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<p>Photo by David Hollier</p>

Photo by David Hollier

Junior class recites The Koran.

Rage And Refuge On The Border

As a political solution to the violent conflict in Syria becomes more remote, thousands of Syrian refugees continue to pour across Turkey’s southern border. There, an incendiary combination of grief, rage, paranoia and boredom is threatening to tear the opposition apart from within.


The border between Syria and Turkey is blighted with Russian-made landmines, some dating back to the Soviet era, planted by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. More than 17,000 Syrians have crossed this border, and Turkey is expecting thousands more. If the violence escalates, warns the Turkish Red Crescent, up to 500,000 Syrians may try to cross.

Once they reach Turkish territory, Syrians head to one of the nine refugee camps nearby. Long rows of white tents behind high-wire fences have been sheltering Syrians for the past nine months during the Assad regime's crackdown on the 'Arab Spring' uprisings.

At a camp near the border town of Reyhanli, huddles of women and fighting-age men loiter outside the gates. A local hawker plies women's cosmetics, and journalists circle outside, refugee families in tow.

Two old Turks perched on a verge across the road squint skeptically at the scene below. "These refugees are no good for Turkey," one mutters.

“He’s going to stop one day. He can’t kill all of us.”

Young boys file in and out of the camp, hunched under mattresses they're lugging to the vans lined up across the road. These vans will take some of the camp's residents to a "container site" at Kilis, 150 kilometres east of Reyhanli. Their new homes may be windowless boxes, but they're a marked improvement - they're furnished, for one, and will provide protection from the oppressive Turkish summer that's on its way.

A young Syrian man approaches and gestures to talk. Ahmad, 26, came here in one of the first refugee waves nine months ago, from the northern town of Jisr al Shughour. He says he was a professional soldier in the Palestine branch of intelligence in Damascus but went AWOL when he was instructed to shoot civilians. He wants to join the Free Syrian Army but says at the moment, there's no point.

"They don't have weapons. People in Syria are being forced to buy bullets with money out of their own pockets," he says, adding that bullets are now at least five dollars each. Ahmad says many inside the camps are eager to fight, but for now, there's nothing they can do but wait. "We just wake up and do nothing. We're about to explode."

People in the camps can't even speak openly, he says. "They're afraid of spies."

Special accreditation is required for journalists to enter the camp, but Ahmad says our translator, who is Syrian, can get in. Abdulwahab Tahhan, 24, volunteers at a school for Syrian refugees and is translating for us free of charge, "for the cause".

At the camp gate, a guard checks Abdul's passport and ushers him in, for "one hour only". Ahmad takes Abdul to his tent. There's a thin mattress on the ground, an electric stove, a television he bought from Reyhanli and a sheesha (water pipe). This is where he's lived for nine months.

When Abdul re-emerges, he gives me back my phone with photos from inside the camp. He sits down to translate for a man who came from Idlib a week ago, his leg broken in a mortar attack. Minutes into the interview, a menacing group of Syrian men march over, shouting and pointing at Abdul.

"Where are you from?" one of them barks. Abdul asks them to wait until he's finished translating. But his accent identifies him immediately: he is from Aleppo, Syria's business capital, widely regarded as being pro-regime.

"You're a spy!" one of them shouts. "Traitor!" They demand Abdul hand over his phone, but he refuses. When a German journalist, Raphael Thelen, stands and backs away, one of the men grabs his arm and slaps him across the face. Another grabs me and tries to snatch my notebook. I snatch it back and run towards the Turkish police, watching on from their cars 50 metres away. The young gendarmerie look nonplussed as I plead for help. Behind me, Abdul is surrounded. Men are shouting at him, slapping him. One snatches his glasses and breaks them in front of him.

<p>Photo by David Hollier</p>

Photo by David Hollier

Refugees behind the wire.

Abdul and Raphael wrest free and bolt to the police, who try to shield them from the increasingly enraged mob. It's no use - even after they climb into the police car and lock the back door, one man climbs in and swings a punch at Abdul, while another leans in the window and spits in his face. Realising the futility of negotiation, the police get in the car and drive away, with Raphael and Abdul in the backseat.

