June 30, 2015
Edited excerpt from Yazbek’s “The Crossing” in The Guardian

Edited excerpt from Yazbek’s “The Crossing” in The Guardian

This excerpt was published by The Guardian on June 28, 2015.

Photo credit: The Guardian, Sedat Suna, EPA

The barbed wire lacerated my back. I was trembling uncontrollably. After long hours spent waiting for nightfall, to avoid attracting the attention of Turkish soldiers, I finally raised my head and gazed up at the distant sky, darkening to black. Under the wire fence marking the line of the border a tiny burrow had been dug out, just big enough for one person. My feet sank into the soil and the barbs mauled my back as I crawled across the line of separation between the two countries.

I took a deep breath, arched my back and ran as fast as I could, just as they had told me to do. Fast. Half an hour at a sprint – that’s the distance you have to cover before you’ve safely crossed the border. I ran and ran until we [my guides and I] were out of the danger zone.
The ground was treacherous and rocky, but my feet felt light as I sprinted. The pounding of my heart carried me, lifting me up. Panting, I murmured to myself: I’m back! This isn’t a scene in a film, this is real. I ran, mouthing, I’m back… I’m here. Behind us, we heard gunshots and military vehicles moving around on the Turkish side, but we’d done it: we were through and we were running. It felt like it had all been fated long ago. I’d put on a headscarf especially and a long jacket and loose-fitting trousers. We had a steep hill to climb before we hurtled down the other side towards the waiting car. On this occasion, we weren’t part of a convoy of strangers. At the time, I didn’t even know if I would ever manage to write about it later; somehow I’d just assumed I would die, like so many others, when I returned to my homeland. Darkness settled in for the night and everything seemed normal, as expected, or so it seemed.

Later on, after I had made this crossing a number of times over 18 months, I saw many changes: the chaotic state of Antakya airport, near the border, would be ample evidence of what was happening to Syria. I stowed it all away in the back of my mind, along with everything else that testified to the rapid and profound upheavals taking place in my country.
Before crossing the border, I had visited a hospital in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, where there was a special emergency floor dedicated to Syrians wounded by shelling. One room after another reeked of putrefying patients laid out on white sheets, with mutilated feet, amputated limbs, hazy eyes. I was accompanied by Maysara [my guide] and his brother-in-law, Manhal, who was one of the first activists to embrace the revolution in Saraqeb.
Manhal warned me to brace myself as we entered the room of two young girls, four-year-old Diana and 11-year-old Shaima. Diana had been hit in the spinal cord by a bullet, causing permanent paralysis. She lay there frozen, like a panic-stricken rabbit. It seemed a miracle that her small, fragile body hadn’t been completely blown apart under the impact. The little girl had been crossing the street to buy a pastry for breakfast when it happened. What on earth was the sniper thinking when he aimed his sights on her back?
In the hospital bed next to Diana was Shaima, whose leg had been blown off by a shell and whose left hand had been shattered by shrapnel. Her other foot was also injured and wounds covered her body. She and her family had been taken by surprise as they sat in front of their house. Nine members of her family were killed, including her mother. Her aunt stood at her bedside.

As Shaima looked at me, her gaze was an unsettling mixture of pleading and anger. A white bandage was wrapped around her pelvis, stopping at her upper thigh. There was an empty space where her leg should have been. We are made whole by our imperfections, I thought to myself. And we are incomplete when we are whole. But there was nothing I could say to this child. My fingers touched her forehead. She smiled.

Shaima and Diana were not alone on the floor. In the next room was a young lad waiting for his leg to be amputated after it had been blown apart by a shell. Yet he laughed with his eyes. Another young man was waiting to have his foot cleaned up and shrapnel removed, so he could return to Syria to carry on fighting. He was a group commander called Abdullah who, when I next met him during my second trip back, would make time to talk to me and we would become friends. I didn’t know it then, but my third crossing into Syria would be undertaken with him and, in spite of the falling shells, I would have coffee with his beautiful fiancee.

In the wards of that Turkish hospital, just before the border, lay Syrians whose limbs had been left in the dirt. These young people, lying there with their mangled half-bodies, gazed out of the hospital window in the direction of their home country, so near you could smell it.

This was where I had taken my first real step towards crossing the border. Later I told [people in Syria] about sneaking through the barbed wire to the other side. How we had crossed from being lost in one wilderness to being lost in another. It had been a moment of oscillation, of teetering on the line between exile and homeland. There, on both sides of the fence, bodies suddenly emerged from the darkness, shoulders rubbing as they shuffled blindly on. We heard a voice greet us: “Good evening.” Voices came, voices went. We crept by stealthily, like cats in the shadows. The border beneath which Syrians disappear in the night is just a hair’s breadth: no distance to speak of.

People go in, people come out; they traverse this distance in the peaceful still of night, although few will find peace at their destination. The barbed wire fence cannot hold them; it’s as useless as trying to contain jelly in a net.

This is an edited extract from The Crossing