting in small tents, waiting for some sort of divine intervention. Men were baring signs of despair and weakness. Dogs were barking. Turkish songs were heard from the other side, someone’s wedding. People were singing and dancing happily just a few meters away from us, while our only hope was to cross over to the other side. All the weddings I had been to in Aleppo started flashing before my eyes until I felt a heartbreak and pain sneaked into my body: my city knows only war, death and blood now and there is no place for happiness anymore. Then sleep stole me away from my raging thoughts.
I woke up to the voice of Dhulfiqar telling me it was 6:45 am and that we had to move. I picked up my bag quickly and we all headed to the trench. There were only ten of us. A Turkish solider pointed his gun at us and told us to go back. I tried to reason with him, explaining that our families were waiting for us on the Turkish side. I explained I was an English teacher – teachers are highly appreciated in Turkey – but even that did not work.
We sat near the trench, hiding behind a soil hill. The soldier was walking around, then he moved a little further away. At that moment, I looked at my two travel mates, Ahmad and Dhulfiqar, and said: “Come on, fast!” The three of us jumped swiftly into the trench like an Australian kangaroo and then we helped each other out of it. We ran like a prey chased by ravenous tigers as a Turkish army car started following us. The Turkish smuggler was waiting for us in a car about 50 meters ahead. We ran without looking back. The soldiers yelled but we never stopped. We finally got into the Turkish smuggler’s car and the first thing he said was that we owed him 3500 Syrian pounds. Dhulfiqar chuckled and said: “No problem!”
Just like in a Hollywood action film, we managed to reach the other side. It felt like being in one of Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movies. At the central bus station of Gaziantep, I saw my friend from the FSA, who had also crossed the border, and then Abu Hasan from the al-Julum neighbourhood. We greeted each other with warm smiles: “It is all over now, thank God.” I bought a ticket for Istanbul and sat on the bus scheduled to leave at 11pm, off on my journey to see my family.
All names used are either pseudonyms or first names to protect the identity of the sources.
In Arabic, the smugglers use “chap” (nafar) instead of “person” (shakhs) as a way to degrade travellers, since they are merely a number to them.