There is a transport hierarchy in crisis zones: aid workers get drivers, and staff journalists take taxis. But I am a freelance journalist, and freelancers take the bus. Over the past fifteen months I’ve come to know the bus routes along the Turkish-Syrian border almost as well as I know the Tube routes in London. Sometimes I feel like I spend more time on the bus, getting to my assignment, than I do when I get there.
But put it this way: a taxi from Antakya, where I’m based, to Kilis, the busiest border crossing with Syria, will cost at least 200 Turkish Lira. The bus costs less than a tenth of that. For the money you save you have to put up with air conditioning that rarely works, drivers that use their mobiles as they’re speeding along the potholed highways, and occasionally, if you’re really unlucky, a vintage Turkish drama blasting out from the TV at the front.
Kilis is a dead-end small town, so the bus doesn’t even go the whole way there. Halfway through the journey you get kicked out onto a dusty pavement to wait for the dolmus that will take you the rest of the way. The dolmus is a coffin on wheels, a usually decrepit minibus on which there is always room for one more. There’s no air conditioning on the dolmus – between May and October they’re like 60mph saunas.
I used to resent having to take the bus, and wished I had the funds to sit in the back of a comfortable new car, listening to the music of my choice as I sped to my destination. The three hour bus ride back from Kilis is always a tough ending to an assignment in Syria, when I’ve not had a bath for a week and am dreaming of washing my hair and having a beer. But I’ve also come to appreciate it as part of the whole experience. I get a buzz of excitement as I board the first bus of an assignment now.
I’ve also realised that you can learn a lot from these bus trips. There are points all along the border where traces of the war in Syria spill over into Turkey. On the dolmus to Reyhanli you pass the crowds of Syrian men waiting by the side of the road for the chance of an informal day’s work. Somewhere near Kilis, the dolmus always stops to let groups of refugees out onto a remote patch of highway. I used to wonder what they were doing there, then someone explained – that is the place where they begin walking over the fields, on the dangerous illegal trip over the border.
There are points where the road skims right up to the border, just a few metres away from the rolls of barbed wire. At those places it’s so weird to look across at the fields on the other side and think: ‘Here – normal. There – war.’
But if there’s one place where everything from Syria really spills over into Turkey, it’s Kilis bus station. I hate this place, but it fascinates me. I’ve met rebel fighters and people smugglers in this bus station. I’ve been stopped and searched by undercover police who, I’m pretty sure, are more concerned about foreign jihadists who pass through Kilis on their way into Syria than they are about anyone else.
I’ve briefly and unwillingly slept there, and it made me appreciate just what the people who have to sleep there every night are going through – and there are dozens of Syrian refugees who do, because they have nowhere else to go.
I’m convinced that the staff journalists miss out on something when they take taxis instead of the bus. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s an education.