Syria refugees arrive in Turkey with stories of fearful violence
They are the fortunate ones, the hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing their government’s violent crackdown who have reached the Turkish border.
Some made it along rural roads, carrying nothing but a few possessions, perhaps a spare set of clothes. After crossing through openings in the barbed wire fence, they have boarded buses for settlement in a makeshift tent camp, or if recovering from gunshot wounds, to the public hospital.
Others who have escaped have found shelter with Turkish relatives, friends or business partners.
But some have not reached the beckoning fence. They have been shot dead by Syrian security forces as they made their way over the mountainous folds toward the border less than 10 miles from the besieged city of Jisr Shughur, or succumbed to wounds inflicted back in town.
And then there are those who remain holed up at home, too afraid or proud to leave.
“My family and I were able to get here safely,” said Ahmad Abdullah, a 35-year-old trader and father of five who sneaked into Turkey and found shelter with acquaintances in this tiny border hamlet. “But many friends from Jisr Shughur were not as lucky.”
“We demonstrated to ask for democracy,” Abdullah reflected Thursday. “We held olive branches in our hands. But we were met with live ammunition.”
This week, Syrian refugees have been crossing the Turkish border in droves, escaping Syrian security forces who they say have shot, detained and tortured peaceful protesters in Jisr Shughur, a town of 50,000, and other nearby villages.
Residents say Syrian soldiers refused orders to open fire on demonstrators demanding democratic change a week ago. The government, they say, responded by sending in loyal forces who shot dozens of soldiers, as well as residents.
Syrian state television has aired grisly images of dead soldiers it alleges — to the doubt of independent observers monitoring Syria’s months-long uprising — were victims of “armed groups” who somehow managed to steal military vehicles and uniforms.
Syrian forces have now massed tanks and armored vehicles in and around Jisr Shughur, sending thousands fleeing in fear into the countryside and to Turkey, an erstwhile ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The situation is horrible, and there are large-scale security offensives practically using scorched earth practices,” said a resident of Idlib, a provincial capital near Jisr Shughur, reached by telephone. He asked that he not be named as a safety measure. “There are raids going on all the time. Army checkpoints surround the city and prevent anyone from free movement.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters that at least 2,400 Syrians had crossed into Turkey to flee the violence. Refugees and aid officials said thousands more remained trapped on the Syrian side.
While Syrian citizens can enter Turkey without visas, many crossing are relatively poor laborers and farmers lacking passports who must cross illegally.
Earlier in the three-month uprising inspired by “Arab Spring” revolts across the Arab world, Syrians fleeing the violent government response have streamed across the borders with Lebanon and Jordan.
As the crackdown appears to intensify, activists say a major refugee crisis could ensue that is not unlike the one in Libya, where tens of thousands fled fighting between security forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and pro-democracy fighters.
“It’s getting worse and worse every day,” said an activist in Homs, who is not being named for security reasons. “Either they want us all dead or far away.”
Omar Miqdad, a Syrian activist in Turkey, said, “The refugee situation is a direct consequence of the decision made by the Syrian regime’s security apparatus.
“The only concern the security apparatus has is to end the protests. That is all.... Snipers have made homes of rooftops. Gangs terrorize inhabitants of cities and make exceptions for no one, neither children nor the elderly.”
Refugees said the troubles in Jisr Shughur and nearby communities intensified last weekend.
Hundreds were killed in Jisr Shughur, with bodies piled into trucks and taken for mass burial, according to accounts collected by Turkish relief workers.
As the crackdown unfolded, many families dispatched wives, children, elderly and wounded to Turkey. Abdullah, the trader, accompanied his wife and children. “The security forces chased me from my house until I reached the border,” he said. “When I got to Turkey, I was safe. I knew they couldn’t touch me anymore.”
Security forces have set up checkpoints along major highways, “in an attempt to make mobilization and travel difficult,” said Miqdad, who fled three weeks ago. “They usually try to arrest young men between 16 and 35 before they are able to depart. This is usually their target: young men. Women and children usually get through and can leave with more ease.”
Tarek Rifai, recovering at Antakya State Hospital in Turkey, said he had to hide a gunshot wound to his foot during the series of car trips that led him from Idlib to the border. “There were many checkpoints,” the 34-year-old government employee said. “If they found out I was wounded, they would have killed me on the spot. They have no mercy.”
In Idlib, residents threw rocks at tanks entering the city, said the resident reached there by telephone. “In return, the security forces shot back with gunfire.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stung by criticism that his government has stood by as Syrian security forces have attacked their citizens, has opened his country’s border to the fleeing refugees.
Erdogan, who supported the pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and whose party faces a major election Sunday, has attempted to mollify critics by allowing Syrian opposition figures to mobilize on Turkish soil.
Etyen Mahcupyan, an analyst with the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, a think tank in Istanbul, said that “Erdogan is consistently not on Assad’s side anymore. Turkey is slowly taking distance from Assad.”
On the Turkish side of the border, the Hatay provincial government has taken up the task of ferrying refugees to a camp in the town of Yayladagi. Journalists have been barred from meeting with the refugees. But at the camp entrance, children and women in buses stared blankly, their somber faces pressed against the windows.
“They’ve been tortured,” said Mehmet Turkilmaz, a 52-year-old Antakya resident who spent the day driving busloads of refugees from the border to the shelter, listening to their tales. “Their villages have been emptied totally. Their saying Bashar Assad will fight and kill them if they go back. I saw hopeless people before me.”
A medic at the hospital in Antakya said dozens of Syrians showed up with injuries ranging from sprained ankles to gunshot head wounds. A woman rushed one crying baby with apparent shrapnel wounds to the skull from the X-ray department to the operating room.
Despite their safety in Turkey, many refugees already say they long to return home, and couldn’t stop thinking about those left behind. Turkilmaz said he returned some refugees to the border who had discovered upon their arrival that loved ones hadn’t made it into Turkey.
“We want to go back, to our country, to our home,” said Abdullah. “We have a message: God willing, we will go back.”
Special correspondents Roula Hajjar in Beirut, Gokce Saracoglu in Harbiye, Turkey, and a special correspondent in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.