ISTANBUL - Five years ago, in an apartment near Turkey’s border with Syria, I met a man named Mustafa, a former Syrian rebel-turned-activist who introduced journalists to refugees and other victims of the war.
This time, he said, he was not sure he wanted to help.
“I’ve been working with journalists for three years now,” he explained. “I thought if the world knew the suffering here, things would get better.”
I knew how he felt. I once thought so too. “But it has done nothing,” he added. “Every year, the war gets worse and worse.”
He was right. As journalists, we weren’t saving Syria. And if we were just witnessing the suffering with no results, what were we really doing?
But now, as international borders close and millions of people, including myself, are mostly staying home to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it has become clearer to me what we were doing then.
More frighteningly, it has become clear to me what we are not doing now.
For people fleeing wars, disasters and crushing poverty, life is already getting even harder. Besides the threat of the coronavirus in places with decimated health care systems, available aid for ongoing crises is dwindling. Humanitarian and government workers normally on the front lines, caring for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, cannot help if they cannot leave their homes.
And even we, the witnesses, are going away.
Virus in a time of crisis
When the first cases of the coronavirus were diagnosed in the Middle East, the response seemed almost comical where I was.
Workers wore jumpsuits and masks on Syria’s border with Iraq, taking everyone’s temperature. The crises in Syria had reached fever pitch, and the coronavirus seemed silly to worry about when compared to the catastrophes surrounding us.
Bombs had rained down on Idlib for three months and nearly a million people had fled their homes, many for the fourth, fifth or sixth time. The exodus was unprecedented and available humanitarian support did not even come close to meeting the basic needs of the people.
Traumatized families squatting in a crumbling complex once occupied by Islamic State militants in Raqqa told me that, for them, this time was the last time.
No matter how bad life was as a refugee, going home was no longer an option.
“The dead are the lucky ones,” said Ahmed Hashem, a 60-year-old Syrian man living in the complex with his children. “They didn’t have to see this.”
A few days later, on Feb. 27, we got on a small bus to cross the border from Syria into Iraq. After driving over a floating bridge across the Tigris River, we stopped by a shack on the side of the road. A man in a surgical mask and white protective gear scanned our foreheads. I snapped a picture with my colleague Halan’s phone and hopped back on the bus, eager to meet our friend waiting on the Iraqi side.
Later that night in Erbil, Halan got a text message from authorities about the border we had just crossed, the main entry point into northeastern Syria for humanitarian organizations and journalists.
It “will be completely closed until further notice as a precautionary measure to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus,” the message said.
A week later in Istanbul, I spoke to another colleague on Facebook. He was working in Syria near the Turkish border, meeting families from Idlib whose circumstances redefined the level of suffering a people are known to be able to bear.
“It looks like you went back 1,000 years,” he messaged. It was still winter and families were camping in caves and under trees. Clean water and food were scarce. Sanitation and medicine nearly non-existent. Children had frozen to death.
We agreed that I would try join him as soon as possible on Turkey's southern border and we would cross back into Syria together. First, I would go to Turkey’s border with Greece, where at least 10,000 desperate refugees were living in a squalid camp, after being told they would be able to cross into Europe. But the Greek side never opened the border.
By the time we found some of the families trying to get to Greece, the coronavirus had been declared a pandemic. During what was usually rush hour, central Istanbul appeared quiet and sleepy, as if it were 4 a.m. Gyms were ordered closed and more and more restaurants were serving only take-out.
“People are buying a lot but they don’t seem too panicked,” a cashier at a large grocery store told us when we reached Edirne, a small city near the border with Greece. “Everyone buys the same things. For example, pasta. You can’t find a single piece of pasta in this store.”
The pharmacy down the road had a bottle of hand sanitizer on a table outside, and a sign that read, “We don’t have any more masks.”
We drove toward the border but were stopped a few kilometers away from the camp. Police told us journalists were now forbidden to enter without permission from the governor. At the governor’s office, media officials said their hands were tied and no permissions had been granted recently.
But frankly, in the past week, they added, no other journalists had asked.
If we couldn’t fully cover this crisis, I wondered if we could re-route to the south and head back into Syria. My colleague texted the man who arranges permissions for journalists to cross from Turkey. That border, like so many others around the world, was also now closed.
The suffering would continue in both places, but no outsiders would be there to see it.
If everyone must be home, who can help?
The next day, while looking for smaller makeshift border camps, we met dozens of refugees in a gas station. They had been living there for a week.
For them the virus was a dual threat. First, they said that for sure if one person in their group was infected, everyone else would soon be. But they didn’t have enough food and water and their children were sleeping in carports. Getting care for coronavirus seemed highly unlikely.
About an hour after we left, Mohammad, a refugee from Syria, texted us a video of commotion at the gas station. Turkish security forces had arrived, he messaged, ordering people to get onto a bus to Istanbul. Most of the people complied.
The next day at the Istanbul bus station, dozens of refugees were still there and hundreds, maybe thousands were still expected -- homeless, heartbroken and out of money. Many are sick and there are no doctors to diagnose or treat them.
My colleague called some U.N. workers to make sure they knew what was going on. They said they were ordered to stay at home and couldn’t do anything. The bus station manager said his workforce had nearly ground to a halt, and there was nothing he could do.
Two or three volunteers brought food and helped a few people buy bus tickets to cities where they might have family or friends. They were cavalier about their potential exposure to the virus.
“I’m 61,” one of the men told me. “I’m already old, so it’s fine for me.”
I left the bus station last week and haven’t been back. There is no blanket order to stay home here in Turkey, but it is strongly advised and most people are doing it.
We can still report from our homes, with phones and the internet, but not fully in the world’s toughest places where electricity, internet and phone service are often scarce. For example, aid organizations say an outbreak in Syria could turn out to be the worst in the world. But if that happens in Idlib, where refugees are already barely staying alive, who will be there to help?
And what other disasters may the world not see, while journalists are not there to witness them?