SEREKANIYE, Syria – Apart from occasional regime checkpoints, we saw little in Syria’s northeastern Kurdish regions to hint at the civil war raging in the rest of the country, where some 70,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad two years ago.
One Sunday late last month at the Peshkabor crossing, in a small boat a team from Rudaw made the river crossing from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region to the adjacent Kurdish border regions of Syria.
It is not easy to sneak this way into a country where violence is widespread. Knowing the language counts for nothing, in a place where words are muffled by the blast of bullets and bombs.
Although our reporting trip was facilitated from both sides, we were still unsure that everything would go as planned. But after we got off the boat and our bags were checked, we got the green light to start the visit.
On the riverbank people were unloading food and other supplies arriving by boat from the Kurdistan Region for war stricken refugees who have been waiting in huge numbers to cross into the safety of the Iraqi enclave. Oil is piped in from the other side through a plastic pipe, a godsend for war stricken residents and refugees enduring the freezing winter cold.
The many families – mothers, children, grandparents and helpless fathers -- waiting at the border for permission to enter into Iraqi Kurdistan is reminiscent of 1991, when the Kurds of Iraq were trying to escape to the other side following a crackdown by the ousted dictator, Saddam Hussein.
As we began our journey, accompanied by a friend from Derik, we first had to cross a checkpoint of the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG), which control most of the Kurdish territories in Syria and whose fighters have been accused of extortion and profiting from the plight of refugees.
In Derik, we walked downtown to ask people what they thought about the war, and how they think the Kurds should handle the situation. We received very positive responses, from Kurds who realize they are in a tough position, but are determined to remain patient and unified in a single Kurdish front.
In the evening we left Derik and headed to Amude. But to get there we had to cross Qamishlo, which was terrifying because the Assad regime still has checkpoints in the city.
In the end we went around Qamishlo, arriving in Amude after dark. During our stay there, we met singer Shaida and artist Muhammed Sabbah, enjoying with them a discussion on the current status of Kurdish music and arts.
What is very interesting about Syria’s Kurdish regions is that they are relatively safe and stable. Despite the war, the Kurdish areas remain nearly untouched by the destruction.
The vast majority of Syrian Kurdish refugees in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region are refugees from the bigger cities that have been engulfed by war. In the Kurdish areas, most residents have remained in their villages and towns.
That does not mean that everything is normal: In Qamishlo, which is at the heart of Syria’s Kurdish regions, the Assad regime’s checkpoints and institutions are still widely in control.
During a stop in Qamishlo, while we were filming after receiving official permission, we were stopped from continuing our work by a group of security officers.
Our journey ended as we climbed into a small boat for the return river crossing.