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  • October 17, 2014

John Stanmeyer: Witnessing a Desperate Exodus from Syria

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.

Picture of: Syrian refugees
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.

Picture of: Syrian refugees
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.

Picture of: Syrian Refugees
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.

Picture of: Syrian refugees
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.

Picture of: Syrian refugees
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.

Related story: Photographer Captures Tens of Thousands Fleeing ISIS, Entering Turkey

Related story: Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk

There are 39 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Nikolay Georgiev
    March 24, 2015

    If the fighting goes on for several more ears i gues there will be no one left in Siria but ISIS fanatics and who ever has the will to stand against them…

  2. Cheeyin
    October 26, 2014

    Those greedy politicians should be responsible for this tragedy and disaster.

  3. Nimfa Bangay
    October 25, 2014

    God bless all these people and you for doing your job.

  4. human
    October 25, 2014

    Shame on the world to see this happening and watch , not interfering to stop violence against these helpless people, especially the childern among them. You, me and everyone reading this comment are subject to be in this same situation, will we then deserve help when we ourselves were so indifferent to other s sufferings….shame on us 🙁

  5. iressa
    October 25, 2014

    John,Thank u for these photos..as i read the post,i have my 3 young children asleep round me and i jst couldnt stop the tears from flowing..i cnt imagne what thse people are going through right now..my prayers are with them,especially for the children.. 🙁 🙁

  6. Bryan McDougal
    October 25, 2014

    My God, to see this again breaks my heart. This also happened in 91, right after the first Gulf War when we left. It was bound to happen again after we left Iraq in 2011. Politicians don’t see what a soldier on the ground dose. They get to sleep in peace, we never find it.

  7. Rad
    October 25, 2014

    They used our religion for their own wars, they believe they’re righteous, God will punish them for their foolishness ,,,Foolish…..what ever our color our skin, who’s god we praising, what ethnicity we belong we are the same,, we member of one family, one life, one world, we must share this thing to one another,,we are the lifeline of this planet the safekeeper..

  8. melania
    October 24, 2014

    I really hope the war will stop soon. it break my heart to know the reality, and it really need to be stopped. as I watched a movie of brad pitt, the story is about a war in 1945, but it is a reality there where isis attack. it almost brought me to tears imagine the suffering of the people 🙁

  9. Varsha
    October 24, 2014

    i cry for those childrens, women & men who are suffering. i cry for those who are being captured, tortured, raped, killed. I pray no one should face this. Why can’t we live in peace? What will be our future if this does not stop. May those who have been able to flee stay safe and will be able to reconstruct a new life. May God bless you. Thank you for this article because we need to know what is going on so that we do not forget these innocents & desperate people.

  10. Raquel Dungalen- Custodio
    October 24, 2014

    as I was reading and looking at the article my eyes begun to wet especially when I saw a child crying maybe because she’s so exhausted, hungry and thirsty. May the world leaders do some peaceful way in helping our brothes who are victims of unrest and war. let’s pray for them abd for the world peace.
    Thank you to you, sir.

  11. Martha Mason
    October 24, 2014

    Thank you John fot writting this truely heartbreaking piece. May the world wake up and stop this evil!!

  12. Arthur Provenz
    October 24, 2014

    “Selamat Jalan” John. You are truly a gift from God. You’re images and story resonate into the far reaches of my being. Thank you for bringing to the world this heartbreaking event-When will people stop killing people?

  13. Michele Donnet
    October 24, 2014

    What’s left but cry and pray?

  14. Kaushik Ghosh
    October 23, 2014

    Thanks John for posting and sharing the real life exodus article..God bless all the people,prayers for all

  15. Elizabeth Cervantes Chavarría
    October 22, 2014

    Siempre he creído que toda la humanidad somos hermanos. Lamentablemente el hombre quiere enaltecerse, su propio yo lo hace actuar sin importarle quién muere o quién vive. Ellos quieren ser igual a Dios. Sus deseos carnales, la vana gloria de la vida y el poder que creen tener, los llevan a realizar todo tipo de asesinato y genocidio con: inocentes niños, mujeres y padres. No sienten compasión por ningún ser humano; ni por ellos mismos. Sus entendimientos están cegados, sólo quieren poder y utilizan cualquier escusa para obtenerlo. Si estas personas no salen formarán parte de la gran lista de los genocidios hechos por Asad. Simplemente que ahora se escoden con otro nombre ISIS. Excelente reportaje John. Eres un gran ser humano y expones tu vida para contar al mundo entero lo que sucede en Siria. Yo ruego a Dios por las vidas de este ejército de personas en su éxodo a Turquía.

