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'They push us like beasts': Syrians at mercy of Turkish border smugglers

Syrians fleeing Russian-backed offensive in the country's north pay up to $1,000 to illegally cross closed border to shelter
'They're shouting, 'Turkey! Who wants to go to Turkey?' said a Syrian who hired smugglers (AFP)

By Michel Moutot

KILIS, Turkey - After a harrowing 15-hour journey by minibus, dodging gunfire and explosions, a group of Syrian refugees reached a village near Turkey, desperate to cross the recently shut border into safety.

"The people smugglers are there and they're shouting 'Turkey! Who wants to go to Turkey?'" Fatima al-Ahmed recalled, after reaching the town of Kilis on the Turkish side of the frontier.

"They are mean, violent, and only think about money. They push us like beasts, hitting the women who don't walk fast enough, even when they are carrying babies.

"It's terrible, it's the law of the jungle."

The 27-year-old woman told AFP about her clandestine escape from Aleppo to Kilis in southern Turkey a week ago - a journey that in peacetime would have taken little more than 90 minutes.

Turkey's decision to close its border with Syria has become a boon for smugglers who are charging refugees to secretly cross over.

Like the traffickers who make thousands of dollars off each boat-load of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy or the Aegean to Greece, smugglers at the Turkish border take advantage of Syrians who refuse to wait in overcrowded tent camps for Ankara to possibly open up the crossing.

Fatima, sitting at a table outside a cafe in Kilis, said she crossed the border with her two-year-old son in her arms through an opening cut in the barbed wire fence.

She had decided to flee her home in the rebel-held neighbourhood of Sakhur in eastern Aleppo, when her husband was killed a month ago in the bombing while he was out looking for food.

'Too many people' 

The smugglers organised them "in groups of eight, with our neighbours," she said, speaking in a soft voice. 

"They helped me pay, I didn't have enough money. Before, everything was organised in Aleppo, we used smugglers we trusted.

"But now since the Russian bombing, there are too many people," she said referring to the Russian aerial bombing campaign launched in September last year in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Like others in Kilis, Fatima told of how the Syrian smugglers were in constant contact, by mobile phone and walkie-talkie, with the Turkish smugglers who would take charge of the refugees once they were over the border.

"They made us wait, sitting on the ground under some trees, until it was time - the time when the Turkish soldiers who they paid are on guard and look away while we pass," she said of the clandestine journey that cost around $330.

That sum was too high for the family of Ahmad, a scrawny 14-year-old, who looks even younger than his age. 

He was among the last to survive in the ruins of Marjeh, his battered Aleppo neighbourhood. When a barrel bomb dropped from a helicopter killed two of his brothers and wounded their father, the family piled into a truck and took off for the border.

'We were lucky'

"We couldn't pay the smugglers, so we hid. We crawled up to the barbed wire fence and slipped underneath it," said the teenager with a mischievous look, who has never been to school.

"We were lucky, the Turkish police found us but since we were with a lot of children, they didn't send us back. They even called for a bus."

At Kilis, the flow of refugees has begun to slow down, a sign that the closing orders given to the Turkish guards are being adhered to more.

The price of the secret passage has risen to as high as $1,000.

And no matter the price, a planned escape sometimes just doesn't work.

Yazan Ahmad, 35, has been waiting for his parents who fled the Syrian town of Tal Rifaat, which was seized last week by Kurdish militia. 

"They are in a camp just on the other side," he said. "Last night, my brother paid some smugglers to try to get them out... But they failed. The Turks fired over their heads."

Meanwhile those who are stuck in Aleppo live as prisoners of Syria's five-year civil war.

"My neighbour in Aleppo, she's alone with five children, and she's desperate," Fatima said. "I spoke to her yesterday. She was crying. She doesn't know what will happen next."

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