Kassab is a small town around 60km north of Latakia, near the Syrian coast, situated on some stunning hillsides with mountains rolling into the distance. It sits just south of the Turkish border which used to be a lot further away until, in 1939, the land was ceded to Turkey by the French to encourage neutrality in WWII. Some Syrians still consider this land to be occupied territories, and maps we obtain in Syria still mark this border as “temporary”.
Quite how close Kassab is to the border we did not realise until, whilst out hiking, we stumbled upon some razor-wire. “This must be the border, then” we thought.
Just as we turned to head back down into the scrub, a Turkish army jeep appeared fifty metres away, and signalled for us to stop. The guns the soldiers had hanging across their army fatigues suggested that fleeing was not a good idea.
They did not speak English, and we spoke no Turkish, but we got the gist of what are you doing here?
“Passports. Hotel. Kassab.” came our reply. They did not seem content with this. Pushing the barrel of his rifle through the razor-wire and indicating that we lift, we found ourselves being brought under the border fence into Turkey, by the Turkish army.
This did not seem like a good thing.
We were bundled into the back of their jeep and driven to the nearest outpost, where upon climbing out, I was faced with a bunch of privates, lay on the ground, attaching bayonets to their rifles.
An officer who spoke a little English asked us what we were doing in Turkey. “We were happily hiking in Syria when your soldiers brought us under the fence” we tried to explain, as the offending soldier looked increasingly uneasy about his choice of actions, compounded by the lack of incriminating evidence the inspection of our cameras brought. But now we were in Turkey, without passports, having crossed the border illegally.
This was not a good thing.
I thought we were being taken to the Syrian border post as we were driven off again. The canvas roof of the jeep framed the orange sky as the sun was setting over the mountains we had intended to hike, but the armed soldiers who provided the foreground added a sour edge to the image. This would make a fantastic photo I thought to myself, but pulling out my camera at this point would have inexorably exacerbated our situation.
Driving down the dirt track, the leaf-springs in the 4x4 providing little protection against the ruts which shook through the wooden bench, the cold of the coming night began to set-in. Faces occasionally glimpsed in as we passed through checkpoints, and upon learning that an English and a French tourist had “wandered into Turkey without passports”, betrayed a smile of disbelief. Here, they are used to catching Somali & Ethiopian immigrants, we would later learn.
We arrived not at the border, but at another army base, where the major who seemingly ran the place spoke fairly good English. He was very pleasant as he served us çay, offered us food & cigarettes; yet he said that unfortunately, now that the paper-trail had begun, there was not an easy way out of the bureaucratic process. We would be transferred to the military police — the Jandarma - before our consulate would be informed, we would make a statement to a tribunal, and then most-likely be repatriated back to our respective countries. If we were lucky, we could go back to Syria, but the process could take a couple of weeks.
My heart sank. Until this point, I had been fairly optimistic that things would work out okay, and we’d soon be back in our hotel the other side of the border. Now, with the prospect of being sent back to the UK, with my passport and some affairs in Kassab, and my backpack in Latakia, I wondered how we had ended up in this situation.
“If it had been me that had caught you, I’d have sent you back”, the major said, slightly amused. The soldier who brought us over was now looking very abashed of his actions. “But this is not possible now.”
We were eventually taken by the Jandarma to a doctor for a medical check. This involved no more than being asked if we had any medical problems (they didn’t fear swine flu from us), before being driven off to an office where reports were written, and subsequently taken off to yet another base, where we would spend the night.
The plot to Midnight Express was forming in my head, but in truth, we were very well treated. The officer who was now in charge of us realised that we were not their typical case of illegal immigrants, and as we sat in his office, surrounded by soldiers in disbelief of our situation, he seemed more preoccupied with our perception of the Turkish army than any wrong-doing. “Turkish soldiers, very good?”, he smiled. “Yes!” we replied; “except the bastard who brought us over”, I thought.
