The dangerous sea and land crossings that Syrian refugees are making to Europe have been well-documented, but less well known are the equally perilous journeys people take to leave Syria itself. In this first installment of a two-part series, Syria Deeply examines the illegal journey from Damascus to Turkey.
When asked about the trek her family made between Damascus and the border with Turkey before heading to Europe, Amal, a 28-year-old Syrian-Palestinian is blunt: the journey with her children and younger brother, she said, "was one of the hardest experiences, if not the hardest of all.”
Syria remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Nearly half of the population has been internally displaced or has fled to other countries and the war has claimed the lives of close to half a million people. Over the past five years, Syrians have devised countless ways to escape the killing and violence.
Reasons differ as to why many choose to head to Turkey, rather than the neighboring Arab countries of Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq. For Amal, the reason was her nationality. A Palestinian-Syrian, Amal knew she would never be granted residency in any neighboring country other than Turkey.
After all she had witnessed, she decided she would risk the journey at any cost. “And since all the surrounding countries won’t grant Palestinians a visa, leaving in an illegal way to Turkey became the best – and probably the only – option, considering that Turkey is the entrance gate to Europe,” she said.
While residents of towns and cities in northern Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia have relatively easy access to Turkey, the journey for those who live in the country’s center or south is much more dangerous. Syrians traveling out of Damascus must cross dozens of active battle lines and navigate hundreds of government and armed opposition checkpoints before they reach the Turkish border.
The danger and difficulty of the journey has increased dramatically since the autumn of 2015, when Turkish authorities sealed the border with Syria.
And while most international media outlets focus intensely on refugee travelling by sea from Turkey into Europe, they have overlooked the similarly dangerous, and illegal, journey from Syria into Turkey and other neighboring countries, a trip that often results in detention and, sometimes, death.
Others make the trip because they are wanted by the Syrian government, either because of an arrest warrant issued by one of the security branches or for mandatory military service – which means the person cannot legally leave Syria. “An agreement with the smuggler on the destination of the trip is not enough at this point,” said Ahmad, a 22-year-old from the capital. “The deal must include guarantees of no ID checks on government checkpoints."
Ahmad told Syria Deeply that despite multiple attempts, he had been refused another permit to delay his obligatory military service after graduating from the Commerce Institute of Damascus.
“I couldn’t imagine myself as a combat officer in the army that has committed war crimes against my people. I had to risk [the journey]. It was a choice between life and death,” he said.
The cost of the trip differs depending on the nature of the journey and the person being smuggled. While Amal’s trip with her brother and her two little daughters cost nearly $1,800, the same journey cost Ahmad, who is wanted by the Syrian government, about $2,500 because the bribes he needed to pay at various government checkpoints were significantly higher.
The smugglers usually take the roads that lead from Damascus to the border through Idlib, Aleppo and Hassakeh. But there is also a more expensive, and less-traveled, air route from Damascus Airport to Qamishli Airport, with the smuggler responsible for getting the “client” into Turkey after arriving at Qamishli Airport.
Other routes cost more or less depending on the situations of the smugglers and the passengers, as well as ever-changing battle lines. While overall costs may fluctuate, the people interviewed for this story said there has been a surge in the cost due to the newly imposed visa regime for Syrians wishing to travel to Turkey.
Adib, 33, made the journey from Damascus to Qamishli. It was his third attempt to leave the country. His first attempt failed after the smuggler suddenly apologized and told him he couldn’t finish the trip. “He was a good man, though; he returned the $1,000 fee for the trip,” said Adib.
The second attempt cost him a three-week detention in the government’s military security branch in Hama Province. “I am a Palestinian-Syrian. I’ve never been politically active and I am not wanted by government forces. I finished my military service a decade ago,” he said.
For Adib, the reasons for his detention still escape him: “I was traveling with around eight other people, mostly Palestinians. As soon as the officer on the checkpoint saw our IDs, he asked us if we were intending to escape to Turkey, and said he would be taking us somewhere else."
“The three weeks I spent there made me confident in my decision to leave the country. Therefore I chose to leave from Qamishli Airport, which is comparatively safer, knowing that it was the most expensive route,” said Adib, now safely in Turkey. That route, he said, costs about $2,000 in total.
The illegal journey out of Damascus and into Turkey is well known for being difficult. According to Ahmad, originally from Damascus, the scariest moments were when they were stopped at government checkpoints on the way toward the border. “Every time we stopped at a checkpoint, I felt my heart skip a beat. Even though we passed through open conflict zones and areas where there was shelling, particularly in northern Hama, the moments when we were stopped at government checkpoints were definitely still the hardest,” he said.
Ahmad, now in the Netherlands, recalled the journey with unease. At one point during his three-day trip to the border, they passed by the remains of a minibus that was “transporting passengers just like us. Most of them died when a mortar shell hit it,” he said. Not all of the members of his group completed the journey. Some gave up halfway through, and one fellow passenger died from an asthma attack after the group had been forced to hike a long distance across the border.
Amal’s clandestine journey from Damascus to Turkey took over 48 hours, nearly five times longer than the trip used to take before the war. Her group, consisting of dozens of people, moved from a stable to an abandoned coal factory, spending a night in the home of one of the smugglers before moving back out into the open.
“We walked a lot. Sometimes we rode in minibuses, at other times we were transported in covered trucks,” she said.
They had to adapt to different opposition-controlled areas, Amal said. On approaching a checkpoint manned by the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front, she was told to don the hijab. “I’ve never done that in my entire life,” she said.
Amal said her group’s journey was handled by a network of smugglers, not just one person. They were handed over from one smuggler to another. “It’s a booming trade that is dependent on the smugglers, government institutions and some of the opposition factions,” she said.
Amal’s 48-hour journey was filled with horror: government checkpoints, arrests, snipers. When passing through Maarat al-Numan, a city in Idlib controlled by al-Nusra Front, she said the once thriving city now looked like a “ghost town.”
“The hardest part, though, was the nine-hour walk before reaching the Turkish border, interrupted by bullets every now and then,” said Amal, now in Germany. “We stood before a massive mountain and had to cross it on foot. We ran out of water halfway through. I was carrying my two-month-old child. Without the help of my brother and the other passengers, I would have given up and collapsed,” she said.
Both Amal and Ahmad, who have since taken the journey by sea from Turkey to the Greek islands, agreed that the journey out of Syria was the hardest part. And while no statistics or accurate numbers exist on the number of people who fail to complete the dangerous journey out of Syria, the stories of those who do make it serve to highlight the horrors of these illegal, forgotten trips.