Letter from Syria

Crossing Turkey-Syria Border
Requires Patience of Job - and Luck

  BAB EL HAWA, Syria – The red letters read “Welcome to Syria.” They’re painted on a large billboard just off the narrow, bumpy road that connects southeast Turkey and northwest Syria. Over five days, I’ve driven from Paris, across Europe through southwestern Asia on my way to Damascus. It’s twilight.  Traffic is light.  Surely it will be an easy crossing.

  The Syrians have other ideas.  Like many in the developing world, they practice a form of bureaucracy unknown – and unimagined - in the West.

  The first guard I meet calls himself Ali.  He sits at a desk in a small building that resembles a drive-through bank. He wears olive green fatigues. Like many Syrian border guards, Ali is a soldier.

  “Passport, please,” he says.

  Ali sees that my visa is in order and then hands me a form. “Money declaration,” he says. “You must write down all of your money.”  Because the Syrian lira is weak, the form is an exercise to keep visitors from trading much-desired dollars at a rate substantially higher than the government would like.  I fill out the form and hand it to Ali.  “Next window please,” he says.

  There I meet another Ali who asks why I’m driving a car with French license plates. “It’s rented,” I explain and then attempt to lighten the mood. “It’s a bit hard to drive across the Atlantic.” Ali ignores my humor and fills two lines in an oversized logbook.  “Welcome to Syria,” he says.

A motorized metal gate slides open.  I drive through and park in front of the administration building.  The building features a large, open, sparsely-furnished hall with the warmth of a barren hockey arena.  There are six massive portraits of Syrian President Hafez Assad pasted to the walls and little else.  The clerks sit idle: There are few guests this evening.

  At a window labeled “foreigners,” I am asked to fill out two entry forms.  Once they are complete, the clerk, who does not give his name, tells me to go the bank, several windows away.

  There I am told that I must change $100 into Syrian lira.  Mustafa, the teller, refuses my traveler’s checks, demanding cash.  He hands me a bank receipt – “You must not lose this!” – and sends me to the cashier.  I discover I will receive only 11 lira for each dollar, compared to 44 everywhere else in the country.

  “Sorry,” says the teller when I point out the discrepancy.  It means I have just donated $75 to the Syrian government.

  Back at the foreigners’ window, the clerk notes my money exchange receipt and fills his logbook with information from my passport.  He stamps both my entry form and my passport and directs me outside to an office in the customs area.

  After a 20-minute wait, a soldier shuffles in.  His shirt is unbuttoned, his pants a wrinkled mess. He yawns and rubs his eyes and apologizes for being tardy.  “Sleeping,” he says.

  He introduces himself as Hussein and tells me I must have insurance for my car.  I explain that I’m covered.  “Your insurance is no good in Syria,” he says.  “Go to the bank and cash $60.”  I show him my Syrian money.  “That is tourist money.  You must have insurance money.”

For my $60, Mustafa, the teller, rewards me with an insurance money receipt. Hussein completes the form.  “Welcome to Syria,” he says.

  Gemayel, a customs official, tells me the form must be signed by the director, Abdul Karim.

  I find Karim, a large man in a snug leisure suit, in front of the administration building, chatting with several of his colleagues. He examines my papers and says: “You are from America.  The car is from France. You must leave the car here and go to Damascus for permission.”

  Bab el Hawa, which means “door to the wind,” is an isolated desert post.  Damascus is 240 miles away.  Night approaches.  There’s no traffic, and a fierce south wind sweeping through the desert has created a small dust storm.   The thought of beginning such a journey, probably on foot, inspires a much-animated plea by me, but Karim is unmoved. Gemayel intercedes on my behalf.

  After 30 minutes, Karim consents. “But only for three weeks,” he says, “and you must return through Bab el Hawa.  Welcome to Syria.”

  Gemayel leads me to another office.  “You must register your car,” he explains. Inside, I meet Mohammed.  Slowly, he completes a form roughly the size of a single page in a tabloid newspaper, stopping every line or so to chat with Hussein, the insurance man.  After 20 minutes, he says, “Stamps. Where are your stamps?”

  Back in the administration building, I’m directed to an obscure office where I wake up an old man in civilian clothes who has been asleep on a cot.  For 25 lira I get four green and yellow stamps, which Mohammed affixes to my registration form.  He collects one-third of my tourist money.  Next door, Ali waits to record the information in yet another logbook.

  “Finished?” I ask Gemayel.

  "No. Abdul Karim must sign the registration form."

  This time, the director quickly signs and then says, “OK, go to customs.” I worry what they will think about my cameras and laptop computer, but the customs check, carried out by Gemayel, is mercifully brief. “Welcome to Syria,” he says, more sincerely than the others.  “God be with you.”
 The 2 ½-hour ordeal is over.  The wind blows harder.  Darkness has set in.  There is no moon, and the road ahead is unlighted.  I fail to see the final checkpoint.

  “Come here!” yells the guard.

  Fortunately, I’m going slowly enough to stop in time. Unsure what the guard wants to see, I set on his desk the money registration form and entry card, my tourist and insurance money exchange receipts, the car insurance and car registration forms, the lira left from my $160 and my passport.  He picks out my passport and completes the obligatory two lines in his logbook.

  “OK, you can go,” he says. I gather up my papers. “Welcome to Syria,” he says, as I drive into the night.

  Editor’s note: This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Anniston [Ala.] Star on Oct. 27, 1991.

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  Postscript: Nearly 30 years later, in March 2011, a civil war erupted in Syria that continues to this day. The war pits the autocratic government of Bashar al Assad against a number of anti-government militias, a few of which are fighting one another.  As of last year, there have been around 400,000 deaths while more than 3.5 million Syrians are living elsewhere as refugees.

  From the beginning, the Bab el Hawa border and surrounding area in Syria and Turkey became a strategic location for various militias, for supplies shipments and for refugees fleeing Syria. Different groups have controlled the border from time-to-time, with fierce fighting often in play to determine the winner. Meanwhile, the Turks sometimes closed their side of the border to keep out some of the losing fighters fleeing Syria as well as controlling the overwhelming influx of refugees into Turkey and beyond.

  On Feb, 11, 2013 a car bomb was detonoted on the Turkish side of the border near the customs office in which 13 people were killed, including three Turkish civilians. The bomb had been planted in a minivan registered in Syria.

  If this wasn’t enough disruption and stress on the border crossing, anti-government forces have occupied the surrounding Idlib region of Syria for much of the war. The government response has been to wage a brutal bombing campaign in the area, which have included the use of chemical weapons, according to United Nations., U.S. and European Union reports.

  Currently, the biggest issue is getting aid to  3.4 million Syrians stuck in the Idlib area with no means to support themselves as they're living in a defacto war zone. With Turkey’s permission to cross the Bab el Hawa border, the U.N. has been providing food, clothing and medical supplies to them over a period of a few years. The program was supposed to end in July, but the U.N. extended the aid through July 2022 with strong support from the U.S.

  A U.S. ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, visited the place I passed through all those years ago to underscore American support to keep the aid flowing. With the new agreement in place, up to 1,000 U.N. trucks filled with supplies will cross the border at Bab el Hawa every month.