The field separating the Syrian city of Tell Abyad from the Turkish border was empty, and Agence France-Presse photographer Bulent Kilic was waiting.
A few days earlier, on June 6 and June 10, thousands of people had fled the city, walking en masse through the barren field toward a barbed-wire fence — the last obstacle in the way of relative freedom in the Turkish t0wn of Akcakale. For them, Tell Abyad had become a living hell as the city, under ISIS control, prepared for a coming Kurdish offensive.
Kilic was in Istanbul when Turkey opened its border with Syria for just a few hours each day. When he rushed back to Akcakale, he had missed the window for crossing, but he knew another group of refugees would be trying their luck soon. On June 13, it happened. Thousands of people walked down the hill, waiting for Turkish authorities to open the border. But, this time, heavily armed ISIS fighters appeared, ordering everyone to return to Tell Abyad.
That day, Kilic’s photographs captured the ISIS fighters as they defiantly looked at the Turkish authorities, a smile on their face. “When I sent that picture back, it got a lot of attention in Turkey,” he says. “Artists shared it, asking the government why they weren’t opening the gates, why they weren’t doing anything against these ISIS fighters.”
The next day, Kilic was standing next to one of his colleagues, broadcasting live from the border, when he saw four people appear on the horizon. “They were walking down the hill,” he tells TIME. “But it wasn’t just four of them. There were 10, then a hundred. In just 10 minutes, there were thousands of them, all moving together. It was incredible.”
The border remained closed, but that didn’t deter the Syrians fleeing the desolation and terror of a four-year civil war. “When they got to the Turkish fence, I saw one guy cut it,” says Kilic. “He made a small hole and then everyone rushed in.”
Men, women and children; thousands of people pouring into Turkey. Kilic photographed the chaotic scene. “No one cared who you were — a woman or a child,” he recalls. “Everybody wanted to get to the Turkish side as soon as possible.” Kilic’s heart-rending images show children in tears as they are pushed through the hole, women and men battling for their chance to cross a border. It’s a crossing that offers an end to the tyranny they’ve experienced in Syria, but also one that represents the beginning of another long and arduous journey, to the freedom they hope to find in Europe.
Bulent Kilic is a photographer with Agence France-Presse. He is TIME’s Wire Photographer of 2014.
Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.