We spent the night in the barracks, talking to the soldiers, many of whom were performing their national service (and were not keen on the army life, having had to put on hold their life after graduating from university, or beginning a job). By the time we got to bed, it was after 1am, and breakfast would be at six. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t sleep well as the possibility of spending a week under Turkish guard before being flown back to England, turned in my head.
Come morning, following another examination by the doctor (“did the soldiers beat you?” he asked, as a soldier stood next to us) we were taken to the tribunal where we gave statements to a lawyer. This was done through a very incompetent translator who, aside from cutting us off mid-sentence & generally not listening, did not seem to want to accept our story that we were brought over to Turkey by the soldiers. “Yes, but why do you want to come to Turkey” he incessantly asked; my replies of “but I didn’t want to come here - the soldiers brought me here” were dismissed, and followed by a repeat of the initial question.
There was no indication that the consulate had been called, for which I was glad. Had our diplomats become involved, the whole process would become even slower, as things would have to be related back to the British authorities.
We eventually signed some documents in Turkish, ignorant of what was written, and were transferred to the civil police, who eyed us very differently from their military counterparts. Since the previous night, every time we were transferred from one officer to another, and particularly from one authority to another, I felt we were losing our credibility, getting further and further from the truth of our story. This was confirmed when after having searched us thoroughly, and itemising our possessions, a policeman opened up the cells, telling us to take a bed with the group of inmates who had been eyeing us from the barred window since we arrived. The door was slammed shut, the click of the padlock sounding through the room which hung heavy with the smell of stale sweat.
It promptly reopened and we were ordered upstairs. I’m not sure if there had been some misunderstanding between the officers, or whether the Jandarma soldiers who were still standing by their vehicle had intervened, but we were soon telling our story again to plain-clothes policeman.
Within a couple of minutes, he was yelling into his mobile phone; he was not amused. The only words we could distinguish were the “Come here, come here” which were repeated from our story of the soldier bringing us into Turkey. Presumably, he was irate that the army had caused him all this grief.
A few minutes later, I was reunited with my bag and in a car on the way to the Syrian border. No week-long stay in Turkey, no calls to the consulate, no repatriation; things were looking up.
Armed with our driving licenses & the business card of the Syrian hotel, our escorts walked over to the Syrian border post whilst we waited on the Turkish side, as queues of people waited to get their passports stamped. The Turkish police did not have jurisdiction to enter Syria to regain our documents, and so a diplomatic effort was required to recuperate them from the hotel.
An hour or so later, we walked into the Syrian immigration post and were ushered into a room where sat two Syrians in suits with the entourage of Turks. The room was thick with cigarette smoke, the smell of cardamom pervaded the air from the cups of coffee laying beside the plush settee and armchairs, and a portrait of President Bashar Assad hung over the ornate desk. Our Syrian hosts asked us to tell our story, the “Come here, come here” of the Turkish soldiers causing everyone to laugh ruefully. We were asked what we were planning to do in Syria, and once the Turks had left the office, the Syrians smiled, and said “Ahlan wa sahlan; welcome to Syria”.
We returned their smiles, and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Whilst several formalities were underway, we were offered the delicious Syrian coffee and told that we were free to carry on our trip. When asked what we thought of Syria so far, we were keen to stress the point that the people were very friendly.
Twenty six hours after our ordeal begin, we crossed the border — Kassab being the frontier town — confusing the guards with our entry stamp dated a week previously, from a different crossing point. We walked back to our hotel, six kilometres away. Had we realised when we began our hike that Turkey was this close, we would have chosen another direction. The lights of the town shimmered on the hills as we spoke in disbelief of everything that had just happened.
On arriving back to the hotel we were greeted with looks of intrigue after the recent visit by the police who came for our passports. We recounted our story over cups of shai, much to the amusement of the hotel owner and his ageing friends who sat around him. Two elderly ladies sat on the other side of the room, occasionally muttering between themselves. We promised them that we would not go near the border again, and vowed the same thing ourselves.
This is the only photo I dared take during it all, sat in the army barracks where we spent the night. It took a few days to admit to Tony that I had shot it…