In a time of peace and normality, the border between Syria and Lebanon is like any other border: queues are busy, rules are neglected, bored military officials are stamping passports in between smoking and drinking endless cups of tea. Now everything is different. And as the road to the airport is not safe, crossing the Lebanese border by land is the only safe alternative for leaving the country, making an otherwise sheltered humanitarian aid worker like me left to mingle with the Syrians that are trying to get out.
The border on the road between Damascus and Beirut is still controlled, heavily controlled, with new checkpoints every few minutes before reaching the border office. Outside the office cars are parked everywhere and masses of people are moving with their plastic bags and children, the chaos mirroring the domestic collapse. Many internal refugees are now dirt-poor, without money for bus or shared taxi, leaving the country by foot.
I was holding on to my passport and documents, trying to make my way in through the crowd and into the office. It was steaming hot and people were pushing and shoving each other, small children were crying. The lines leading up to the cashiers where the necessary stamps were given to the lucky ones that were able to reach there, was swamped. The driver that had taken me was not allowed to do the documents for me, and without stamp you couldn’t cross the border. I was able to make my way a few meters in to the crowd before I got stuck. People were so tightly packed it was impossible for a short woman like me to advance forward, and the crowd was turning aggressive. Even if I wouldn’t be squeezed, would I be saved from being assaulted? A man that was trying to make his way back through the crowd was being squeezed and received help from his wife and another man that pulled him out. The officers behind the counters shouted out, telling people to stop, and some shouted back: “How can we do it?” “We’re stuck!” “Help us instead!”
A military man passed by and people flipped their papers to him, begging for help: “My husband is sick, please help us!”, “Ammo, we need to get out, please stamp our passports!” The man ignored them, but I took my chance and pulled out my humanitarian worker’s ID:
“I’m a foreigner, I work for the Red Cross! Or something like the Red Cross!”
He glanced at me.
“Ok, come here.”
He let me go before him through the door he was entering and shoved away the others that tried to follow. A big metal tool was placed against the door to prevent it from opening again and the desperate bangs from the outside followed immediately. In the small room aside of the counters a few other people, a man on crutches and some lone women like me, were waiting hopefully, squeezed together in the small window facing the officers. Maybe we would be able to leave the country today? But we were being ignored.
“Go stand in line!” an officer yelled.
“We can’t stand in line, they’ll squeeze us! We’ll die there!” a woman replied.
Through an open window some young men climbed in. From all ways everyone was desperately trying to reach the officers, the stamps. The room was filling up with people and was becoming unpleasantly crowded as well. A girl who was pressed next to me laid her head on my shoulder, seizing the opportunity of the closeness to rest. She was maybe 10 years old.
“Are you tired?” I asked her.
“Eh.” Her voice was just a whisper.
The girl drifted off to sleep as we waited, her head staying on my shoulder, her body leaning on me. The pressure from other people kept her upright.
After maybe an hour an officer appeared and suddenly lost his temper when seeing the amount of people that had materialized in the back room:
”Get out, all of you!”
The protests made him furious, he violently pushed us out:
“Go! I said go!”
No one wants to unfold an argument with an armed military. We stumbled upon each other as we hurriedly left the room. I was being pushed to the right and lost my balance, quickly catching it before falling face down. The driver that had been waiting for me in the back of the main room saw me from a distance and shouted: “Someone help her at least, she’s small, she can’t make it there! She’s afraid of all you men!”
A man suddenly gave in, reached out for me through the forest of people, took my passport and papers and sent them through the crowd. “A small girl” I heard him mumbling to the others protesting. A few minutes later the papers came back, sent from hand to hand, with the proper stamps, nothing missing. I advanced backwards through the masses and was able to press through the door. Before reaching the relief of the fresh air I saw the little girl that had slept on my shoulder, now slumping alone on the floor. Her mother probably had left her there while trying to make it on her own. She was also a small girl, but no one took notice of her.