Waiting for the gate to open
Bab-al Salama frontier post, Syria, February 9, 2016 -- These people, they know how to run. They’ve been running for the past five years and now it’s time to run again. So they’ve picked up and they’ve run. And now they’re just waiting for the gate to open.
It’s just crazy that this is still happening. Five years and it’s still happening. Five years that you have this war in Syria. And today you again have thousands of people massed on the border with Turkey.
This time, they’re fleeing the government and Russian offensive on Aleppo. Tens of thousands of people have come to the border with Turkey here and for now they’re massing near the official crossing, that gate out of their war-torn country.
Turkey, which already has some 2.5 million Syrian refugees on its soil, hasn’t yet opened the gate. Aid agencies have handed out tents and supplies and for the moment, all these people are just patiently waiting for the gate to open. But all that could all change in a moment.
I’ve been photographing this war for five years and right now it’s one of the critical points in this conflict. One of the critical points before came when the opposition took over the main road between Turkey and Aleppo.
And now the regime and the Russian forces are trying to take this road back. This is important, because it’s the main road to the people still inside Aleppo. If the regime retakes it, you will have a huge exodus of people pouring out and coming here, to the gate. Hundreds of thousands will come. The opposition fighters, their families.
And if they come and if Turkey still won’t open the gate, they’ll just spread out along the border fence and push through, like they did before.
I was here in June, when you had Kurdish forces battling Islamic State jihadists for control of Tal Abyad village. As the fighting raged, all of the sudden thousands of people appeared from behind a hill and swarmed toward the border fence and pushed through it. It all happened within a matter of minutes.
That’s exactly what will happen if more people arrive here and Turkey doesn’t open the gate. They’ll just push through.
To be sure, there is a difference between now and last June. Last June, the people were literally running from a war that was raging a kilometer behind them.
Today, they’re fleeing fighting that for the moment a way’s away. The balance of power is changing and they have to run again.
But if thousands more come and if they don’t open the gate, they’ll go to the fence. And if thousands of them go to the fence, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t shoot them as they’re trying to climb over it. Turkey will have no choice but to open the gate.
I guess you can say that for the moment, the refugees gathering here don’t have the same type of urgency. Or rather, there is urgency, but there isn’t the same edge. They all asked me “When are they going to open the gate? When are they going to open the gate?”
Gone is the laughter
It’s super crowded on the Syrian side across the border right now. Just super crowded. People are coming on motorcycles, in cars, on foot.
These people who are gathering there today -- they’re exhausted, they’re desperate, they’re sad. They are really sad. Whenever I took pictures of refugees on the border before, there were always some who were joking and smiling. Not this time. This time they’re all just really, really sad.
The only ones who smile are the children.
There are children everywhere. Every family has two to three children. The whole place is full of children.
It’s heartbreaking to see kids in these conditions.
And you can’t imagine the conditions these people are living in right now. It’s crowded. The smell is something between a toilet and a garbage dump. One day when I was there it rained and the whole place turned into a giant mud puddle. The conditions are just really, really hard. I’m sure many people are sick. It’s just unhealthy.
Another wave to Europe
If you do have this big change and the regime and the Russians take over the road, and these people push through to Turkey, my guess is that they’ll continue to Europe. Because they could have come to Turkey over the past five years and they didn’t.
So my guess is that they’ll push through. In which case we’ll have another huge refugee movement in the spring and summer. Turkey is under pressure not to let the refugees continue on to Europe, but it won’t be able to stop them. They’ll be another wave.
This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.
CHILDREN OF THE CROSSING
There are children everywhere here. Just everywhere. The place is full of kids.