News / Middle East

    From Warplanes to Jihadists, Syrians Face Death on All Sides

    People inspect the damage at a site hit with airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, Feb. 14, 2016.
    People inspect the damage at a site hit with airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, Feb. 14, 2016.

    For civilians in northern Syria, fleeing conflict can take you right back into conflict. Wherever you turn there is war.

    Escape from blistering Russian airstrikes, a ground offensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the north of the country and marauding Islamic State militants create ever more a death lottery with each passing hour - Mad Max: Fury Road but with warplanes added as well as cluster and vacuum bombs.

    And even when luck has accompanied your trek, and safety is within reach a few hundred meters away, there is the final peril of death at the hands of Turkish border guards.

    “At least with coalition airstrikes you know they are targeting actual Daesh positions and buildings, you stay away from them,” says 46-year-old Abu Ahmed, using an Arab acronym for Islamic State.

    Dangerous times for civilians

    A father of nine and grandfather of three from the town of Al-Bab, 46 kilometers northeast of the city of Aleppo, said life has become a game of chance for civilians in northern Syria.

    Al-Bab is controlled by Islamic State militants and has been targeted by both U.S.- led coalition warplanes and Russian jets. 

    Sitting in a park in the Turkish border town of Kilis, the stocky, mustachioed auto repairman shook his head at what war has reduced his hometown to and on what he had seen on the roads from Al-Bab to Turkey, 62 kilometers distance. He arrived in Turkey three days ago.  

    He decided to flee and to get his family out after his house was badly damaged in what he believes was a Russian airstrike. He says the destruction in Al-Bab is shocking with the town impacted by weeks-long barrages of missiles and bombs, artillery and rockets.

    Refugee: Russian airstrikes 'different'

    “The Russian airstrikes don’t discriminate,” he says. “They are not targeting Daesh - they are hitting everything and everyone.” Before the war, Al-Bab had a population of 65,000, but in recent months the population increased dramatically, swollen by displaced civilians, he says.

    Now he says he doubts there are more than 10,000 civilians left in the town.

    He and his family made separate escapes last week: seven family members with the help of people smugglers involving a long meandering route consisting in the first phase of a long slog through muddy fields to exit IS territory; and he, more directly by car. They had to do it that way. He could talk his way past IS guards because of his car repair business, but the others would have been stopped trying to flee Al-Bab.

    FILE - This image made from video of drone footage allegedly showing Syrian army airstrikes targeting Zahran Allouch, the head of the Army of Islam group near Damascus, Syria, Dec. 25, 2015.
    FILE - This image made from video of drone footage allegedly showing Syrian army airstrikes targeting Zahran Allouch, the head of the Army of Islam group near Damascus, Syria, Dec. 25, 2015.

    Perilous trip out of Syria

    “There is terrible havoc on the roads,” he says. “There are hundreds of people, many women and children, walking in the fields carrying small bundles, occasionally a suitcase,” he says. “It has been raining, so after a few steps they get bogged down, their feet caked in mud,” he adds.

    The roads of the northern Aleppo countryside already rutted and hazardous before the latest Assad offensive are now even more challenging with huge craters forcing cars to go off the road and risk getting stuck in mud. Abu Ahmed was fortunate, moving forward gingerly and stopping frequently to avoid being targeted by warplanes passing overhead; he made the border crossing at Bab al-Salameh.

    A trader friend persuaded Turkish guards to let him through.

    His family had a much rougher time of it.

    He paid smugglers $1,050 to guide seven family members out of IS territory; first by car from Al-Bab to a nearby village and then skirting checkpoints in a four-hour trudge through bog-like fields with frequent stomach-churning halts to avoid IS patrols mainly of Tunisian and Turkish jihadists. 

    In the distance they could see flashes and the glow of fires; they heard explosions. They prayed warplanes wouldn’t come near. Eventually they made a rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoint on the outskirts of Ihras near the border town of Azaz where the fighters gave the children milk and shared the little food they had, and then hurried them along, saying, “Warplanes could come any second.”

    With little chance to navigate illegally the locked-down Turkish border near Bab al-Salameh, a few kilometers away, the family then traveled by car across a swathe of Aleppo countryside, risking airstrikes, to neighboring Idlib province, and then the town of Jisr al-Shughur. The smugglers charged another $700 for that part of the journey and eventually guided them illegally through the border near Bab al-Hawa - another long, frightening trudge through difficult terrain and the fear of watchtower spotlights illuminating them.

