Navigating the delicate roads (and politics) of Syria’s Qamishli

Dispatch from our war & conflict reporter as he navigated his way from Kobane to Erbil

Florian Neuhof

Published: Updated:

On a recent trip to Rojava, the predominantly Kurdish enclave in northern Syria, I opted for the quick way home.

I had ventured to the westernmost Kurdish city, Kobane, and decided I wanted to make it back to Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, before the onset of the weekend. This would only be possible if I traversed the length of the enclave in a day, travelling over potholed roads and passing countless checkpoints without major delay.

Calculating that I could make it to the border crossing before it closed if I left from the hotel at 4 am, the first setback came when my driver pulled up on the checkpoint guarding the entrance of Kobane at around 5 am. The checkpoint would only open at the break of dawn, we were told by the armed men on the graveyard shift, no one is allowed to drive through the night in war torn Rojava.

Over an hour later, the horizon finally began to brighten beyond the concrete blast walls of the checkpoint and the earthen berm that surrounds Kobane, and we set off into the sunrise.

Running late

Already late, the drive was a blur of painfully slow progress on dodgy roads, slowed by security checks at every village we passed through, and interrupted only by brief toilet breaks and pit stops to purchase more sugary snacks and energy drinks. In this race against time, time held all the trumps, and I had no contingency plan for arriving at the border late.

But if I thought an unwanted weekend in Rojava was the worst of my worries, I was mistaken. Before the border lay Qamishili, a city still held in part by the Assad regime, and thus a tricky place to navigate. Here the folly of my ambitious travel arrangements were quickly exposed.

My driver, a Kurd from Kobane that spoke not a word of English, also did not know the first thing about navigating Qamishli.

Political loyalties and the delicate relations between Syria's ethnic groups were also not his strongpoint, and he naively asked an Arab resident for direction to the Iraqi border. Whereas people had been unfailingly polite and friendly throughout my stay in Rojava, this man was curt and stony faced as he pointed down one of the roads leading from the roundabout.

Sure enough, street signs soon indicated that the road led not to the Iraqi, but to the Turkish border, and thus straight into the Assad-controlled part of town. Frantically, I gestured to my driver to turn back, and we caught the last exit before a bend in the road that would have revealed a government checkpoint.

Close call

My heart was racing, and the much-circulated story about a Swedish journalist that had been detained by regime troops spun in my mind: The intrepid and naive hack was arrested while taking pictures of government areas, and promptly flown to Damascus for questioning and whatever else the nasty Assad regime had in store. Luckily for him, the Kurds in Qamishli quickly kidnapped government officials in response, and arranged for a prisoners exchange.

Such efforts would not be necessary on my behalf. Back at the roundabout, the driver paid a Kurdish taxi driver to guide us to the complex geopolitics of Qamishli's road network, and eventually we made it out of the town in the direction of Iraq.

Once my nerves unwound, my thoughts went back to that man at the roundabout, and I was struck by the vindictiveness of directing a stranger into serious trouble. Was it simply a misunderstanding?

Maybe, but my gut instinct told me otherwise. After four years of civil war in Syria, mistrust and blind hatred has become second nature to some, and the rifts caused by the conflict will be difficult to bridge.

For me, it’s a story to come back to at a later stage. I made the border in a nick of time, and crossed the Tigris River into Iraq on one of the last ferries. My gamble had paid off, but the stakes had been higher than I imagined.

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