by Simina Guga and Vlad Petri
I opened my eyes and saw several women sleeping on the floor around me. I went out in the courtyard where the noise made by the airplanes and car engines was even louder. Everyone was asleep. I was in Syria, probably the most devastated country in the world at this time and the place in which only very few people still want to wake up in July 2013. After two years and four months of civil war, there is nothing left here. Destroyed cities, desperate people, soldiers everywhere, the sound of war each and every minute.
The Syrian revolution started in March 2011, in a context marked by a series of popular uprisings in a number of countries across Northern Africa and the Middle East, all of which were generically called “The Arab Spring,” Initially, the Syrian protests were oriented against president Bashar al-Assad and the members of government, all belonging to a family that had been ruling the country for over 40 years. Subsequently, these social movements led to an outright civil war between the government and an opposition comprising deserted ex-military, Syrian and foreign civil fighters, and various Islamist groups. Apart from the dozens of almost entirely destroyed cities, the millions of refugees who have fled the country, the over 100,000 dead (according to UN estimates), or the countless left injured and homeless, the conflict amplified the tensions between government opponents and supporters, as well as the Sunnite and Shiite communities, Christian, Kurdish and other minorities living within Syrian territory.
We wrote this article in order to share our experiences at the Syrian border and inside Syria, the discussions we had with the people we met there, as well as the context in which all of this happened. We left in July 2013, accompanying a group of Syrians who reside in Romania and live off selling cars at the border between Turkey and Syria.
We leave Bucharest together with several drivers and Jamal, our Syrian friend who we met two years ago when he came to Romania with his family. They sell cars at the border of Turkey and Syria. The vehicles end up either with civilians, or with fighters of the Free Syrian Army, who use them in order to transport weapons and the various things they need on the missions they undertake. For our companions this is their only source of income and the only way in which they support their families in either Romania or Syria.
Our first stop is in Ruse, Bulgaria, where we visit a used cars market next to the border, since prices and registration taxes are lower here. Jamal is looking for cars according to the orders he received from Syrian buyers as well as to what the market demands. The vehicles need to have a diesel engine—since in Syria diesel fuel is cheaper than gasoline—a trailer—on which one must be able to mount weaponry or which can be used to transport luggage—and must be equipped for use on rough terrain (ideally, with 4×4 traction). The most sought after are Japanese cars, with prices in Bulgaria ranging between 3000 and 4000 euros.
The road to Syria is long and goes through several customs checkpoints, bouts of negotiation, alternative routes and other unforeseen events. In order to help each other when need be, Syrians often travel in larger groups, with preset meeting points along the way. The most difficult border to cross is the one between Bulgaria and Turkey. With the Bulgarians, you put the bribe money between the passport’s pages—usually 10 or 20 euros—but with the Turks it’s much more difficult and it depends a lot on which shift you come across. Sometimes you end up waiting for eight or nine hours at the border in order for them to let you enter Turkey with a bigger car.
We stop for some tea before we enter Turkey. We chat with Rifai, one of the drivers, who was born in Homs and now lives in Craiova, where he runs a store selling rugs. A large part of his family is still in Syria, but they moved from Homs (which “doesn’t exist anymore,” as he tells us) to Hama, in a quieter neighborhood. He isn’t too happy about how his business is going, but he doesn’t want to go back to Syria. He is afraid of what is happening there.
The Syrians we are travelling with have different opinions about the situation in their country. They often begin to quarrel because of their different political affinities, some favoring one side against the other and vice-versa. What they still have in common is their desire for a better life, though the seemingly endless war makes Syria’s future prospects look grimmer and grimmer with each day that passes.
Even though the opposition has a president and an acknowledged general council (The Syrian National Council), the situation on the ground is quite different—the existence of a multitude of factions and brigades, with different ideologies and visions of what is to be done, some of them operating only in specific cities or regions, and with reduced possibilities to communicate with each other and engage in collective action often leads to violent conflict and rival killings.
