KOS, Greece (AP) — In the jostling chaos of a crammed refugee center, one man tries to introduce order — forming migrants into lines and collecting names for overwhelmed Greek police clerks.
Laith Al Saleh, a plasterer from Aleppo, stands out from the crowd waiting in the sweltering August heat, and it’s not just his battle-scarred face that sets him apart. He is accustomed to being in command — he led a 700-strong rebel unit in Syria’s civil war — and he is now keen to help others dealing with exile.
Al Saleh, 30, had a home, a wife and a normal life, before the start of the fighting that has claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced up to a third of Syria’s population. Now, he’s one of the tens of thousands of Syrian men, women and children who risk drowning to be smuggled into Greece by sea on frail, crammed dinghies, paying up to thousands of dollars for the service.
At least 135,000 people — mostly Syrians — have crossed over from Turkey this year, more than the total for all of 2014 and 2013 together.
None want to claim asylum in financially broken Greece, which can hardly provide for its own destitute. Their target destinations are wealthier parts of the European Union such as Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden, all only reachable after a further series of illegal border crossings, involving more danger, expense, humiliation and hardship.
“The situation in Syria is very bad, war is eating everything,” Al Saleh told The Associated Press in an interview on Kos. “(The) government destroy everything, buildings, people, they kill children, women — there are no safe areas in Syria.”
An intense, wiry man with short-cut hair, Al Saleh speaks slowly as he searches for the right words in English.
“Everyone wants to leave Syria,” he said. “My (home) is the most dangerous city in the world. About 70 percent of the city is destroyed … In Syria, Al Qaeda want me, Daesh (the Islamic State extremist group), the government — I fought them all. I don’t care. Some people are afraid. I’m not.”
As a seasoned fighter, Al Saleh moves fast. He clandestinely crossed Syria’s porous border with Turkey, walking for several hours, proceeded by bus to the coastal city of Bodrum, opposite Kos, and got on the first boat he could find.
He reached Kos at the crack of dawn on Aug. 5, after a four-hour journey. The rubber boat held dozens of people swaddled in life-vests — a new money-crop in Bodrum — and clutching inflated inner tubes to keep afloat in case of sinking. Smugglers charged him $1,000 for the berth.
Despite a brief alarm when the engine failed, the migrants made it ashore safely and walked the 4 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) to the main town of Kos, a tourist playground where visitors commonly party to dawn, and spend the days on the very beaches where the refugee boats make landfall.
There, they suffered hardship and delay, as authorities on the island found themselves unprepared for the influx. Many locals vented anger at the crowds of refugees sleeping rough in parks and public spaces at the height of the key tourist season.
“The people here hate us,” Al Saleh said of his ten days waiting for temporary travel documents on the eastern Aegean Sea island. “I don’t know why. We come here on our way, not to stay here … We slept on the ground in the parks, in the stadium, nobody helped us to get a place to sleep, water or food. On the first day I went to a supermarket to buy food but they threw me out.”
Kos held a more sinister encounter for him — a man he recognized as a Syrian enemy. “Two days ago, I saw a sniper for the government forces,” he said. “I didn’t talk to him, but I am still very angry.”
On Aug. 15, clean and rested after a couple of days in a small hotel with another 25 paying Syrian guests, Al Saleh took a last photo with his friends before boarding an Athens-bound ferry. The very next day, he was travelling through Macedonia, on a packed train that he could only board through a window.
“I was so tired and upset at what I found (in Macedonia) that I wanted to cry,” he said, speaking to The AP by phone.
Al Saleh said he has a cousin in The Netherlands, a former senior officer in the Syrian army who defected to the rebels before being badly injured.
“When I get to Holland I will get my papers and bring my family,” he said. “Everything I do for them, for my wife and 3-year-old son. I hope they will be able to join me, after two or three months.”
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, with mostly peaceful protests against the authoritarian regime, but later escalated into a full-scale civil war after a massive government crackdown.
Al Saleh joined the Free Syrian Army, the moderate, Western-backed forces opposing President Bashar Assad — but also fighting the Islamic State group and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front.
“It’s hard to take up weapons and fight, but we want freedom,” he said. “When I started fighting my son was 28 days old. Sometimes, he couldn’t remember me because I was away fighting. He didn’t call me papa, he called me by my name,” Laith — Arabic for lion.
Al Saleh’s home was destroyed in the fighting and he was injured twice, seeing action in Aleppo and the Kurdish border town of Kobani, and rising to command a unit of 700 men.
“In the first month of revolution, I was injured in the head,” he said. “I stayed in my house about one month. After that, I came back to fight, and after a year I was wounded again, a government airplane shot a rocket at me.”
The missile missed him by two meters (about 6 feet.) But it blew up his car, killed four people and buried Al Saleh in rubble. He was dug out by civil protection volunteers. After playing the video on his mobile phone, he has a startling thought — musing about a possible return to the fight in Syria.
“Everything in Syria is beautiful. It is destroyed but it is beautiful for me. Our streets our buildings, my friends … everything is beautiful in Syria,” he said. “Maybe I will come back after my family is in Holland. I can’t leave my country, I have a name in my country. I can’t lose it. My friends are still fighting there.”