Fleeing from Baghdad to Damascus Refugees on the Highway from Hell

In the four years since the Iraq war began, 2 million refugees have left the country. The journey to Syria is a dangerous one -- but as it gets safer, the trip is becoming more and more popular.

He has a few more meters to go, but Adrar Salamah is already happy. "I'm so glad to see Syria," the young mother says. Her exhausted smile betrays the nervous tension her arrival in this bleak stretch of desert is finally releasing -- a tension that must have accumulated for years. "Finally I can feel free again," she says.

The name of the border crossing between Syria and Iraq is At-Tanf, and for thousands of Iraqis that name is synonymous with peace. Those who reach At-Tanf have completed the hellish, 550 kilometer (340 mile) journey from Baghdad and almost made it to the safety of Syria. Even if they have to spend hours waiting patiently to get their passport stamped, like Adrar.

Up to 2 million Iraqis have fled their home since the beginning of the war just over four years ago, most of them escaping overland. And ever since Jordan effectively closed its border at the beginning of this year, Syria has become the number one destination for the refugees. Far more than 1,000 of them reach At-Tanf every day, "all of them exhausted and tired, with young children and elderly relatives in their car," says the border-control commander on duty.

Processing applications takes time

Day after day, the refugees flock to his office. The friendly officer, who would prefer to remain anonymous, signs their pink visa application forms. "It doesn't really help to speed things up," he says good naturedly of the formality. "But the people leave afterwards." With thousands of people escaping from Iraq every day, processing applications takes time.

In order to manage the onslaught of refugees, the officer's underlings require applicants to wait outside before being allowed to enter the building. Three officials verify and stamp the passports while one reaches for the documents out a window where hundreds stand waiting for their turn. Somewhere in this crowd, Adrar's driver waits for her passport and those of her son and parents.

"We've been waiting for this a long time," Adrar says. "Now we had the opportunity to leave, and we used it."

The opportunity she is talking about is precisely the paradox of the new security offensive in Iraq. Ever since the newly reinforced Americans have -- along with the Iraqi military -- intensified their efforts to secure Baghdad, more and more Iraqis are heading for exile.

"The route was OK today," says Adrar's father Abu Uday. "There are many checkpoints. It has been secured by the Americans." Abu Uday's son-in-law has opted to stay in Iraq. He's responsible for marketing for a large supermarket and has to keep working to earn money for his family.

The first stretch of road is the most dangerous

Renting a seven-seat, American-made van complete with driver costs about $400. The journey from Baghdad to the Syrian border with one of the heavily laden vehicles –- complete with baggage packed high on the roof -- takes between six and eight hours. And the first 30 kilometers (19 miles) are akin to running the gauntlet.

There, Shiite militias lie in wait to ambush Sunni refugees, and kidnappings or hostage takings are a frequent occurrence, say those waiting at the border. The route to At-Tanf leads through the Sunni province of Anbar and most of the new arrivals are Sunnis. Shiites tend to opt for the safer Kurdistan route or they head for Kuwait. All of them, though, have to be wary of the Americans. "When they're traveling on the highway, they shoot at everything that moves," taxi drivers familiar with the route report.

The stories of the refugees highlight what many of the travelers refer to as "hell." One man comes limping over on crutches. He is missing the fingers on one hand and his extremities have been badly burned. "This is what Iraq has done to me," he says bitterly. He was a car mechanic, he says, until a car bomb mutilated him at the beginning of the war. Last year he was driving when the Americans attacked his car. His mother and daughter were shot dead, he says.

Then there are the young men who have been sent out of the country by their families to save them from the militias. Sufian is 20 years old and on his way to Damascus with his brother and four cousins. He spent eight months waiting for his passport and paid $500 -- 10 times the normal fee -- just so he could escape. During those eight months, he hardly ever left his room, communicating with his friends via the Internet instead of meeting them in the street.

The reason for his caution is clear: In August of last year, two of his cousins were stopped by the police and then sold to one of the militias active in Iraq, Sufian, a business student, says. The Shiites never even demanded a ransom; instead, they simply killed the young men. "That's why our families sent us out of the country," Sufian says.

He has modest plans for his first day in Damascus. "I would like to sit outside for a while," he says.

Selling the apartment to pay the ransom

The drivers make the dangerous journey from Baghdad to the border several times a week, and receive the princely sum of $500 per month. But they aren't the only ones to have made the journey several times. Many of the Iraqis waiting at At-Tanf have likewise tested their luck more than once.

Mohammed al-Kaisi has been living in Damascus for a year, but he recently returned to Baghdad in order to fetch his wife and their four daughters. The school year has ended and it's time to bring his girls to safety. His oldest daughter was kidnapped by insurgents on her way home from school 10 months ago, he says. The former chauffeur had to sell the family apartment in order to pay the $50,000 ransom. His nine-year-old was released soon after.

How is his daughter doing now? "You can see for yourself," al-Kaisi says hugging the child. "Everything is fine." One can't help wondering, though, if it's merely forced optimism. The red desert sun sinks below the featureless horizon as extended families continue to wait in the creeping cold.

The wait also continues for the truckers on the Syrian side of the border. It's their fifth day waiting to enter Iraq: Some 80 trucks and converted buses are stuck at the border crossing, with several hundred more in the no man's land between Syrian and Iraqi customs. The Americans have closed the border once again, the Iraqi truck drivers say. They've settled into the shade with tea and cigarettes. This sort of thing happens regularly, they say. Once, reports one, the wait was a full 10 days.

"May God Protect Our Country"

Inside the truck drivers' vehicles is everything the country needs to survive: sewage pipes and mattresses, sugar and cloth, steel beams and replacement parts. It's no small inconvenience when the deliveries are delayed by weeks, says Fausi Abu Jussef, one of the drivers.

"The Americans sit by the border like kings and decide when we can come and go," he complains. But he admits there is one thing the Americans have achieved: The route is now much safer than it was three or four weeks ago. "Back then, we were constantly stopped by bandits," the 50-year-old recalls. "They wanted money. Sometimes they also shot the driver and took the cargo."

Roadside bombs make the trip even more dangerous, Abu Jussef points out. His colleague Omar is still traveling in a bus whose windshield is damaged from an explosion.

Eventually Mohammed al-Kaisa's name is called out and the father is allowed to take his wife and four daughters into Syria. He doesn't know what will happen in Damascus. The last of the family's savings will soon be used up, and he and his wife are not allowed to work in their new home.

That, though, is not his main concern. "I'm not worried about money," he says. "I'm worried about what's going to happen next in the war between the Sunnis and the Shiites."

As a farewell, he offers the message of many a bumper sticker in Baghdad: "May God Protect Our Country."

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