One of the most feared groups, belonging to the opposition, is the Jabhat Al-Nusra front (The Support Front for the People of Greater Syria), which built its “fame” by distributing images in which Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers are given horrific treatment, including acts of symbolic cannibalism—in a video that is still circulated on the Internet, an Al-Nusra fighter eats a soldier’s heart. The group’s stated goal is the consolidation of a pan-Islamic state functioning under Sharia law, in its radical interpretation. Apart from Al-Nusra, there are other groups—as, for example, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or al-Tawhid Brigade—that are associated with the opposition, which is mainly Sunni, and fight against the government, which is supported by Shiite brigades and Hezbollah.
Rifai finishes his tea, looks at me carefully and says: ”I don’t like Bashar nor the Free Army. Neither one is good.” Then who is good for the Syrian people? When faced with a war that has already lasted for two years, what are the solutions? What do Syrians put their hopes in? Can a government that has long lost its legitimacy still be invited to take part in dialogue? Is there any other solution outside foreign intervention? Isn’t such an intervention simply going to expand the war and deepen interethnic conflict, leading to a similar scenario to Afghanistan and Iraq? Who can undoubtedly affirm the legitimacy of such an intervention? Who will profit from such an intervention? Who will end up leading the country, and what other structure will come to replace the current government in a country where there was never any sort of political opposition?
Before we leave Bucharest I receive a message from Saleh, a Syrian friend who I met in Aleppo in 2009, when I first visited Syria: “I am waiting to die by a bomb, missile or even a bullet, I want you now to help me, I need you now. I need you, Vlad—Your brother Saleh.” I last spoke to Saleh some time ago, at the beginning of the year. He told me it was very difficult, that food was very hard to find and he had electricity only two hours each day, during which the Internet sometimes didn’t even work. He was hoping that things would eventually end well and that it would not last for much longer. In recent times, the situation seems to have changed radically and, as I am writing this article, I cannot get a hold of him anymore. When I visited Syria for the first time, in 2009, I felt as safe as in a Western European country. There was no real threat. It is very difficult for me to juxtapose the country’s image as I got to know it then to the image it has today. How did things get to this point? Why Syria?
Reyhanli—the war’s imaginary frontier
We reach Reyhanli, the last Turkish town, just seven kilometers from the border with Syria. For one minute the mobile phone connects to SyriaTel and we receive an automated message from the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs — “Syria / Travel alert: Romanian Embassy in Damascus, 8, Rue Ibrahim Hanano, tel. +9631133489521; +9631133489520, firstname.lastname@example.org; www.mae.ro.”
We don’t know that much about Reyhanli, only that the border here is Turkey’s most important gateway for trading with the Middle East. Situated at 60 kilometers from Aleppo and 35 from Idlib, before the conflict started this was the daily crossing point for over 500 freight trucks. In May, the town was the target of two attacks that ended up killing 51 people, most of them Turks. It is still unknown who was behind these attacks. This incident heightened the already existing tensions between the Turkish and Syrian communities. Many of the Syrians who had taken refuge in Turkey had to move out of the border areas, where part of the local population had become hostile. Some lost any hope of living outside their own country and decided to go back to Syria.
We are staying in a former student dormitory that now functions as a hotel used by the majority of the car merchants. From the balcony we have a panoramic view of the border, with stretches of barbed wire and a few buildings in the distance. The hill right ahead of us separates the conflict area from the rest of the world, though people say that you can sometimes hear the bombs and planes from here as well. We see people with their arms or legs cast in plaster passing in front of the hotel; we would later find out that there is an orthopedic hospital nearby where they treat Syrians injured in the war.
The director of the Turkish-administered hospital allows us to visit some of the patients. Most of them are young people, around 18 years old, who have been either shot or injured by rockets or shrapnel. Some were “enrolled” in the Free Army, while others are civilians injured by explosions when they were at home or in the streets. A man has a broken spine and will remain paralyzed for the rest of his life; an explosion crushed all the bones in a young man’s leg. The father of a 14-year-old boy shows us photographs of his son’s operation. The boy’s right leg was almost entirely destroyed when a Russian-made Scud missile, allegedly used by the Syrian army, fell nearby. After going through lengthy surgery, doctors managed to reconstruct certain parts of his legs and fitted a prosthesis. “Free Syrian Army” is written in colored chalk above the boy’s bed, right next to a drawing of an AK-47.
