For five years I lived in Syria, working as an applied anthropologist in development and irrigated agriculture. My base was in Aleppo and its surrounding countryside from 1997 until 2002. In September 2014, I returned to the areas I know so well from my time in Aleppo. I crossed the border from Turkey at Bab al Salamah and went to Azzaz, Qalaat Seman, Daret Ezze, Atme, Al Atareb and left the country through the Bab al Hawa border.
THEY CALL THESE the liberated areas, under the control of the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish forces. The Islamic State has not taken root here. A trip from gate to gate, from bab to bab. It was heart-breaking and at the same time heart-warming to come back to all these places. Syrians are still the most hospitable people I know. Much has been damaged, everything has changed, but the warmth of the people has not. I was happy and sad at the same time to meet Syrians and be back for a while in this beautiful country.
The entry gate to Bab Assalam Refugee camp just after the Kilis border, the camp is known as a well organised three star camp.
We were welcomed at the new municipal council of Azzaz.
Looking for the address of my interviewee, we ask the people on the streets of Azzaz. Some things never change, this is the friendly and hospitable Syria I remember.
Through the Dead Cities, remains of a Byzantine house are still standing despite on-going bombardments.
In contrast are the remains of a local hospital in Daret Ezze after regime air raids. Some rebuilding efforts have been done but without structural aid, no reconstruction is possible.
The road to Aleppo. From here it takes less than an hour normally but now will take a lot longer with the checkpoints in between and necessity to go on roads to avoid regime checkpoints.
On the road we notice a lot of people fleeing the violence and warzones, most do not come further than the camps along the border, like Atmeh.
Packed with what they could carry, another car is leaving their home.
Despite the widespread misery, Syrian children are teaching us life. Behind the smiles there is grief but as a league of superheroes they carry on and are happy to see visitors.
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The sprawl of internally displaced families as far as the eye can reach, this is the camp of Atmeh. It is a place devoid of any constructive aid, packed with people without travel documents and unable to cross the Turkish border legally. About 20 to 30 people are trying to cross daily, they risk being caught by the Turkish Gendarme guarding the border more vigilant than ever.
A school in Atmeh, tiny and already worn by the extreme hot and dry weather.
Means of local transport in Atmeh.
Even here, Syrian refugees continue their businesses; this is a local restaurant and shop in Atmeh.
Water is a major concern here, both availability and quality. In the evening people are gathering at a water distribution point in Atmeh camp.
Proper sanitation is virtually non-existent, with as a result, open sewage runs through the camp.
Sunset in Atmeh Camp, Syria.
Enjoying tea and Syrian hospitality at a tent in Atmeh, the news and soap operas are being watched on a television using car batteries as power supply. The old lady offered me her tent to stay for the night. They told us the occasional foreign IS fighter is smuggled into Syria through Atmeh. For safety reasons, we decided it was better to travel to Al Atareb, 30 km further away from the border.
Crossing Bab el Hawa. For those with passports and who are able to cross into Turkey, this is a welcome sign at Bab el Hawa. In poor Arabic as the characters saying “Marhaba” do not match up and are written in the wrong direction, but at least it means safety from war and violence for many.
People who have lost each other in war meet again at the border, these neighbours from Hama had not met since the start of the revolution. A happy moment.
She came well prepared, carrying her homemade pickled vegetables, in case the food in Turkey was bad.
This man from Aleppo was fed up with everything, he and his family had left everything they had behind, he was carrying eight of these suitcases into the bus. In search for a new life, they face an uncertain future.