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'They are as bad as the regime, as bad as Isil...'

Families in Syria are risking everything on the smugglers' route out of the war-ravaged country


Seeking safety: Civilians flee from Idlib toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey. Photo: AP Photo

Seeking safety: Civilians flee from Idlib toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey. Photo: AP Photo


Seeking safety: Civilians flee from Idlib toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey. Photo: AP Photo

It was their fourth attempt to cross. The smugglers trafficking them across the rocky plains of north-western Syria had been repeatedly spooked. On one occasion, the Syrian refugees were shot at by Turkish border police.

But when they finally made it, having fled Assad regime barrel bombs and Russian air strikes to the safe haven of Turkey, there was little relief.

"Arriving here was one of the worst feelings," Ahmed Barish says as he clutches his 18-month-old son tight. "I already had a country," he says. "We sacrificed a lot for this revolution, coming here, we've lost all of that."

Ahmed is one of the lucky ones. More than 900,000 people have been uprooted in recent weeks as the forces of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, push deep into the last remaining rebel-held slice of Syria.

Most are crammed up against a border wall separating Syria from Turkey, living in makeshift shelters or sleeping out in freezing rain and sleet.

From the safety of a small apartment in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, 48km from the border, Ahmed recalls scrambling through a small tunnel under the concrete barrier with the help of the smugglers. He remembers his coat snagging as he climbed a barbed-wire fence, the whole time shielding his son Firas from the cold.

Eventually, the group piled into the back of a pickup truck with Turkish licence plates. The driver demanded an extra $100 from each of them to take them to the town of Kilis - exhausted, they all paid up.

Ahmed is 25 but could pass for twice that. In January, the regime neared his home in Saraqib. After eight years of war, it was time to leave. He moved his family to the border town of Azaz and sought out a smuggler.

Ahmed left money with a friend in Syria, only paying once he reached Turkey. One Friday evening last month, they were taken to a border village from where they trudged through the mountains with 13 others.

At one point a baby started to cry. "They told the mother she would be left to die, if she didn't shut the baby up - there was no humanity," he says.

"The baby's name was Hanan, I can still hear the mother whispering it."

The recent Idlib offensive by Syrian troops is the largest displacement crisis in the near decade-long war.

While hundreds of thousands remain trapped on the Syrian side of the border, a handful have thrown themselves into the hands of smugglers. Would-be Isil recruits and refugees once crisscrossed the border between Turkey and Syria. They traded places with such ease that some rebels were known to cross out of Syria for an afternoon's rest.

That porous border is no more. In 2018, Turkey completed a wall stretching more than 400 miles along the frontier. Now the concrete serpent snakes its way through valleys and along ridges, guard towers and cameras scanning the undergrowth for any sign of those trying to cross.

Many in Idlib fear the Assad regime, but, with the wall holding strong and Ankara unwilling to allow refugees in, they are left in a desperate sprawl along the border. A lack of housing and tents has forced thousands to live under trees and in half-built buildings. As the temperature dropped below freezing last week, NGOs reported cases of infants freezing to death.

The journey is expensive. Ahmed paid in US dollars - $3,600 for himself, his wife and child. It is also dangerous. Border guards are known to open fire on those attempting to cross.

Smugglers affiliated to what remains of the Free Syrian Army have found great opportunity in the offensive. Several contacted by reporters quoted prices of more than $3,000 per person. They send lower-paying clients to better-guarded parts of the border, using them as a diversion for those paying the top rate.

"They are as bad as the regime, as bad as Isil. You are talking about pure evil here," says Ahmed.

In the warmth of their apartment, Firas is restless in his father's arms. He slept through much of the crossing. "He does not know what he experienced," Ahmed says. "We are out now, that's the important thing."

Turkey hosts three million refugees, but the welcome they once received is gone. Ankara want the Syrians sent home, and is insistent they will not open borders for this latest crisis.

Since arriving just over three weeks ago, life in Turkey has offered up new worries for Ahmed. As undocumented Syrians, he and his family are liable for deportation at any moment.

Coming to Turkey was supposed to bring an end to Ahmed's troubles. He resisted fleeing for almost eight years, now he is afraid he may be sent back.

"Even when I'm in the supermarket, I'm looking over my shoulder. If I see the police in the street, I cross the road, I worry my landlord might turn me in. If they send us back to Idlib, I don't have the money to get us out again - we'll be finished," he says.