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Fleeing Assad’s Troops

I went to Syria to photograph the rebellion. But when the army took aim at the village where I was staying, I escaped to Turkey with 100 refugees.

Jonathan Alpeyrie
April 16, 2012

Since the uprising in Syria began more than a year ago, at least 20,000 Syrians have fled the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad to find some safety in refugee camps on the Turkish border or in Lebanese cities like Tripoli. The Syrian government makes fleeing a life-threatening proposition: Troops have been mining the Turkish and Lebanese borders; snipers have been deployed, especially near Lebanon; and artillery missions are attacking cars carrying “suspicious” groups of people.

My colleague and I entered Syria through the Turkish border on March 15, on the one-year anniversary of the rebellion. We could hear gun battles in the surrounding hills and hid often to evade Syrian troops. After a full night of hard walking in darkness through numerous Syrian positions, we finally entered a small enclave still held by rebels in Idlib province.

After covering the war for seven days with the Free Syrian Army, we had to make a decision: stay with the rebels in the mountains north of the city of Idlib or flee the area, as the Syrian Army troops were reinforcing their forward positions with tanks—a sign of imminent assault. We decided we had to make our way back to Turkey and asked the rebels to get us out of there. They agreed and told us to be ready on March 22.

(Less than 10 hours later, the Syrian army retook the enclave. It was an easy fight that left the rebels scattered and villages like Al Shatouria, where we were hiding, undefended. If we had stayed a few hours longer, we would have been killed or taken as prisoners—not much better, considering that the Assad regime allows the killing of Western journalists.)

In the early evening, 100 or so Syrian civilians, their children, my colleague, and I gathered with a small party of Free Syrian Army rebels on the side of a muddy road near Al Shatouria. We heard gunfire and artillery fire in the distance. The rebels gave us the order, and our group walked northward for five hours in silence. During that period, we were still inside the enclave, surrounded by Syrian troops, and thus still in the danger zone since the army will do everything in its power to stop the flow of civilians into Turkey.

But we were lucky. Heavily burdened with luggage and many children, the group moved slowly but quietly. We traveled close to Syrian positions known to have snipers. After a few more hours, a white truck with no lights arrived to pick us up and get us to safety more quickly.

We kept our heads down inside the open-top truck. Soon, the Turkish border was only a few miles away. The rebels asked everyone to get out of the truck and walk quickly into the nearby wooded hills, as we heard more shooting. Fathers and mothers rushed into the woods carrying the smallest children. Teenagers walked next to armed rebels.

More rebels joined the group—now there were about 50—to help with the protection. Armed with AK-47s, AK-74s, and one RPG, they led us through muddy terrain in darkness. The women found it hard to continue, so some rebels carried the youngest children or helped with the bags. A few hours later, at about 1 a.m., a few hundred yards from the Turkish border, they put together a makeshift camp with a fire to warm up the children, now scared and tired.

An hour later, my colleague and I were told to follow three men, including an armed rebel, to the Turkish border. Soon the rebels would take the refugees to the border, where they would be picked up by the Turkish army and processed before being allowed into the various camps—their new homes, for who knows how long.


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Jonathan Alpeyrie is a staff photographer for Polaris images. He is currently at work on a photography book about World War II.

Jonathan Alpeyrie is a staff photographer for Polaris images. He is currently at work on a photography book about World War II.