No Refuge

Syrians fleeing the massacre back home battle boredom, callous foreign governments, and growing religious rifts.


BOHSIN, Turkey — The dull thud of the Syrian military shells woke me in the Bohsin refuge camp at about three in the morning.

Across the tent, Wasim Sabbagh, a Syrian Christian from the province of Homs, did not stir. But across the Orontes River, which separates Turkey and Syria, people were dying as we slept, in numbers impossible to verify because the Syrian government denies independent observers access to the country. The United Nations says that "well over" 7,500 people have lost their lives during the yearlong uprising.

Life in the refugee camp — a life spent hoping President Bashar al-Assad will soon fall — has become routine. Sabbagh’s friends compare the different brands of tuna provided to them by Turkish aid workers, watch the pigeons one man keeps in a homemade cage, and, of course, follow the latest horrible news from inside Syria.

For many months, Syrian refugees who work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were allowed to go and come as they pleased. But according to refugees and activists, in the past several days — as Syrian tanks and military vehicles appeared on the border — Turkish officials have begun more aggressively controlling the refugees. The activists say that they have been warned that those without prior approval to send humanitarian aid across the border would be detained and sent to a camp for troublesome refugees.

"We are afraid," says a refugee from the northern city of Jisr al-Shughour. Initially, he had been relieved when he arrived in Turkey nine months ago, but now he feels trapped and unsure what to do next. "We don’t look at [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan as the whole government. I am not defending Erdogan, but this is the reality. We confirm there is a secret relation between the Turkish security forces and the Syrian security forces."

Like so many of their kin in Syria, the approximately 11,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey are struggling to survive a conflict that has turned increasingly bloody and defined by sectarian loyalties. The refugees’ numbers appear likely to grow as Assad’s security forces escalate their crackdown. Following the regime’s assault on the restive city of Homs, U.N. officials warned that as many as 2,000 Syrians were preparing to flee to Lebanon. And with Syria’s northern governorate of Idlib looking like the next arena for a confrontation between Assad and the opposition, Turkey could be in store for another influx of refugees.

The smuggling routes to Turkey are also coming under increased pressure as Assad clamps down on Syria’s north. Local smugglers, who bring supplies into Syria and the wounded out, are charging between $500 and $1,000 per person to get journalists into the country. When the Syrian military reinforced the border area, some smugglers disappeared. A local FSA commander says he does not need more journalists — he needs guns.

Sabbagh, like many caught up in this war, wants to know why the world hasn’t done more to end Syrians’ suffering.

"Why is the international community silent? Do the Syrian people have tails?" Sabbagh says. One day, he bent over and suddenly vomited on the side of the road. The cause, most likely, is a mixture of stress and cold.

Sabbagh’s camp of 1,700 people is all Sunni except for himself, he says. The refugees know the international community is wary of regional sectarian conflict, but incorporating Syria’s minority groups into the revolution is easier said than done.

"The regime is using the Alawite people to kill the other people; it’s a normal reaction toward this," Sabbagh says of Sunni-Alawi sectarian violence. "They are killing just because they are Alawites. We have the right to say the Alawites are killing the other people."

Born in the town of Kattinah, Sabbagh fled Syria after intense persecution by the security forces in 2000. He was first persecuted, he says, when he refused to become a junior member of the Baath Party in high school. Later, he was again arrested and accused of starting a religious movement after teaching children English in a church. The persecution continued, he says, after he was conscripted into the military. After a number of years abroad in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, he applied for political asylum in the United States.

The Syrian uprising began as Sabbagh’s asylum case was under consideration. He flew to Turkey with an aim to travel overland back to Kattinah to be with his family — but was advised, when he arrived at the border, that he had little chance of arriving in his hometown alive. "I went to Turkey because I don’t trust the Lebanese … and also the Syrian security forces have a long arm in Lebanon," he says.

Frustrations run high. The refugees openly acknowledged the failure of the opposition to unite, and they laugh at Col. Riad al-Asaad, the defector who claims to head the FSA from another Turkish refugee camp because he is controlled by the Turkish government and unable to actually lead fighters.

"They are just sitting and doing nothing," a refugee says of Asaad and the other defected officers in Turkey who claim to lead the FSA. "They can’t do anything because they are not allowed."

The disparity between the fractious opposition-in-exile and the reality on the ground also provokes resentment in the refugee camps. As members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is intended to be a political umbrella group for Syria’s opposition, hold conferences at luxury hotels in Istanbul, one FSA commander I know goes to great lengths to sneak a single box of bullets across the border under fire.

