Turkey vows to keep border open as Syrians seek refuge

McClatchy NewspapersJune 15, 2011 

GUVECCI, Turkey — The Turkish government moved Wednesday to take control of a rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis along its border with Syria, cutting off unofficial supply routes, holding crisis talks with a Syrian envoy and dispatching Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to visit frontier villages where more than 8,000 Syrian refugees — about half of them children — are housed in makeshift camps.

With the Syrian military poised to continue its crackdown, even more refugees are expected to stream across the border in coming days, sparking worry about how Turkey will absorb a large and likely permanent population of Syrian dissidents.

Syrian refugees said that nothing short of regime change could persuade them to return.

"No, we won't go back. Anyone they catch, they'll execute," said Um Ahmed, a 34-year-old widow and mother of seven who'd crossed into Turkey four days ago. She used a pseudonym for fear of government retaliation against relatives still in Syria.

Um Ahmed said she knew better than to trust Syrian President Bashar Assad's recent pledge of amnesty for all opposition factions. She hails from a family of dissidents in the battered Syrian town of Jisr al Shughour, and her father and late husband were forced into exile in Iraq after participating in a doomed uprising in the 1980s, when Assad's notoriously iron-fisted father, Hafez Assad, was in power.

After Bashar Assad succeeded his father in an uncontested referendum in 2000, he offered amnesty to exiles such as Um Ahmed's clan, she said. Her husband moved the family back to Syria, where he was promptly arrested and imprisoned for four years. The family was stripped of citizenship, she said, and, without government-issued identification, couldn't work or enroll the children in school.

Her father remains exiled in the Iraqi city of Mosul and her husband died of a heart attack after his release from prison, said Um Ahmed, who's taken shelter with distant relatives in the Turkish border village of Guvecci.

Holding tight to her young son, Um Ahmed's eyes grew watery as she spoke of her family's suffering over three generations. Several teenage relatives who'd escaped with her also were present, silent and sullen about their uncertain futures.

Um Ahmed said that all of them would be killed or imprisoned if they attempted to return. She dismissed reports that some Syrians were fighting back with heavy weapons, a development that, if true, could lead to civil warfare like the uprisings in Libya and Yemen. She said she believed that only soldiers who'd defected were firing on the encroaching tanks.

"Everybody is scared, terrified for their families. Do you think people, families inside their houses, can face an army?" Um Ahmed said. "Everybody's trying to escape."

The surge of refugees leaves Turkey in a bind. Newly re-elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on good terms with Assad. He's warned Assad repeatedly to choose reforms over violence, but hasn't advocated Assad's ouster. Turkish media reported that Erdogan was meeting late Wednesday with Assad's special envoy to find a resolution to the crisis.

After visiting the camps in southern villages, Davutoglu, the foreign minister, told journalists that Turkey won't shut its borders to the fleeing Syrians, saying the countries share a common destiny. However, he told the Anatolia news agency, "when this turns into a big wave, it also has the potential to become a regional and an international matter."

At least 8,142 Syrians already are in Turkey, according to official figures released Wednesday, and thousands more are massed along the border, reluctant to leave their livestock and other possessions to join the crowded camps, where the wait for a bathroom can last an hour or more.

Government aid workers have opened three camps and are building a fourth to accommodate the influx, which is made up primarily of women and children, though at least 1,921 men also have crossed the border. A relatively small number of refugees — 60, the government said — have been hospitalized, either for illness or gunshot wounds. The government refused to provide a more detailed breakdown of the reason for hospitalizations.

The Turkish government has barred journalists from entering the camps to speak to refugees, though some Syrians inside slip notes to reporters or give rushed interviews through the covered fences of the compound.

"They killed people, they killed animals, they destroyed houses and three mosques in the town!" Juma Mohamed Ali, a Syrian refugee, yelled through the bars of the Yayladagi camp's fence. He was referring to the Syrian military's siege last week on Jisr al Shughour, his hometown.

Dozens of children rallied in the Yayladagi camp Wednesday, chanting slogans against Assad's regime and yelling out "Erdogan!" in support of the Turkish premier. Authorities quickly dispersed the rally and shooed away journalists.

Turkish aid workers said refugees in the camps had round-the-clock hot water, three meals a day and access to medical and psychological help. But rumors of the crowded, prison-like conditions have made other families reluctant to cross into Turkey.

For the past week, sympathetic residents of Turkish border villages had used smuggling routes through hilly, wooded terrain to deliver food, water and medicine to the displaced families just yards away on the Syrian side.

But on Wednesday the Turkish military stepped up its presence in the area Wednesday, possibly in connection with the foreign minister's visit, and prevented residents from using the unofficial supply lines. Syrians who haven't yet crossed the border said they now faced a grim choice: starvation or open-ended exile in Turkey.

"We received food and supplies yesterday, but it's all gone now. We have nothing," a displaced Syrian who gave his name only as Mohamed said by telephone from his spot in the woods. He spoke quickly because his cell phone was dying and there was no electricity to recharge the battery.

(McClatchy special correspondent Ipek Yezdani contributed to this article from Yayladagi, Turkey.)

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