TURKISH-SYRIAN BORDER – Qasem Hiyyat did not seem like a person who just 24 hours ago had walked for nine hours through a cold, dark mountain pass and then spent a few hours in a damp jail cell.
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He was smiling broadly and could not sleep from excitement. Just an hour before, in a small maternity hospital in Antika, a city on the Turkish side of the border with Syria, his second son was born. His elder son had been born a year ago under bombardment in Aleppo, but died three days later, due to poor medical conditions in the city, Hiyyat said. This week he decided to get his wife Nahealla out of the city before the siege around it tightened.
On Sunday morning they got on a rickety bus leaving on the last road out of Aleppo that had not yet been cut off, toward the Idlib province of northwest Syria, most of which is still under rebel control. “On our way, we saw aerial assaults by the Russians near the road,” he said.
Three hours later they arrived at the border where they met smugglers who demanded 30,000 liras (about $75 dollars on the Syrian black market) to take them across the border. They left with seven other people, among them two more pregnant women and three children. After they were driven to a point near the border, they were led along a mountain road for nine hours.
“My wife kept falling down and I had to get her up and help her walk,” Hiyyat said. When they reached the Turkish side of the border the smugglers disappeared, but a vehicle of the Turkish gendarmes was waiting for them and took them into custody at a nearby base.
“They locked us in a cold, dark cell in our wet clothes,” he recalled. Children were screaming and my wife started bleeding. I called the gendarmes and they agreed to take us to the hospital.”
The birth was quick; the baby came a month early but was in stable condition. “Now I need to find my wife and son a place to live here but in another month I’ll go back to Aleppo, somehow,” he said.
Hiyyat, 24, was an engineering student when the civil war broke out in Syria. When the battles reached Aleppo he joined the rebels, not as a fighter, but as a photographer, running between the fronts and bombed sites, documenting the scenes and posting them on the web. “It might sound crazy to you, that I managed to get out and I’m going to go back. But that’s my city. I have to,” Hiyyat said.
Although army troops and Shi'ite militias fighting for the Assad regime are tightening the siege on Aleppo, there are still at least some 300,000 people who apparently want to stay. Some don’t intend to leave despite the fear of starvation and of Russian aerial attacks. Some cannot leave, while some believe that as long as the border with Turkey is closed, other areas under rebel control are no safer.
“My mother, my brother and two sisters are inside,” said Ahmed Rafat, a Syrian television producer who lives in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. He fled with his wife two years ago and meanwhile is making a fairly good living sending out photographers to the rebel areas and selling the material to networks in the Gulf.
“My father was kidnapped two months ago by an unknown group and my mother says he never left her for 25 years and she won’t leave him. I told her that she has two daughters and if they fall into the hands of the regime or the Shiites it will be very bad for them, but she won’t listen,” Rafat said.
In the first years of the civil war in Syria, Syrian refugees expressed their appreciation to the Turkish government for taking them in. Over the past few months, since the Turks closed the border, gratitude has been replaced with bitterness. “They didn’t just close the crossings, they stationed sharpshooters who shoot people trying to cross the mountains, claiming that they are ISIS, Rifat said, referring to the Islamic State.
“Meanwhile only the crime syndicates who control the smuggling are making a profit,” he added.
The Turks have also recently begun to restrict the refugees’ movements and they need special permits to go from one city to another in Turkey. Another difficulty is that the Syrian government has cancelled the Syrian passports of rebels and their supporters who have left the country. Over the past few days, many refugees in Turkey have received notices from the Turkish police that following a complaint by the Syrian government to Interpol of mass forging of passports, their passports had been cancelled.
Many still dream of passage to a new life in Europe. But public debate over their status and the hard backlash have not escaped the refugees’ notice. “I would not go to Europe,” Rafat said. “My religion is important to me and I see that there is no respect there for Islam today. I want to go back to Syria one day and I need to stay close to my family in Aleppo,” he added.