Witness to Tragedy: What I Saw on the Syrian Border


I'm walking out of Hatay Airport near Turkey's southern border with Syria. I can feel the sun blazing through my white headscarf, and I'm fumbling with my iPhone, trying to find the number for my contact.

I'm almost surprised when someone answers. My entire trip to the Syrian border has been planned from Facebook conversations with Kenan Rahmani of Syrian American Council and Mulham Al-Jundi of Watan Syria - two people I have yet to meet. Beforehand that seemed fine. Now that I'm actually here, I just want to make sure I get in the right car with the right person.

"Kristin, I'm over here!"

A young man is smiling at me, waving a sign with a tiny logo. Esmat Rastan is a volunteer with Watan Syria, the border-based NGO that I'm here to visit. I breathe a sigh of relief.

"I'm so glad to see you here!" I yell over the droning of a plane overhead.

Esmat grins and opens the door of a rusty car with peeling seat covers. I throw my backpack in the backseat and jump in beside him. Then we're off in a cloud of dust tearing down the road toward Reyhanli, the border town where the NGO is located.

"So that's Syria," he says, pointing to the right.

I'm staring out at red earth, beautiful mountains dotted with greenery, soaring blue skies. It all seems so tranquil.

But that tranquility is an illusion. Since Syria's peaceful revolution began in March of 2011, more than 70,000 people have been killed as Bashar Assad massacres, brutalizes, exterminates his own people.

I came here because I wanted to get closer, not to view the violence but to meet the people. I work for a refugee agency in the States and it's because of this that I am particularly interested to learn more of the Syrian refugee story.

The war in Syria has caused a flood of refugees to pour over the country's borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. We're driving past a refugee camp now, but Esmat tells me that due to security it's increasingly difficult to access camps inside Turkey.

"You can visit refugees in Reyhanli," he explains. "There are thousands of them."

An hour later I'm sitting across from Mulham Al-Jundi at the Watan Syria office in Reyhanli. He's telling me about the border town he now calls home.

Reyhanli used to be a town of around 50,000 people, he explains. But today, with Syrian refugees arriving nearly every day, the town's population has doubled - now past 100,000. The refugees come with nothing, and the town has nothing to offer. There are no jobs, little infrastructure, and just the other day explosions could be heard from only a few miles away. It's a flawed refuge, Reyhanli, with its crumbling buildings, dusty streets, and impoverished economy.

The life that Mulham Al-Jundi left behind resembles nothing of this desperate town. Before he came to Reyhanli he was an IT professional living an enviable lifestyle. In his free time he raced motorcycles in Saudi Arabia.

"Wait. You... what?" I say with surprise. There are still some photos on his Instagram. These he shows me, a slight grin spreading across his face.

When he witnessed firsthand what was happening to his homeland of Syria, Mulham knew he couldn't stand on the sidelines any longer. He left his job, his home, his lifestyle. Now he's here in Reyhanli, overseeing a massive aid operation, living a vastly different kind of life alongside the refugees he is working to help.

Watan Syria distributes aid inside of Syria and along the border areas in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, reaching more than 50,000 women, men, and children with food and medical aid.

Early one morning I accompany Esmat and a few others to deliver Watan Syria's aid boxes throughout Reyhanli. We load up a van with heavy boxes containing macaroni, rice, cheese, salt, corn, tuna, sugar, and oil - staples that thousands of refugee families can't afford to purchase for themselves. We carry the boxes into makeshift "homes" all over the city. Crumbling brick structures, tarps held down with rocks, tents pitched on rooftops.

That morning I begin to get to know some of the Syrian refugees of Reyhanli, the beautiful children I see running through muddy streets, the women making homes out of shacks and tents. I visit a family living in a small windowless shack on someone else's property.

"Sometimes we pay extra and use their shower," the woman explains. Her husband accepts their aid box with gratitude. He is still wearing a suit. They fled Syria only 15 days ago - with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Everyone I visit talks about freedom, a future in Syria beyond this horror. There is so much suffering, but in the suffering there is a unity that catches me by surprise. People who come as refugees, with nothing, are doing everything they can to help other refugees.

The next afternoon I join Yisser Bittar of the Syrian American Council and another Watan Syria staffer for a visit to a hospital in Reyhanli. A wall surrounds the dilapidated structure that is the hospital, and guards stand at the entrance gate.

Inside, it doesn't look like a hospital. Bare wires hang from the ceiling, and paint is peeling off the walls. The halls are eerie and silent. We wind around a corner and enter the first room, where I'm surprised to see a set of bunk beds. On the lower bunk, a small girl lies underneath a white blanket. She smiles, a little.

I can't use her name or take her picture, but this is her story.

She is just turning 15 years old, and comes from a suburb of Idlib in Syria. One sunny day she took a walk to her sister's house. She couldn't have known it would be for the last time.

One bullet from a sniper through her spine and her life changed forever.

