Getting into Syria has been a journalistic obsession since anti-regime protests began there in March 2011. The choices have been risky or next to impossible. The Syrian regime has given out few journalists’ visas (full disclosure, I got a legal visa to Syria in June). So, for the most part, many journalists have taken the hazardous decision to cross the border illegally, taking risky smuggling routes, to cover a story so dangerous that two of our colleagues, Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times, died in Syria.
Sunday night, I unexpectedly walked into Syria. A Turkish border official happily stamped by passport with a loud thwack and waved me through the border crossing near the Turkish town of Kilis in southern Turkey. I was on my way to cover an Iftar dinner, when Muslims break the fast at sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. The dinner was hosted by a rebel brigade based in the Syrian town of Azaz. Hundreds of displaced families were camped out at the Syrian border control office waiting to break their fast before they crossed into Turkey.
Walking to Syria at sunset, the most striking thing is the new symbols on display. The Syrian revolution flag flutters alongside the distinctive Turkish flag. The rebels of the Free Syrian army took control of three border stations along the Turkish frontier in July. The mile walk to the Syria side was cut short when a car slowed to a halt and three young men in fatigues offered a ride. Unfailingly polite, they proposed a chauffer service to the border post or further into Syria.
I was there to see the Iftar dinner for the familes at the border. The meal was catered by Mohammed Adeeb, who said he had raised the money from wealthy businessmen from Azaz. The organization was impressive. Abeed unloaded a truck filled with boxes of bottled water, cartons of yogurt and a Syrian dish called lahm bajin, which are meat pies. This sunset feast marked the end of Ramadan and, traditionally, the start of a three-day celebration known as Eid El Fitr, but no one was celebrating here. Many of these Syrians had packed in a hurry and headed for the Turkish border before dawn. They were all running from the unpredictable Syrian air force attacks that have flattened apartment buildings and turned neighborhoods into rubble. One father put forward his six year old son, Ahmed, who showed off his cast. “I was afraid. There was shelling,” he said in a whisper.
These Syrians hoped to join the more than 70,000 displaced persons who have already crossed into Turkey. Just a few months ago, the trip was as risky as a journalist’s journey to Syria, thru smuggling routes to the frontier. Now, the border is open and the displaced can drive, but the camps are so overcrowded that many will sleep at this dusty border post until Turkish authorities can build a new camp. That may take days. The exodus has increased dramatically just in the last month. Turkey announced today that it can handle no more than 100,000 Syrians and proposed a buffer zone inside the country.
That’s not likely to stop the flow of frightened Syrians. The rebel brigade from the town of Azaz keeps order here. There is a bus to take the weary passengers to Turkey. I hop on board. There is one stop before we cross. The bus driver, a young man in army fatigues, throws his weapon to a rebel guard at the border in a smooth gesture that has been practiced many times. The rebels are prohibited from taking weapons into Turkey. But in every other way, they are running the show.