The journey that led Fitim Lladrovci to become one of the most notorious men in the Balkans began in October 2013, when he was 23 years old. He pocketed his life savings of $350, said goodbye to his wife and left Obilic, a grimy town in central Kosovo. In Pristina, the capital, he boarded a plane to Istanbul and then took a second flight to Hatay, a province in south-east Turkey. He was met at the airport by a large Arab man in a black tracksuit and sunglasses who drove him to a single-storey house stacked with bunk-beds, where Lladrovci was surprised to find six other ethnic Albanians. Two were men; two were women whose husbands had crossed into Syria months earlier; two were children, a boy of two and a girl of six months who cried continually.
The next day the Albanians were driven to the border and told to proceed on foot for several miles until they reached a line of buses. They boarded a white minibus, and were joined by a band of men from the Caucasus whose wild red beards made them appear, said Lladrovci, “like lions”. They bounced across a sandy, lunar landscape, driving deep into Syria. “The countryside seemed beautiful to me,” said Lladrovci. “But I was shaking the entire time. What stressed me most was the idea of falling into the hands of Assad.”