Syr­i­ans risk lives for refuge in Turkey

Help smug­gle fam­i­lies, sup­plies

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY MICHAEL GUNN AND ROSE-ANNE CLER­MONT

ORONTES RIVER, SYRIA | In snow-flecked forests sep­a­rat­ing Turkey and north­ern Syria, a band of some 50 Syr­ian rebels re­groups in a makeshift hill­side base, safe for the mo­ment.

With an es­ca­lat­ing crack­down against regime op­po­nents and no more than 30 as­sault ri­fles and a few shot­guns among them, they still say time is on their side.

“We are not go­ing to re­treat nor give up,” said Abu Youssef, a 43-year-old build­ing contractor turned rev­o­lu­tion­ary from Darkush, a few miles across the bor­der in the Idlib prov­ince in Syria.

Mr. Youssef, who asked that his real name be with­held for his fam­ily’s safety, takes sup­plies across the bor­der al­most daily.

He said he was not po­lit­i­cal un­til he was held and tor­tured last au­tumn af­ter be­ing de­tained at a lo­cal mosque. He joined the rev­o­lu­tion upon his re­lease.

“The regime’s forces don’t re­spect any­thing,” he said. “I was ar­rested when I was pray­ing.”

Mean­while, his four sons, the el­dest in his early teens, are re­fus­ing to leave Syria.

“I told them they had to leave,” he said. “The el­dest told me ‘no,’ that they will bring down the regime or they will die try­ing.”

Wait­ing in the woods

As Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s regime con­tin­ues to shell Homs and es­ca­lates at­tacks on towns in the Idlib prov­ince, hun­dreds of Syr­i­ans — in­clud­ing rebel fight­ers — are flee­ing to Turkey.

Among pine trees in a makeshift camp with a few mud-spat­tered tents, the rebels plan guer­rilla raids into Syria, es­cort smug­gled peo­ple and talk about the regime’s de­feat.

They worry about how to get ba­sic sup­plies such as food, weapons and com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment for them­selves and into Syria. They ex­press con­cern about in­for­mants among them, lured by money or threats against their fam­i­lies. And they hope for aid from the Arab world and the U.S.

They also ex­press grat­i­tude for Turkey’s lack of in­ter­fer­ence.

“The Turks give us no prob­lems,” said Mazen Khalil, 34, ges­tur­ing to a watch­tower manned by Turk­ish sol­diers.

This night, look­outs scan the sur­round­ing hills from deep in the scrub. Down in the val­ley, the rebels have laid prim­i­tive booby traps for As­sad forces seek­ing to catch the wounded and the wanted be­ing smug­gled out of Syria.

As fog de­scends, a call is made to a mo­bile phone across the river, then the light sig­nal comes. A car pulls up on the op­po­site side of a river there.

Six­teen men come across in four re­lays of a sag­ging row­boat with an oar made from a wooden sign.

“It’s more dan­ger­ous at night,” said Abu Jaf­far, the nom de guerre of a hu­man smug­gler at the Syr­ian-turk­ish bor­der. “The snipers are nervy. If they hear any­thing, they will open fire.”

Some of the men, rang­ing in age from 20 to 35, have walked al­most all the way from Hama — about 48 miles to the south — in about four days.

They travel in ones and twos, mak­ing con­tacts in vil­lages but sleep­ing mostly out­side in the moun­tains or in the coun­try­side so as not to en­dan­ger the lo­cals.

Three of the men are de­fec­tors from Syria’s army. “We need to re­group and get weapons,” one said over the sound of ar­tillery in the dis­tance. “I’ll be the first back across this river.”

Two days later, four ex­tended fam­i­lies came across the same way, in­clud­ing 40 chil­dren, the el­dest 13 years old. They were taken to a spar­tan sec­ond-floor apart­ment in a north­ern sub­urb of An­takya, Turkey, a prop­erty owned by an el­derly Turk­ish businessman.

“Cross­ing is get­ting harder and more dan­ger­ous,” said Mr. Jaf­far. “But it’s never im­pos­si­ble. As­sad can­not con­trol the en­tire bor­der with the forces he has.”

For a taste of free­dom

At least 30,000 Syr­i­ans have fled the es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence at home, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. Refugee Agency, the ma­jor­ity of them to Turkey.

Samer, 40, who asked that his last name be with­held, brought his wife and four chil­dren across from the bor­der town of Darkush via a boat cross­ing last week.

Samer goes back and forth be­tween Syria and Turkey to video­tape protests us­ing minia­ture cam­eras in pens and buttons.

He said it’s too dan­ger­ous for his chil­dren in Syria. “The sol­diers took a 15-year-old boy hostage and de­manded the fa­ther hand him­self in,” he said. “I can’t take the risk of them do­ing that to my chil­dren.”

His wife, Sa­har, weeps over the par­ents she left be­hind. “They were too old to make the jour­ney.”

Since the be­gin­ning of the up­ris­ing a year ago, more than 8,000 Syr­i­ans have been killed, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions. The vi­o­lence and its af­ter­shocks only seem to be in­ten­si­fy­ing, lo­cals say.

“Life has be­come a strug­gle,” said Abu Ali, 31, a wounded army de­fec­tor at a safe house in Guvecci vil­lage, Turkey, where gun­shots oc­ca­sion­ally pierce the si­lence.

He said he joined the rebel army three months ago and fought in five skir­mishes against As­sad forces, the lat­est in the vil­lage of Ain Al-baida on Fri­day.

He de­tailed his new ca­reer as an armed es­cort for civil­ians, say­ing he lost count of the peo­ple he helped get across the bor­der.

But the rebels fer­ry­ing footage, sup­plies and peo­ple across the bor­der say they don’t think twice about the risk.

“If I die for this, then at least my chil­dren might be­come free,” said Samer. “Haven’t you tasted free­dom? Isn’t it worth dy­ing for?”


GET WHILE THE GET­TING IS GOOD: Syr­ian refugees speak with a Turk­ish sol­dier as peo­ple flee­ing vi­o­lence in Syria con­tinue to cross the bor­der near Rey­hanli, Turkey, on Sun­day.

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