Abu Ali had to leave his home in Azmareen, a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants just across the border, eight months ago. He owns several acres of olive groves and a farm that he can see from the hills on the Turkish side, but that he cannot reach. “If I return, they’ll kill me,” he says. Abu Ali used to work as a singer at village weddings, but a year ago he started to use his talent to sing anti-Assad songs at rallies in Hama. Both of his children had been in university when they had to leave, now he lives with them and his wife in a Turkish refugee camp. “I have sold my car to get by, and I have only $100 left.” He sighs. “I will have to start selling my land.”
Abu Ali is in constant phone contact with his fellow Azmareen residents. “The Syrian regime has interrupted the mobile phone coverage,” he says. “But we all use Turkish SIM cards – Turkcell covers up to 10km across the border. Bless them.”
He explains that at night the river crossing is used to smuggle food and medical supplies into Syria, and that people come to Turkey this way too. “I help as much as I can,” he says. “These are all my countrymen.”
To get to the river, you have to wade through knee-deep mud. The military police station of Hacipasa is close by, but only a pack of dogs take notice of people approaching the border, marked solely by the river. Some people have lit fires on the Syrian side of the river. Despite it being a mild spring day, the water is still very cold, and several young men take turns diving, while others try to warm up again. When they notice Abu Ali, they swim to the Turkish side to greet him. Squatting in the mud, clad in nothing but white briefs, they describe the death of their friend.
17-year-old Omar Sheikh Mohammed drowned on 20 March, running from the Syrian Army who had surrounded Azmareen. “It was dark, and the water was very cold,” a man called Nidal says, shivering himself. “He was wanted by the Syrian Army because he had participated in protest rallies, so he panicked and jumped into the water to get to Turkey.” His friends nod in agreement. “But he didn’t know how to swim, and because he was fully clothed, he just sank, we weren’t able to save him.”
Abu Ali says that they are now diving for the body of the young man. “His parents deserve at least a funeral, to find some peace of mind.” Nidal is angry that nobody feels responsible. “We asked the Turkish authorities, but they said we should come back tomorrow. We asked the Syrians, and they said: ‘Let him become fish food.’ Now we try to find his body ourselves, and risk drowning just like he did.”
Mohammed, 34, from Idlib
Mohammed, a 34-year-old police officer, had been working as a prison guard in the central Idlib prison for 11 years. “I never thought about defecting until last year,” he says. He first came to Turkey in December 2011, after hiding “in the mountains” for six weeks. In January 2012, he returned to Syria to join the Free Syrian Army, but when soldiers attacked them in the middle of March, he fled to Turkey once again, taking only what he was wearing at the time. Because both of his parents and his two-year-old son are in Syria, he wishes to remain anonymous.
For Mohammed, joining the armed struggle seemed the only possible response to what he had seen in his job as a prison guard. “In April 2011, there were protest rallies in Idlib,” he says. “About 320 people were arrested and put in jail.” He says that all of these political prisoners received a “reception” on their arrival in the central prison: “On the 700 metres between the front and the main gate, prisoners were beaten with sticks, electric cables and water hoses.” He did not take part in the beatings. “They were all fellow Idlib residents. How could I have hit them?”
In the subsequent weeks and months, Mohammed witnessed torture and abuse inside the prison: beating, stress positions, electrocution. He lights another cigarette and takes a deep drag before he continues. “One man lost an eye in a beating. If prisoners refused to say that ‘Assad is our leader’, they sat them down naked on to a glass bottle. The bottleneck penetrated [their anus].”
Two weeks ago, Amnesty International published a report that lists systematic torture in Syrian prisons. Mohammed says that violence was also directed against police officers if they stepped out of line: “A man came to our prison to ask if his son had been arrested and brought there. Because I told him that this was the case, I was reprimanded and incarcerated in a prison for political prisoners in Idlib for two days, and I was beaten there. Only because I told this man that his son was in prison.”
In November 2011 an arrest order was filed against Mohammed, because a close family member had joined the armed opposition, so he left to hide in the mountains surrounding the city, and finally entered Turkey in December. Having joined the Free Syrian Army in January, he witnessed the military operations in Idlib in mid-March: “They attacked with tanks. They evicted people from their houses and burned all of their possessions, and they burned down the houses of opposition members. Many people died.
“Thank God it was raining, so their projectiles did not reach as far. This way we were able to save several hundred people from being killed.” While he denies any sectarian bias on the side of the opposition forces, it is clear that he has some bitterness about his job status: “While I should have been promoted for the first time after two years, it took them four years to actually do it.” Mohammed is convinced that this is related to him being Sunni: “They discriminate against Sunni, and the Alawites get all the good jobs.” Now sheltered in a Turkish refugee camp, Mohammed wants to go back to Syria as soon as he feels strong again: “Someone needs to do something. So many people in Syria live in poverty. And 40 years is too long for any government.”
