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John Stanmeyer: Witnessing a Desperate Exodus from Syria

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Kurdish families who fled into Yumurtalik, Turkey huddle together on a dusty plain.

National Geographic photographer John Stanmeyer recently witnessed the exodus of more than 100,000 Kurds from Syria as they fled from ISIS into neighboring Turkey. This is his first-person account of the momentous scene that took place at the border in mid-September.

As of this writing, the current situation in Kobane is still fluid, as Islamic State and Kurdish fighters battle for control of the town.

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Tens of thousands of Kurds stream across the border into the Turkish town of Dikmetas on September 20, fleeing an Islamic State assault on the town of Kobane in Syria.

Despair gushed through a swirl of sharp barbed wire, recently snipped, that had only moments before impeded the flow of 5,000 people crossing from Syria into Turkey.

I was either in the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time. And due to safety concerns, both scenarios could have been correct.

I was in the Adiyaman region of Turkey for part four of Paul Salopek’s “Out of Eden” walk—documenting chronic migration due to conflict. I had spent the first two weeks at numerous refugee camps, telling the story of the 1.5 million Syrians that are now guests in neighboring Turkey.

Needing a respite from the often-heartbreaking narrative of the story, I met up with Paul for a few days of trekking. For two days we chatted about life, family and the future. Then, with a bear hug and my customary “Selamat Jalan” (“Safe journey” in Indonesian), I bid Paul adieu.

But plans often change quickly doing the work that we do.

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Thousands of Syrians cross into Yumurtalik, Turkey, fleeing the advance of the Islamic State in Kobane, Syria on September 20.

Back at my hotel with a cup of tea, a daily humanitarian news email arrived reading: “Hundreds of Syrian Kurds fleeing Islamic State gather on Turkish border.”

My fixer, Kawa, told me the area was only a few hours away, and taking the keys from my dawdling 50-year-old driver, we drove towards the border, posthaste.

By 4:00 p.m. we parked upon the scarlet-toned soil. Before us were members of the Turkish army in full fatigues, near motionless in front of a wire impediment. Across the wire stood a legion of thirsty, desperate, exhausted people, held in statuesque postures of immobility. They stood behind an invisible line, one that was drawn at the end of WWII and that reshaped the Ottoman Empire into present day Turkey—the border.

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Syrians cross into Yumurtalik, Turkey on September 20.

I had seen such tragedies before, where those on one side of these ever-changing lines keep their fellow humans from traversing. Borders are often cages.

But something was different in this scene—word was spreading quickly that the oversized spiral slinky would be cut, allowing an unforgettable exodus to commence.

By nightfall, the nervous young soldiers moved back those who had gathered on the Turkish side of the line, churning the air above the field into rust-colored dust.

Moments later, the wire that was meant to gouge skin and gush blood instead gushed with the resonance of feet—a din of murmured tones from loved ones calling: “Hold hands” and “Don’t get lost,” while clamoring into darkness upon the vast field of hope.

Wave upon wave trundled across.

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A mother holds her baby after crossing into the Turkish town of Dikmetas on September 20.

One carried a bag. A mattress. A newborn. But most had only the garments they wore when abandoning their homes. Kobane, Syria was a protracted journey some eight miles behind them—a community of uprooted lives where the day before had been normal. ISIS had arrived on the outskirts of town, and the sound of shelling warned doctors, farmers, teachers, laborers, business owners, mothers and even cattle it was time to leave or else die.

By 10:00 p.m., I was overcome by the anguish, needing to call it a night and regroup.

The following day, Kawa and I returned to the same 12-foot opening, now one of eight bellybuttons freely feeding the largest mass migration since the beginning of the crisis in Syria.

Once upon the field in Turkey, most people appeared relieved, yet lost on what to do next. Clearly this was their first act of migration.

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Musicians fleeing an Islamic State assault on Kobane enter the Turkish town of Dikmetas on September 20.

I saw men in suits, covered in filth, clinching only a briefcase. A mother, holding a half-used bag of diapers while cradling her child in her arms. An elderly man, too weak to walk, carried by stretcher. A teenager with a Spongebob school backpack gripping the palm of his younger sister in her new Adidas shoes.

Farmers—one with two shovels slung over his shoulder entering barefoot, his cattle unable to cross with him. A women wearing a new dress, clutching a designer bag. Two musicians, blue jeans smeared by the walk, carrying their instruments in protective cases towards a concert of uncertainty.

This was not an exodus of only the downtrodden or misfortunate. This was migration of a massive scale from all walks of life.

I was angry. And by the afternoon of September 20, I could no longer bear to keep silent from publishing on social media. (Due to security issues National Geographic hadn’t wanted to broadcast where I was.)

I quickly emailed Sarah Leen, Director of Photography, and Senior Photo Editor, Kim Hubbard, asking them if I could publish on National Geographic’s Instagram feed and on my personal social media accounts.

Within minutes they responded with a resounding “Yes.”

Their words were a relief. I could no longer bear witness as one of only a handful of photographers at the scene (most of whom were local.) The printed story for the magazine isn’t scheduled until March 2015, and it was imperative to share news of this breaking humanitarian catastrophe now.

These Kurds fleeing for safety into neighboring Turkey are me. They are my children. They could be any one of you reading this story.

John Stanmeyer is a founding member of the VII photo agency. Over the last decade, he has worked nearly exclusively with National Geographic, producing more than 12 stories for National Geographic magazine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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