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Caught Between ISIS and Assad

Young Syrians are cobbling together a future in the wasteland of refugee camps.
Illustrations by Molly Crabapple

Illustrations by Molly Crabapple

“ISIS are good fighters, but we fucked them,” Yusuf Halap said in fluent English.

Journalist Patrick Hilsman and I were sitting with Yusuf and two other young media activists in the Bab al-Salam camp for internally displaced Syrians, a hundred yards south of the Turkish border. Bab al-Salam houses 20,000 refugees, mostly women and children. Under dusty tarps, these refugees live in horrid conditions. Barefoot kids play next to rivers of sewage. Preventable diseases flourish. The Turkish government gives out two meals a day, but the United Nations High Council on Refugees does nothing beyond providing some of the tarps. The Assad government has forbidden them from giving aid to opposition areas.


The Saudis and the government of Qatar are showier, flaunting their generosity with branded tents. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Gift to Humanity,” one read. The Gulf states fund fighters – their charity is marketing.

In this wasteland, young people like Yusuf are trying to cobble together a future. Before the war, Yusuf was a year into an engineering degree. When the revolution hit, his father, a higher up in the Syrian army, defected. I asked Yusuf why he joined the revolution. “They were killing women, killing children,” he said.

Yusuf works under the banner of the Islamic Front, an alliance of more-or-less religious fighting groups. The Islamic Front has successfully pushed ISIS out of much of northern Syria, including Azaz, where the Bab al-Salam camp is located. However, groups affiliated with the alliance have been implicated in their own war crimes, including murders of POWs and the kidnapping of veteran activist Razan Zeitouna.

Yusuf is 24, short and skinny with a sceptical smirk. He first picked up a gun to fight ISIS in Aleppo, where he killed two of their fighters – a Yemeni and a Tunisian, he told me, with a laugh.

When Patrick and I crossed into Syria from Turkey, we saw civilisation begin to fray. First, there were the piles of garbage. Then young people missing limbs. Then a line of cars, five days long, of families going into Turkey. Police checked them for car bombs. Some cars sat abandoned in line.


Trucks, perhaps smuggling weapons, snaked into Syria.

There were green fields on either side of the highway. Their flowers hid landmines. A group of kids, one perhaps eight, walked through the minefield. They were trying to sneak back to Syria, without papers, but Turkish soldiers goaded them back towards safety.

Patrick and I crossed into Syria easily. While Turks have so far maintained an open border policy to Syrians with papers, the same cannot be said for the rest of the world. Our US passports guaranteed freedom of movement. For Syrians, theirs chain them to a quadrangle of four countries, at the whims of politicians who seldom view them as human.

If they don't have papers – or if their papers expire – all the worse. It's not like they can renew them at a regime embassy. A fake Syrian passport goes for $2,000 (€1,465), up from $500 (€365) a few years ago. No passport means you're stuck.

In Reyhanli, in Turkey's south, I met a young artist whose family had paid traffickers to smuggle them on a boat to Sweden, the only European country to offer asylum. She was stranded in Gaziantep, another Turkish city close to the Syrian border. Her family was lucky. Traffickers' boats are less than seaworthy. The waters at Lampedusa are rich with Syrian (and Somali, and Palestinian) corpses.

The artist's family had got out. Those at Bab al-Salam are still inside.

As we walked through the camp, bored kids swarmed us, giving us high fives or making peace signs for Patrick's camera. “They're like flies,” Mohammed, a media activist and former English literature student, joked. He smiled with affection; the children are adorable. But what future will they grow into? One girl, who was 11 – but whose growth was stunted by malnutrition – showed me a wart on her hand. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked. “Turkish,” she answered.


Everyone in this camp is Sunni. I asked about the Kurds. “They've gone to their people in the mountains.” Alawites? The camp's residents laughed uncomfortably. No. None here. None at all.

The Syrian revolution did not start out sectarian. The Syrian war became so.

The residents of Bab al-Salam are caught between Assad, ISIS and the random violence of the war. Outside the camp, countless deaths are caused by men traumatised from three years of loss, firing surface-to-surface missiles into opposing neighbourhoods. Some stranger gets blown up and the shooter feels like a man. Trauma breeds trauma. Everyone here has seen unimaginable things.

Asma was four years old when she got hit by a barrel bomb. Her face is a mottle of scars. It took eight months after the attack for her face to heal enough for her to play. The regime loves to drop barrel bombs on civilian neighbourhoods. The bombs are called indiscriminate, though the logic of collective punishment is anything but. Anyone who opposes the regime is a terrorist, says Assad, in an echo of American rhetoric. Those who live among those opposing the regime are also terrorists. It’s terrorists all the way down

A middle-aged woman pointed to her arm, where she was shot by a sniper while running errands. “Who did it?” I asked. “Bashar,” she said, over and over.

Walid, who said he was 11 but looked seven, was a keen maths student in Homs. He doesn't go to school any more. His father is dead, blown up in an ISIS car bomb. They've carried out two suicide attacks against the camp. ISIS has been murdering Syrians with impunity for nearly a year, bragging about their war crimes on Twitter. Now they’ve invaded Mosul in Iraq and the world cares, at least for this week.


