September 12, 2012
On the ground in Syria
It started with a routine border crossing.
The Turkish border guard at the Bab Al-Salama crossing point glanced at my passport, pounded a few keys on his keyboard and tossed the travel document back at me. My Syrian guide said a few words in Turkish, then we got back into his car to drive the short stretch into Syria. As we approached the Syrian side, two large Syrian flags flapped in the wind, and I suddenly realized my adventure into the world's most dangerous war zone was about to begin.
As soon as we were on Syrian land, we were greeted by the cruelties of war. Thousands of Syrians who have fled their homes in recent days are stranded along the border. The Turks refuse to let them cross into Turkish refugee camps, claiming they cannot absorb any more refugees. As a result, Syrians remain cramped into the tiny border post. They sleep under a large roof the size of a football field where border authorities inspect cars. They subsist on rations doled out by a Turkish aid organization. Few are satisfied with their new accommodations, but none wants to return home to areas where air strikes and long-range shelling occur daily.
Syria has been mired in a revolution for 18 months. It began peacefully with marches and slogans about freedom, but when President Bashar Al-Assad unleashed his army against protesters, the bold among them organized fighting units. Soon, the weekly demonstrations with their canvas banners gave way to fighters shooting at soldiers and paramilitary units loyal to Assad. Today, the regime unleashes the full power of its arsenal against rebels armed with little more than small arms and RPG (rocket-propelled grenades) in areas where civilians have no time and no place to flee.
After heading out from the border post, we met up with a few Syrians in the Turkish town of Kilis. Because they never acquired passports, they could not use the official border crossings to enter and exit Turkey. As a result, they have had to use back roads to sneak in and out of Syria when the need arose.
From there, we drove to the city of Azaz in Syria, about two miles from the border. Azaz was liberated in June, after three weeks of intense fighting. It still showed scars of war, which will take years to heal. Fighter jets leveled residential areas, leaving mounds of rubble where children slept and women cooked. Outside a mosque, the charred remains of two tanks peeked out from beneath a heap of stones from the temple's collapsed facade. Burned-out tanks still litter the road on the town’s outskirts, as well.
Beyond the now-relatively safe confines of Azaz lie the heightened dangers of the Syrian war. At every checkpoint our guides asked whether the roads ahead were safe. At every roadside store, they inquired whether the regime had moved forces into the area. In a war zone where cell phone networks have been cut off, word-of-mouth is the best way to communicate warnings of lurking dangers.
But even on the ground, updates cannot prevent spontaneous bombardments from upsetting plans. Near the Minagh airport, we saw tracer bullets and explosions. Though most of Aleppo province is under rebel control, they have not been able to dislodge regime forces from the airport. Every few days, Assad’s troops try to take it, only to be repelled. While we were there, they tried again. But the rebel army responded with a barrage of fire, leaving our guides worried that a small clash could lead to a larger conflagration and a call for air strikes that could imperil us.
Our guide quickly turned off his headlights and pulled over to the side of the road. After 10 minutes, the shooting subsided, and we resumed our journey. We meandered through roadside villages until we stopped for the night in a rural district. But even here, among the olive trees and vegetable fields, the war is close.
Shortly after midnight, regime forces pounded nearby Aleppo with mortars. Occasionally the sky lit up. Loud explosions woke us from our sleep. Air strikes, perhaps. Or maybe tank fire. It made no difference, though. In Syria's second largest city, the battles of war that are under way, no one can escape.
For The Media Line’s daily reports from Syria, visit Live from the Arab Spring at jewishjournal.com.