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Syrians fleeing to Turkey are stuck in dreary limbo

Thousands sit in tents, afraid to go back to the war zone or forward into Turkey, whose camps have filled. Turkey is appealing to the U.N. for assistance.

April 08, 2012|By Los Angeles Times Staff
  • A member of the Free Syrian Army offers food to a Syrian refugee family waiting to cross into Turkey.
A member of the Free Syrian Army offers food to a Syrian refugee family waiting… (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova,…)

REYHANLI, Turkey — Somewhere in Syria near the border with Turkey, thousands of refugees are hunkered down in a makeshift camp, afraid to go forward or go back.

They cannot return home, because their villages in Syria's northwest Idlib province have become war zones, places full of government tanks and helicopters, and bodies in such large numbers that they have to be buried in mass graves.

And across the border in Turkey awaits a country that is unprepared for the influx of refugees, where some are staying in sports arenas or schools as the government rushes to erect new camps for the thousands who have recently poured in.

Instead, the families sit in a valley along the border in large tents normally used for wakes. One rebel who is helping take the wounded to hospitals in Turkey estimated that about 4,000 people are in limbo there.

And as the refugees continue to gather, the death and destruction they left behind is coming into clearer focus. In Taftanaz, a town of about 20,000, activists estimate that more than 100 people have been killed since Tuesday. They said most of the bodies were pulled out of the rubble of demolished homes but some may have burned to death.

On Friday, they said, the few residents left behind buried the dead in a mass grave.

Across Syria on Saturday, at least 121 people were reported killed in the crackdown by the government of President Bashar Assad, among them 59 in the city of Hama, victims of what activists described as a massacre. The accounts could not be independently confirmed.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonhas condemned the escalating violence despite Assad's promise to withdraw tanks and heavy weapons by Tuesday, the deadline imposed by a U.N.-brokered peace plan. World leaders had expressed concern that Assad would use the time before the deadline to continue attacks.

In a phone conversation Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu informed the U.N. leader of the refugees streaming into his nation.

That same day, the Turkish Ministry of Disaster and Emergency Management said almost 3,000 Syrians had arrived in the previous 24 hours, and more than 24,000 had fled to Turkey since the beginning of the uprising.

Turkey has appealed for help in handling the refugees.

"We have spared no efforts to accommodate Syrians fleeing the violence back home, but if they continue to arrive at this rate, we will need the U.N. and international community to step in," Davutoglu said in televised remarks.

Turkish state media reported Saturday that Davutoglu spoke by phone with Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria who brokered the peace deal, and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

The refugees who have already arrived in Turkey know the help is needed.

When Um Mohammad crossed the border in late March with her two children and husband, she instantly regretted the decision.

As soon as her family and 200 other people entered Turkey, they were met by soldiers who left them in the rain for hours until buses could come and take them to the camps.

"I thought a lot about going back to Syria," said Um Mohammad, who is from the Idlib-area village of Binnish. "Because when we got here, the army left us in the rain for seven hours, and the children were whining and crying and hungry. I would rather have just gone back home."

After nightfall, she said, her husband paid a $200 bribe and was able to arrange for their own transportation to take them away. But the rest of the refugees remained behind; she's not sure for how long.

A man who gave his name as Hajj Ali had been helping hundreds of refugees, wounded soldiers and army defectors cross safely into Turkey for months. But when his own family finally fled Syria last month — piled on large tractors driving through the rain — there was no room left in the camps.

The extended family of 24, along with 14 buses loaded with other refugees, were driven about 70 miles to a sports arena, which they weren't allowed to leave.

More than 1,000 people were at the arena, and they slept on the basketball court and in offices.

"You would find 200 people in one room," said Ahmad, one of Hajj Ali's relatives.

Not until the following Tuesday was the family, which included 15 children, finally released, and then only after the family threatened to break out, Ahmad said. Now they and a dozen other relatives live in a rented home in the village of Reyhanli.

"It's not a failure on the part of the Turkish government," Hajj Ali said. "It's a failure of all the world. Aren't the refugees the responsibility of the United Nations? Where are they?"

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