On politics in the car park
Less than 2 kilometers away from the Turkish checkpoint at Cilvegözü there is an improvised car park. We got here along with Riad, one of the Romanian drivers trying to sell his Ilfov-registered car [Ilfov is the administrative county surrounding Bucharest]—a Hyundai pick-up with a trailer. Under a tin roof, safe from the scorching sun, sellers and buyers talk cars and negotiate, after which the discussion abruptly turns toward politics—war, government, opposition, Sunnis and Shiites. I’m having my morning coffee while trying to converse with Ali, a 60-year-old man living in Bucharest. He bluntly asks me about the reasons for my being there. After I explain the purpose of my trip the discussion slowly shifts toward the present situation, the past, future perspectives and predictions. “Listen to me,” he says while carefully fixing me with his eyes, “in Syria you used to have free medicine, a home, money offered by the state for studying at the university, and, except for gas and electricity, utilities were free. Syria was the cheapest country in the world.” Ali believes there are two types of democracy: “the one in which you can speak as much as you want but have nothing to eat and the one in which you can eat as much as you want but can’t speak. Romanians have the former, Syrians used to have the latter.” He speaks quietly and doesn’t want to be heard by the other Syrians. Favoring the government at this time is not something to be proud of in public. Even though the people are divided and opinions vary, the ones who are nostalgic for the times past prefer not to speak out freely. Ali thinks that “the Americans stuck this thing about change in people’s heads; everything is already settled at higher levels.” I ask him if he’s Sunni or Shiite but he prefers not to answer.
“It doesn’t matter what you are, if you’re Sunni or Shiite. You are Muslim, and that’s what’s important,” says Tariq, who was eavesdropping on our conversation. Tariq is Iraqi. He lived in Baghdad during Saddam’s regime, and now lives in Germany. He did his studies in Bucharest and speaks perfect Romanian. He says he doesn’t like this place and he wants to return home as soon as possible. “You don’t know who you’re talking to, what the other person is thinking. It’s possible that you say something wrong and end up getting into trouble.” He tells me about the Muslim world, about peace and understanding, and that it shouldn’t matter which religious group you belong to. He doesn’t like the rebels, whom he sees as radicals, especially the ones affiliated with Al-Nusra or other brigades that want to brutally impose Sharia law. “Is the man who puts a knife to your throat and yells Allahu Akbar a Muslim? Islam is a pacifist religion! Those bearded men who entered Syria are a bunch of madmen who kill and film themselves. They’re the only ones who end up on television, so everyone thinks Muslims are extremists.” Tariq’s face is freshly shaved and he looks very affected by what is happening in the Middle East. “This war, this ongoing one, is meant to destroy the Muslim world. It says so even in the Koran. And it also describes the things that have yet to come. The Europeans don’t know that this war will most likely reach them eventually.”
Other people I talk to support the rebels, they want for the Government to fall as quickly as possible so that things can move to the next stage, even though the most of them have lost hope of a rapid change and an end to the war. Some speak of 15 to 20 years in which the region will remain unstable, captive to sectarian struggle, bomb attacks, executions on demand, kidnappings. Mohammad, a 50-year-old Syrian who just sold his Cluj-registered car and is preparing to head back to Romania, tells me right before he leaves: “Syria doesn’t exist anymore. We no longer have a country.”
A tense atmosphere looms over Reihanly; I have felt it since the day we arrived. Though we met wonderful people who invited us into their homes every day to have the Ramadan meal with them, the Syrians’ tragedy is reflected in all the aspects of everyday life. Everybody has someone beyond the border, just as everybody has lost someone in this war. The hill that separates them from their country and families has been turned into a wall which not many imagine they will go beyond any time soon. In Reyhanli you can find lots of people who beg or sleep in the streets while only a few kilometers away there are the refugees who did not manage to get out of Syria and who live in extremely dire conditions at the border with Turkey. After a few days spent in the border town, we went off to meet these latter ones.
