Just inside Syria, refugees from embattled town huddle in makeshift camp
A young pregnant woman in this encampment of refugees fleeing Syria's crackdown in Jisr al-Shughur asked: 'Is this acceptable to anybody in the world?'
Khirbet al-Jouz, Syria — Syrian tanks and military hardware continued their advance across northwestern Syria on Tuesday, pushing more refugees into Turkey – and more into a bleak makeshift camp just inside Syria.
Heavy rain poured overnight on the hundreds of Syrians huddled under plastic sheeting strung up between green plum trees, their mud-caked shoes set carefully at the edge of sodden blankets.
As the clouds break, one man stands beside a 10-year-old girl in a pink jacket, Sanaa.
“My daughter, she went out in a demonstration and just because she said the word freedom, she has given herself a death sentence,” says Abu Firas, a carpenter.
His two sons are in Lebanon and can’t return, because their identity cards list their place of birth: the contested town of Jisr al-Shughur. If they show them at the border, the father says, “right away they would be detained, dead.”
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appear to be brutally asserting control over rebellious regions, even as pressure mounts on Syria to stop the carnage.
Today, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lectured the Syrian leader in a phone call to begin reforms.
'Is this acceptable to anybody in this world?'
In this encampment, a haphazard patchwork of blue and white tarpaulins in the shadow of a towering Turkish border post, there are more questions than answers.
“Why is our president killing us? [Why] is he bringing us to this war?” asks an English literature graduate who uses the pseudonym Nour.
Jammed into a minivan with more than a dozen other women and children, the 22-year-old woman, pregnant and wearing a head scarf, gives voice to the anger and fear that many Syrians today reserve only for their dictator.
Nour’s hands shake when she speaks. She knows of killings in her city of Latakia – including a lawyer gunned down as he went to visit his sister.
“I know that God created human beings to live in this world in a liberal way,” says Nour. “Why does only one man want to control all these people in Syria? More [than] 20 million people. Why?”
“Our president kills us … and forces us to leave our country and live in camps. Is it acceptable according to anybody in this world?” she adds.
Following the smugglers' route
This patch of northwest Syria has become the focal point of the 12-week rebellion against Mr. Assad and his family’s 40-year rule in Syria.
But little has been heard from the Syrians most affected. Turkish authorities are physically preventing outsiders from speaking with Syrians who are crossing the border at a rate of more than 1,000 each day.
To circumvent those restrictions, a few Western journalists have followed steep smuggler trails past the Turkish military. Through a gap in a fence, they cross into Syria and follow another set of trails – strewn in places with debris from departing refugees – to get to this camp.
Turkish soldiers at one point shouted orders at this correspondent’s group to stop on Tuesday, but were too far away to stop them from running away.
Half a dozen Syrian and Turkish men carrying fresh loaves of bread and new tarps from Turkey were already being stopped and forced to the ground by those soldiers – a common occurrence, the refugees say, during the daily flow of aid.
Waiting for family
The hundreds at this place are among thousands who are believed to have left their homes but reluctant to cross into Turkey. They are waiting for more family, want to keep an eye on homes and livestock, or don’t want to get trapped in Turkey’s well-made but isolated refugee camps.
So life has ground on for those choosing to be just a few steps from safety. Drinking water is drawn from a well – or gathered from rain in buckets – though dishes are washed and bowels emptied beside a single stream.
In one steaming canvas tent that grows hot when rain gives way to fierce afternoon sun, a pharmacist from Jisr al-Shughur has arranged most of the wares from his shop.
It is an impressive array, supplemented with two sets of donations from Turkey, but not enough. A child screams as Mohammed Meeri gives him a shot for a stomach problem.
The pharmacist admits that anything he provides is a stop-gap only, little more than “psychological medicine.”
'A place I don't even want to call my homeland'
No one is ready to stay in this camp for long, where vehicles and tractors and wagons have all been doubling as shelter. One woman brings a broad tray of food for a circle of men; in her wagon, a cluster of kids cavort behind canvas.
Abu Saef, who carries a rifle to kill wild animals on his farm, laments "a rapist, murdering regime that believes it is the only ruler."
“More people are going to come, but if the Army comes, we’ve got God and Turkey only,” he says.
That won’t happen, thanks to the proximity of the Turkish military, which patrols the border road adjacent to the camp, on the other side of a low line of trees and foliage. Turkish soldiers on Tuesday looked into the encampment from the high turrets of their armored personnel carriers, which stopped from time to time.
“I don’t think the military will come this close to the border in tanks, but will use their vehicles to clear all villages,” says Musa, who returned 10 days ago from a construction job in Lebanon to his home town of Jisr al-Shughur, 12 miles away.
He watched the military advance, “creeping through the fields” three days ago to reclaim control of the town. Today, his shoes are soiled with mud and his right wrist scratched.
“I regret ever coming back to a place I don’t even want to call my homeland,” says Musa.
One man who asked not to be named used to go to demonstrations, then had to flee.
“The security in the area – they're not used to demonstrations,” he says. “They don't fire tear gas, they fire live bullets. That's all they have and know.”
Those who took part were deliberately targeted, says the 30-year-old. Agents watched from street corners and filmed the demonstrations.
A common refrain in the camp is that President Assad behaves as if he were a god, to be worshiped. And obedience alone is prized.
“When the Syrian Army says the people of one town are asking for ‘security,’ you can be sure it will be finished,” says one refugee from Jisr al-Shughur called Mohammed, his white baseball cap out of place in this frontier orchard.
“We didn’t love him, and we want him to go,” says Mohammed. “He stays for 40 years, he and his father. We want change now. And we will stay here for 40 years more, until he goes. Maybe he will make his son president in the future – it’s a bad dream for us.”