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Into Syria, Out of Syria

by Jordan Allott & Andrew Doran

A report from among the persecuted

Near the Turkish–Syrian border — ‘Ça va?” Sabri would ask periodically, breaking the tense silence with French. “Oui, ça va.” He would then return to his thoughts, taciturn, intense. The three of us sat in his idling car in the Turkish border village in the dark as the winter rain streamed down. After traveling and living widely in Europe, Sabri, an Assyrian Christian from Iraq, returned to the land of his birth to bring his fellow Christians humanitarian aid from the outside world. He had crossed into Syria several times but would do so this time against the wishes of his family, who called him even here at the border, pleading with him not to go. There we waited for Sabri’s contact, a Kurdish guide who would take us, over the next two days, by foot across la frontière — a muddy maze of fences, concertina wire, and possibly worse — into Syria.

As dark silhouettes passed, we tried to keep our imaginations in check. We had come to the Middle East to document the realities facing the region’s surviving Christian minority and now found ourselves confronting some of their challenges. Earlier that week, we had soberly considered the various scenarios — border patrols, snipers, kidnappers, uncleared landmines — and trigger-happy Turkish border guards would not be the worst case. We had already discussed the possibility of being captured and killed by al-Qaeda and asked Sabri to assign a percentage to the likelihood of our getting over and back safely. The interpreter asked him in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic common to many Christians of the Middle East. “Danger est danger,” Sabri replied in French, with a chuckle.

“He is a great man, a courageous man,” an Iraqi Christian had said of Sabri just days before. “He is a hero for our people.” After many conversations about whether the crossing was feasible in the inclement weather, we decided to push ahead. Some months before, Sabri had taken two Western journalists across; they were later kidnapped. “I think of them every day,” Sabri’s wife told us, before imploring us yet again not to go. “Qaeda,” she said. It was one thing to hear it uttered thousands of miles away on a newscast, where it sounded removed and abstract; it was something else altogether to hear it here.

Northeast Syria, predominantly Kurdish and quasi-autonomous for roughly a year, had witnessed the struggle against the forces of Bashar Assad’s regime give way to fighting against Islamist militants from Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Europe, and elsewhere. They had already killed many Christians and would kill many more. Once we crossed the border into Syria, Sabri would take us to meet with some of the Christians facing that fate — huddled together, we imagined, helpless and hunted. We had come to the Middle East to document the challenges Christians face in their ancient homelands; with each passing moment, more doubts crept in. It had been raining for nearly two hours. As it began to taper, a young man approached — our Kurdish guide, Mehmet, a slender fellow in his early twenties. Quickly we were off on the five-mile trek across the border.

Mehmet set off at a relentless pace. The mud was inches deep and quickly caked onto our shoes, making each step a struggle not to slip. A thick fog descended on the no-man’s-land, and soon the village’s lights were no longer visible, with nothing but mud and fog-enveloped darkness all around. The landscape was littered with jagged rocks, scarcely detectable beneath us. We saw now why Sabri had sought to postpone the excursion. A wrong step could be perilous here for any number of reasons, unswept landmines not least among them. We neared a wall of stones, piled like the dry stone walls of the British Isles. Winded, we caught our breath for a moment, kicking the mud from our shoes on the rocks. As we stood to resume, Sabri whispered an admonition to be absolutely silent and stay low to the ground.

After more than an hour, we came to a 15-foot-high structure of barbed and concertina wire: the Syrian border. Mehmet turned right, walking in the muddy tire tracks, and then left, darting through a small hole in the wire. He held it back, helped us through, then smiled and whispered a welcome in Kurdish. We resumed the rapid pace across the muddy, rocky ground. Gunshots rang out in the distance — the pop-pop-pop of a Kalashnikov. Unable to see, we pressed on. After some time, we came to another stone wall, from which a Kurdish man emerged. He greeted us and joined us for the rest of the trek. Finally, we came to a village, where we happily set foot once again on concrete. Soon we were ushered into the back of a parked van, where we joined several armed men. Steam rose from our clothes and we caught our breath as they checked our passports. Once we had passed their inspection, we were off. A few minutes later, we arrived at our destination, a town inside northeast Syria.

Under fog and a curfew, the town seemed deserted, shrouded in darkness and silence. We were escorted into a building full of men, most of them in combat fatigues, armed with Kalashnikovs — the headquarters of the Syriac Military Council. Sabri and several of these men smiled and embraced like old comrades, saying, in Syriac, “Khoura” (Brother). Sabri had tried to arm more Christians in the area, but most had refused. “Did they refuse for reasons of faith or prudence?” Drew Bowling, our companion in the Middle East, had asked a contact before our journey. “For faith, I think,” he said. On the wall in the building we saw a statue of the Virgin, and an image of Jesus. Hospitality ensued, consisting, naturally, of Turkish coffee, tea, and cigarettes. Here we had found Syria’s Christians — those who had not fled or been killed or sought protection from the regime in Damascus — not huddled together helpless but armed and fighting.