There is a very peculiar silence at Cilvegözü, the border between Turkey and Syria. People stay in line and wait to pass into Syria, some to solve paperwork problems or to meet with their families, others because they can’t earn a living in Turkey, because they feel marginalized or because they want to fight in the war that began more than two years ago. I am trying to imagine what is on the other side. Where does the war begin? I am wondering whether right as you pass the border, as if it were an invisible wall, the conflict, panic, and terror begin? On the map the border is a convention, a line drawn across a landscape that is identical on both sides. I am curious what this looks like in reality, what is the general state on the other side? Between the Turkish and Syrian checkpoints (the latter controlled by the Free Army) there is a five kilometer zone that we are about to cross, after which we will travel for another two kilometers inside Syria, where the Bab al-Hawa refugee camp is located.
Jamal, our Syrian friend whom we left Bucharest with, beckons me to get in the car. I sit on top of some bags filled with clothes in the trailer of a 4×4 Nissan, with my camera within reach. One of the customs officers notices me and insistently signals to the driver to stop the car. He asks for my passport, looks at the first page, shakes his head disapprovingly, tells me to get out of the car and shows me the gate back into Turkey. As a foreign citizen, I do not have the right to enter Syria. Jamal takes my hand, he signals some boys to come closer and, after they speak something in Arabic, tells me to go with them. Everything is happening very quickly: the young men (three of them, between 16 and 20 years of age) tell me to follow them and before I realize what is happening we are passing through a hole in the fence behind the official border crossing. I don’t understand why I have to go this way and what route Jamal and the boys talked about.
We go across an arid, earthy area with a few olive trees, close to a 3-4-meter-high wall along which video cameras hang every here and there. My companions talk in Arabic. I am thinking that they know Jamal and will take care of me, that they will take me across the border safely. I start thinking about the various possibilities. What if I get on the side with the Free Army and I don’t meet Jamal? What if someone who sees people trying to sneak into Syria shoots at us from the distance? I am trying to evaluate the situation, I am wondering what will come next and I realize that there is no way for me to go back. I am walking simply out of inertia along the path indicated by the boys.
I am also thinking about our trip, about the 2000+ kilometers we traveled to get here, about Syria and the curiosity to find out what lies beyond the border, leaving aside the things one can learn from the media, which are most of the times biased and follow a unilateral rhetoric.
On the other side of the border, approximately one kilometer away from the Turkish checkpoint, accompanied by my guides, among the olive trees, on the arid earth scorched by the sun, I am trying to stay out of sight of the surveillance cameras. It seems to me like it’s not going to be long before I reunite with Jamal and Simina. The fatigue and the heat are starting to take their toll—there’s a peculiar silence, I try to make out each sound and movement, I feel captive, in a place where the sense of hearing prevails. If I hear gunshots I will have to guess the direction and try to hide. Suddenly, a few steps away, I hear movement in the grass. Two soldiers in camouflage uniforms rise from underneath a mound of earth and start running in our direction while yelling at us. I assume they are Turkish, since we have not walked far enough to be in Syrian territory. I start running as fast as I can in the direction we came from, with the soldiers following and throwing rocks at us. The boys cry out “Asker! [Soldier!]” and point toward several surveillance cameras and watchtowers from where snipers could at any time decide to fulfill their soldierly duties. We move away from the wall surrounding the customs buildings and hide among the olive trees. The wall is two kilometers long and it has been built recently, as a result of the car-bombing attack at the Turkish checkpoint in February.
We manage to put some distance between ourselves and the soldiers (who have probably given up on the chase and are by now back at their guard post) and we get to a side road, close to where I parted with Jamal. One of the boys tells me to relax and indicates that I should get on a scooter that just came out of nowhere (most likely they had it stashed somewhere among the olive trees). We find an exit through a wire fence and get back on the main road to Reyhanli. I am sitting on the scooter between two boys who keep showing me soldiers and checkpoints. The more I move away from the border, the more I get my strength back and want to get back to the hotel safely. I know nothing of Jamal and Simina. Did they get into Syria? Have they reached the refugee camp?
