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Underground Railroad Gets Families Out of Aleppo — If They Survive Journey

This Family Makes Harrowing Escape From Besieged Syrian City of Aleppo 2:28

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Sitting in a small, mostly-bare, apartment here in Gaziantep, a southern Turkish city that is now home to many Syrian refugees, Louai Barakat says he didn't want to leave his home in Aleppo even though the city is besieged by government forces and under attack.

"It was very difficult. I left my friends and relatives. I left my beloved job. I left at the most important time when I should be there, documenting what's happening," he said.

He is a young activist and journalist. He has documented much of the five-year uprising in Aleppo against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The photographs on the wall of the apartment show the toll his city has taken. They show the aftermath of airstrikes, injured and bloody civilians, and relief workers digging dust-covered victims out of rubble.

Like all war-correspondents, Barakat felt what he was doing was important, documenting a time of historic change and sharing it with the world. But his life calculations recently changed. He married a nurse named Samar.

"It's a love story amid a war," he said.

They met while Louai was filming at a hospital where Samar was working. They now have a 6-month-old baby boy named Taim, pronounced almost like tame.

Related: Aleppo's Children: Life and Death in a Syrian City

As new responsibilities began to quickly pile up on Louai, he decided it was too dangerous to keep his family in Aleppo.

IMAGE: Louiai (left) and Samar Barakat (center)
Louiai (left) and Samar Barakat (middle) on the road out of Aleppo with an evacuation team driver. NBC News

Samar said the psychological strain was too much for her as well.

"The bombing would start mostly on Friday at prayer time," she said. "My house would be affected by the barrel bombs, and I'd think that on the next day or in next hour it would be our turn."

The final straw, Samar says, was an alleged chlorine-gas attack near their home. She says she grabbed Taim and rushed to the kitchen, where the smell wasn't as strong.

Of course Louai and Samar are hardly alone in wanting to get out of Aleppo. Syrian activists estimate 300,000 civilians are trapped in bombed-out, rebel-controlled enclaves in the city where there is no longer reliable access to food, water or power.

But how to escape? For Louai and his family, the answer was a risky trip on Aleppo's underground railroad.

Underground Railroad

On the road from Aleppo, Louai sat in the front seat of a van with Samar crowded next to him, cradling Taim in her arms. About 10 people were sitting knee-to-knee on the floor in the back.

Everyone was nervous, and for good reason. They were about to try to drive through a Syrian army blockade. They all knew it was a real possibility that they'd be shot, or even bombed from the air.

They were relying on the skills of the driver — normally an ambulance driver, he knew Aleppo extremely well.

He also knew where it might be possible to sneak past Syrian troops and pro-government militias. But there was no way around an active front line on the edge of the city. They'd have to drive through it — through a gauntlet of fire. They'd have to be smart and lucky.

Related: 'Death Was Everywhere': Dad Recalls Poison Attack

Samar was praying to herself when the van started rolling.

"I thought we'd die. The road was terrifying," she said.

The van passed row after row of destroyed buildings. Lining the road were also burned out military vehicles, flipped on their backs like dead insects.

IMAGE: Samar and Taim
Samar and baby Taim in a new apartment in Gaziantep, Turkey. NBC News

Louai saw bodies in a sedan that had crashed against an embankment. He didn't know how long the bodies been there. It was too dangerous for anyone to recover them.

"We were in a danger to having same fate," he said.

The van was driving quickly, severing to avoid holes and pieces of old bombs, when suddenly shots rang out. Louai says government forces were shooting at the van, and at other one traveling behind them.

Related: Two Syrian Refugees Make Astounding Escape

"They were shooting our car and the car behind us," he said.

Samar tried to shield Taim with her body, pulling him tightly to her chest, leaning over his head.

"I just wanted to protect my son. I don't care if I died, as long as he stays alive," she said. "I said, 'I am going to die.' Thank God I survived."

The driver floored it, racing over debris and loose stones.

After about 20 minutes, they were out of the kill zone. They'd survived the underground railroad.

Activists estimate about 100 people make it out of Aleppo in vans like these, but only on the days when they operate. Sometimes even the bravest drivers think the runs are too dangerous.

"Our duty is to transport injured people from airstrike areas to the closest hospital," said Juma'a Arab, head of the so-called Evacuation Team. "We are transporting people from inside Aleppo city to camps on the border. They are relatively safe there. We are trying to help as much people as we can."

Louai claims the Syrian military knows the impact of its siege of Aleppo.

"They want you to stay in the city and die in the shelling. They don't consider us as civilians. The regime considers us as it claims 'terrorists.' They don't consider us as civilians with children and wives."