  16. Subrata Chatterjee
    October 22, 2014

    Heartbroken,share my deep concern to all these families,victims of innocency,I hate radical Islamic terrorist,unimagine capture,Hats off JOHN

  17. Jaclyn
    October 21, 2014

    Amazing. Thank you for posting.

  18. Tanya Malott
    October 21, 2014

    I witnessed a border crossing first hand in Jordan, as the photographer for Malala Yousafzai, and indeed it was heartbreaking. We all cried that day. Thank you for sharing your photos of this. More people need to see that these are regular people who had to leave everything behind and just flee with their lives. The men were particularly unwilling to be photographed when we were there, because being photographed puts other family members still in Syria at risk.

  19. Janet Yu Xu
    October 21, 2014

    为什么有那么多的喜欢战争的无聊的人?Why are there so many boring people who like wars?

  20. mitzy
    October 20, 2014

    Heartbreaking

  21. Betty Flood
    October 20, 2014

    I can’t even imagine what they must be feeling.

  22. yanfu
    October 20, 2014

    为无辜的难民祈福!

  23. tdwv
    October 20, 2014

    …..and Obama plays another round of golf while thousands die…

  24. Rbecca
    October 20, 2014

    Thank you for knowing you needed to share the pictures immediately. So much pain. . .

  25. Tintin
    October 20, 2014

    Sad but True, Can not imagine the cruelty of this world and how innocent people have to leave their homes in order o survive while they could have been living peacefully without that war.

  26. D
    October 19, 2014

    Poignant, painful evidence of how much is taken for granted by so many elsewhere. May the human spirit survive to overcome such inhumanity.

  27. L Terzia
    October 19, 2014

    thank you for witnessing and letting us see through your images

  28. Patricia neild
    October 19, 2014

    thank you well done good reporting

  29. Geoff Walker
    October 19, 2014

    Powerful images John….. most people have little idea of what happens in the world. We know more from your vision, determination and skill…. I salute you!!

  30. Ela
    October 18, 2014

    Je mi jich moc líto a pokud bych mohla, tak bych pomohla, ale ať se nehrnou do Evropy. Ať jdou do nějaké jiné muslimské země. Kultura ke kultuře.

  31. Ara Alan
    October 18, 2014

    Thank you for capturing these moments. This is another genicide of the Kurds. It is a shame what they do to Kurds the true indigenous people of Middle East. ISIS needs to be stoped and eradicated countries like Turkey that help and support ISIS also needs to be stopped and reminded of thier responsibility as a member of NATO. I think only an independent Kurdistan can prevent further Genocide of the Kurds just as an Independent Israel put an end to Jewish Genocides.

  32. Joy Macul
    October 18, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this to the world…Our prayers…

  33. justin sayin
    October 17, 2014

    There can not be a more horrific situation to the human experience. To uproot your family and along with your neighbors leave your homeland or be slaughtered. The neighboring countries as well as those around the world must come together to eradicate this ‘cancer’ ASAP so that these suffering people can return to their homes in peace. This is all they ask and we must answer their plea .

  34. iSABEL HERNÁNDEZ tIBAU
    October 17, 2014

    La humanidad está estancada, aún no aprende cuáles son los valores que hacen,la convivencia en paz y masacra a inocentes… Para qué?Sólo ganarán su propia destrucción…En estos días mi país Uruguay ha recibido a varias familias y se esperan más pronto,que han llegado con muchos niños y se conmueve e almallmbre frente a un futuro que aún no entienden. Esta semana los niños han sido recibidos por sus futuros compañeros de escuela, han jugado, se han sacado fotos, y se han reído como no lo hacían desde hace tiempo, según sus padres. Estarán alojados por un tiempo en un establecimiento religioso, pero con todas las garantías de libertad, como cualquier ciudadano. Luego tendrán trabajo y un alojamiento. Ya están aprendiendo el idioma y en la escuela a la que irán los compañeros les señalaron los diferentes lugares en español y sirio.Se ven ahora muy contentos

  35. Hector Fabian
    October 17, 2014

    Thank you for reporting. Thanks for this note, to the world. hero

  36. Frank SoRelle
    October 17, 2014

    This is an event only equal to the Crusades centuries ago that slaughtered innocents in the name of Religion. Shame on the Radical Islamic terrorist.

  37. Yvonne
    October 17, 2014

    As a photographer, a Christian, a human, I am grateful for your ability to capture and share your experience. I’m heartbroken for these families, especially the children.

  38. Valstar
    October 17, 2014

    Tears of despair and fear for these innocent victims..

  39. Malgorzata Walkowska
    October 17, 2014

    Unbelievable situation, outstanding shots. Feel so sorry for the people who have to go through it all.

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