The same refugee who criticized the FSA blames the Syrian regime for sowing the seeds of division plaguing Syria’s sundry opposition groups. "You are in prison all your life; you can’t eat until you have permission to do it. One day you come out and find yourself the one controlling the people inside the prison," he said. "[H]ow can these people be real leaders for such a critical situation?"

The influx of refugees is also putting a strain on Turkey’s resources. However, a Turkish diplomatic source based in Turkey’s border province of Hatay denied that concerns over handling an increased flow of refugees was preventing Turkey from taking more aggressive action against Assad’s regime. "Turkey is ready to admit all the Syrians, to admit all who are in danger, there is no limitation," he says. "We are in the preparation process for a huge camp to host 10,000 refugees."

That’s a relief to only some of the Syrian refugees, despite their dismal conditions. The Syrians will soon move to a larger camp about 125 miles away from the border, where their canvas tents — currently accumulating black mold — will be replaced by two-room living containers complete with a bathroom and kitchen. The move is forcing the refugees who are working with the FSA to choose between returning to Syria and potentially losing their access to vital supplies gathered in Turkey, and settling in the new camp far from the border — where they risk losing the ability to cross into Syria.

While the improvements in living conditions will no doubt be appreciated by the Syrians, the Turkish government still refuses to grant them legal status as refugees. Instead, the Syrians are "guests," a loophole that requires less legal responsibility. Offers of assistance from international humanitarian organizations have been rejected by the Turks, even when one camp was flooded and many of the refugees fell ill.

The lukewarm attitude is perhaps due both to a desire to control opposition forces and fears that the sectarianism that has fractured Syrian society will also come to Turkey. Houses in Turkey belonging to Alevis, a minority group similar to the Alawites, were recently marked with crosses by unknown perpetrators. The act of intimidation echoed the 1978 Maras Massacre, during which 105 Alevis were killed by Sunni ultra-nationalists, after their houses were marked in a similar way.

Turkey’s interior minister, Idris Naim Sahin, considered both a religious Sunni and nationalist, described the event as "child’s play." Meanwhile, Alawites in Antakya, the capital of Hatay Province, held multiple pro-Assad demonstrations and voiced fears for their relatives inside Syria, who they feared would suffer reprisal attacks by anti-Assad groups. They also voiced hostility toward Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has emerged as one of the Assad regime’s primary international antagonists.

Dogan Bermek, president of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, says there was more religious freedom in Assad’s Syria than in Turkey, and that "some people" were trying to create a religious war in both countries.

"Those who are trying to use [the] ‘Arab Spring’ as a tool for creating an inter-religious clash in Syria, may be attempting to widen their areas of acitvity [sic]," further warned a statement sent out by Bermek’s federation.

Not everyone agrees. Louise Abdul-Kareem, 35, is an Alawite actress from the Syrian coastal city of Latakia who says that she has supported the opposition from the beginning. She fled Syria in December after constant harassment by security forces, and now lives in Cairo.

Abdul-Kareem estimates that one-third of Alawites support Assad "because they are using the regime," one-third support it "because they believe the story of armed gangs," and the remaining one-third don’t believe the Syrian regime’s narrative but have been cowed into silence.

More Alawites are being targeted than is being reported due to the media blackout, Abdul-Kareem claims. "The regime doesn’t protect the minorities; it’s another lie," she says.

Sabbagh agrees. Kattinah, his hometown, has been closely guarded by the Syrian military for months to ensure the Christians there do not show support for the opposition.

"It’s a little bit complicated because of Christians themselves," Sabbagh says. "There will be no civil war, but [post-Assad Syria] will not be so easy and stable."

Sabbagh expects there to be some sectarian violence against Christians following Assad’s fall — including, he says, church bombings. It’s a fear shared by many Christian religious leaders, who have thrown their weight behind Assad. Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, for example, recently warned that the Arab Spring was turning into a winter of "violence, war, destruction and killing," and that Assad’s Syria represented "the closest thing to democracy [in the Arab world]."

But despite all these fears, Sabbagh is optimistic that Syrians can hold fast to their history of coexistence. And in this no-man’s land, he’s a reminder that many continue to confound the religious battle lines that have emerged in Syria.

"We surprised the world with our revolution," he says. "Maybe we will surprise the world with the short time Syria will stay unstable."

Justin Vela is an Istanbul-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @justinvela.