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 the keyboard and tossed the travel document back at me. My Syrian guide zipped out a few words in Turkish before we got back in 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 quickly greeted by the cruelties of war. Thousands of Syrians who had fled their homes in recent days are stranded along the border. The Turks refuse to let them cross into refugee camps on their side of the border. They claim they cannot absorb anymore refugees. As a result, Syrians are 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 want to return home to areas where air strikes and long-range shelling occur daily.
Syria has been mired in a revolution for eighteen months. It began peacefully with marches and slogans about freedom, but when Syrian President Bashar 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 we were introduced to in the Turkish town of Killis. Because they never acquired passports, they could not use the official border crossings to enter and exit Turkey. As a result, they 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, about two miles from the border. The city had been liberated in June following three weeks on intense fighting. It still showed the scars of war that 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 façade. Burned-out tanks littered the road on the town's outskirts as well.
Beyond the relatively safe confines of Azaz lay the heightened dangers of the Syrian war. At every checkpoint our guides asked if 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 are cut, word-of-mouth is the best way to communicate warnings of lurking dangers.
But even on the ground, updates cannot prevent the 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 they try to take it, only to be repelled. Today, they tried again. But the army responded with a barrage of fire, leaving our guides worried that a small clash could lead to a larger conflagration and the 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 ten 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 underway, no one can escape.
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