Rawja, 25, from Jisr al-Shughour
Spring has come late to the Turkish province of Hatay this year, and for the first week in months, the rain has stopped. At 11 in the morning, it is already stifling hot inside the tents in Altinözü refugee camp, just across the Syrian border, but the children inside one of the school tents, where Arabic-speaking Turkish teachers follow a Turkish curriculum, diligently follow the lesson.
Rawja visits her two sons, four and five years old, in the nursery tent, where about 20 children are gathered around low tables, painting, colouring, or playing with putty. Her younger son bites his lips in concentration while working on his colouring book. The refugee camp in Altinözü houses 2,000 of the 17,000 Syrians who have so far crossed the border, according to Suphi Atan, a camp co-ordinator for the Turkish foreign ministry.
Rawja came to Turkey two months ago for the first time. “We stayed for a little while, and then we went back home again,” she says. “But because things were not improving [in Syria], we returned to Turkey one month ago, and now we are here, waiting.” She is impatient to return to her house in Jisr al-Shughour, though she is not sure if it still stands: “I heard that half of our house was destroyed, and that my neighbours have lost their homes. Many people have died.”
While Rawja does not feel at home in the Altinözü camp, others have tried to settle down as much as possible under the circumstances. One of her neighbours in the tent city, 21-year-old Sabiha who has been here for 10 months, met and married her husband in the camp. A few metres from Rawja’s own tent, a 25-year-old man from Jisr al-Shughour has constructed a coop for his doves, all 30 of which he brought with him in boxes when he fled Syria. Some people have opened semi-legitimate businesses to get by. There are two “cornershop” tents and one bakery – “Revolution Bakery” has been scribbled on the tent – where, the two bakers say, they sell bread at Syrian prices.
Rawja’s husband is active in the armed opposition. With his help and the help of his contacts, they were able to cross the mountains unharmed to come to Turkey. She explains that not everybody was this lucky: “Many more want to come, but they are afraid. There are soldiers controlling the roads, it is dangerous.” Her husband, who lives in the Altinözü refugee camp with her, often crosses into Syria to transport supplies, and to escort refugees to Turkey: “My husband is wanted in Syria, but he keeps going there. Every time he leaves me I am afraid that I will never see him again. We fight a lot, I don’t want him to go, but he doesn’t listen.”
While she says that the Turkish authorities take good care of them in the refugee camp, she is unhappy here: “I cry every day. God willing this war will end soon, so we can all go home.”
Salwa, from Latakia
The walls of the room are empty except for a makeshift Syrian flag pieced together from pieces of cloth and a frilly Christmas tree made from crêpe paper. 17-year-old Reem laughs. “I really wanted a Christmas tree, so I made us one,” she explains in flawless English. “We celebrate all the holidays in our family. Christmas or Eid Al Adha, it doesn’t matter.”
A tall woman wearing her hair at chin-length, her mother Salwa is a psychologist who ran her own practice in Latakia before she and her two teenage daughters decided to give up their rental apartment and sell everything they owned to come to Turkey in June 2011. “Things were getting too difficult, and I started to be really afraid for my family.”
Since they had valid Syrian passports, Salwa and her two daughters Reem and 19-year-old Asra came into Turkey at a regular border crossing. Turkey lifted visa requirements for Syrian citizens in 2009, but now their passports have expired. “We do not want to attract too much attention around here,” Salwa says, lighting a cigarette. “If the Turkish authorities find us, they will put us in one of the refugee camps.”
Reem was in her last year of high school when they left. “I wanted to go to college and study psychology too,” Reem says. “It is very hard here. Because I don’t speak Turkish, I haven’t been able to find a job. We do not want anyone’s pity or help. I would like to work, but nobody employs me.”
As Amnesty International has repeatedly pointed out, Turkey still refuses to grant refugee status to nationals from outside Council of Europe countries, leaving people such as Salwa, Asra and Reem, who are fleeing a conflict zone, in a legal vacuum. “We have no right to work, go to school or open a business,” Reem says. “We haven’t been able to do anything for almost a year.” Just like other Syrian refugees who prefer not to live inside one of the refugee camps, they have no access to free healthcare either.
Four months ago, Asra found work in a local restaurant where she works 10 hours a day and seven days a week to support the rest of the family. “My mum and I are mostly at home,” Reem says. “We are on the internet all day; we watch the news on TV to see what happens in Syria.”
