Escaping the horrors of war and in search of a better life, thousands of Syrians have risked death travelling via smuggling routes in a bid to flee the country. Some travel by sea to Europe; others make trips across the desert in what they call “death caravans”, travelling north through Syria to reach Turkey. Often their passports and paperwork aren’t fit for travel, so they cross borders illegally.
Travelling across the desert is no less dangerous than over the sea, especially when these caravans pass through areas of conflict that could be under the control of the Syrian regime, ISIS or any number of rebel forces in between.
Abu Ahmad, 28, is a pharmacist from al-Dumayr in eastern Qalamoun. He’s one of the survivors of a “death caravan,” which took him from Qalamoun to Turkey – roughly 229 miles over four days. He’s now studying in a Turkish university and spoke to us about his perilous trip.
Syria Deeply: First of all, tell us what made you take this trip? Were you aware of its risks?
Ahmad: Yes, I was aware of these risks and I also knew that many people had died on these roads. But what made me take the decision to go was my inability to travel legally, because I’ve been avoiding military service since 2013. All my family had left Syria because of the declining situation in my village due to the constant violence.
Another reason is that the Assad regime has been targeting doctors and pharmacists to prevent them from treating the wounded civilians or rebel fighters. They actually succeeded in many areas … those areas don’t have any paramedics, and as a result many Syrians died of their wounds.
Syria Deeply: How much money did you pay for this trip?
Ahmad: I didn’t pay anything, because this trip was coordinated by the Free Syrian Army to bring supplies and goods from the north to the south – in other words, the caravan was not for profit and it had only few civilians. I managed to get onboard through a friend of mine in the FSA: he has operations in eastern Qalamoun. But in typical cases, the trip costs about $100 per person.
Syria Deeply: Were there women or children with you in the caravan? And how many people were there?
Ahmad: No, there weren’t any women or children, but there were some injured people going to get medical treatment in Turkey. Many of the other caravans have civilians, and often there are women and children and even elderly people. With me there were about 20 people, but usually these caravans take up to 80 people.
Syria Deeply: What did the caravan consist of? And what kind of vehicle were you on?
Ahmad:The caravan was made up of two cars and a big truck. I was forced to ride in the back of the truck because all other cars were filled with the relief workers and the injured.
Riding in the back is dangerous because the truck keeps shaking in a crazy way due to the roughness of the road. We were covered with dirt and dust by the end of the ride.
Syria Deeply: How did the caravan co-ordinators treat you?
Ahmad: Their treatment to us was kind of bad. Before picking us up with the caravan, they told us not to speak to anyone, and not to speak about the caravan in any way. We also didn’t know which areas we were in, nor in what way we were heading, as they didn’t allow us to step out of the vehicles, which forced some of us to go to the toilet in the corners of the truck.
Syria Deeply:: Did you face any of the regime checkpoints? How did you deal with them?
Ahmad: The caravan passed by the regime’s areas mostly at night, to avoid the eyes of the regime and to avoid shelling by the air force. When we passed by a few military checkpoints, we were told to remain completely quiet. We moved very slowly not to make any loud noises, and thank God, it all passed well.
Syria Deeply: Did you face any ISIS checkpoints on your way?
Ahmad: Of course, but we were surprised when we passed by the first ISIS checkpoint that there had been a previous arrangement between the relief cars and ISIS! We later found out about an agreement that guarantees the passage of relief cars inside ISIS areas in return for bringing weapons from the Free Syrian Army and selling them to ISIS. So here we were in a terrible situation, especially as we were forced to move the weapons from the truck to one of the ISIS residences and then sleep for two nights in that place. Those two nights witnessed a lot of air force shelling, so we couldn’t sleep, especially being in a place filled with weapons where only few pieces of shrapnel could turn it into hell.
So the treatment at the ISIS checkpoints was OK. They did, however, check our IDs and our military service papers to see if there were any deserters or names of people wanted by the regime.
Syria Deeply: How about the Free Army and other brigades’ checkpoints?
Ahmad: After entering the area of one of the FSA brigades, we were ambushed and the caravan was shot until it stopped. We were taken then to a residence of one of the rebel troops. Our personal belongings were confiscated and we were forced at gunpoint to get down from the truck. It was very weird and scary because we didn’t expect such disasters to happen to us in that area.
Later on, we found out that there had been a false report about the caravan, that it belonged to the ISIS, and that was why they treated us this way. We were forced to spend the night there so they could finish their investigation. Because they couldn’t find a connection between us and ISIS, we were released. They returned our stuff to us, but many of our personal belongings were not given back to us, such as my mobile phone and my computer, in addition to some clothes. After they realized their mistake, they promised to open an investigation about our stolen stuff, and they apologized, suggesting they compensate us with money, but nothing actually happened, and we left in the early morning hours.
Syria Deeply: How many days did the trip take, and how was it in general?
Ahmad: The trip took four days: they were the hardest days of my life; fear was our constant companion, as the caravan that took off before ours hit a landmine, a man died and another lost his leg, so we were always in fear of losing our lives at any second. This feeling of being under threat all the time had a very bad influence on our mindset, in addition to being in the back of the truck where it’s very exhausting – you can almost never breathe fresh air for the entire trip because of the heavy dust. Their treatment of us was bad and the stress was high: all those things cause you to forget your humanity and your value. I couldn’t pull myself together until we made it to the border crossing and until I had a cup of coffee, then my stress and my sense of threat started declining due to the rarity of regime attacks on the border area.