There are two ways to get into Syria: officially, and unofficially. I’ve done them both.
The first time I entered the country was in April 2011, just as the uprising was really kicking off. I was only going there as a tourist but I was worried that, given the situation and the fact that I was working as a journalist at the BBC at the time, my visa application would be rejected. So I pretended that I was a Personal Assistant, got a friend to write me a letter that backed that claim up, and the day before I was due to leave the UK – after several increasingly fraught phone calls (the Syrian Embassy liked to keep people on their toes) – my passport, complete with Syrian visa, landed on my doormat.
That was the official route.
But when I decided to go back to Syria as a journalist in February 2013, the official route wasn’t open to me any more. One problem was that the Syrian Embassy in London had closed six months previously. Another was that, by now, there was little chance of convincing anyone that I was going there as a tourist. Finally – and this was the most intractable problem – I wanted to go to the parts of Syria that had been captured by the rebels. A visa to enter regime-held Damascus wasn’t going to be much help.
By this point, however, the Syrian opposition had taken control of a large swathe of the north of the country, including several crossings along the border with Turkey. The rebels don’t bother with visas. To cross through the opposition held border points as a journalist, all you need is your passport, your press card, and a letter from your newspaper. At the Bab al-Hawa crossing the Turkish border police also make you sign a disclaimer stating that you are fully aware that you’re entering a war zone. I’d be amazed if anyone had failed to realise that until they were presented with that form.
On my first trip into opposition held Syria I went through the Kilis crossing, which is the one that’s closest to Aleppo. Once I’d been stamped out of Turkey I hitched a lift to the Syrian entrance post, which is around one kilometre away across no man’s land. Along the way we passed the duty free store, which had been both shelled and looted and looked incredibly forlorn. I’m usually a sucker for duty free shopping (cigarettes, alcohol and perfume being three of my favourite things) but it was pretty obvious that this place was not particularly well stocked any more.
On the Syrian side of the crossing we were greeted by this:
After that the formalities were pretty quick: a visit to the Press Office to show my credentials and a passport check. The rebels who controlled the border point asked if I wanted a stamp and, although in hindsight it probably isn’t the best thing to have in your passport, I said yes.
And here it is, the official entry stamp of Free Syria, bearing absolutely no similarity to the one issued by the government two years earlier:
Of course, having this on my passport means that the slim chance I might have had of getting a government visa to visit Damascus again has evaporated entirely – but at least I’ve got the evidence to back up my story for the grandkids.