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Fleeing far from that accursed war

Syrian refugees risk their lives escaping the war by sea [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 March, 2015

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First person: Syrian refugees are putting their lives in the hands of people-smugglers as they try to escape their war-torn country. Here is one young man's story.
Editor's note: The author has requested anonymity

When you get your university degree in Syria it means you will be called up for compulsory national service within a matter of weeks. A few months after that, your name will be on the list of military checkpoints that have recently become widespread in the city of Aleppo.

It did not take more than a couple of months after finishing my degree before I decided to travel to Europe. This was a decision that I had not dared to make over the past three years, but the city I loved was exhausted in every sense of the word. It was no longer a suitable place to live for a young man who had just graduated from university.

I began to plan the journey and I came to an agreement with a people-smuggler in Turkey that I would collect the $7,000 he said it would cost to get me to one of the Scandinavian countries.

     I came to an agreement with a people-smuggler based in Turkey that I would pay $7000 to travel to Scandinavia.

As a Syrian Palestinian, just thinking about travelling to Turkey via an illegal route seemed a completely unprecedented venture. Many elements of the armed Syrian opposition consider all Palestinian refugees in Syria to be members of the "Shabiha". At the same time, elements of the government forces describe us as "terrorists".

Travelling from the western half of Aleppo, which remains under the control of Syrian regime forces, to the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey, means going through over 40 checkpoints in three different governorates; Aleppo, Hama and Idlib. This means being interrogated and searched by armed members of different groups, most notably the regime's forces, al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic Front and the Kurdish forces.

After 14 hours of travelling, I finally reached the city of Izaaz, which is close to the border with Turkey. I spent the next five hours in a field no more than a few hundred meters away from the trench that separates the two countries. Here, of course, I was not alone. There were over 150 people around me, mostly women and children. Like me, they were all waiting for the perfect moment to cross the border.

In time, the people-smuggler, who was working with al-Nusra Front, gave us the signal to run to the other side of the border. You have to run several kilometres over rugged terrain within ten minutes, otherwise you fall into the hands of the Turkish border guards who will hit you in the face with their truncheons before sending you back to Syrian territory.

In Turkey

I spent my first night in Turkey in Adana. For the first time in two and a half years I enjoyed a quiet night - there was no sign of violent clashes, no sound of the guns of hell.

My first mission in Turkey was to meet the people-smuggler who would get me to Europe and to come to an agreement with him over the details. Within a few hours, I fulfilled my part of the agreement by getting to a certain place close to Mersin. There, I found myself in the company of hundreds of other Syrians waiting for the zero hour.

I spent 17 days in Turkey. I heard dozens of stories of Syrians who had fled the hellish war and sold all their possessions in search of a better life for themselves and their families on the "Old Continent".

A tasty meal for the sharks

On my sixteenth day in Turkey, the people-smuggler sent me a message that the ship would leave in a matter of hours. I spent the next few hours contacting my family and close friends telling them the sharks in the Mediterranean Sea would be having a tasty meal over the next few days.

     For the first time in two and a half years I enjoyed a quiet night - there was no sign of violent clashes close by or of the guns of hell.

The smuggler's plan involved gathering at least 1,200 illegal immigrants at various points along the Turkish coast. They were then transported in groups using battered, old fishing boats to a large ship waiting at a certain location in international waters facing the Turkish coast.

I found myself a place along with 300 other people crammed together on the last fishing boat leaving the coast. After two hours, we reached the ship. It was large. But not large enough to carry 850 people.

There were 850 of us. We were crammed together in a small space in an inhumane and unethical manner. Six days of 850 people breathing, sleeping and eating in the same small space. Imagine the filth. What would your reaction be if I told you that there were dozens of elderly and disabled people, children and women, three of whom were pregnant, amongst us?

The promised land

Six days of exhaustion, filth and polluted air passed and we finally reached the Sicilian coast with some help from the Italian navy. It had pinpointed the location of our ship and pulled us into the one of the ports where the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières were waiting.

We were treated well by the Italian authorities. They gave us food and drink and provided medical assistance to those in need of it before taking us to refugee camps on the island.

The next morning I was on a train to Milan making my way to the Netherlands where I now live. I am awaiting a decision about my residency so I can start a new life, far away from that accursed war.

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