They were once ordinary Syrians: farmers with fields to tend, doctors with patients to treat, students with exams to take and homemakers with children to nurture.
But after longtime Syrian President Bashar Assad’s security forces stormed their towns and villages in an attempt to crush a largely peaceful pro-democracy movement, they represent the emerging human toll, a small segment of the many thousands of Syrian civilians who have fled into the hills or across the border into Turkey to escape the violence.
Hundreds have set up a temporary camp in a muddy field on their country’s border with Turkey.
Now, they draw fetid water from a well and relieve themselves in the woods. They rely on handouts of food from relatives smuggled from across the border. They seek medical care at a makeshift “clinic,” a tarp where a 30-year-old pharmacist attempts to give medical advice.
And when it rains, as it did Monday and Tuesday, they scurry under blue tarps or a few large tents, trying to hush their children as the thunder echoes across the valleys of northwest Syria, their hearts filled with rage.
“If you have relatives in the military or in the Assad family you can do anything you want,” said Nour, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, who refused to give her last name to protect relatives still in their homes. “And if you don’t — you see the results in front of you.”
Five months pregnant, she ran for her life, she said, when Assad’s forces stormed her village, shooting a man — a lawyer she knew — dead before her eyes. A resident of Latakia, she is among those yet to cross into Turkey, many of whom are either hoping they will be able to return to their homes soon or reluctant to leave Syria without friends and family they’ve left behind.
More than 9,000 more have fled across the Turkish border to one of the numerous camps being set up in a mountainous region of Hatay province, according to Turkey’s semiofficial Anatolia news agency.
More, perhaps many more, are staying with friends and relatives in Turkey, or have crossed with passports as tourists, escaping the vicious crackdown that ensued after soldiers and security officials attacked pro-democracy demonstrators in the town of Jisr Shughur in recent weeks.
With violence spreading across Syria, several thousand more have fled to Lebanon — and some analysts and refugees suspect the embattled Assad regime is egging on the exodus, perhaps to place the world on notice of its ability to spark crises beyond its borders.
Video this week showed Syrian armor being deployed near the rebellious eastern city of Dair Alzour, close to the Iraqi border.
While attacking communities close to the Turkish border, Syrian troops have taken positions no closer than five miles from that border, according to many refugees, thus allowing civilians to escape into Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Assad by phone Tuesday, raising the refugee issue and urging him to stop killing his own people and implement drastic and immediate reforms, Anatolia reported.
Residents in this makeshift encampment, among the first to be reached by foreign journalists on the Syrian side of the border, described the mounting exodus of Syrians, which intensified after government forays into Jisr Shughur on Friday.
“The regime started killing people, people who were just asking for freedom, young people,” said a woman in her 30s inside a tent that collapsed during a storm late Monday. “There were helicopters hovering in the sky, and tanks. They killed them without mercy.
“When we left, there was random gunfire. We fled in the middle of the night. We walked for miles and we have a small girl with us. My mom is old and tired. So we walked and stopped, walked and stopped.”
The refugees here clutch their personal belongings, and have stashed some along roadways and in fields, fearing that security forces would loot their homes.
A man who called himself Abu Ammar, a 55-year-old carpenter with long, flowing white hair, said tens of thousands had fled Jisr Shughur, a town of 50,000 people, and the surrounding areas after artillery attacks.
“There is no one left,” he said. “Not a single human being. The whole city fled into the mountains. They robbed the houses. They poured gasoline on the crops and burned everything down. They didn’t leave anything. They only know the language of killing. That’s all they understand.”
Children in the field stared blankly, exhausted and pale after walking through woods and steep mountain trails. Some tried to sleep as flies swirled around them.
“Rain we can take; fear and arrest, no,” said Abu Saif, a farmer from the Jisr Shughur area who declined to give his full name. “I’ve been wearing the clothes I’m wearing for the past four days. We’re eating half of what we usually eat. For us adults it’s OK, but not for the children.”
The refugees fear disease will break out in the camp. The pharmacist struggled to treat a baby crying in agony over stomach pain.
“It’s a little bit of joke,” said the pharmacist, 30-year-old Mohammad Merri, sitting amid a haphazard pile of medicine boxes he said he managed to salvage from his business in Jisr Shughur. “Someone comes here and needs five medicines. I give them one in hopes that it will have a psychological effect.”
Fear pervaded the encampment. “No one likes to die,” said Mohammad, a 22-year-old college student. “We see the shabiha [Assad’s militiamen] in our dreams. They can come to our home any hour. I am sure they will send shabiha here in normal clothes and kill us in the night with silencers.”
But by and large the young men here appear galvanized and energetic. One, Bassem Ahmed Thayasoun, 21, showed his military identification card. “I decided I’d rather desert than come here and kill my own people,” he said.
Now he’s among a growing network of able-bodied men ferrying food and supplies, including blankets and medicine, from Turkey along rugged smuggling routes. After stocking up on supplies in Turkish border villages, they must quickly traverse a steep and rugged trail, scramble up rock walls and dodge passing Turkish security patrols before dashing across a military road and through an opening in the barbed-wire fence.
“Bashar is an infidel,” the groups of Syrian smugglers greet one another as they pass on the trail.
One guide said he made the trip back and forth three times a day.
On Tuesday, as a group of Western journalists crossed into Syria, a ferocious downpour began, adding to the miseries of the refugees as well as the dangers of the border crossing.
“We heard from people that the army is about three miles away,” said a 40-year-old day laborer from Jisr Shughur. “We sent the women and the children to the camps in Turkey and we are staying here outside under the rains, waiting here until things get calm.”
Turkish authorities have embraced the refugees, though they have placed restrictions on journalists hoping to interview them.
“The Turkish military and police are sympathetic,” said Mohammad Fizo, a 32-year-old engineer who is among the men smuggling supplies and information, including video apparently of the Syrian regime’s atrocities, back and forth between Syria and Turkey on the steep mountain path. “They let us come here, take some bread and go back.”
Until a few months ago, Fizo was a typical middle-class Syrian, with a job as a technician at a factory in Aleppo. He said he has a university education, a wife and two children. He admits he has also had run-ins with security forces and once spent a year in prison.
On Monday, he helped his family settle with a relative in Turkey. Armed with a laptop loaded with imagery of the uprising in his country, a camera and a decade of tech-savvy activities, he’s become a partisan living off the land, an underground revolutionary committed to the Assad regime’s downfall.
“They forced us to live this way,” he said.
Special correspondents Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Rasha Qass Yousef in Guvecci, Turkey, contributed to this report.