Middle East
3:50 pm
Wed June 15, 2011

Syrian Refugee In Turkey: 'We Had To Run'

As Syrian troops continue their crackdown against demonstrators in the north of the country, more Syrians are massing on the border with Turkey. Nearly 8,500 Syrians are already seeking refuge there, and Turkish officials are scrambling to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

Syrian activists say the aggressive move by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retake the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour and the surrounding area has caused a humanitarian crisis. For many of them, Turkey is the nearest safe haven, although not everyone is willing to be crammed into what Turkish officials insist on calling "temporary tent cities," and not "refugee camps."

One man reached by phone said through an Arabic translator that he was one of an estimated 4,000 people sitting within yards of the border, with food and basic necessities in short supply. Some of these people were hoping that the violence would die down in their hometowns so they could return; others wanted to cross into Turkey but were having problems, he said.

A tall young man with bandages covering gunshot wounds on his arm and leg has just arrived in Turkey from one of the villages around Jisr al-Shughour. He gave his name as Abu Salwat, a nickname used for fear of retribution against family members still in Syria.

Abu Salwat says the army — specifically the 4th Battalion commanded by Assad's brother — killed dozens of people, attacked municipal buildings in the village and destroyed stores of food and water.

Foreign reporters are barred from entering Syria to cover the uprising, so these accounts are impossible to verify. But many of the stories the refugees tell reflect decades of suffering by those who dared oppose former President Hafez al-Assad and now his son, Bashar.

Umm Ahmed, 34, sits with her sister and three of her seven children in a small room where they were taken in by relatives. Many families cross borders in this part of the world, not always by choice.

"It was very scary. We wanted to stay at first, thinking we could be safe. But then we saw men in the village had bullet wounds, and people told us the army was coming our way," she says. "So we had to run."

Fleeing is nothing new to her. She says her husband opposed the regime in the 1980s, and the family was forced to flee, that time to Iraq. Returning more than two decades later, after Assad offered amnesty, she says her husband was arrested. His health failed in prison, and he died soon after.

Her daughters listen to this recitation of the family history without blinking. There's no show of emotion when their mother is asked what they will do now, if this conflict drags on. She replies with the stoicism of the powerless: Now we wait here, and we will see what our destiny will be.

Down in the valley beneath this hillside village, masses of Syrians squat in damp fields, wondering where they will go next.

Turkey has tried to project an image of being in control of a situation that has no obvious resolution. The foreign minister visited some of the camps Wednesday, and Turkey said it didn't need international help in caring for the Syrians filling its southeast corner.

Analysts in Istanbul say Turkey is eager to head off an international response similar to what happened in Libya. At the moment, Western analysts say that seems very unlikely on both geopolitical and economic grounds. But it leaves Turkey grappling with the prospect of an even bigger flow of humanity across its border in the future.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.