Four years ago these refugees had homes and jobs. Now women are lining up to hold their empty food bowls out for chicken over rice. Kids are shoving around a massive pot laid out in the dust, scooping the rice directly into their mouths. There's never enough.

When people do not wish to take sides in the Syrian war, they suggest aid. They do not realise aid itself is a weapon. Assad bans aid organisations in opposition areas of the country, viewing it as an attack. The UN has meekly protested, but other Western organisations operate covertly anyway.

The best aid comes from the Muslim and Syrian diaspora communities from around the world. Though they are risking death inside, or the stamp of “terrorist” at home, these NGOs keep trying. I see bros from New Jersey, or nice midwestern ladies who know each other from mosque, going into the world's most brutal warzone with blankets, formula or food baskets, and I feel ashamed for every white journalist who made such a big deal that they spent a day inside. Myself included.

A Syrian diaspora organisation that does not want to be named has set up two children's tents in Bab al-Salam. The tents are cheerful and have murals painted on their inside walls. In one, kids did yoga with a young Syrian guy leading them through crow and lotus poses. Then he had them draw. I drew with them. One boy, 14, and a born performer, did impressions in a high Bugs Bunny voice.


The tents were the one respite from the dust and sun and shit. If the revolution still exists it is in these young organisers, refugees who have seen the end of their world, working together to rebuild, even in the form of a child's smile.

Outside the camp lies the city of Azaz. ISIS had just been kicked out. The residents painted over their murals in candy colours, writing the Koranic verse “There is no compulsion in religion.” Assad's bombs have been more persistent. A missile hit Azaz the day before we visited. We drove out to the bombsite. An entire block was gone, the rubble like crushed Styrofoam, the cars melted. A middle-aged man dug in the dust.

We asked if Patrick could photograph the bombsite, but the man put his hands up in the universal symbol of Back Off. The strike had killed two of his kids. What were we thinking, to come here and make a story off of their blood?

On the way out of Azaz, our car broke down. This is not a city where you want to lose your wheels. Yusuf and Mohammed walked us to Azaz's media office to get what they said were their cameras, but were likely their guns. These offices were in a former government building, its grand desk empty (ISIS has kidnapped the media office's commander), with stacks of pamphlets teaching people how to remove someone with a spinal injury from a building that's just been bombed. There are many bombed buildings in Azaz. Walls gone, their rooms gape obscenely. Their floors sag like a ruined cake.


Somewhere, gunshots went off. “A wedding,” Yusuf claimed, without much conviction. Banners read “Neither Assad nor ISIS.”

In Bab al-Salam, as in much of Syria, religious observance has become increasingly rigorous. Too much death does that to people. When we visited, I wore hijab. Men didn't shake my hand. Yet, as Mohammed said to me, “ISIS cares about the stupidest things. Whether you wear jeans. How long your beard is.” Theirs is not a logic of piety, but of control. An internet acquaintance living in Raqqa told me ISIS had raided his cousin's cafe during the World Cup and confiscated his televisions. Football, a Syrian passion, was forbidden. Later, photos surfaced on Twitter of ISIS fighters allegedly enjoying the World Cup on their phones.

Our car broke down again at a checkpoint. We hitched a ride with a hippie-looking fighter in blue camo. He wore a pistol shoved into his belt. The guy who checked us in had a T-shirt reading: “Someone who loves me very much is in Dubai and all I got was this T-shirt.”

Before we left, Yusuf and Mohammed took us up the minaret of Bab al-Salam's mosque. I sat sketching those nylon tarps under which 20,000 people took shelter. The tents stretched endlessly on.

The border closed at 5PM. Before Patrick and I left, Yusuf had us write our names on Post-It notes, which he gave to the Islamic Front's makeshift customs office. This is a real State was the silent implication. They also stamped a printed slip of paper in lieu of our passports. “Bab al-Salam, Free Syria,” it read. We walked back across the border.


Two days before we visited Syria I was in Reyhanli, drawing murals at a refugee school as part of the Zeitouna Programme, run by the Karam Foundation, another Syrian-American aid initiative. After the school day, us volenteers took a bus to the border.

On the hills of Syria, we could see the Atmeh IDP camp. It was a white smudge containing 25,000 people, run by a tangle of NGOs. Those who live there cannot cross into Turkey.

The anti-aircraft guns on the Turkish side of the border reveal why these people came to Atmeh. They hope that if they huddle close enough to a regional power, Assad will not bomb them, for fear of a stray explosion starting a war. He bombs them anyway.

Borders are gouged by war, contorted by diplomacy. But humans live in the borderlands. In those tents so close to Turkey, families suffer the consequences of geopolitics.

The Syrian volunteers took out their cameras for selfies. Smiling, they posed against the country to which they could not return.


More from the situation in Syria:

These Guys Faked a Wedding to Smuggle Refugees Through Europe to Sweden

A Visit to the Turkish Clinic Where Students Are Fitting Syrians with New Legs

WATCH – The Battle for Aleppo