Back at the hotel I receive a message from Simina: “Vlad, where are you? Did you pass? I’m on the other side, it’s really weird.” On the hotel corridor I meet with Rifai, the Syrian from Craiova, and I tell him about what happened: “You could have been dead now. The Turks are on alert. They don’t want the Kurds to make their own state so they might intervene. The situation on the border is very bad.” He speaks in a worried tone of voice. “Why do you want to go there? Why don’t you stay at the border and film whoever is coming in and going out of Turkey? You film the people carrying refrigerators, cars, pita. You interview them…” He suggests he can help me out if I’m out of ideas. I’m looking out the balcony in the inner courtyard of the hotel, where some merchants present their cars, registered in Bulgaria and Romania, to potential customers. Not far from here there is the hospital where the wounded are waiting to have surgery, to be saved, treated or left to go home. In the back, on the horizon, you can see the fence surrounding the border. It’s 8 o’clock and the sun is about to set. On the other side there is the same light. I know nothing of Simina and Jamal.
2 days in Syria
I opened my eyes and saw several women sleeping on the floor around me. I went out in the courtyard where the noise made by the planes and car engines was even louder. Nonetheless, everyone was asleep. I was in Syria, probably the most devastated country in the world at this time and the place in which only very few people still want to wake up in this day of July 2013. After two years and four months of civil war, there is nothing left here. Destroyed cities, desperate people, soldiers everywhere, bombs going off by the minute. Known to be one of the most beautiful countries in the Middle East, with people who invite you into their homes to share a meal, with places I would have liked to see while they still existed, Syria is now, around me, a ruin.
I got here yesterday wanting to talk with the refugees in Bab al-Hawa (“Gate of the Winds”). I imagined that the refugee camp, despite being in Syrian territory, is a place you can still reach in order to see with your own eyes the drama of those people whose lives have been destroyed by the war, to spend a few hours with them and to get a better grasp of what is happening beyond. It is not my first time in a conflict zone and I am not afraid. In thinking about my previous experience of longer-term living with people stuck in conflict zones, I believe it is important for these people that someone from the outside comes to them, just so that they do not feel forgotten, so that they feel that there are people beyond the walls and imaginary frontiers, people who care. This was the only thing that drove me here.
At the border, tens of cars are queued to enter Syria; there is a special lane for ambulances and trucks carrying foodstuffs, medicine, and construction materials. The trucks unload right after they pass the border and the Free Army handles the cargo from thereon. After an hour of waiting we pass the border. A 5 kilometer drive across no man’s land awaits—an empty road between the Turkish border and what was once the Syrian border.
In the car, I am sitting next to a family heading for Hama. The man does not have a passport but we all manage to pass since the customs control was rather summary. His wife tells me nothing is left of their city, that her father was killed and her mother and the rest of her brothers have fled the country. She also says that Bab al-Hawa is a dangerous place, that the refugee camp was bombed on more than one occasion because there are many rebel groups around the area between the border and the camp. But they are going to Hama and the image of the woman holding her newborn baby in her arms who will have to travel for 200 kilometers on what are at present considered to be the most dangerous roads in the world makes me unable to hear what she is saying. I will be getting off here immediately, but how will they get there?
