In Bab al-Hawa Hospital in northern Syria, what was once an immigration and customs building now serves Syria's wounded, reports Sophie Cousins.
The plan was in place. I would wear a hijab, slip a Turkish guard $25 at the border to look the other way, and I would be a doctor. If they asked for my passport on the other side, I would show it, but emphasis that I was coming to help treat the wounded rebels. Absolutely no camera, or smartphone, was allowed.
This is the reality for journalists trying to cover the war in Syria today.
Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and northern Syria has been the target of several car bombs in recent months amid rising tensions between hard-line Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and more moderate rebel forces.
This has made the journey across the divide painful and increasingly dangerous.
“Sometimes it takes three hours to get through the border – it can be a disaster,” Munther Bulad, secretary of Bab al-Hawa hospital in Syria, said in reference to patient’s who needed to be urgently transferred to a hospital in Turkey.
Nonetheless, my female fixer, a former rebel fighter in Aleppo, along with a Syrian doctor, a middleman who paid the bribes and myself lined up, along with about 60 Syrians, at the crossing. As the gate opened, the short and stumpy middleman gave the guard the money; he looked the other way.
I was not going far into Syria. Almost 20 foreign journalists remain missing and the cost of protection has become exorbitant.
We walked about one kilometre through the no-mans land until we reached an area where we were told to wait. Twenty minutes later a rickety bus appeared for the short ride towards Syria’s mountains and its desolate surroundings.
I was asked to show my passport at a Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoint when we arrived.
“Why you come to Syria?” one FSA fighter asked in English.
“Doctor,” I replied.
“Oh you from Australia. Kangaroos!”
A car was waiting for us beyond the checkpoint. As we continued further into Syria, Al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra were present.
ISIS, which has a high proportion of foreign fighters and whose goal is to create a limitless Islamic caliphate, is playing an increasingly prominent role in the northern Syrian insurgency.
Close to the border was Bab al-Hawa hospital, a former immigration and customs building, that it is now serving Syria’s wounded.
The hospital, which reeked of blood, on average, treats around 40 patients a day, mainly as a result from shelling and bombings in the Idlib province. Eighty per cent of patients are civilians – the majority children.
The doctors, who work undercover for fear of reprisal and many of whom have no formal qualifications, have been thrown into dealing with injuries they have only read about, on a scale they never imagined.
The emergency room was filled with patients, and relatives looking for loved ones. There was a five-year-old girl with shrapnel wedged in her neck, a man in the ICU with amputated limbs and an FSA fighter with gunshot wounds in his leg.
Despite this, Amer Alfaji, who works at the hospital, emphasised that today was a “quiet day”.
“I mean, this is all we have. Doctors usually use the floor to treat patients because it’s often full. If people get shrapnel stuck in their brain or heart, we just don’t have the means for that,” he said.
But as the international community continues to grapple with securing peace conferences, millions of Syrians remain trapped in their war-ravaged country as the conflict continues unabated.
“This situation is normal for us now,” Bulad said.
“We have been living like this for three years.”