Journey to Safety was More Terrifying than Aleppo, Activists Say

GAZIANTEP, Turkey (CNN) — When Mojahed left his native Aleppo he thought the worst was over. What could be more terrible than living in the besieged Syrian city people called hell on earth?

But the 24-year-old activist, now living across the border in Turkey, says his harrowing journey out of the country was more terrifying than all the years of war.

“Inside Syria, before we thought about fleeing I came close to death many times. Several times we were shelled directly, and it happened once that I was five meters away from an explosion,” Mojahed said. “But the moment we crossed into Turkey, this was the worst moment ever.”

That moment came as smugglers held him and a few other helpless families captive, huddled in an abandoned building on a bitterly cold night. Outside, heavy rains poured down as animals howled near the carcasses of burnt-out vehicles. Mojahed was petrified.

“We kept wondering, ‘Where are we?'” he said.

“In this moment we only thought of the worst options. They could hand us over to the (Syrian) regime, they could kill us, they could sell our organs, they could traffic us. The last thing we thought could happen is that we would cross to Turkey safely.”

Wielding a camera as a weapon

In a way, Mojahed’s journey began in 2012 when he and his best friend Thaer decided to leave their families in western Aleppo for the eastern side of the city. (CNN is not publishing their last names out of concern for their safety.)

Opposition groups then fighting to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad had just captured the area.

Moving to the other side of the conflict meant they could not cross back to see their loved ones again, but they felt it was worth the sacrifice.

The two young men were passionate, fearless and talented. The footage they shot and the stories they told were broadcast by dozens of media outlets all over the world.

“I believe we exposed ourselves to these dangers so we can show the world the suffering in our country,” Thaer said. “And we did. The news spread to everyone and all our videos were shown and we covered everything from the beginning of the peaceful movement all the way to our leaving Aleppo.”

Every day their work took them from one tragedy to the next: a family crushed by an airstrike, a child killed by shrapnel, a hospital bombed by warplanes.

But for Thaer, it’s actually a tale of survival that haunts him the most.

“This girl was trapped under rubble. There was no way for her to breathe but we heard a distant sound inside all the rubble,” he recalled.

“I began obsessively following her rescue and filming every moment. When we reached this girl and I saw she was alive and screaming ‘Mom!’ and ‘Dad!,’ I started to cry.”

Late last year the rebel enclave was recaptured by government troops after a siege and months of Russian bombardment eroded what little was left of eastern Aleppo’s once-bustling commercial hub.

Tens of thousand of people, including Thaer and Mojahed, were forced to evacuate their homes under a ceasefire agreement reached by Moscow and Ankara.

“I wanted to stay longer but we couldn’t. I tried to be the very last person to leave and I did leave on the last bus just so I can stay a little longer in my city.” Mojahed said with a sad smile.

Mojahed and Thaer were certain that with just a camera and a pen they could save their city from bombs and rockets. But they could not. And even now, they are shocked that the world watched Aleppo die and stood silent.

“When I saw this bus, like any besieged person I felt disappointment because the international community was able to perform a miracle. But this miracle was a crime,” Mojahed said. “The miracle was saving 300,000 people from death. But the crime was forcing them out of their homes.”

A final goodbye?

On December 22, as Mojahed left Aleppo, he filmed a final farewell video. It was snowing heavily and his hair and clothes were covered in flakes as he spoke directly to the camera.

“My feelings as I leave Aleppo are like preparing for a burial after death. I will leave Aleppo without a soul. My soul will stay here in Aleppo. Because Aleppo is my life,” Mojahed said in the clip.

After their emotional departure, the two friends went to see their families for the first time in nearly four years. Thaer didn’t recognize his younger brother, who had grown from a boy to a teenager.

The reunion was short lived. After only a couple of days, Thaer and Mojahed had to leave again, this time for the safety of Turkey. As activists, they felt they could not stay in government-controlled territory.

Mojahed told his mother this was his final goodbye — not just to his family, but to the country he loves.

“I told her this may be the last time I see you. We are leaving and you are staying behind,” he said, tearing up at the memory. Thaer put his arm around his friend.

The two men had only each other for what came next. They decided to pay traffickers to smuggle them out of Syria and into Turkey illegally. They say they had no other choice but to get out quickly and discreetly.

A terrifying journey

But the trip across the border was a traumatic one.

“We kept walking for hours through this jungle. We walked in the dark and cold,” Thaer said. “What pained me the most were the women and children that were with us. Their situation was very, very, very difficult. We felt we were going to die of the cold, so you can imagine the children that were just a few months old. I thought they would die any second.”

As they approached the border, the smugglers turned on the group of Syrians and demanded more money. They demanded each person give hundreds of dollars on top of the fees they had already paid.

“They forced one family that refused to give them money out of the car into this abandoned area,” Mojahed said, “We don’t know … what happened to them. There were men, a woman and two boys and one young child and they all disappeared.”

After they reached Turkey, Thaer and Mojahed fled from their captors. But the smugglers sent messages taunting them.

“When we entered Antakya the smugglers started messaging Mojahed and threatening him and saying, ‘You think that you have escaped, no we will still get you. And the whole Turkish mafia will work just to get you, and you are playing a game that is too big for you,'” Thaer said.

The two friends are now settled in a plain, quiet apartment in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, some 75 miles north of Aleppo. Sometimes they worry they are being followed and say they never allow taxis to drop them outside their building out of fear of revealing their location.

Nearly every night they dream of Aleppo, and they spend their waking hours obsessively checking their phones for news on Syria.

“Even now I have a feeling I will return, and I want to return, but when I think of returning I wonder if it will it help,” Thaer said. “I will offer my life in exchange for what? If I die a martyr like others, will anyone care?”