Around, hundreds of agitated people are walking along the road close to the border with Turkey. On the few battered street banners that are still standing it is written in both English and Arabic: Welcome to Syria / Ahlan wa Sahlan fi Suryyah (Bun venit in Siria!). We part with the family travelling with us as they take another car which will take them to their destination for a large sum of money. Only a few people accept to risk their lives to transport passengers between the devastated cities. There is no more public transportation, so this is the only choice. We got out of the car, hugged each other good-bye while hoping for all of us to go back and to maybe see each other again, somewhere in the world. I would have liked to say that we will see each other again in Syria, but I remembered what a Syrian friend once told me: “Syria doesn’t exist anymore, the country is no more. For us Syrians there’s no place to go back to…”
For me the story starts here. Leaning against the car I am looking at the people around me: no women, only tens, hundreds of men of all ages, almost all of them carrying weapons, on foot or on top of the cars, with flags and machine guns hanging from their necks, all dressed in civilian clothing. The chaos is hard to describe in words because it is like nothing familiar to us, the ones who have not gone through any wars. The cars, with no license plates or with plates from all the countries possible, were going around chaotically, with people leaning out of the windows or hanging from the doors. This was the first moment when I was afraid, but I didn’t have too much time to think about it because Jamal asked me to take a photo of him and a child he had found. An armed man approached me and, with two gestures—one imitating a photographer and the other a person whose throat is being cut—he let me know that I can’t take any photos. He asked me for my passport, browsed through it, after which he left. A speeding truck carrying a ground-to-air missile launcher passed right in front of us. A boy was holding tightly on to the launcher. When I was his age I knew nothing of the world I lived in. He, as is the case with everything around me, makes me feel afraid. A fear of a different nature, the fear you feel when you are in a place where no rules apply, where there is no control—where you feel alone and have nothing to relate to. My only landmark and connection with the life I knew was our friend Jamal, with whom I had come from Romania and who was there with me. Vlad was forced to get off at the border and was going to pass with someone else, but I didn’t find him anywhere on the Syrian side. I sent him a message: “Vlad, where are you? Did you pass? I’m on the other side, it’s really weird.” Later, I found out that Vlad went back to the hotel, that he couldn’t get across the border and that he was OK. I soon lost the signal on my phone, so that was about it with communication as well. Even though the feeling of estrangement amplified, I was glad that Vlad was not there. If I could, I would go back as well, but it’s too late.
We reached the Bab al-Hawa camp that was set up in an empty area without any fences, right after the first Free Army checkpoint. The refugees are staying in improvised tents made of canvas and plastic sheets. The people are living in extremely precarious conditions, often without access to water and adequate medical treatment, reason for which epidemics are an often occurrence. We did not stay here because Jamal now had to sell his car in Sarmada, a village 10 kilometers away from the border. At the market in Sarmada one of the car salesmen came to me and told me to wear a hooded sweatshirt and to cover my head. Muhammad, an old friend of Jamal, told us that the next day he would buy the car and that today he needs to take it to have it verified in a repair shop.
Roads into Syria
They dropped me off at a school that was occupied by refugees, somewhere in the middle of a field next to a village 15 kilometers away from the border. Jamal promised to come back and get me in two hours at most, during which they would verify the car. I would have wanted to go with them, but it was not possible. It was safer for me to stay there with one of Muhammad’s wives.
Approximately 180-200 people lived in the school, all the classrooms and hallways being filled with people who gathered around me, brought a narghile, some coffee, seeds and welcomed me into their lives for a few hours on that day of Ramadan. Children were yelling in the corridors, some boys were fighting, and a man was trying to set up a landline telephone. Planes were passing right above us as I tried to gather my thoughts and find the right words to talk to these people. The dramas of refugees gathered from all corners of the country, isolated for months or even years in that school will remain with me, wherever I go, if I will ever get out of Syria. Some of them hoped the war would end soon, but they did not know if there will be anything for them to go back to. They did not even know where they could go. Parts of their families had taken refuge in government-controlled areas, because they felt they would be safer there, at least temporarily, from the imminent dangers threatening the “liberated” areas (bombings, armed attacks, etc.). Many of them opposed the regime, but chose this path as the only way to survive.
