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45 Minutes on a Syrian Smuggling Route

Karen Leigh is the managing editor of News Deeply. She has lived and reported in India, West Africa and the Middle East for publications including TIME and The New York Times. You can find her on Twitter as @leighstream.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

In today’s staff editorial, News Deeply’s managing editor, Karen Leigh, describes the process of smuggling across the Turkey/Syria border.

Over the river, and through the woods. I’m carrying a backpack loaded down with a kevlar vest, eight pairs of socks and “emergency” smoked almonds purchased from a corner store in Antakya, the Turkish city that borders Syria. Now we’ve driven an hour from Antakya, my fixer and I, in our unmarked cab; we’ve pulled up to the entrance of a smuggling route, and we’re hiking, quickly, through the mountains that divide Turkey and Syria.

It’s pitch black, and we only turn on a flashlight every so often, our smuggler — the leader of a Free Syrian Army battalion from Jebel Turkman, our destination — lighting the way as we cross a dam, a fallen log, mud pits left over from the rain. Our boots slide all over, a branch lashes my eye.

The smuggler knows all the switchbacks, all the sharp turns that must be made onto ‘roads’ no wider than I am. I’m on assignment for Syria Deeply, a new platform providing in-depth coverage of the 22-month Syrian war, on which I am a contributor and editorial advisor. In the next three days, we’ll be visiting villages and FSA posts in Jebel Turkman and its neighbor, Jebel Akrad, the heavily-bombed mountains surrounding Latakia City.

Latakia Province is the ancestral home of embattled President Bashar al-Assad; as such, the battle for Syria will likely come down to these mountains, to the city of Latakia, not far from where our boots crunch through the mud. It’s important that I get there and report on the guerilla war being waged in these woods.

It’s also important that we not get caught be the dreaded gandarma, the Turkish border police, who patrol these routes with frequency. If we stumble upon one, I am instructed in the car, I am to ditch my flak helmet in the brush or hand it off to the fixer. I am to say two words, in Arabic: “Ana Suria.” (“I am Syrian.”)

The penalty for foreigners caught by the gandarma is 24 hours in jail and a six-month blacklist from Turkey. We do not want to get caught. Voices are kept at a whisper as we walk further into Syria, 20 minutes lapsing, 40 minutes, an hour.

At one point, the smuggler goes ahead. There’s a wider road just up front, visible from the gandarma‘s hilltop fortress. It’s dark and quiet on the road. “Go fast,” the smuggler says, and I sprint across it and into the safety of the bush. Then there are giant curls of spiked fence, a small pathway flattened down. I step on the metal and walk into Syria.

Inclines are walked up and bent-kneed down. A dam is crossed, moonlight guiding us now. We come up a final short incline. “We are here now,” the fixer says, “this is safe.” (On our way back out several days later, the sound of bombs will be at our backs throughout the climb.)

The smuggler and one of his battalion usher us into a waiting, weather battered Kia. They cock a handgun and leave it between their seats. We speed off to begin the drive to our night’s resting place, a safe house in the mountains. At one of the first checkpoints, a man and his son proffer coffee. I tell them no thanks.

“Don’t worry, they want you to take it,” my fixer says. “You are their guest.”

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