The brave Syrian risking his life to help kids like this cross the border
Our team in Syria meet with 'Mahmoud', a former teacher who now risks his life helping people escape the war-torn country. He arranges for reporter Jason O'Brien and photojournalist Mark Condren to spend time with a rebel troop
Published 10/04/2013 | 05:00
Mahmoud is a 26-year-old Syrian who recently discovered a new skill: sneaking people out of the war-ravaged country to escape, and sneaking foolhardy or highly-committed people in, perhaps to help.
He does a nice line in understatement.
"Can you imagine that you have been forced out of your house, you are afraid and worried about your family?" he asks quietly.
"You have been forced to leave your job and have been accused of killing one of your friends, and the security forces are looking for you. Your girlfriend of three years refuses to see you anymore.
"You are in the streets where people are being killed every single day.
"It was a bad situation."
The university-educated English teacher is explaining how he went from his old, comfortable life at a top school in Syria's biggest city of Aleppo to sleeping rough in Turkey for three weeks to working closely with some of the biggest media outlets in the world to ensure their safety with rebel forces in Syria – and all in less than a year.
Today he has arranged for the Irish Independent to spend time with a rebel troop called Ayman al Sabir in northern Syria, and he is interpreting.
However, his language skills are not his best asset.
Four Italian journalists were 'detained' by rebels not far from here last Friday, and have not been released. And 28 journalists were killed in Syria last year, prompting the Committee to Protect Journalists to name it the most dangerous country in the world to work in.
However, Mahmoud's strong links to the leadership of the most prominent rebel groups help ensure there are no major difficulties during the trip.
"In Syria, if you are not aligned with someone – a fixer or translator – from the Free Syrian Army, a big or well-known group within the FSA, it's not safe," he explains.
"Some groups just have a little money to buy weapons and if you come across them at the checkpoint they might see an opportunity to arrest you for ransom and no one will know where you are.
"Two journalists – one from America, one from Germany – asked me to go into Syria some time ago but I said I couldn't help them as I didn't have the time to go to some places that they wanted to go to, and which would be dangerous.
"They went there, and the situation was not safe enough. They were taken, and now no-one knows what has happened to them. There has been no word."
He works with a loosely-defined 'media unit' for the Free Syrian Army, which, among other things, sometimes helps international media enter Syria in an attempt, he says, to counter the state-controlled reports of the war coming from President Bashar Al Assad's side.
He is candid about his politics and motives, explaining how he was persecuted by security forces when he refused to support the government in a written report – which eventually saw him losing his home, his family, his job, his girlfriend, and being accused of murder and forced to flee to Turkey five months ago.
Tomorrow he will leave his new home in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli and cross into Syria illegally, using a tractor to traverse a number of fields, a small improvised raft to cross the river and the acquiescence of a rebel commander called Omar on the other side.
He will then meet up again with Ayman al Sabir, this time taking an injured soldier on the return journey so that he can be treated in a hospital on the other side.
Rebel soldiers, understandably, don't go for treatment at government-controlled hospitals.
There is a make-shift nerve-treatment hospital in Reyhanli, run by Syrian doctor Adal Alquader Said Aisa.
"We see about 15 patients a day, half of them war-affected," he explains. "We wouldn't be very well-known in Syria as we have only just started, but we do get some rebel fighters coming over to us."
Mahmoud knows of a large number of crossing points.
"It used to be something as simple as a hole in the fence but they are now closed and then it was something different and now we have the river," he says.
"They close one area and we find another. But it is sometimes difficult. I have been shot at, and once ran 15km to escape five soldiers."
Most of the people he brings across, however, are ordinary Syrians, looking to escape violence or persecution.
The legal border crossings here are tense and sometimes dangerous places – a car bomb killed 14 at the Cilvegozu entrance two months ago, while a number of aid workers were kidnapped from a temporary camp nearby weeks later.
The lucky Syrians are those with passports who are allowed into Turkey, such as a group of young boys travelling through Cilvegozu yesterday.
"We are living in Turkey now but we had no luggage when we left after our town was bombed so we have gone back for that," one 12-year-old, cautious enough not to give his name, explains.
For those Syrians without passports, a Mahmoud is required.
Incredibly polite and soft-spoken, he doesn't like to talk about money – or to explain exactly how he went from translating to arranging illegal crossings. But it is clear he believes what he is doing is right.
"When I first fled to Turkey I was sleeping in a garden for 19 days," he says.
"I felt that I had damaged my life. I had studied for 13 or 15 years and here I was now with nothing. I couldn't work, or do anything.
"But I could see that a lot of people were suffering in the situation, and I just wanted to try to find solutions.
"I found myself when I tried to help others, when I saw their smiling faces. So I am satisfied, maybe 90pc satisfied. But when I think about my past now, I realise how bad it was. I'm trying to think about my future – but my future is completely linked to the revolution."
*Mahmoud's name was changed to protect his identify
Irish aid agency GOAL has a permanent presence in Syria. For more information visit www.goal.ie