Living in a predominantly Alevi neighbourhood in Antakya, Salwa explains that she now introduces herself and her daughters as Palestinian to everyone she meets, just in case. “In our old apartment people knew we had come from Syria, and the police came twice to check our documents.” Reem adds: “People in Turkey always ask if you are Sunni or Alevi. I stopped answering that question because I am worried of what they might do if I tell them that I am Sunni.” Salwa nods. “This question used to be irrelevant in Syria, nobody would ask it.” She is afraid that her country might slide into a bloody civil war soon. “Now it seems your sect is all people care about.”
Um Eddine is a teacher and mother of four. She left her home in Daraa after receiving death threats and arrived in Jordan in the middle of March. Her husband was arrested by the Assad regime in December. She says the threats started last year. “In July last year, government security appeared, knocking at the front door. I looked out of the window and saw a lot of heavily armed men wearing black. They weren’t soldiers, they were Shabiha [militia loyal to the Assad regime]. They were knocking with such force I opened the door immediately. They stormed in asking where my husband was. I told them that honestly, I didn’t know, and they called me a liar. They started tearing off the curtains and destroying the furniture.”
One officer advised her that after they left she should lock the door and not open it to anyone again. “Shortly after that, my husband called and told me never to accept a call from his number again. This made me really afraid.” Her husband was arrested in December. “I have no idea where he is now.”
She made the decision to leave after tanks entered the city late in February. “Many people were slaughtered,” Um Eddine says. “They just ran over them with the tanks. Walking home from school to my mother’s home that day, blood ran in the streets. When I got to her home, everything had been destroyed or stolen. It was impossible to stay there. My neighbours told me, come and see your house. I went to pick up some things but there was nothing left to take. There was nothing else to do. We had to be smuggled into Jordan.”
They travelled on a cold night, four or five families all together, women and children. They took nothing. “We walked through the farms. Once we reached the edge of Daraa, the young people told us to walk the next 1km to the border in complete silence. I asked why, we have young children. They told me that all along the top of the mountains are government soldiers. If they hear anything, they shoot immediately. We would all be killed.
“We all thought we were going to die. We refused to stop and rest. The young people helped me carry my children. We had to cross a mountain and then we reached a small barbed-wire fence. I was carrying my youngest two, but the older two boys were walking ahead. They had become tangled in the barbed wire but were too afraid to call out for me. When I crossed I couldn’t find them. So I went back to Syrian land to find them. They were calling to me softly: ‘Mum, help, I’m caught.’ I found them and released them as quickly as I could. I picked up the two little ones and told the other two to hold on to my dress.”
Jordanian soldiers met them. “My three-and-a-half year-old asked me, why do these soldiers gave us tea while the ones at home kill people? I said: ‘Because that is Syria.'”
“My sons haven’t gone to school for a whole year. They haven’t been able to play in the streets for a year. In Daraa, they were in a state of fear the whole time. I’m planning to start a new life here, planning to erase the last 32 years of my life – forget they ever happened.
“I pray that I will see my husband again. I pray for him and all those who are arrested.”
Abu Shadi, 40, Damascus
Abu Shadi, a married father of three used to work for the Syrian water ministry in Damascus. He and his brothers claim to have led the uprising in their suburb on the the outskirts of the capital. As a result of his activism, he is wanted by the Syrian government. He fled to Jordan in October last year and now lives in Amman with his older brother.
“One evening, my brother and I we were watching the news. They were talking about what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt, and the commentators said Syria will be next. We looked at each other and said: ‘Why don’t we do it?'”
Abu Shadi says that before the uprising he was never bold enough to talk politics, even with his brother. But the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings changed all that. “It took them a few weeks to bring down their governments. I thought it would take us 20 days. That was our initial intention. Now we’ve reached a stage where they are killing young children.”
Initially they did little more than graffiti. The first march attracted only a couple of dozen people. “But it was like dominos,” Abu Shadi says. “The next Friday, 2,000 turned up. We were shouting and they were shooting. They were afraid even though we had no weapons.”
The town is surrounded by the fourth and fifth brigades of the army. It used to house 23,000 people. “Now there’s no one there, only old people and children. The rest have fled.”
Abu Shadi escaped in October. His family came afterwards. “I came legally, before they had wanted lists at the border. Even though I’m away from Syria, it’s not out of my mind for even a second. I can’t live without it. We will definitely return, God willing. All our property, everything is in Syria. I’ll only stay one or two months here, then I’ll return.
“I was an activist before the uprising and I am still an activist even now, in Jordan. I’m still doing all I can to help. I do many things, but I don’t want to talk about them now. It’s not necessary.
“I want a government elected by the people that is democratic and fair. Those involved in torture should be put to trial. That would be fair.”
Some names have been changed at the request of interviewees.