Today she spends her days in this bed, her body paralyzed but her spirit somehow unbroken. She is convinced there is a surgery that will help her, if she can only find the right doctor. Her family has no money and no resources. So for now, they are waiting.

As long as they are waiting they still have hope. They don't know, and in the unknown lays their last fragment of comfort.

"I think you're very brave," I say to her, leaning in to kiss her cheek, feeling with every second the stark inadequacy of my words. "I'm so sorry."

Yisser and I walk down the hallway. A heavy silence hangs in the air.

In the next room a woman, 25 years old, lies in a bed. Her father is there with her, and as she relates her story he interjects, explaining more of the one horrific day that changed their lives forever.

They were living as IDPs, internally displaced people, in a small village.

One day she was inside the house where they were staying when she heard the sound of a helicopter rotor overhead. The next moment, shrapnel was flying in all directions as a TNT barrel packed with metal scraps fell from the sky, exploding in the village. She felt a sharp pain as a piece of metal sliced through her leg.

There were screams, flames. Smoke billowing into the clear sky overhead.

Then silence.

When she woke up, she stumbled, blood flowing from both of her legs. Around her, pieces of the bodies of her mother, her sister, and her five nephews lay on the ground.

24 people were killed that day, mostly children.

The next day, her father explains, Assad's regime announced that they had defeated the terrorists in that village, that the 24 people they had killed were terrorists.

But they were all women and children, almost his entire family.

He tried to bury the bodies. There wasn't time. Helicopters kept returning that day, swooping low and dropping more barrels. He knew his daughter would die if she didn't receive help. They fled.

So here they are. They got here 5 days ago.

Her father is talking now, describing those last hours they spent in the village. "The regime does not differentiate between civilians and the Free Syria Army," he's saying.

After a few minutes he quiets, says a few brief words, tears coming to his eyes.

"I want the world to come and see what's going on. I want everyone to know."

I'm sitting near his daughter's bedside, and she pulls up the blanket to show me what happened to her that day. One leg is gone, the other one has a series of gashes, huge chunks of her leg are missing, carved out by the flying shrapnel of the TNT barrel.

She reaches for a piece of cardboard beside her. It's covered in school photos, held together with children's stickers. "My nephews," she says, pointing to each one.

"This one was cut in half. This one was beheaded..."

I feel hot tears streaming down my face. I'm feeling something different now, something beyond the sadness, something that clutches the pit of my stomach with a wrenching, sickening grip.


Rage at this inhuman monster that is Bashar Assad and his regime.

But it does not take very long, sitting here in this hospital, staring into the eyes of this woman who has lost so much, to begin to grapple with something else altogether, something beyond the rage: responsibility.

These atrocities have gone on for over 2 years while the U.S. has stood silent, teetering on the edge of action. And today, while children run for their lives as TNT barrels explode in their neighborhoods, sending shrapnel through tiny bodies, wrecking, breaking, destroying, shattering lives - we're still debating.

Everything I have seen on the Syrian border culminates in a realization at that moment: There is not going to be another time to act. The time to act is now.

We have to stop Bashar Assad from murdering his own people. We have to intervene.

Two weeks ago President Obama addressed an audience at the National Holocaust Museum, discussing initiatives aimed at preventing genocide.

"We need to be doing everything we can to prevent and respond to these kinds of atrocities -- because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people," he said to rounds of applause.

"It's a bitter truth," he added, "Too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save."

If dropping TNT barrels on children does not constitute the "killing of innocents on a massive scale," what does?

If the targeting of children by snipers is not an atrocity, what is?

The sheer number of lives lost in Assad's campaign of terror against the Syrian people should be enough.

And as if that weren't enough, we have increasing evidence that President Obama's "red line" has indeed been crossed - that the Syrian regime has unleashed chemical weapons against civilians.

Humanitarian aid is crucial in Syria, and I am grateful that the administration has just designated $100 million in new aid. It's so important, with millions displaced and thousands horrifically injured.

But Syria needs more than aid. Bashar Assad must be stopped from waging his campaign of terror against the people of Syria. Instead of ceaselessly attempting to put a band aid on the problem, we need to stop him in his tracks.

To that end, there is something else we can do that is gaining increasing bipartisan support - and with good reason.

A no-fly zone would prevent Assad's regime from dropping his weapons of terror from the skies, limiting his ability to ruthlessly slaughter Syrian women, men and children. No more families terrorized by the sound of a helicopter rotor nearing their home. No more TNT barrels falling into neighborhoods where children are playing.

This is a practical action that will save lives, that will take one murderous tactic out of Assad's hands.

We can stop Bashar Assad from murdering his own people. We can and we must.

I left Hatay Airport on another sunny day much like the one on which I arrived. I felt the warmth of the sun through my headscarf, scanned through my iPhone to upload another image of the border.

But inside my mind all I could see were images of the people I met, the longsuffering people of Syria who dream of a chance not just at life, but at freedom.

I hope we can find a way to help them make that beautiful dream a reality.