Hitchhiking to a War Zone

Jo and Hrach hitchhike into the war between Kurdish fighters and ISIS.

Kobane, Kurdistan, Syria, Turkey, war, refugees, volunteer, crisis, Mahser

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We hear a murmur somewhere at the other end of the dusty highway. It sounds a bit like thunder. I eye Hrach nervously. “What the hell was that?” he says.

A very low level of panic is erupting slowly in my chest.

There are no cars on this highway. We wait in the warm sun, enjoying the sound of silence. The hazy outline of a truck appears in the distance.

Suruç?” he asks when I open the door.

Evet, – yes, Suruç” I nod. There is nowhere on this road we could be going other than Suruç, the last city before the closed Syrian border, and the raging war beyond it.

Yardım için?” the driver asks, as the truck grinds along. I tell him that yes, we’re coming to help.

He hands me his business card. It turns out we’ve hitched a ride with the Mayor. He’s carrying supplies into the city for the numerous refugees who have crossed into Suruç from neighbouring Kobane, currently under siege by The Islamic State.

I have scribbled instructions on a piece of paper from someone I met in Diyarbakir. It says we should go to the Belediyese – the Municipality.

The council workers in the Belediyese eye our dishevelled appearance as we hoist our packs to the shining floor. They point to some plush black benches in the hallway. We sit. Tea arrives. We’re shepherded into an office, where I explain, for the third time that day, that we have come to help, that we have friends who have been here already, and that we have a basic understanding of the situation. The man behind the desk nods, shakes our hands and welcomes us to Suruç.

We’re taken to the Cultural Centre, which has been transformed into something of a base for the numerous international volunteers, activists, aid workers and journalists who are streaming in and out of the city.

A small boy speaks to us outside the Cultural Centre. I ask him in Turkish to repeat what he said, but he only stares at me. “I don’t think he understands Turkish,” I tell Hrach.

Hrach says something to the boy in Arabic and the boy looks at him in surprise. “Are you an Arab?” he asks, his eyebrows climbing up his forehead.

“No, I’m Armenian,” Hrach tells him, “but I grew up in Syria.” The boy stares. It’s as though Hrach just told him he’s a Martian.

Later, we see the same boy in the Cultural Centre, handing cups of tea to new arrivals. Although he can’t be more than 7 or 8 years old, he has a maturity well beyond his years. When the boy’s mother give him sweets, he offers them twice to every other person in the room.

We go to the distribution centre, where packages of aid arrive by truck around the clock. Until recently, this was a wedding salon.

Kobane, Kurdistan, Syria, Turkey, war, refugees, volunteer, crisis
Volunteers help repackage supplies in the distribution centre

We spend a few hours shovelling beans, lentils, chickpeas, sugar and flour into small clear plastic bags to be delivered to refugee families. We drink melting plastic cups of scalding tea, and chat to the people around us.

Many people coming to help are Kurdish, from around Turkey, or from Kurdish diaspora communities in Germany, Switzerland or France.

My friend Iris, another long-term traveller, is also in the area. I find her in the small village that Kurdish people call Mahser, despite the Turkish state having long since changed the name to Çaykara.

The village is right beside the border and has a very different feel to the city. The war is visible from here, and the situation more imminent. Mushroom clouds bloom from the city in plain sight when the U.S.-led coalition bombs ISIS targets. The sound of kalashnikov fire rattles in the distance. The people from Kobane staying here are within site of their homes, and the destruction being wrought on them.

Iris speaks Turkish more or less fluently, and has a reasonable level of Kurdish. With her, I’m able to develop a better understanding of what’s going on.

Kobane, Kurdistan, Syria, Turkey, war, refugees, volunteer, crisis, Mahser
In Mahser people watch the war in Kobane, just visible on the horizon

At least 7,000 civilians remain in Kobane. These families chose to stay in their homes, despite an almost constant stream of shells flying over their heads from ISIS on one side of the city, to the Kurdish PKK, Peshmerga and YPG forces on the other. At least half of them are children.

I meet a woman who tells me she has three sons fighting in Kobane as we speak. She keeps her eyes on the horizon, as though scanning for them.

Iris tells me she visited one of the camps that day. She had brought a plastic bag full of toy cars, which she planned to give to individual children, one each. When the kids saw what was in the bag, they fell upon her in a frenzy of limbs and laughter, grabbing the toys from the bag.

Later, I visit the same camp myself, with an Irish girl called Darlene, who tells me she saw what was happening on TV and just felt compelled to come. We’re with a couple of guys from Istanbul who are running music workshops for the kids. The tent fills with around twelve girls aged 3 to 15 years old, and only one or two boys.

Kobane, Kurdistan, Syria, Turkey, war, refugees, volunteer, crisis
Darlene with some of the children in a refugee camp drumming workshop

The kids have a thousand songs about Kobane. Darlene reflects that in some ways it reminds her of the Irish.

“There’s just so many songs about the struggles, and in 1916, and even before that. I guess it’s kind of similar that music gets you through.”

We spend our final night in Suruç in our tent, just behind the Cultural Centre. Although we’re a good 10km from the border, we can hear the bombs drop and feel the ground move ever so slightly. The scariest thing is how fast you get used to such things.

In the morning we will pack away our tent and things and eat a final breakfast with some of the people who quickly became like close friends here. In little more than a month, Kobane will be freed from ISIS by the Kurdish fighters and a long, slow rebuilding effort will begin.