Fleeing violence, Syrian refugees warn of potential massacre
As thousands of Syrians crossed into Turkey with tales of violence, many described troops amassing outside Jisr al-Shughur to take revenge for the deaths of 120 security and police forces.
Syrian refugees continued to stream into Turkey Thursday, fleeing an expected revenge attack from the regime against their town of Jisr al-Shughur.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Syrian refugees in Turkey
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Even as Syrian forces began encircling the northwest town, Turkey said its border is open to those trying to escape the violence. By dusk Thursday, 2,400 Syrians had crossed into Turkey at this and another illegal crossing nearby.
"They are killing people, I saw that with my own eyes," says one refugee who gave his name as Abu Ali, a young man in sandals and a T-shirt from Jisr al-Shughur who crossed several times in recent weeks.
Of all the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East, none create a starker dilemma for Turkey than the one tearing apart its ally Syria. So while it is responding to the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees, it is also going to great lengths to shield Syria from further international criticism.
Turkish police and local authorities have been ordered to prevent the refugees from telling of their experiences in a city where fighting in the past week caused the death of 120 Syrian security and policemen, according to Syrian authorities.
A closed-circuit camera has been set up along one side of a long fence around the main refugee camp in the town of Yayladagi. Police whistle and wave off journalists who approach the fence; forbidden also are hospitals, where some 35 Syrians are recovering from bullet and shrapnel wounds.
The Turkish regional governor made a visit, passing along the rolling hills, wheat fields, and olive groves of the border line – and its unofficial crossing points – in a convoy of more than 10 vehicles. He eventually stopped at the refugee camp, some miles away, but then roared past waiting journalists – blue and red lights flashing – without making a comment.
The situation could not be more different than the openness displayed by Turkey regarding Iranian refugees in 2009, and even wounded Libyan refugees brought to Turkey for urgent medical treatment, when some journalists were escorted into their presence in government limousines.
Why Syria is different
For years, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has worked to strengthen ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government is now being vilified across the globe for a vicious crackdown that rights activists say have claimed 1,300 lives.
The two leaders refer to each other as "brother," and speak regularly on the phone – most recently on Wednesday. But Syria's dictatorship bears little resemblance to Turkey's democratic system, which sees another test during a general election next Sunday.
Turkey has sought to present itself as a democratic role model across the region – one that takes the side of people power and justice every time. But the contradictions of that policy await the Syrian refugees as they cross the border.
The Syrians who have fled have much to say, and appear eager to do so if not identified.
Abu Ali, who has avoided the refugee camp, says two of his relatives were wounded in protests in the town but disappeared after they went to the hospital. Grim stories are on his mind, creating a profound fear shared by many refugees.
"The military is moving in to kill the people; they are there to intimidate the people – otherwise we wouldn't run away. It has turned into a blood feud, so it is very deep," he says. "Until Assad goes, it will only get worse. They are pressing and torturing the people, because they fear Assad will lose his power."