Hatay Province, Turkey – Behind the barbed wire surrounding the refugee camp located in Hatay Province, near the Turkish-Syrian border, stands Khitam, a six-year-old Syrian girl, who along with her family fled the Syrian regime’s crackdown on the protest wave sweeping the nation.
As soon as we entered the camp, Khitam whisked us into one of the tents and asked us to take photos of her father and five siblings.
Many photojournalists and reporters have arrived here from various countries to report on the developments on the Turkish side of the 880km-shared border, which currently hosts approximately 8000 Syrian refugees. Around 10,000 others may soon join them.
To reach this camp, you have to travel up and down a mountainous area fringed with wide expanses of fertile fields growing wheat, olive and fruit trees.
A vehicle from the Turkish Gendarmerie, or border control forces, accompanied us on our journey. After an almost two-hour ride we could see the tops of the tents in the distance. The Turkish Red Crescent set up these camps, which are encircled by two-meter barbed wire and secured by the Gendarmerie.
At the camp gates we met an old Turkish couple who came to visit their Syrian relatives. Amira, the Turkish wife, said that Turkish and Syrian families living near the borders are bound by age-old relationships of marriage.
But our talk was soon interrupted by the voice of Turkish officials who asked us to leave our cell phones and camcorders at the gates with the security guards. They said we were only allowed to take still photos. They said we should not speak with Syrian refugees in order to not hassle them. They said they would bring some of the refugees to tell their stories when we finished our tour around the camp.
But, as soon as we got into the camp, several refugees offered to tell their stories.
The camp had people of different ages who share the same stories of killing, intimidation, arrest and rape. Most of the camp’s residents are from the Jisr al-Shughour area in Syria, only half an hour into Syrian territory, according to the camp residents.
At the gates of one of the camps, we met with Amm Mohamed and his two little girls.
“Jisr al-Shughour is a center for murder and rape. The Syrian Army has not saved an effort,” he said angrily. “They break into homes at midnight, arrest whoever they want and shoot at whoever they want.”
“They don’t even have mercy for the weak women…there were cases of rape. Even the Syrian Air Force struck us in what seemed to be a genocide. Before they came, they sent thugs to burgle our homes.”
Only steps away from tent we could hear Syrians chanting.
“The people want to bring down the regime,” they said in unison.
As we approached them a young Syrian man came up to us and said, “Where is the Arab League?! Why hasn’t the Arab League Chief come to see what has happened to us and listen to us?! Or is he too busy?!”
Another young man joined the conversation. “I will not say my name or let you take pictures for some of my family members are still in Syria and I’m afraid they may be harmed,” he said. “We did not have arms in order to defend ourselves from being killed and intimidated that way. The Assad family is pretending it does not know we are banned from possessing weapons, especially the Sunnis among us!”
He added that he is a commerce student but his name is now on the regime’s terror list because he participated in peaceful protests to demand freedom. He said Assad is banning residents of Jisr al-Shoghour from going to other places around Syria.
Syrian official media has been accusing protesters of being members in “organized criminal organizations.”
“At least 20,000 Syrians participated in the funeral of a martyr named Bassel,” said refugee Aboul Seif. “The security did not like that. We proceeded but then they started firing from all directions…some of the security forces refused to shoot at us, so the other forces fired at them, killing many.”
He went on. “They then dug a hole in the ground and buried them and brought the media the following day to say they discovered a mass grave and accused the unarmed Syrians of committing the crime.”
One of the refugees said an army colonel named Ahmed Hegazy, who refused to fire at his people in Jisr al-Shughour, fled to the camps.
In their accounts of what happened in Syria, some of the refugees said they saw well-built men with heavy beards roaming the streets in the areas they came from. They said they killed Syrian protesters, and some people claimed they were Iranians.
Translated from the Arabic Edition.