Since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) victory in the battle for Azaz in mid-2012, the strip of land next to the border with Turkey has become a hub of resistance. Refugees from all over the northern Syrian countryside have fled there to wait at the disused transit point to try to cross into Turkey, protected by the FSA base that sits underneath border crossing signs declaring “The Free Syrian Arab Republic” (it actually says Repablic, but we should probably let them have this one). The area is now known as “the anti-tank museum” because the stretch around it is littered with burnt-out tanks, sat on top of piles of rubble from the shelling of Azaz on the 15th August.
A friend and I booked ourselves into the Hotel Istanbul, which – contrary to what the name might suggest – is not actually located in the Turkish cultural capital at all, but in the one-horse town of Kilis, a short ride from the Syrian border. Turning the final corner in the taxi to reveal a hotel that is both down an alleyway and opposite a pile of rubble is normally a good sign that things aren't going to go well.
Funnily enough, my suspicions were confirmed almost immediately. The worst thing wasn't even the random street noise that sounded like someone murdering a kitten every single morning, or the face-full of air laced with lamb grease I got each time I stepped onto our balcony, but the crackpot residents who took staying in the place from “budget experience” to “I’m-living-in-a-thriller-film" level terror.
Because of its proximity to the border, the hotel has become a kind of watering hole for the underbelly of Syrian refugees gathering on the Turkish side. To be clear, that isn’t aimed at the groups of refugees – many of whom offered us help despite being complete strangers – who are packing themselves into the place ten to a room. No, this place is a Twilight Zone of semi-criminal waifs and strays, including a sizeable contingent of the Syrian mukhabarat (Syrian secret police), according to one particularly knowledgeable fixer.
Things took a turn for the bizarre from the first evening. I was enjoying a cigarette outside the hotel, when I got the chance to practice my substandard Arabic on Saeed, a teenager in a cut-off T-shirt. Talk quickly turned to the situation inside Syria and he offered to show me some pictures and video he had on his phone. We started with a video of a dead FSA fighter in his house in Aleppo. Tragic, but sadly not unusual. Then it moved on to a catalogue of torture videos, including one of Assad’s forces killing an FSA fighter by burying him alive.
Saeed studied my face as I watched the videos, silently anticipating what would push the cowardly Westerner over the edge. The night at the pictures culminated in one video featuring a man being decapitated with a chainsaw. I’ve since found out this was actually footage of a horrific Mexican drug cartel execution, which was appropriated as pro-FSA propaganda with a fake Arabic title. Either way, that video has haunted my nightmares ever since.
The next day, with the chainsaw video still on my mind, we drove to the Syrian border. We passed refugees from the nearby Kilis camp on the Turkish side, walking the border to buy food from Syria, then returning to the camp. No-man's-land made for something of a strange trek, with its view down the flat plain of countryside towards Aleppo, not to mention the now-disused duty free.
After a day of examining the damage in Azaz, we reached the overstretched, under-staffed hospital. A conversation with the local ambulance driver quickly turned into a gory discussion about the worst things he'd seen. “During the battle, the hospital emptied out as all the doctors had fled. I treated seven people here – 21 were killed. I was forced to move the parts – the hands and the legs – on my own, but I’m not a doctor.” Suddenly his face lit up: “We’re having a protest at the Turkish border. Do you want to see?” Turns out, in his free time, the ambulance driver is an avid protest leader – a great honour in the community as it requires a strong singing voice. “I haven’t slept for 48 hours, but it’s worth it,” he said.
We drove to the FSA base for the protest and the first thing we heard was a burst of music. It didn't sound like a typical protest – it was positively upbeat, in a two-fingers-to-you-Assad kind of way. People were gathered around a truck, chanting along with the rhythm, arms around each other, faces glowing with the energy you get when you gather a load of happy-but-pissed-off people together.
The setting sun cast an orange glow over everything as people began to dance, and the ambulance driver and the ageing surgeon who we'd spoken to at the hospital were stood on the truck's platform, arms around each other, finding a moment of joy in between their day-to-day routine of working in probably one of the most desperate situations imaginable.