We are now in one of the “liberated” areas in North-Western Syria, and the people next to me are stuck here, trying to survive the present moment without the possibility of imagining the future. I am under the impression that time has stopped and the people ask me if I don’t want to stay with them for the night. After two hours, Jamal comes to pick me up. Muhammad brings a machine gun and hangs it around my neck. I try and tell him that I don’t want it , that he should take it…but he says there is a war here, laughs and puts it in the car, at my feet. Muhammad says we should go with him to get his second wife. I did not know from where and I did not ask, though we drove for another almost 30 kilometers. Each time we move implies that we go farther into the country. I can see the signs showing that we are getting closer to Idlib, a city where there is heavy fighting between the Free Army and the regime. I look at the speedometer…160…180 km/h…
We reached Binnish, 6 kilometers from Idlib and almost 40 from the Turkish border, a place of which almost nothing remains. The town is controlled mostly by Al-Nusra, reason enough for the government bombings to have become routine. Muhammad shows us the empty streets of his home town on which you can see only armed men, buildings wrecked by bombs, facades fortified with sandbags, old shops riddled with bullet holes. The feelings I initially had when I entered Syria, that fear in the beginning when I saw the chaos on the streets, amplified thousands of times and I do not know whether one can be more afraid than this. It is the fear of death, a predictable death. The sound of airplanes is everywhere… and, I know, the planes belong to the government and fly above with the only purpose of launching bombs and rockets. A rocket hits a few blocks away from us and Muhammad takes us there so we can have a look. The street is completely destroyed and everything is covered in grey dust and smoke. Several people are searching through the ruins of the demolished buildings. I ask Jamal something and I realize he isn’t answering anymore. He has panicked. Even if this was his country, his wife and four children are waiting for him back in Romania. From that moment onwards, everything I saw, I saw without the filter of fear. I was content that this was the end of the story. I later told Jamal that I don’t think we will ever leave here and that I don’t want to think about it anymore. I told him that we got to do a few things in life, but, look, here you saw many children who die. He replied that our lives are of no less importance than theirs, since we are all human beings. Thus, we agreed.
Muhammad’s family—his mother, wife, three girls and a boy—gets in the car. We are sitting on top of each other in the back, with the machine gun at our feet. The mother changes her mind and decides to stay, saying goodbye to her son. A small, thin woman embraces a sturdy man carrying a gun and a grenade on his belt, in the middle of a devastated street. It was only then that I realized that the entire family was taking refuge from the area because their house had been completely destroyed. This separation from his mother who was staying behind seemed like one of the saddest moments. It is like leaving behind someone who will die, and this seemed at that very moment to be sadder than the image of the houses that had just been hit by a rocket or the image of the people searching through the rubble.
A man came up to us and announced that we could no longer leave because the road had been shelled and there are army tanks at the city entrance. We got out by a different route and saw about 15 tanks aligned in a field, about 100 meters from us. The driver pushed the gas pedal and we drove at 220 km/h for about 15 kilometers, until we got onto a secondary road. Jamal would later say that Muhammad “was driving toward death,” but this was the method he used to dodge the bombs that could have been launched by the planes flying above us. I was sitting with my head against the window, looking outside, with no feeling whatsoever—nothing.
The oasis of tranquility
Eventually we got to a house Muhammad had rented for his family from Binnish. I sat in the courtyard with his daughters; we cooked together and listened to music. I told Jamal that I could stay here for a week. I no longer wanted to see what was outside, to hear the sound of planes, cars or gunshots. With the volume turned to the maximum, it felt like a space-time bubble in which nothing could happen anymore, just 20 kilometers from the border with Turkey. Muhammad’s daughters told me they do not want to leave Syria because this is their country. One of them was walking in the street one morning when she saw a plane bombing the city. She said people no longer react and they all just stand in the middle of the street to see where it is going to fall. She is no longer afraid because she knows they will all die and thus become martyrs. “We wanted freedom and now we have to stay here because our country is only here, and this is our fight from freedom.” Their aunt and cousins had died a few months before when a bomb fell on their house. Some of their friends and colleagues had died. The schools were closed. People were saying goodbye to each other as if it were the last time they got to see one another. Life in Syria has stopped.
In the evening, Muhammad turned on the electricity generator … 1 liter of diesel fuel per hour. In Syria entire areas are disconnected from the electricity network, and even in those areas where the infrastructure is still in one piece, electricity is available only sporadically, one or two hours per day at most. The infernal noise of the generator covered everything else…the music, the planes, our words. We all ate in the courtyard, sitting on the ground. I was sincerely happy to be there with them and share the Ramadan meal. At that very moment, there was nowhere else I would have liked to be. After the generator stopped, we all fell asleep.