As we sat by the fire, the hand of the local Christian military commander, a bearded man in his forties, reached across to grab hold of an exposed cross Andrew wore. In a grave tone, he said, “Qaeda!” He then dragged an index finger along his own neck, with a grisly sound effect. The room exploded in macabre laughter. As Andrew reached to conceal the cross, everyone in the room lunged forward to say, “No!” The message was clear: Yes, the cross may cost you your life, but it should not be hidden.

The military commander showed us a map of current engagements against al-Qaeda, its affiliate al-Nusra, and ISIS, which is known locally as “Dash.” Battles were ongoing in the nearby villages of Qamishli, Tel Hamis, and Hasakeh. These Christians — part of the Syriac Military Council, formed in early 2013 — fought alongside the Kurds. Much like Iraqi Christians, Syrian Christians stand side by side with their country’s Kurds, non-Arabs who tend to be more secular politically, members of a nation that exists everywhere but on a map.

Here by the fire, the nation-state construct seemed a Western delusion, an absurdity. Opinion about the Syrian government and Assad was mixed; while there is much enmity between the regime and this region, government forces have largely withdrawn from al-Hasakeh, as Kurds and Christians fight their principal enemy, al-Qaeda and its affiliates. “Syriacs were scared of Assad until now,” explained Gabriel, a Christian affiliated with an international organization promoting non-violence, but “now we have nothing to lose as a people. As individuals we can be jailed, tortured, persecuted and killed. But as a people, we have nothing to lose.” It is a sentiment heard often among these Christians.

Once a city of more than 25,000, the town appeared to have less than half that number in the daylight. The power worked only sporadically, and there was little food and still less medicine. Inside Council headquarters, a middle-aged woman waited. “People come here for basic medical supplies,” said Gabriel. “We have none to give them.” Medical and other supplies entering from Turkey are often seized by al-Qaeda affiliates, who operate with less resistance from the Turkish government (which is only too happy to help wreak havoc on its old enemy, Assad) than one might expect. Supplies often arrive as we did, surreptitiously. We were told that most of the doctors, possessing more means than others, had left with their families. There are few hospitals in all of the Hasakeh region.

Many of those with whom we met asked us to explain why America’s government is so keen to deal with Islamists. “We Christians have a secularist mindset,” said Gabriel. “Islamists only think about religion. So the West should support us because we are easier to deal with.” This sentiment is ubiquitous not only among Christians from Cairo to Kurdistan but among moderate, secular-minded Muslims in the region. Our attempts to explain the prevailing trends of realpolitik were met with blank stares, as if to say, “This is not realism; it is madness.”

On the façade of a local church hung an image of two kidnapped bishops. The caption read, “Pray for them.” Inside, we met a refugee from Damascus, who described the destruction of his home and his flight from the southwest. “Refugees are coming from all over Syria to this area because they believe it’s safer and they can get aid,” he told us. The Orthodox pastor had given him shelter and work in the church. At a local Evangelical church, the pastor was organizing relief for refugees from other parts of Syria. The pastor was generously giving out food, water, and medicine to the predominantly Sunni Arab refugees in this town where supplies were scarce.

Part of the impetus for forming the Council was to protect Christians, who no longer feel safe. Many of them wish to leave, which has stoked among their fellow Syrian Christians fears that their community will be dismantled. From the roof of the Council’s headquarters, one of the members pointed at a series of small houses on the street below, explaining to Jordan in broken English, “Christian, Christian, Christian.” He then pointed off into the distance and said, “Gone!” Though they discourage their fellow Christians from fleeing, they do not prevent them. Those who remain hope that by contributing to the struggle against the extremists and the Syrian government, they can restore peace to their homeland. We discussed with Sabri the possibility of helping some Christians get out but never found the opportunity. We were content not to be burdened with the responsibility of bringing anyone safely across the border — which we were about to cross again.

At sunset, we arrived at the staging area, the home of a Kurdish man near the border. In his diminutive abode, we sat on the floor with about ten others who would be fleeing their homeland for Turkey. An Arab Muslim man in his sixties with white hair smiled at us. “Salaam alaikum,” we said. “Wa alaikum, salaam,” he responded. “Ahlan, wasahlan.” His wife sat beside him. In her arms was their four-year-old granddaughter. The child had curly, dirty-blond hair and a white scarf covering her mouth. She was winsome but expressionless — like millions of Syrian children forever marked by trauma. The Kurdish guide would take us all across the frontier after nightfall, out of Syria.

