Editor’s Note: Editor’s note: Kurt Pelda is a freelance journalist who has spent the past 30 years reporting from war zones around the world, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Follow him on Twitter @KurtPelda. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Once open border is now closed and incredibly dangerous
Journalists risk being kidnapped by Islamist militants
Kurt Pelda: Airstrikes, including cluster bombs, now normal for many Syrians
Getting into Syria is not easy. Journalists used to be able to show their passport to the Turkish customs official at the Syrian border and cross officially, with little trouble. Not anymore.
The two Turkish border posts in the region of Aleppo have been closed to human traffic – in both directions – for more six months. Only goods are allowed to cross nowadays, to supply civilians, rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad and Kurdish militias as well as the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, and ISIS.
So what are the options for journalists who still want to take the risk of getting into rebel-controlled parts of Syria? Human traffickers.
They don’t only bring refugees on their way to Europe out of Syria and into Turkey, the first step on their journey through Greece and the Balkans to Germany; they also help Syrians who want to visit their relatives back in their home country as well as people like me.
The border is well controlled by the Turkish army; there are fences, trenches, armored personnel carriers on patrol, watch towers, tank positions and even minefields.
The traffickers wait under a cluster of pistachio trees, just a few hundred meters from the border.
Their colleagues on the Syrian side watch the Turkish border guards through binoculars. Once they are sure that the soldiers are busy elsewhere, we get the go-ahead to sneak through the grove, heading for a fence with holes in it. Behind it is a dirt track and a deep trench. We help each other to cross the ditch and run across an open field, hoping that the soldiers at our back will not see us.
On the other side of the field is an olive grove packed with tents full of refugees. It is an informal camp; those living here are not receiving any visible help from the U.N. or Western aid agencies. Their tents were donated by Saudi Arabia.
To reach the front line, south of Aleppo, we travel through areas controlled by rebel groups fighting ISIS, the Nusra Front and the Assad regime, in a pick-up truck with tinted windows, hoping that those manning the Nusra Front checkpoints will not detect the presence of a Western journalist on board.
Rebels in the area suspect that the Nusra Front is holding three Spanish journalists who were kidnapped here in June. They speak of criminal networks among the various rebel groups who are, they say, looking for Westerners to sell as hostages to ISIS or the Nusra Front.
The area is packed with refugees; driving along the highway to Aleppo, we pass trucks and pick-ups full of civilians, mattresses, furniture and cooking pots, heading north, towards the Turkish border region.
According to the U.N., more than 120,000 Syrians have been displaced in recent weeks in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama. These are the areas where the regime has started its offensives against the rebels and the Nusra Front, supported by Russian air raids.
In Hreitan, a little to the north of Aleppo, the White Helmets, a civilian defense force, showed us what they said were the remnants of Russian cluster bombs.