I've been here before. Almost three years ago, I was crammed in the back of a shared taxi, making the journey between Kilis, the Turkish border town, and Aleppo. "Güle gale Turkish, goodbye English" said one of the three Turks with whom I shared the taxi. The taxi driver used each of our passports to buy duty-free goods; this black-market probably subsidising the cab-fare.
Smuggling of a very different kind has been going on along this border recently. Human traffic, as Syrians escape their country and foreign correspondents sneak in, as well as weapons to fuel the rebellion.
But for now, the border is open. We don't need to pay a passeur. The Turkish guards at the first post check our passport, they stamp it at the second post, and wave us off at the first. "Be careful" they say. We can hear gunshots, but no-one seems fazed.
There were no shared taxis tonight. It was a long slog across no-mans land, the stretch of road between the last Turkish post and the first Syrian one. Or "Free Syrian". We didn't know what we would find there, walking the corridor of wire fences and barbed wire. Each side warned of the mine-field that lay beyond the wire. At least we didn't have to smuggle ourselves across the border, over those mines.
The sun has just set, it's dark now. In my left hand I have a crate containing nine litres of water. Over my right arm is draped a flak jacket and helmet. A camera on each shoulder, and a small bag containing a change of clothes, a laptop and chargers is on my back. The rest of my gear—stuff I packed in Nairobi that suddenly became superfluous as I left that hotel in southern Turkey—remains in a room. The hotel owner didn't really understand us, but we paid for the room for several nights, and said we'd be back in a few days.
Distress flares light up the sky in the distance, and then the rolling boom of artillery rounds. Last time I crossed this border, Arabic music was blaring in the tinny speakers of the taxi. Habibi, habibi. Not this time.
Abu Yousef sits in front of the "new" Syrian flag. The overspray from the maksift red stars spills out onto the central white band. The bureaucracy that marked so much of my previous trip here, as a traveler studying Arabic in Damascus, is coming back. He notes down our details into an Excel spreadsheet, but does not stamp our passports. Out of Turkey and into nowhere.
A car takes us from the border to the town where we will stay, a winding drive with no headlights through villages and fields and off the main roads. Evidence of the war is visible in the dark. "Sahafeen" we say at the checkpoints. "Journalists."