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Crossing the Syrian-Turkish border: risks by the hour

Migrants in Hungary, August 2015. Photo: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.

After the Assad regime forcibly moved residents of Eastern Ghouta to northern cities, some chose to stay within Syria's borders. But others chose to cross the border into Turkey and start a life far from war, bombs and death. Of those, some planned to move further, toward cities in the European Union.

Omar (not his real name) was one of those who chose refuge in Turkey. Instability, lack of security and the continuous fighting between the opposition factions, coupled with the lack of work opportunities or possibilities for higher education, pushed him to make such a decision. The 22-year-old arrived in Idlib, in northwestern Syria among the forcibly displaced masses from Eastern Ghouta.

Around two months after arriving in Idlib, Omar and a friend decided to seek a route into Turkey. He consulted with a trafficker who had helped one of Omar's friends cross into Turkey a few days earlier. The trafficker told him to go to a district in Syria called Zarzour to negotiate the details and fees.

As they had been instructed, Omar and his friend met the trafficker at the designated location and the three agreed to cross the Turkish border that night. The trafficker asked them to wait at a specified house, but he never showed up. A few hours later, five people arrived at the house and said that the Gendarmerie (Turkish law enforcement) had caught them and ordered them to return to Syria. They added that they were part of a bigger group that had been split into two. The bigger group of eight had gone first and had been lucky to have crossed the border unnoticed. For this smaller group, it was the tenth unsuccessful attempt.

According to the story they related, their journey had started in a minivan that transported them to Adduriyah, an area adjacent to the border wall, accompanied by a guide, a person who knows the road well and communicates through a mobile phone with a monitor. The monitor, in turn, monitors the movement of Turkish forces. The group was warned that the road was rugged and that they would have to jump over a wall and walk through sewers. The journey was interrupted by Turkish forces. Three members of that group decided not to take another chance and stayed in Syria.

The trafficker showed up the following day. He asked Omar and his friend to each pay $450, the figure Omar had been given beforehand. The trafficker told them to leave everything behind, including their luggage, as the journey would be rough. Omar initially refused, but eventually caved in after the others who had experienced this journey told him that bags become an immense burden while crossing the border.

The group that set out comprised four young men and two women. They climbed a hill to the wall along the border. After jumping over, the guide told them to run non-stop. They had to pull along the women, for whom the exertion soon became too difficult. The rough road was slick with mud, which made running more difficult as their feet got stuck in the wet earth. It was also strewn with thorns and flowing with dirty sewage water. Just as they were on the verge of crossing the border, the two women could not take it anymore and began yelling and crying.

The yelling drew the attention of Turkish forces, who arrived on the scene and fired shots in the air. The guide translated what the Turkish officers said. The officers took them to a military enclosure with a watchtower, very bright searchlights and a helicopter landing pad. The sat them down on the pad, along with another group that had been caught earlier.

A soldier took pictures of each of them with his mobile phone. Their names were taken and they were kept there until 3 a.m. Every now and then they were joined by other groups of Syrians who had been caught by the Turkish forces — men and women, old and young.

At 3 a.m., in the freezing cold, the group boarded buses back to the official Turkish-Syrian crossing point —a bitter reminder of a time not so long ago when they had boarded the buses that had forcibly removed them from Eastern Ghouta to Idlib.

At the crossing point they were transported in minivans back to the trafficker's house, which was packed with Syrians waiting to escape the country. There was barely space to sleep. The loud cries of children coupled with the screams of men and women prevented Omar and his friend from getting much-needed rest.

The following day at noon, the trafficker told them they were to cross during the daytime. As they approached the border area once more, they saw Turkish forces spread all along the border. They flatly refused to attempt the crossing, and the trafficker then agreed to push the journey back to the evening.

At 8 p.m., the trafficker returned them to the same place at the border. They waited in a grove of olive trees, 200 meters from the border, where many other groups of people were also waiting to make the crossing. The guide went to scout the route and reported back that they would have to wait — until 5 a.m. Trouble started brewing among the group, and people started yelling at the baffled guide, demanding that he take them back. The guide called the trafficker and told him that the road was not clear, that Turkish forces were heavily present, and that they were firing shots in the air. They waited there for one more hour and then returned to the trafficker's house.

Omar and his companions’ morale plummetted. They were tired, as they barely slept for three long nights. But they were determined to cross the border and decided to try another trafficker. They got their money back and headed to Silkin, 30 kilometers away from Zarzour, where they waited for the new trafficker.

After a while, a young man of only 18 arrived and identified himself as the trafficker. He took them to his house and explained the escape plan. He said that the crossing would only take an hour and that the danger zone was no more than 200 meters. If they could cross this stretch, they would successfully reach Turkey. The trafficker's family was very hospitable, his mother even prayed for them. The trafficker charged them $400 each and like the previous trafficker, told them they could not take any belongings.

It was the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. They washed up and set off on their journey before sunset. The guide arrived and explained the route. They were five people, split into two groups. They first had to cross the Orontes River on a small float made of plastic bottles lashed together and stuffed into a cloth bag. They waited for the calls for Maghreb prayer as Turkish soldiers would be busy breaking their fast and eating their Iftar meal, as the monitor had instructed the guide.

On the other bank spread fields of wheat. The guide led them, crawling along the ground over mud and thorns for half an hour until they reached asphalt. Then they sprinted over the 50-meter stretch between the asphalt road and the mountain. They kept on running as the road continued up the mountain. Half an hour later, the guide stopped and told them that they had just crossed the danger zone. They caught their breath and marched their way to a Turkish village. They took shelter in a safe house, where they would wait for a car to collect them the next day.

They washed and slept in the safe house. The following day, a Turkish man arrived and asked their destination — they said Istanbul. He charged them $200. The five men got into his car. Twenty-six hours later, they arrived at their final destination.

Omar is now contemplating a plan to get to Europe. Will he risk his life yet again in search of a better alternative to life in Syrian?

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