"All this talk about Syrian people being one - we're not one," Abdul says when he's released from police custody hours later. "Those men didn't want to talk - they just wanted to hit me, all because I'm from Aleppo. They are acting just like Assad, judging people 'guilty' just because of where they come from."

After a year of brutalising violence and propaganda, it's hardly surprising that Syrians stuck in refugee camps are becoming paranoid and angry. A horrifying realisation is settling in: Assad's defeat, once considered inevitable, now seems increasingly remote. And the longer the conflict drags on, the deeper the divisions become. It's a strategy dictators have been winning with since Caesar: divide and conquer.

"People are not united inside the camp - the only thing they can agree on is getting rid of Bashar," says Ahmad, the former soldier. "Brothers are fighting with each other, because of the situation."

But there are two realities for Syrians in southern Turkey: one inside the camps, and one outside. Syrians are "guests" of the Turkish government and can live wherever they choose - if they can afford it. Those that can, move into the region's ancient capital, Antakya, a cosmopolitan city renowned for its tolerance of minorities. Once upon a time, Antakya, then Antioch, was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, and up until 1939, it belonged to Syria. Today, many Antakyans still have strong familial bonds with Syria, and speak both Turkish and Arabic.

Antakya is also home to a large concentration of Turkey's Alevi community, who regard Syria's ruling Alawite sect as their 'cousins'. They're largely pro-Assad and consider a resurgent Sunni majority - both in their own country and in Syria - to be a threat.

It's here in Antakya, less than an hour's drive from Reyhanli, that a growing community of Syrian refugees is trying to build a new, temporary life outside Syria.

<p>Photo by Jess Hill</p>

Photo by Jess Hill

Bara’a shares a poem.

MOST OF THE CHILDREN AT AL BASHAYER SCHOOL escaped from Syria at night, walking for hours through the dark, between the mountains.

For many of the fathers who walked with them, this was a return journey. Once their families were safely inside Turkey, they left them there: some now work on the border, helping other Syrians get across, others have returned to fight - mostly in the northern province of Idlib - with whatever meager ammunition they can afford.

These children have families that can afford to live outside the camps, but even they are living rough. "We have three families living in the same house - nearly 17 people," says Fatima, 20, a counselor at Al Bashayer.

The school, which began with 25 children, was established by Mustafa Shakir, a Damascus sheikh, last September. Seven months later, 160 children attend classes five days a week in a half-finished building just outside of Antakya. After initially charging them rent, their Turkish landlord has welcomed them to occupy the building as long as they need to, free of charge. New children enroll at Al Bashayer every day. Almost all the families are Sunni Muslims.

Our translator, Abdul, volunteers at Al Bashayer as an English teacher. He says that even though the school is technically illegal, Turkish authorities check in every few days to make sure they're not being harassed.

“We just wake up and do nothing. We’re about to explode.”

Fatima, who provides psychological support for the children, started working here in September, after fleeing from Homs, where several of her relatives were wanted. On her first day at the school she was shocked by what she saw.

"These children - they looked like adults," she recalls, sitting in one of the classrooms. "When we first tried to play with them, they refused. The boys said, 'We are men, we have to go back and fight.' I told them 'No, you are still young!'" she exclaims. "They are small children - nine and ten years old."

Now, after encouraging them to write and draw about what they have seen, teachers at Al Bashayer struggle to stop their pupils from talking, and singing. "They love singing protest songs," says Abdul. "'Down with Assad', 'Death to Bashar', all this. And if one of the teachers gives them too much homework, they replace Assad's name with the name of that teacher."

Fatima says that although the children are happier and more relaxed now, they still express their fears and nightmares in poetry and drawings. "This is what they draw," she says, opening one student's drawing book. One picture shows a Christmas tree, coloured in with red pencil. "It's blood," she says, "and the decorations are tanks, guns and knives. They say this is what Christmas was really like in Syria."

One of her students, 14-year-old Bara'a, comes to join us. She's dressed in a hijab, and wrapped in a shawl knitted in the pattern of the Syrian flag. "Sometimes, when I'm sitting with my family, I get these feelings, so I just get the pen and start writing," she says, and in a gentle, lyrical voice, reads one of her poems. It's addressed to Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad.

