In times of crisis, international border crossings take on a whole new level of importance. They are the vital lifelines for people needing aid and crucial exits for those trying to escape.
Case in point: the crossing between Syria and Turkey at Bab al-Hawa, called Cilvegözü on the Turkish side. Security is tight on the Turkish side, with heavy army and police presence. The Syrian side has been heavily contested since it was captured by the rebel Free Syrian Army in July 2012.
Since then, it’s been infiltrated by foreign jihadis and attacked with car bombs and by Syrian warplanes. Having already visited the Syrian side, I returned to the Turkish side to meet the people — inside and outside the law — who keep the gates open.
The approach to Cilvegözü is typically lined with Turkish trucks waiting to pass through customs. It’s not uncommon for the line of freight to stretch for hundreds of yards down the highway. As a result of the war raging across the border, these trucks never actually enter Syria. After passing inspection they transfer their cargo to Syrian trucks waiting in the intra-border zone between Cilvegözü and Bab al-Hawa.
Before making the crossing, this Syrian car must pass inspection by the customs officials at the first gate. Passports and vehicle registration are verified as the vehicle itself is searched for weapons and other contraband. After the first gate, travelers proceed into the complex to have their passports stamped before proceeding two kilometers farther to the checkpoint at Bab al-Hawa, currently controlled by the Free Syrian Army.
Most of the human traffic comes out of Syria and into Turkey in the form of Syrian refugees — and many them arrive on foot. The influx of travelers is an opportunity for certain breeds of entrepreneur. The most obvious is the cab drivers waiting to provide transportation into Turkey. Solitary refugees group together to save money on cab fare.
Turkish money changers provide a vital informal service. Cab drivers and other businesses in Turkey generally don’t accept Syrian pounds, so a lot of cash changes hands at the crossing, according to moneychanger Muhammed Abu Ali, a veteran of 24 years who declined to be photographed. His business has changed considerably, with refugees replacing the truck drivers who were once his main customers.
Smugglers facilitate the flow of goods and people across the border. Discounted Syrian diesel is one of the major illicit imports to Turkey: the smugglers carry it across in buckets and jugs. Other traffickers carry into Syria medicine, rice and other goods not normally available in the embattled country. At the crossing I happened to run into a smuggler I had met before, Ahmed Sayeit, a trafficker since 2007.
I found Ahmed working to bring a modest shipment of nylon from Turkey to Syria for a manufacturer. Despite the war, basic commerce finds a way to survive.
Ahmed is successful because of the relationships he has cultivated with border officials. Trust is key. The guards know Ahmed and simply wave him through. They would surely stop him if they ever believed he were smuggling weapons or other truly dangerous contraband.
Sometimes the work requires carrying small parcels one at a time to the intra-border transports waiting a few hundred yards away.
By late afternoon the border begins to shut down and the opportunists head for home. Ahmed relaxes with his friends and fellow smugglers. They’ll be back at Cilvegözü early tomorrow to begin again.