At the Turkish border, some Syrian refugees find a mini safe zone
By Karin Brulliard,
BAB AL-SALAMEH CROSSING, Syria — When their urban neighborhoods were bombed by government aircraft, many northern Syrians hid in nearby villages. When those were bombed, the refugees fled to the fields. When the fields were targeted, they had little option but to head for this rebel-held border station and try to cross into Turkey.
But as Turkey scrambles to build more camps to accommodate the influx, thousands of Syrians have found themselves temporarily stuck here under the shelter of concrete vehicle-inspection hangars — and several said this week that they would stay put.
Turkish camps are rumored to be squalid, and many refugees calculate that Syrian jets are unlikely to strike this close to the border. So a de facto buffer zone has emerged here, a default version of the haven that Turkey and many Syrians want created on a far larger scale inside Syria.
Khaled Abdullah, 40, seated on a dun-colored sheet and leaning against tall piles of Syrian flat bread in the paralyzing midday heat, announced that he had no intention of leaving. “This place is safe,” he said.
Abdullah was among 10,000 or so Syrians waiting on Turkey’s borders this week, most of whom were trying to join the 80,000 refugees who have made it across. On Thursday, Turkey appealed for a humanitarian corridor inside Syria where civilians would be protected. Although some countries, including France, have expressed support for that idea, it has little international momentum. The United Nations said this week that the proposal raises “serious questions.”
“How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said Thursday at the United Nations. “We need to focus on the steps which must be taken within the borders of Syria.”
At Bab al-Salameh, which has become a sort of accidental mini safe zone, many would agree. Rebels smoking Gauloises cigarettes stamp passports near a former Aleppo post office branch; others keep watch and maintain order. Workers for a Turkish charity serve rice and bread, while others assemble a trailer housing seven showers, a donation from the Turkish government. A man who said the Syrian regime has imprisoned his father for 31 years sells Pepsis in a shop.
Abdullah, a grocer from the nearby town of Marea, said that for a while, his family was able to hide under the stairs during government shelling. But when Syrian jets — MiGs, he and everyone here calls them — began pounding the region several weeks ago, it became unbearable.
The children jumped at any noise, he said. The adults could not go out to buy milk. It fell to Abdullah, as the eldest son, to lead 44 women and children to safety. His wife gave birth to their ninth child, a stillborn girl, as they hid in fields on the way, he said, betraying no hint of self-pity.
“I am ready to give three of my children to get rid of Bashar,” Abdullah said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Abdullah’s children, along with countless others, roam the grounds of this fenced border station with aimless abandon. He said he is sure many Syrian soldiers would defect if their families had such a place to go. Next to Abdullah, a toddler in a cartoon sweatsuit fingered a bullet casing. A small boy was summoned to belt out an anti-Assad song, which began: “You Iranians, say goodbye to your dog.”
No one claims, though, that Bab al-Salameh is ideal, and many Syrians here want to enter Turkey. Rockets fly in the distance. Government strikes on other rebel-held zones mean there is no guarantee of safety.
“The aircraft followed us to shoot fire on our house. When we escaped to another area, it also followed us,” said Abd al-Moummen, 21, wringing his hands as he summoned the English he had studied at the University of Aleppo.
“Maybe Assad regime send aircraft to shoot this base,” he said. “And we are afraid of that.”
For three weeks, airstrikes have targeted the town of Azaz, 10 minutes away by car, and the surrounding countryside, said Samir Haj Omar, a former teacher who now heads the Azaz political office of the rebel Free Syrian Army, or FSA.
“The regime wants to destroy all the country,” Omar said, walking briskly through Bab al-Salameh. “The whole world watches, and nobody says a word.”
Conditions here are grim. There is water, but thousands must share the two bathroom facilities. The giant, open-walled hangars provide shelter and allow the circulation of air — and mosquitoes. Medical care is scarce, and refugees said stomach bugs are spreading among the children. On a curb near a sign reading “Loaded Truck Entry,” a graying man with a gangrenous foot encircled by flies said he had entered Turkey and was denied medical care. Now, he said, he felt trapped.
“It’s not a perfect solution,” said Mohammed Noor, an FSA representative who pulled up in a silver Hyundai bearing a rebel license plate. “If these people go to Turkey, more people will come.”
At the back of a hangar, Abu Hassan, a neatly dressed tailor, rested on a thin mat with his two young sons, who wore matching outfits. After a week here, they still looked slightly bewildered.
In their Aleppo neighborhood, Hassan explained, they had a life with touches of luxury: a fifth-story apartment with a balcony and two showers a day. After jets bombed two adjacent buildings, he said, he and 12 relatives spent weeks on the run, moving from village to village, until making their way here.
Most would stay, he said, but he, his wife and three children would not.
“I’m going back to Aleppo tomorrow,” Hassan said. “It’s better to hide in a house than stay here.”
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