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Witness: Lynsey Addario on the Syrian Border

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Syrian refugees cross into Turkey after the Muslim Holiday of Eid al-Adha through unofficial border crossings in villages around Reyhanli and Hacipasa in Turkey, October 20, 2013.

“What really strikes home and conveys the urgency [of the situation] is the image of Syrians pouring out of Syria.”—Lynsey Addario

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Photojournalist Lynsey Addario has covered conflict and humanitarian issues around the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur, Congo, and South Sudan. A 2009 MacArthur Fellow, she is committed to documenting the issues that most affect women. She has twice been held captive while on assignment, both in Iraq in 2004 and Libya in 2011.

Addario traveled to five countries in 2013 to document the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Recently, she spoke to Proof about the dangers and difficulty of getting an elusive shot—photographing Syrians as they cross the border.

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would drive up and down this main road outside of Reyhanli, [Turkey], which basically traces the border with Syria. Throughout the day, I saw Turkish border guards beating up Syrian families.

When I tried to photograph, the Turkish border guards immediately put their guns towards our car and I wasn’t able to get a picture. The Syrian families sometimes made it across this very flimsy fence. Sometimes they would get 10 feet inside of Turkey, sometimes they would get 100 feet in, sometimes they would get 200 feet in, but the Turkish border guards were getting them and sending them right back into Syria.

To me, that was pretty astonishing. I hadn’t seen that before. Shortly after witnessing this scene, I saw several families who had run into Turkey, across a highway, and were starting to make their way towards a village. The Turkish border guards were shooting above their heads and eventually rounded up about 15 to 20 people and sent them back into Syria as well.

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I went to a few smugglers’ villages because that’s where the bulk of the Syrians cross. Smugglers don’t want photographers around because it’s a risk to their business. They make a lot of money on cross-border trade.

There was an area where I heard that there were a lot of Syrians crossing at night and I said, ‘Okay. I’m going to go there.’ I went probably about three in the afternoon. I didn’t see any movement but I did see some cars lingering. The Syrians cross to a smuggler’s village and then make their way to the main highway. They are picked up by off-licensed taxis, regular cars, which charge to take them to the cities, and so I knew if the cars were lingering, they obviously knew the refugees were coming.

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I was approached several times by different people who said, ‘Get out of here. You’re not wanted here. Don’t take any pictures.’ The smugglers were really mad. I said, ‘But I want to see the Syrians,’ and [the smugglers said], ‘No. Get out of here. We’re going to kill you.’

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I got in the car and went to a different area where there was a guy in a taxi waiting. He must have had knowledge that a family was about to come because he was waiting in a very specific area. I parked the car and stood next to him. He looked at me and he said, ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to get my knife,’ and I said, ‘Why? We are on public territory. What’s wrong?’ He started getting very angry.

I looked at my driver and asked, ‘Is he serious?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I would definitely take him seriously.’

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I went back to the first place where there were several cars and a guy said to me, ‘Don’t leave, because they’re all going to come at night.’ So I put my cameras away. I made friends with this one gentleman who was waiting for his family, and of course, as soon as the sun went down and as soon as night fell, dozens, if not over a hundred, Syrians poured across the border.

It was amazing. They were in the backs of trucks. They were walking. They were carrying their suitcases, and they all were crossing the highway, getting into cars waiting for them, and then driving off into Turkey.”

Lynsey Addario has been documenting the Syrian refugee crisis since November 2012. Her photographs appear in the March issue of National Geographic magazine.

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