In a camp of converted shipping containers surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, 11,500 Syrians spend their days waiting and wondering when they might be able to go home. Most of them fled for their lives in an instant, never imagining their exile would last so long.
“I didn’t bring anything. Just my children and the clothes I am wearing,” said Walid Hassan, 50, who ran under fire into Turkey from the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour in May 2011. “We thought the regime would fall quickly. We thought we would be here a month at the most.”
More than a year later, Hassan and his family are still in Turkey, among about 112,000 Syrian refugees who have sought sanctuary in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Turkey is housing 42,680 of the refugees, according to Turkish government figures as of Tuesday, and their number is swelling by at least 300 a day as the Arab Spring’s bloodiest and most intractable revolt hurtles deeper into chaos with no solution in sight.
The camp, which hugs the Turkish border outside the small Turkish town of Kilis, offers a small window into the horrors that have befallen Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule erupted 16 months ago. It is close enough to Syria to hear the booms of artillery fire there; too far for its inhabitants to feel at home.
Everyone here has lost someone or something — a father, a brother, a son or a spouse; a house, a business, a limb.
“He killed my friends,” said Jenna, 5, as she played outside her family’s metal housing unit. “Bashar,” she said when asked whom she meant, spitting out the name of Syria’s president.
“He took away my school,” interjected her friend Nadeera, 7. “He scared us at night. We would wake up crying.”
A man walked by who said he had lost his teeth, all of them, under torture. He described how he was shocked with an electric wire and beaten by his jailers during the five months he spent in prison last year.
“It was because I burned a picture of the president in a protest,” he explained. But he has difficulty recalling how he came to be in the camp, and the effort of talking tires his damaged jaw.
“The horror made his mind a bit unstable,” confided Faiz Meghlaj, 40, a former neighbor, who went on to describe how he survived a massacre that killed more than 100 people in the town of Kfar Owaid in December.
In one metal house, steamy in the midday heat, a fighter with the rebel Free Syrian Army lay on a mattress with a bullet lodged in his abdomen. Beside him was Ahmad Habbe, 17, who was hit by a rocket fired from a helicopter while helping ferry wounded people across the border. He lost his hand, now a bandaged stump.
An old man who thinks he is 72 or 73 lost his whole family. “The bullets were raining down everywhere,” he said. “So I just ran.” He doesn’t know what happened to his children and grandchildren; he assumes they are still in Syria.
For many months, those fleeing the violence were housed in smaller camps with tents. But as the conflict drags on and the number of refugees grows, the Turkish government is consolidating them into fewer, larger camps. Kilis is the biggest, but it is now full. An even bigger camp is being built farther east, with a capacity of 20,000.
The 2,050 metal houses, arranged in rows that feel like streets, lend an air of permanence to a settlement that everyone hopes won’t last long. Satellite dishes sprout from the roofs. One family has planted herbs; another keeps a caged bird. Most people have hung their free blankets, useless in the summer heat, over their doorways to create little porches of shade.
There are three supermarkets, two mosques and a school, provided by the Turkish government.
The metal housing units, similar to those used by soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, each have two rooms and a bathroom. They were supposed to be an improvement over the tents. But they are flimsy, perhaps not designed for large families, and they are starting to collapse. They are also unbearably hot in the July temperatures of more than 100 degrees.
One recent day, tempers were running unusually high. The water had been off for several days because of a technical glitch, and the garbage had not been collected for a week because of a dispute between the government and the local municipality. Everyone was complaining.
“One night the roof caved in on us,” said Mervat Yasseen, 33, whose 10-month-old baby was born in Turkey. “If you buy milk, it goes off in an hour.”
The Turkish government is evidently feeling the strain, too. “Just one week ago we had no problems. But this week, everything fell down,” Suphi Atan, the spokesman for the camp, said with a sigh.
He shrugged when asked how long the refugees are expected to stay. No one else seems to know either.
“Maybe until the end of the year?” said Jamal Masri, 29, a Free Syrian Army fighter who commutes between the camp and the battlefield inside Syria. But he didn’t seem very sure.