This account of my trip into Syria’s partially liberated Idlib province was published by the Guardian.
To cross the border I had to climb a wall three times my height. It was the most frightening part of my trip into liberated Syria.
At Atmeh camp (where I’d been working, just inside Syria on the Turkish border) there’s no passport control but only a gap in the barbed wire. On the day of our journey, however, the Free Syrian Army and PKK-linked Kurds were facing off nearby and the Turkish authorities blocked access as a result. This meant we had to go through the official border at Bab al-Hawa. Two of our party possessed Syrian passports, and were waved through. Two of us didn’t, and so were smuggled across by Kurdish teenagers.
We skirted a deserted shack which our escorts pretended was a policeman’s house. One disappeared for a while, pretending to pay an expensive bribe. Our winding path led through a red-soiled olive grove, far away from the border post, but then wound back towards it, and to the wall. I could see the backs of soldiers through the trees, smoking not patrolling.
There were no security cameras. The boys told me they’d taken Chechens across like this.
At wallside a whispered negotiation ensued. We soon haggled a price for their service. The next part was more difficult – They wanted us to scale the wall into what was obviously still the Turkish border post.
I looked at my fellow smugglee. “Do you believe this?” I asked in English.
“I don’t know. Talk to them some more.”
So it went on, until at last Abdullah, one of our hosts inside Syria, phoned to advise me to do as the boys said.
So I climbed too fast for vertigo to strike, scissored my legs over the railings, dropped onto concrete, rolled, picked myself up, then endeavoured to walk across the neatly-trimmed lawn with a nonchalant but entitled and entirely legal air. I strolled through the airconditioned duty free zone and rejoined my companions to wait for the bus through no-man’s-land. (No private cars have been allowed here since a car bombing in February killed thirteen). Sitting in front of me on the bus: a fattish version of Che Guevara, in curls, beard and black beret, but with nogodbutgod printed on the beret.
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