I stood there with my camera, watching the protestors unfold the revolutionary flag, and the FSA fighters who’d come to watch the protest lean on their guns to fondly watch the crowd. An old lady took a shine to me and kissed my face. Then so did her friend. Then all of her friends. Until – over a period of about 20 minutes – I was dragged all round the protest, with different women of every age imaginable listening to my terrible Arabic before planting a smacker on both of my cheeks.
The protest was amazing – there’s no other word for it. Every resident of the border hub would have more than enough reason to be sitting destitute, still ringing their hands in desperation, but instead they’re out there having something close to a party. Their happiness was the finest form of civil disobedience, sticking its middle finger up at the regime and the whole miserable situation.
Bringing me rapidly back down to earth, I remembered I then had to spend another night in Hotel Istanbul. Sitting in the lobby that evening, I met the second of our cast of freaky characters: Creepy Saudi Dude. Creepy Saudi Dude gave off the distinct impression of being, if not an arms smuggler, then possibly something more sinister. Either way, he had an intense look that said both “I want to know all your secrets” and “death to America” in one glance. Asked what he was doing in Kilis, he responded with “I am here to help the Syrian people.”
I laughed nervously and asked him what his help consists of. “Do not ask me questions about me,” he responded. “I will ask the questions here.” After some probing, which included my friend Anna and I showing him our passports, he opened up enough to tell us that he’d once lived in Canada and had travelled to Turkey from Kuwait in order to commute back and forth between Aleppo and Kilis.
The next night, we met a character who made Creepy Saudi Dude seem like the Mary Berry of friendly faces: The Mad Scientist. The Mad Scientist was the crowning glory of weird on top of a place that already seemed pathologically designed to make you feel uneasy. He was permanently rubbing his reddened eyes and always kept a stash of biros in his breast pocket. Like Saeed, he was also a fan of showing endless amateur battle footage, often with his head obscuring the thing that he'd been trying to film. It was during that bizarre showreel that we discovered he was a scientist, as he also showed us seemingly genuine footage of him receiving awards in America for his achievements.
The Mad Scientist's madness really came into its own when, having grown tired of literally and verbally prodding us into talking to him while we were trying to work and quite obviously ignoring him, he switched to asking us about marriage. Having lived in the Middle East for a while, lying about being married as a method of self-protection now unfortunately comes so easily to me that I have an extensive harem of imaginary husbands at my disposal. Anna, however, had cranked her work focus up and was able to keep typing away while throwing out one-word answers to his seemingly endless barrage of questions, culminating in the Mad Scientist believing that she was married to a practising Muslim.
That little white lie led to a 30-minute long debate that eventually encompassed everyone sitting in the dingy lobby. Not because anyone actually wanted to discuss Anna's love life, but because the Mad Scientist was shouting “Did you hear? She’s married to a Muslim!” in their faces repeatedly. We got some apologetic looks and the odd whatcha-gonna-do shrug when he wasn’t looking. Saeed even caught my eye and made the international sign for crazy while giving me a sympathetic glance.
But this didn’t stop the scientist: he wanted to know everything about Anna’s imaginary husband, and no amount of monosyllabic detail on his prayer habits would stop him babbling in her ear. It was then that Creepy Saudi Dude stepped in and got him to back off, which was a pleasant surprise after the “women are like diamonds” misogyny-chat we’d been subjected to at length the night before.
If only it had ended there. Two hours later, we’d finally got The Mad Scientist to leave us alone long enough to be able to sprint up the stairs to our shoebox-sized room. The hotel was pitch-black and the only sounds from outside were some creepy, sinister creaks. We were just about to go to sleep, when we were interrupted by the sound of footsteps. Footsteps coming closer to our door and then stopping. They paused. Slowly the tapping started. Gentle enough to sound inquiring, pestering and urgent enough to clearly be The Mad Scientist. In the same way that Scooby Doo liked to jump into Shaggy’s arms, I found myself launching my entire body at Anna, almost breaking one of her ribs in the process.
The next morning, faced with the possibility that I would have to stay there alone (as Anna was leaving), I sprinted across town to the hotel populated by all the journalists who have agencies to pay their expenses. I rushed into the marbled lobby, card outstretched, and begged them for a room like it was the only place in Kilis that had oxygen. I was awarded with an overpriced hotel suite and the knowledge that the only person likely to be knocking on my door was room service. It was bliss.
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