There was a silent tension in the room as we counted down the moments. Of course, we stood out among the travelers. Now we had a sense of how people feel coming into America from Mexico. The child coughed, a deep lung cough. Would it echo across the frontier? If we happened across the wrong people out there, they’d let the others pass. We knew what would happen to us. Smiling, the Kurdish children of the home brought us tea.

Outside, Sabri paced. A Kurdish man from Hasakeh told us about the battles against al-Qaeda. He was the second person to tell us that Assad’s government forces had come to the aid of al-Qaeda’s affiliates in some of the engagements in the northeast, apparently a cynical ploy to prolong the conflict. As we spoke, night fell, and a full moon waxed in the clear sky above, improving visibility on the frontier. Not good, we thought. And then we were off.

A hundred meters ahead, along one of the stone walls, we encountered a couple of dozen young men with makeshift boxes on their backs — smugglers, Jordan suspected. One of them screamed at the group in Arabic. There were suddenly many others. We looked at each other. No more English from here on out. The Kurdish guide, a compact, rough man in his forties, overseeing a group of ten, beckoned us to move along swiftly.

The ground had dried since our initial crossing, but the footing was still treacherous. The Syrian grandparents were carrying their granddaughter and their bags. The grandmother, short and stocky, was struggling to traverse the jagged rocks and mud; the grandfather, now wearing his red and white checkered keffiyeh (the headdress of Arab men), held the child in his arms.

We marched in silence, accompanied by a sense of urgency and the sound of heavy breathing. The old man tired. “Tamman?” (You okay?) He nodded, but he was clearly winded. After a few minutes, he relented, and we took turns carrying the child. Now, in addition to our bags and theirs, we carried the burden of responsibility for the only thing that mattered to this old couple.

It proved impossible to keep up with the rest of the group, the Kurdish guide, several Arab and Kurdish men, and the family — ten of us all told, moving as fast as we could. Being left behind was not an option, but keeping up was impossible. It was clear that the guide was afraid. In the darkness, we looked at the child — beautiful, silent, stoic. Whether through trauma or courage, she was unafraid. We had discussed bringing Christians with us, if they wished to come. Now we were helping Sunni Muslims escape Syria — the Syria of Bashar Assad and al-Qaeda.

We crossed the wire into the Turkish side of the no-man’s-land. A loud voice suddenly echoed across the frontier. Who would be unafraid to be heard out here? That’s someone to fear, we thought. The sense of urgency gave way to desperation as we heard stomping footsteps behind us — the smugglers were sprinting. What are they running from? What do they know that we do not? Is something coming behind them? With the family’s bags on our backs, and the child in the arms of one of us and then the other, we fell behind. The grandfather took the child back, and again the guide came to hurry us along. The family could not keep up. With a deep breath, we looked at each other and whispered. “They’re not going to make it. We have to help them.” We stayed behind, keeping pace with the family. The searchlight of the Turkish border patrol flashed over the frontier.

We took the child back and continued on our way, winded, cursing that we were not in better shape. We saw a border-patrol vehicle only 50 feet away, driving parallel to us toward our destination. If it turned right, its bright lights would expose us. We ducked down and watched as the vehicle veered left and drove away, and heaved deep sighs of relief. When we were finally a safe distance from the border, the Kurdish guide approached, muttering. He grabbed us by our necks and planted kisses on our cheeks. As we caught our breath, the old man said something to the guide in Arabic and pointed to heaven, saying “Allah” several times. We could see the village ahead. After several hundred more meters, we arrived.

Parting company, we kissed the child and bade farewell to her grandparents. Sabri extended his hand as we caught our breath. “Khoura,” he said, laughing.

As we entered his home a short time later, his wife embraced us. We sat around the table, the long-lost travelers, returned. Songs were sung in Syriac, and spirits passed around. Although we were celebrating our safe passage into and out of Syria, we also realized that those Syrians who were lucky enough to escape alive would not be celebrating but anxiously wondering whether those they left behind would survive, and whether they themselves would ever return to their homeland. The translator instructed us all to kneel; Sabri, not terribly devout, eventually acquiesced with a smile. There we prayed the Our Father in Aramaic. We thought in silence of those who could not make it out, of those Westerners who had been captured, many of whom would never escape, and of the family whom we would never see again, whose names we did not know.

Syria’s tragic war continues, with Assad starving his people and driving them into exile, giving rise to the next generation of terrorists. Al-Qaeda affiliates engage in internecine conflict, imposing a ruthless tyranny in the pockets where they reign. Everywhere, the innocent and helpless suffer, the fortunate escape, and millions more simply survive, trapped in the midst of a savage conflict whose conclusion is nowhere in sight. Christians are among the survivors in that war-ravaged land, no longer a nation. There we found them, embattled but alive.

– Mr. Allott is a British-born documentary filmmaker and the founder of In Altum Productions. Mr. Doran writes about U.S. foreign policy, with a particular focus on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

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