In the morning, Jamal woke up and told me that this is the day we are going to leave, that he will get rid of the car somehow. I said my goodbyes to the family and promised to come back and visit after the war is over. I wrote a letter to the girls and received a letter from each of them. Shiraz, one of Muhammad’s daughters, gave me as a present a necklace with half a heart on which a small flying man and “will go on” were engraved. The other half stayed with her. It said “life.” This was the first time in the last 20 hours when I began to believe again that we will make it out of there and that we will see each other again when all this is over. I was telling them about my life in Romania as if it were something that did not belong to me, a strange reality or something from my past. It was difficult for me to speak of home, when I was in a world that had nothing to do with anything I had previously known. And the feeling of intimacy I shared with these women was incredible. It felt like we had known each other for ages, like they were part of my life just as much as my family and friends in Romania. A part of me has left; another part has stayed. Because in Syria separations are always the hardest.
On their way to the auto repair shop, Muhammad and Jamal drop me off again at the school where the refugees are staying. I sit down next to the phone, listening to people’s conversations with their relatives living in other parts of the country. They were sad, desperate and frightened by the bad news they received—destroyed neighborhoods, people who are either dead or missing, fighting, bombs. In front of me there is a pile of cardboard boxes on which it is written “Ramadan gift for Syria from the people of Saudi Arabia.” After two days in Syria I was obsessed by the noise made by the planes and I did not know anymore what to do to stop hearing them. A woman tells me that the Bab al-Hawa refugee camp was bombed yesterday, when we should have been there. It is already 14 o’clock and the border will close in three hours.
After a few hours, Jamal comes to pick me up to go back to Turkey. It is 40 degrees Celsius outside and I am wearing a sweatshirt, a hood over my head and a scarf covering half my face. On the way to the border I encounter the war environment all over again: the chaos, the people, the guns, the cars painted with verses from the Koran, the men on top of trucks and vans, the agitation, the desperation, the ambulances, the barricades, the closed streets. In front of us, paradoxically, there is a car with Ilfov license plates. We approach the checkpoint. The Free Army soldiers ask Jamal where he is from. He says he is from Aleppo and that I am his wife. A man takes us to a barricade where he discusses something with the men there who eventually allow us to pass. The Turkish border guards check our bags and passports and we cross the 5 kilometers between borders by bus and reach the final checkpoint. The border guards check our passports and, after a minor argument about foreigners not being able to pass through this border crossing without a Turkish exit stamp, we are able to go through.
A Syrian man carrying a box approaches me, opens the box and offers me some fresh figs he brought from Syria. We were both coming from the same place, but now we were on the other side of the imaginary frontier, yet again. I left behind images and feelings that are difficult to bear, people whom I hope to see again one day, and a country devastated by war, a war which should have been a war for freedom…
I understood what I wanted to understand when I decided to go there. I understood what war can mean. I witnessed the drama of people who have lost the hope of living in a free country named Syria. I saw children born during the war, children who will never get to know Syria outside their parents’ stories and who, in the most important years for their psychic development, live under a hail of bullets and bombs. Syrians without Syria. I saw people who want to die and people who kill other people. I saw entire cities and villages destroyed, refugees, misery. I felt the burning smell left by rockets and saw the grey dust covering the destroyed streets, I heard bombs and gunshots, I saw the panic and desperation in people’s eyes… Almost all of the men I met were probably fighters, rebels, the Free Army—the name doesn’t matter. I met people who lost everything in one second, but who still live as spectators in this war. I met women like myself, who are there while I am here. I have tried to find a way to accept this as a fact, but I have yet to succeed.
We returned to Bucharest one month ago and, since then, many things have changed. Syrians are now faced with new restrictions when entering Turkey by car and, as a consequence, many have given up on travelling to the border area. The thread of external intervention looms over Syria, in a long line of such interventions in other countries. More and more Syrians are trying to flee the country, but they come up against restrictions imposed by the countries where they seek refugee status. Many foreign fighters are going to Syria, thinking that this is a sacred war. Everyone wants a piece of Syria, for different and differing reasons. Syrians are caught in the middle, in a war that no longer seems to have any connection with them. It is difficult to imagine what will happen and what Syria will look like in the future.
Translation from Romanian by Stefan Guga