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Journey to safety was more terrifying than Aleppo, activists say

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02:45 - Source: CNN
Syrians recount escape from Aleppo

Story highlights

"I wanted to stay longer (in eastern Aleppo) but we couldn't," said one activist

They fled to Turkey, but their smugglers extorted money from them and made threats

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.