When I set out last week to find some of a reported wave of Syrian refugees waiting to enter Turkey, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would they be pressed against a fence? Camped out on a border line? My Syrian translator said something about them being stuck in a “no man’s land” between the two countries.
I certainly did not expect to cross into rebel-held Syria itself, if only barely. But once we arrived at the Turkish border point of Kilis, my translator handed me off to a Syrian friend staying at a refugee camp and pointed us toward sleepy-looking Turkish gate officials. He’d meet us across the frontier in 15 minutes, he announced.
Like thousands who have fled Syria, he explained, he had entered Turkey illegally, and he’d slip back in the same way: Through a hole in the barbed wire fence. It was no problem, he said nonchalantly, predicting he’d even beat me there.
So I was left with his jovial friend. Once we showed our passports to the Turks, we began a 15-minute walk toward Syria, down a road flanked by high fences. Fields to the sides, which Syrians have traversed for months to escape war, were marked with signs warning of mines.
My companion, who spoke a smattering of Italian but no English, managed to communicate that three of his four children — babies, he called them — had been killed in the Syrian conflict. We kept reverting back to a word we both understood. “Problema,” he’d say, wincing and sweeping his arm across the horizon. Yes, I’d nod. Problema.
Soon, a black sedan heading in the same direction, its speakers blaring the 2004 Daddy Yankee hit “Gasolina,” pulled up. One tinted window rolled down. My guide traded familiar handshakes with the driver, who offered a lift. After about a minute, we stopped so that a man on the side of the road could hand an AK-47 to the front-seat passenger. Our crew — an American reporter, a refugee and two Syrian rebels, all shaking to reggaeton — cruised on for another couple of minutes.
Past the Syrian gate, where Turkish and Syrian flags flew, things got more official. A man from the rebel Free Syrian Army, which had won control of the crossing the month before, typed my name into a computer and said next time I’d need a signed letter from my editor to enter.
At the border complex, my translator waited. So did many sweaty refugees, some of whom wanted to enter Turkey, and others who seemed intent to wait out the war in this semi-organized rebel-held way station, dotted with FSA flags and banners. On the way out, the rebels insisted on marking my passport with a stamp, which I imagine had been left behind in the passport office they took over. It read, simply: “Syrian Arab Republic.”
Click below to see photographs of Syrian refugees who have left their homes and entered Turkey and Jordan.