Syrian refugees describe horrors left behind

January 29, 2013

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled their country in the past six months, but millions remain in war-worn communities where food, clean water and heating fuel have become scarce.

Accounts from refugees who have arrived recently in southern Turkey are painting an increasingly dismal scene of horrors left behind, while some Syrians still inside the country say they believe it is too late for them to leave.

“We have to stay home and protect ourselves and be quiet until this crisis ends,” said a mother in her mid-30s with three children who lives with her brother and his family in the northern city of Aleppo. “We don’t have any other option.”

The woman, whose husband was killed months ago, answered questions over Facebook but insisted that she not be identified, out fear for her family’s safety. She said that her brother hoped to find work in Lebanon or Jordan but that checkpoints erected by Islamist rebels now make travel intolerably risky because of the hostility expressed by militants toward Christians.

Recently arrived refugees described upheaval in their Syrian home towns, with violence forcing families to move repeatedly in search of safety as buildings are destroyed and neighborhoods become dangerous. As fighting in the country has worsened in recent months, the refugees say, many Syrians remain unable or reluctant to leave the country.

But each week, thousands of Syrians decide to take the risk and leave, creating a constant flow of refugees into places such as southern Turkey. Those who cross at official checkpoints and unofficial smuggling routes almost always pack light, perhaps carrying a dusty suitcase or a plastic sack filled with Syrian cuisine, bearing tales of dangerous passages through checkpoints manned by regime forces, rebel fighters or opportunists.

A couple who recently arrived in Turkey from Aleppo decided to leave when a bullet whizzed inches over the head of their 7-year-old daughter, even though their 17-year-old daughter begged them not to separate her from her friends.

“We think it’s going to get worse,” said the father, Ahmad al-Ahmad, a 42-year-old former sanitation worker. “Once I left, I had in mind that I would lose my place. I’m preparing to go back to nothing.”

In interviews near this Turkish town, other newly arrived refugees told similar stories.

A 32-year-old pharmacist from Aleppo said his family had fled after his two children had to stay inside for weeks on end — playing war games, imitating the destruction outside. The owner of a textile factory said he moved his family to Turkey because they had run out of places to live.

“There is no life in Syria,” said Mohammad Kheshfe, 35, who said it took him, his wife and two children six hours to journey from their home in Aleppo to the Turkish border, a drive that usually takes less than an hour. “We will go anywhere in the world — I don’t care where. We just cannot live in Syria any longer.”

Once out of Syria, most refugees have to pay rent rates that are probably higher than at home, or live in tents or converted shipping containers in a refugee camp.

Timeline: Major events in the country’s tumultuous uprising that began in March 2011.

But inside, the refugees say, the children have stopped going to school in many places, and families avoid going outside. Volunteers working in field clinics in northern Syria say many people are afraid to seek medical treatment for common illnesses, which quickly grow worse.

Power outages are rampant, including one that darkened all of Damascus for more than 12 hours last week. Internet and phone service is spotty, the refugees say. But many say they also feared abandoning a home or business that might be looted or destroyed.

Um Fadel, a 19-year-old mother, said she never planned to leave Azaz, a small town a few miles south of the Turkish border where she has lived all her life. But she also never thought that government forces would attack her town, first with tanks and snipers, then with warplanes and bombs. Her husband, a carpenter who builds furniture, has not had steady work in more than eight months. At first the family had difficulty paying for food. Then they had trouble finding food to buy. And it became more difficult for the young parents to soothe their daughters, one 18 months old and the other not quite 3.

Then came an air raid on the Azaz market, where the family usually shops. The supervisor of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Syria said it was the worst attack he had seen, with at least 20 people killed and about 100 injured. Fadel and her family, along with a sister-in-law and her four children, left that day. They didn’t pack anything.

“We could stay no longer,” said Fadel, minutes after sneaking across the border and arriving in Kilis. “There is no food. There is no water. There is no milk for the children. There is no heating — it’s very cold. We had to leave.”

With more Syrian families moving in with friends and relatives, an attack on one occupied home or apartment complex now has the potential to kill or injure more people. In mid-January, a house in a suburb south of Damascus was hit during an airstrike. Neighbors pulled the bodies of eight children and five women — all related — from the rubble, according to activists who blamed the attack on the government.

Displaced Syrians are also packing into schools and public buildings. Hundreds were reportedly living in the dormitories at Aleppo University, the target of two explosions this month that killed more than 80 people.

Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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