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Meet the Freedom-Fighting Smugglers on the Syrian Border

Antakya, Turkey—Mautaz and his wife heard the shelling getting closer to their village of Hazan and knew it was their time to leave. The subsequent journey did not take place alone: They joined a group of 13 Syrians, led by a smuggler. With the smuggler carrying one of their eight children ahead, Muataz and his brother cautiously followed behind, wary of landmines. Eventually they safely reached this Turkish border town.

As violence has intensified in Syria, the human smuggling business has boomed—in both directions. Syrian civilians employ smugglers in hopes of getting out of harms way, while journalists, aid groups, and human rights organizations hire them to gain access to the front lines. It can be an expensive proposition: Sources confirmed that smugglers have asked for upward of $20,000 for a single trip. But, increasingly, smugglers are giving a free ride to international journalists, or anyone else who promises to spread the word about the stakes in Syria. Indeed, perhaps the most telling aspect of this burgeoning market is that it’s informed by a calculus that’s not strictly economic.

While many people now working as human smugglers were also regular smugglers of money and goods before the conflict began, many more began smuggling people through the border only after the violence began. Take Yousef Haj, for example. When he left last year amid the merciless slaughter being committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Haj didn’t know if he would ever be able to return to his home near Syria’s Turkish border. But after arriving in the refugee camp here, he realized he wanted to play a part in fighting against the government that forced him to flee. Haj has been helping smuggle people and aid back into Syria ever since.

Haj joined the group knowing nothing about the job. His first glimpse at the business was when he himself traveled the same route as the refugees he is now guiding. Now, he works in a group of more than 40 people, all of whom are volunteers. Over time, Haj memorized the roads and danger zones, learning which routes were safe, and which ones were heavily guarded by Assad’s forces. Now, he and his group use different systems to warn of new landmines planted by Assad’s forces. “It’s getting safer,” he said. “We put someone in the front who is not wanted by the regime.” He wouldn’t say how many times he has crossed the border, but he has been making frequent trips for the past nine months.

Among the members of the smuggling community are members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Ahmed Riad, for example, is a former soldier who defected from the military and fled Syria last June with his family. He has two children, then just 2 and 3 years old; together, they walked more than 8 hours through the hills from their home. A wanted man, he could not afford to take an easy route. The conclusion of his trip involved employing a smuggler to take him across the border with Turkey. Now, Riad works in the FSA, strategizing on how to smuggle FSA fighters back into Syria.

But many smugglers have strictly humanitarian, rather than insurrectionary, motivations. The Assad regime only allows one aid organization to operate within Syria—the Syrian Red Crescent. Many refugees view the organization as ineffective because they suspect it has strong connections to the Assad regime. As an alternative to relying on the Red Crescent, Syrian civilians began organizing their own groups to smuggle aid into Syria.

The Syrian Relief Fund, a nonprofit based in Antakya smuggling aid into Syria, claims to channel aid from Syrian donors directly to families in Homs and Hama, where a video is taken of the transaction and subsequently smuggled out of the country. A leading employee of the Syrian Relief Fund who wished to remain anonymous was insistent that the organization did not associate in any way with the Syrian Red Crescent. But initiatives like Syrian Relief Fund have not been uncontroversial; many have been accused of not delivering the entirety of their aid. Rumors are circulating on both sides of the border of individual smugglers and entire aid groups keeping for themselves the donations that are meant for the Syrian people.

Such rumors—and the inherent difficulties of holding a black market operation accountable—have raised the stakes for those organizations who are insistent on ensuring that their aid arrives at its intended destination. L’Union des Organizations Syriennes Secours Medicaux is a France-based organization founded amidst the current conflict to help deliver international aid, especially medical supplies, to Syria. From its very beginning, it relied on border smugglers. But Khaula Sawah, a clinical pharmacist based out of Cincinnati, Ohio who works with the organization, told us that it took a while for the group to find smugglers they could trust. By conducting test runs with various smuggling groups, and tracking which supplies made into Syria, they were able to weed out unreliable smugglers. Now, they can confidently say that almost 80 percent of their aid is delivered successfully to their doctors inside Syria.

Of course, that does not do much good for the many Syrians who were already forced to leave their homes. Muataz and his wife had just finished building a new house in Hazan, one in which they had hoped to raise their four children. But all that’s left are the ashes of their former life, burned by Assad’s forces as they prepared their flight to Turkey. Now, more then ever, Muataz says, he is determined to go back to Syria. What remains to be seen is in what guise: as an armed fighter, or, rather, one of the many quiet facilitators who are helping keep the country’s borders open.

Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based out of Cairo. Sophia Jones is a recent Overseas Press Club Fellow and freelance journalist based out of Cairo.