Reyhanli, Turkey – The grip of his brother’s hand, ragged breaths, muffled cries and thudding feet were all Mohammad Aboud had to lead him. He and his family ran across kilometres of no man’s land on the Syrian-Turkish border, in the bitter December cold, just before dawn.
Aboud, who is blind, told of the journey his family had taken on a smuggling route only days before, to escape the escalating air strikes in Syria. “My brother held my hand and we ran,” he said. “We all ran, crossing two or three kilometres, running between the olive groves and the mountain.”
Relentless air strikes in the past few months, many of them carried out by Russia, have forced thousands of families like Aboud’s to the Syrian-Turkish border, where makeshift shelters have also become targets.
Since last March, the border has been closed, with only humanitarian workers, authorised traders and Syrians in need of specific medical treatment allowed to cross.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking to the UN Human Rights Council, called for the border to be sealed completely, to stop the provision of supplies to opposition groups and “terrorists”. In December, the US-led coalition was reported to have delivered weapons across the Turkish border to the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Last week, Jan Eliasson, the deputy secretary-general of the UN, said he was in discussions with Turkish officials about opening the border to those fleeing Aleppo. Syria’s largest city has been under siege by pro-Assad forces, driving as many as 100,000 desperate people to the Turkish border.
More than 2.6 million Syrian refugees are registered in Turkey, and the country’s officials say it has reached breaking point. The European Union has declared that Turkey has a moral and legal duty to open the border to those fleeing the latest attacks, but at the same time it is implementing a €3bn ($3.3bn) deal requiring Turkey to clamp down on its European borders to prevent illegal migration.
Gerry Simpson, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the EU’s call for Turkey to open its border rings hollow, given that Europe has accepted a small number of refugees compared with its population.
“Not only Turkey, but many other countries, including the European Union, are making that final hurdle for people so tough,” he said. “If the EU wants Turkey to police its border more effectively, then it has to put in place concrete measures, such as committing to resettling hundreds of thousands of Syrians.”
The Aboud family crossed the border days after the EU-Turkey deal was reached last November with a goal to keep refugees like them from reaching Europe’s shores.
Mohammad’s mother Maida, 55, had never left her village before air strikes forced them to flee their home near the town of al-Ziyarah, close to Hama.
If the EU wants Turkey to police its border more effectively, then it has to put in place concrete measures, such as committing to resettling hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
“I was born there in my village. It’s home,” she said. For a few years after the war began, life in the village carried on almost as normal. They raised sheep and chickens, and grew cotton. Then the Assad regime moved in to retake the area, and the air strikes came closer and closer. “The village is empty now.”
Last month, the Kremlin-backed news agency Sputnik reported that the Syrian Air Force had attacked a number of rebel-held areas, including Maida’s home of al-Ziyarah, where “militant positions in the town […] were razed”.
Maida cradled the youngest of her six grandchildren in one arm. Her other arm was roughly bandaged: She broke it in two places when she tripped on the rocky ground as they crossed.
“I tried to run,” she said. “I was afraid of the Turkish soldiers and I fell down.”
They waited all night in the biting cold for a chance to cross. Families and women tend to cross at night, because they move more slowly than single men. An old man and his wife who crossed with them disappeared along the way. “I can’t stop; I have to keep going,” Maida told herself over and over as they ran.
In a small village near Antakya, a steady stream of people cross daily from Syria, under the shadow of a military barracks. This route is known by the name of the village on the Syrian side, Khirbet al-Joz, the hill of walnut trees. Across the border from quiet Turkish villages, the sloping landscape is dotted with white tents where the displaced Syrian families stay, waiting for the chance to cross.
Human Rights Watch has reported that closures along the border are forcing families to cross illegally through smuggling routes. When the Abouds crossed, they paid a smuggler $100 a person. Now, with the air strikes and the demand to cross the border increasing in tandem, the journey is becoming more costly and dangerous.
One Turkish taxi driver makes five to seven trips a day, ferrying exhausted families who arrive in the small village to the nearest city, Antakya. “Many times they will be injured or hurt,” said the taxi driver, who requested that his name not be used. “Two weeks ago, I took someone who was shot by the army while crossing. He was 25 years old and had come with his family. He was shot in the head and he died.”
He drove them to the hospital, but said the family was sent back to Syria the next day.
Those with enough money try to reach Europe, boarding large buses that make the 15-hour journey to Izmir, where smugglers arrange for the sometimes fatal journey across the sea.
The Abouds instead waited for a minivan to take them to Reyhanli, a Turkish city near the Cilvegozu/Bab al-Hawa border gate with Syria, where rents are cheaper and more people speak Arabic.
This is now the only Turkish border crossing still open to humanitarian convoys, according to GOAL, an NGO supporting more than one million people in northern Syria.
“Right now it’s very difficult,” said Ayham Bik Daghestani, a Syrian working with an international organisation in Antakya who knows the smuggling routes, though he crosses legally. “They spend five or six hours walking between the mountains, and the price, it’s now between $200 and $300 per person.”
His cousin and his wife crossed on Monday, together paying $500 to the smuggler. They walked five hours to cross, passing near Khirbet al-Joz to a village on the Turkish side.
The Aboud family reached the other side of the border at dawn, scraped and bruised, and made their way first to Antakya, then to Reyhanli. Maida did not receive any medical attention for her broken arm for two days.
Seven-year-old Ghoufran, with pigtails and a pink jacket, leaned against her grandmother. “I was scared,” she said of the journey across the border. The adults took turns trying to carry her.
On her phone, Maida flicked through photos of what remains of her house, now a shell of collapsed walls and rubble. She thanked God no one was inside when it was hit. “There were air strikes every day,” said Maida. “In my home there is no Daesh [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], but the air strikes still hit.”
Mohammad’s brother Ahmed, a 35-year-old with dark grey hair, said they had to flee in order to survive. “We could not stay. We don’t have a home any more. The air strikes were there always; my children could not sleep with the noise.”
They fled first to Salma, a village in Syria’s Latakia province, where they stayed in an old military camp. “Then jets came and launched strikes on Salma too.”
At the end of last year, air strikes on Salma increased as the Syrian regime launched an offensive to retake the town, forcing the Abouds to flee again.
After paying the smuggler, the family used what little was left on one month’s rent. They cannot afford it for long. “We left everything in the village,” explained Maida. “When the money runs out, then we will have to look for some kind of camp.”
They have no hope of going to Europe, a dangerous journey that costs thousands of dollars. If the air strikes stop, Maida said her family will return to Syria.
“I’m hoping everything will be better in my home so I can go back,” said Maida. “We hope that, but we don’t know.”