x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syrian violence turns border with Turkey into tent city

Fears grow as Turkey braces for fresh flood of 10,000 refugees from Syria scared of the violence unleashed in recent weeks by their country's army.

Syrian women wait to cross into Turkey behind the border fence on the Syrian side of the border between the two countries, near the Turkish village of Guvecci, 50km (31 miles) from Hatay. Osman Orsal / Reuters
Syrian women wait to cross into Turkey behind the border fence on the Syrian side of the border between the two countries, near the Turkish village of Guvecci, 50km (31 miles) from Hatay. Osman Orsal / Reuters

GUVECCI // Abdullah gazed from inside Turkey across the border at the tent city nestled just inside Syria and voiced a growing fear that a flood of refugees could soon sweep in to escape bloodshed.

"Everybody is in the tents now," he said earlier this week, as the tents' blue plastic sheets shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. "Nobody is left in the villages."

Abdullah, a Syrian who declined to give his real name for fear of reprisals by Syrian security, crossed into Turkey this week to escape the escalating violence.

Now he stays with Turkish relatives near the border village of Guvecci. He said he had no plans to return to his increasingly battle-scarred homeland any time soon.

The cluster of blue tents is on Syrian territory, erected close to the border fence. It is one of several tent communities set up along this part of the meandering border. The camps were hastily erected by thousands of Syrians scared of the violence unleashed in recent weeks by their country's army, but not yet ready to leave their entire lives behind.

People in the tents have little food or clean water, and no access to medicine. They rely on the scarce supplies and provisions they bring back from the Turkish side.

"Up to 10,000 people are waiting like this," said Neil Sammonds, a Syria researcher with Amnesty International who toured the region this week.

A mass border crossing by the people in the tents could more than double the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Observers said this threatens to overwhelm the capacity of camps set up by the Turks to receive them.

Guvecci, a farming village of 350 people, has become the focal point for Syrians fearing an onslaught of government forces in the north of their country.

They started to arrive here in significant numbers after Syrian security forces closed in on anti-government protesters last week in the town of Jisr al Shugour, just 20 kilometres to the south of Guvecci.

A military campaign by the government in Damascus to suppress a popular uprising has killed about 1,400 people since March, according to the Syrian opposition.

Turkey, which shares a border of almost 900 kilometres with Syria, has become more critical towards Damascus after the regime of President Bashar al Assad ignored repeated demands by Ankara to implement political reforms.

The Turkish government has promised to take in the refugees and has called on Damascus to stop using force against civilians.

In Guvecci, no Syrian troops were visible near the border. "They are afraid to come close because the Turkish soldiers are on the other side," said Mohammed, 21, a Syrian who had come to the village to get food for his family, who are living in the plastic tents on the other side of the fence. People in the tents felt safer close to the Turkish side, Abdullah confirmed.

"They are waiting for things to get better, and some tend their fields by day and return to the tents by night," he said.

More than 8,900 Syrians, mostly women and children because many men have stayed behind to look after the families' homes, farms or animals, have fled to Turkey in recent weeks, Turkey's disaster and emergency management directorate reported on Wednesday.

They have been sent to three refugee camps set up by Turkish authorities, one in the town of Yayladagi, 20 kilometres west of Guvecci, and two in Altinozu, 60 kilometres to the north. Two more camps are being built in Yayladag and one near Reyhanli close to a border crossing about half an hour's drive to the north of Altinozu. The camps, aid supplies and other assistance have been financed by roughly US$19 million (Dh69m) from the Turkish government, according to press reports.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, visited Guvecci this week and denied reports that Ankara would close the border once the number of refugees topped 10,000.

"That is out of the question," he told reporters in the capital. "But if this turns into a very big wave [of refugees], it has the potential to turn into a regional and international problem."

Also this week, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, met Hasan Turkmani, a special envoy of Mr al Assad in Ankara and repeated Turkey's calls for reform and an end to the violence."In the present situation, Turkey is unable to defend Syria before the international community," Mr Erdogan said.

In the latest sign of worsening relations between Turkey and Syria, Mr al Assad complained to Mr Erdogan in an earlier telephone conversation that reports about the refugees in the media created a "bad image" for Syria and demanded that Turkey send them back, the Star newspaper reported. Mr Erdogan turned down that request, the newspaper reported, telling Mr al Assad: "We will not send them back when their lives are in danger."

Mr Turkmani told Turkish media he was confident that the Syrian refugees would stay in Turkey only temporarily. "Soon they will return," he was quoted as saying.

In the border area, there was no sign of Syrians returning, although the number of refugees stabilised this week. There was evidence of widespread fear.

"They shot at houses with tanks," said Mohammed, the young Syrian man who had come to Guvecci to get bread and other supplies. "Every day, they came a little bit closer. There is no electricity, no telephone, so we fled."

Mohammed, who withheld his family name, said his cousin had been shot dead in the confrontation in Jisr al Shughour, and that he had seen Iranians and Hizbollah fighters in the ranks of the government troops.

"Syria will only be at peace once the Assad clan is gone," he said.

Abdullah said government tanks opened fire on five mosques in Jisr al Shughour. He also claimed that shops and bakeries were shelled in an effort to disrupt the civilian population's food supply.

"They are acting just like the Israelis in Palestine," said Abdullah, adding that he heard reports of "many, many defections" from the Syrian army. "Family members of defectors are being tortured," he said.

Some defectors have reportedly sought refuge in Turkey. A Syrian officer, Col Hussein Harmush, told Agence France-Presse that he and his troops had tried to protect fleeing civilians in Jisr al Shugour.

Turkish soldiers guarding their side of the border have not prevented people like Mohammed from bringing food to the Syrians on the other side.

"We do have money, but people here insist on giving us bread and everything for free," Mohammed said. Several lorries filled with supplies, including water and plastic sheets to build more tents, were waiting on Guvecci's main square on Wednesday. The goods were donated by local people independently of Turkey's official multimillion aid effort.

"Syrians have told me they would have starved to death had it not been for the people of Guvecci," said Mr Sammonds.

Aysegul is a Turkish housewife in Guvecci whose home overlooks the tent city housing some 500 Syrian refugees in the valley below.

"They came about 20 days ago, when the trouble started," said Aysegul. "They even brought their dead and buried them there." She added that two children in the makeshift camp had died.

The Syrian crisis continues to dominate events for locals and Syrians in Guvecci. Just an hour by car to the north, however, the official border crossing point at Cilvegozu was busy with a steady stream of buses, lorries and cars travelling between Turkey and Syria.