"You've killed kids as if they were hair," she says, as Fatima translates. "Don't you fear the great God? Don't you fear men, women and children who are eager to overthrow you? To keep ruling us, it's impossible - even in our imagination. By God's will, the day will come, and you will fall."

“They are acting just like Assad, judging people ‘guilty’ just because of where they come from.”

Bara'a's two brothers, aged 17 and 24, are in prison. "My older brother used to be very passionate. But now he can't walk, because of the beatings. My younger brother helps him."

Some of Bara'a's pictures clearly hew closely to her parents' politics. One drawing shows two figures: one, drawn in the colours of the Syrian flag, stretches its hand out to another, dressed in orange and brandishing a bloodied knife. "That's a man from the Arab League," she says. She turns the page to show another picture, drawn in three sections. "This is the Syrian people. They say 'Help us, help us.' That's the Arab countries - they say, 'We can't help you.' That's all the world - asleep."

How do you feel, I ask, talking to a stranger about these things?

"I feel relieved," she says, smiling. "Two classes ago, I was crying.'

Fatima says that although they feel safe in Antakya, the teachers warn the children against speaking to strangers outside the school. "Some of the children have fathers who are soldiers. So they have to not tell anybody - because maybe a child can tell another child, who tells a strange man, and that might be a problem. Even Syrian people here are not completely safe," she says, matter-of-factly.

They're not completely official, either. The Turkish government may allow Syrians to come across the border, but it refuses to acknowledge them as 'refugees'. "They are deprived of the right to apply for refugee status," Suphi Atan, the foreign ministry's representative here in Hatay province, told AFP. "We expect them to voluntarily return to their country once the situation is secure."

"They call us guests!" Fatima says, exasperated. "But we have been here for almost one year."

For now, the refugees are being welcomed in Antakya, if a little warily. Many of Antakya's Alevis deny the Syrian regime is using violence on its own citizens - apart from the 'terrorists' - and some believe these refugees are just economic migrants taking advantage of a chaotic situation. Despite this sentiment in the community, Fatima says she's received nothing but support. "Even in the shop, when people find out I am Syrian, they say, 'We are praying for you. Anything we can do, we will help you.'"

When she first arrived in Turkey, Fatima dreamt of getting back to Syria. Now she is looking ahead to at least another year in Turkey. "I think, we have to focus on the children," she says. "I'm trying to build a new generation, a powerful generation, who will rebuild Syria."

When might that rebuilding start? Fatima shakes her head. "I don't know. But he's going to stop one day. He can't kill all of us."

She looks me squarely in the eye. "We will fight to the last child we have. And when it is time for us to go back, we will be ready."

In Part Two of her series on the Turkish-Syrian border, Jess Hill explores the propaganda war being fought by the Syrian opposition.

3 comments on this story
by Richard

This dysfunctional struggle between ideals and self-preservation seems to have almost no option but to erupt in anger. Anger can be, so often, the rationalists irrational behavior. To imagine that Jess is 'attacked' in order to steal away her words (her notebook) is an indicator of fear - the fear of possibility in a chaotic time and place. How many books are 'burnt' before even being written in just this way? the immediacy of The Global Mail to publish gives these stories a life they may not otherwise enjoy. Best wishes to The Global Mail and all safety to Jess and to her written recordings of these events.

April 4, 2012 @ 10:17am
by Rand

I notice now that some are that once Assad goes, and most believe he is now fated to go, the vacuum will be filled by various sides backed by al Qaeda, Iran, Hezbollah etc. Who knows then when it will be safe for families to re-enter?

If that case happens, Turkey will be under pressure to let them apply as official refugees.

With so many people arriving every day, that is going to be a big ask.

April 10, 2012 @ 4:06pm
by Patrick

Thanks for a wonderful article by Jess Hill. I live in Sydney in a nation that complains about accepting refugees, and panics about 'boat people'. Turkey has accepted 17,000 Syrian refugees and expects many more. This makes Australia's position even more absurd.

April 12, 2012 @ 10:56am
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