    Syrian children wait to return to their country at the Turkish border crossing with Syria in the outskirts of Kilis, southeastern Turkey, Feb. 11, 2016.
    Syrian children wait to return to their country at the Turkish border crossing with Syria in the outskirts of Kilis, southeastern Turkey, Feb. 11, 2016.

    Bomb-dodging journey

    For Mohammed, a student from the IS-controlled town of Manbij, 90 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, the journey to Turkey nearly ended in disaster several times.

    He left Manbij with 250 people split into four groups at the dead of night. Each person paid the smugglers $200 to escape jihadist-held territory, first by cars to a nearby village and then a seven-hour hike through olive groves and fields.

    “It was cold, very cold,” Mohammed told me sitting in a cramped one-room apartment in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep he has shared since he arrived in Turkey four days ago. “We skirted villages and isolated houses. The smugglers sent lookouts ahead to scout. It was hard keeping the small kids quiet. We crept forwards slowly, carefully,” he recalls. “We could hear the warplanes flying overhead,” he adds.

    “We were about 30 meters away from a farm building, which got hit by two missiles. Two of our group were killed,” he says. The smugglers scattered the refugees and as the building burned silhouetting the refugees, they gathered up the kids and rushed them into the fields. From 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., they hid fearing FSA fighters would start shooting at them, thinking they were jihadists or regime militiamen closing for an attack.

    Later, they too, once in FSA-controlled territory, navigated fitfully across the battlefields of northern Syria in well spread-out groups of cars and mini-vans. They dodged skirmishes and avoided advancing regime forces. And they saw wreck and ruin as they traveled - with villages razed, burning buildings sending billowing acrid, black clouds into the sky. And they saw hundreds of mainly women and children picking their way through fields heading as best they could away from the clash of arms.

    Then, still in the Aleppo countryside close to Idlib, the warplanes came, hitting a stalled car behind the mini-van Mohammed was in and killing the occupants. That wasn’t their last encounter with airstrikes. That night, sleeping in a village, four of their number were killed in another raid that obliterated one of the houses in which they had sought sanctuary.

    “The next day they made it into Idlib province, where it was suddenly quiet,” says Mohammed, a lanky, dark-haired, dark-eyed 19-year-old. There he met a family from the Iraqi city of Mosul who had had made an epic 10-day journey to make it to Idlib. Near the border, they had to wait from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. before the border smugglers thought it was safe to try to make an illegal crossing into Turkey involving another seven-hour, ankle-twisting trudge through rocky and uneven ground.

    “The wires had been cut by the smugglers before,” he says. He carried a toddler on his shoulders for much of the slow-moving march. Each 20 or so steps, the smugglers would have them stop and crouch, hoping nearby Turkish guards wouldn’t spot them.

    And then they were in Turkey, exhausted. “I can’t describe how it felt to be safe,” says Mohammed, picking at his red T-shirt. He says: “We wanted Assad to go; but it seems it is the Syrians who are leaving - or trying to.”

    You May Like

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    City could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters

    Turkey Aims New Crackdown at Journalists, Academics, Airline Workers

    Ankara continues targeting people allegedly linked to exiled cleric, who it says led the failed military coup

    Pakistan Ready to Inaugurate Rebuilt Afghan Border Crossing

    Construction of Torkham Gate triggered deadly clashes between Pakistani and Afghan military forces

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Anonymous
    February 15, 2016 12:21 PM
    A guide on who is who in Syria: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: A Single Sunni refugee in London, biased against the Syrian Government.

    FSA, Nusra Front, Turkmen Brigades: b.s names, used by the western media to avoid using AQ, since all these groups are AQ. AQ in Syria is also called "moderate rebels", "opposition". The AQ (opposition) in the negotiations table, is misleadingly called High Negotiations Committee (HNC), where in fact it is a collection of AQ groups supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Kurds are not invited to negotiations, because Turkey opposed the Kurds presence in the negotiations. The Syrian Government, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and The Kurds: Fighting ISIS and AQ, not just ISIS, but ISIS and AQ (above-mentioned groups).

    Saudi Arabia and Turkey: support ISIS and AQ (the above-mentioned AQ groups and several more). The west, NATO and especially Britain and part of the US including presidential candidate Clinton: support Saudi Arabia and Turkey. AQ in Syria are mostly foreign Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Tunisians, Saudis and Turks, imported by Turkey via Turkey into Syria.

    by: Azaeal
    February 15, 2016 6:23 AM
    Yet when they get to Canada there are some that want to return to Syria because we didn't give them a free house and land fast enough. Go figure.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora