In the Camps

For Syrian refugees stuck along the Turkish border, war brings a slow and simmering cruelty.


ATMEH, Syria — The town of Reyhanli, Turkey, on the Syrian-Turkish border is bursting at the seams. Its population of Turks and Alawi, Sunni, and Christian Arabs has recently doubled with the arrival of Syrian refugees. The crisis has boosted the local economy but also brought tragedy — a car bombing on May 11, almost certainly the work of Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence services, killed 51 people. It was the worst terrorist atrocity in Turkey’s history.

A hotel in Reyhanli served as my base in late June while I worked with refugees on the Syrian side of the border. It felt something like the setting of a Graham Greene novel: Salim Idris, chief of staff of the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, wandered in one evening, while expatriate Syrians, charity workers, and weapons smugglers smoked shisha in the courtyard. An American called Eric, with no surname, introducing himself as "a researcher," visited the charity offices outside.

With well over a quarter of a million refugees now lodged in Turkish camps, many displaced Syrians are refused entry into Turkey. Instead they shelter in the fields and at roadsides nearby — including at the Atmeh camp, planted exactly on the border.

In a sense, Atmeh is Syria in microcosm: Over 5 million Syrians, a quarter of the country’s population, are persisting in similar or worse conditions — having fled to neighboring countries or displaced inside their own, living under trees, in abandoned apartments, in mosques and schools. As the United States threatens a military response to the Assad regime’s latest atrocity — an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus that left hundreds dead — the world is still seemingly unmoved by the suffering of these people.

The United States may strike Assad’s bases, but it seems clear that it won’t go so far as regime change. Its aim is punishment — to uphold the international taboo on weapons of mass destruction attacks and show that President Barack Obama’s words mean something, not to dramatically alter the balance in Syria so that these people can return to their homes.

This part of the world used to be known as the Sanjak of Alexandretta and was historically part of Syria. The French Mandate awarded the territory to Turkey in the late 1930s. The Turks named the area Hatay, after the Hittites; the extreme Turkish nationalism of the time held that the ancient community had been proto-Turk and that the Hittite ruins in the area justified its annexation to the Kemalist republic.

The Arab population of the province produced its own mythology in response. Zaki al-Arsuzi, one of the founding ideologues of the Baath Party (its slogan: "One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message"), did much of his agitating in the provincial capital of Antioch. Baathism appealed particularly to non-Sunni minorities throughout the Levant. Today, a debased version of the creed provides ideological cover for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of slaughter.

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There is no passport control at the entrance into and out of Turkey, just a gap in the barbed-wire fence where cars deliver the wounded into Turkish ambulances and trucks of food and medical aid are unloaded into vans headed for Aleppo and Idlib. Unemployed men hoping to work in Turkey mingle here with kerosene smugglers and fighters from the various Free Syrian Army and Islamist militias.

One morning, a Syrian jet bombed a village on a nearby hillside and then soared close to the Atmeh camp. The crowded entrance space cleared in a matter of seconds. A war novice may wonder at the uselessness of running to flimsy tents for shelter, but the point is to disperse, so as not to offer a densely packed target.

The Atmeh camp currently houses 22,000 refugees from shelling, aerial bombardment, gunfire, torture, and rape. They come mainly from the Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo regions. Most are rural people, but there are middle class urbanites too. Some come from further afield. One man I met was from the town of Adra, near Damascus. After four regime rockets struck his home, he moved his family in with neighbors. When the regime attacked the area with poison gas, he gave up on the capital and moved north.

The camp isn’t an easy place. In the summer it’s cursed by a hot, dust-laden, and energy-draining wind; in the winter, knee-high rivers of mud flood the temporary homes.

Some tents are fire-resistant; some are plastic; some are concoctions of canvas and blankets. Some have been distributed by the United Nations’ refugee agency, some by Turkish and expatriate Syrian charities. Some tents are pitched among the silvery olive trees, but the area closer to the barbed wire, where tents are set unshaded on the baked and stony earth, is much grimmer. There are toilets (unpleasant and not nearly enough of them), rough shower blocks, and daily deliveries of clean water. But there are also streams of green liquid filth, which the children fall into as they play. Many children have something that sounds like a bad smoker’s cough but is most probably tuberculosis — a disease, like typhoid and leishmaniasis, once defeated in Syria but now resurgent.

A "main street" in Atmeh features stalls set up in tents that sell cigarettes, soda, and sandwiches for those who can afford them; there are also barbers in tents and of course a tented mosque. A "ready meal" breakfast is sent in by the Turks each morning, and a simple lunch — lentil soup, for instance — is prepared in communal kitchens and distributed in buckets around the camp. There is no dinner.

Most impressively, a civil society infrastructure has been established — something that was effectively forbidden in Assad’s Syria. Atmeh has its own Coordination Committee — an extension of the committees that sprang up across Syrian cities and villages from the revolution’s first days in order to provide services the state wouldn’t and to organize protests and media work. Over half the assembled members and speakers at the meeting I attended were women, a fact which illustrates both the expanded social role of women in the revolution and the disproportionate numbers of women (and children) in the camp, because so many men are dead, imprisoned, or fighting.

One of the committee’s duties is to help set up schools for the camp’s children. I saw three schools: the Revolution House, which was a single-room concrete shack; the Ghurabaa ("Strangers") School, run by Salafi Islamists and disapproved of by many because it entirely ignores the old Syrian curriculum in favor of a purely "Islamic" education; and the Return School, which serves 500 children, cramming 40 at a time in stifling tent classrooms.

The Return School was where I gave my storytelling workshop as part of the Maram and Karam foundations’ Camp Zeitouna project, which included workshops in calligraphy, art, dental care, and soccer skills. We were assisted by some of the school’s 20 unsalaried teachers and inspired by the laughing, shouting children. Some of these children have had only one month of schooling in the last two years. Some are physically scarred and emotionally traumatized. They responded well to the workshops and of course to the soccer field and playground constructed by Maram. They responded best of all, simply, to attention.

One of the trip’s highlights was sitting in the dust on the new soccer grounds and being sung to by a group of boys and girls — a surreal mix of revolutionary nationalist, jihadi, and romantic songs. One of the low points was meeting Manar, a woman whose two children died in a tent fire caused by a fallen candle. Another woman said she’d prefer to be dead than living in such conditions. American teenagers say such things in English, and it means nothing much. In Arabic it means a great deal.

Tamador, a volunteer psychologist, does her rounds. She advises a woman whose husband has abandoned her for another wife, but still turns up to take her money. She hears about a man who sexually abuses his son’s wife. Pre-existing social problems have been immeasurably exacerbated by war trauma, unemployment, entrapment, and the forced proximity of the extended family.

Muhammad Ojjeh, our soccer coach and professional photographer, went down on one knee with his long lens to shoot a picture of a child. The child screamed in terror, turned, and ran. His mother shouted after him, "It’s a camera, stupid, not a gun."

A woman welcomed us to her tent shamefacedly. "We’ve become Bedouins," she apologized. Deprived for so long of influence on the public space, Syrians of all classes take inordinate pride in their carefully ordered homes. Now this, too, is denied them.

An angry man reacted badly to the playground under construction. "What’s the use of this?" he complained. "We don’t want to stay here. The insects are eating us! We want to return to our homes. We need weapons. We need help."

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People like him will likely become still angrier in the coming months. Betrayed by an international media which increasingly portrays the revolution not as a struggle for freedom against a genocidal minority regime, but as an equal fight between two equally barbaric armies — one Alawite, one jihadi — it’s unlikely that Syrians will receive any serious support soon. The United States has indicated it has no interest in a radical change in the status quo: As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained, America can’t find a powerful wing of the resistance that is ready to promote America’s "interests."

Now that the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah is openly fighting on the regime’s side, the West seems intent on aiding the opposition just enough to "restore the balance" — a balance that results in 100 dead Syrians each day. Until the mass chemical attack, the United States had failed to match its tepid rhetoric with any concrete support for the opposition. The military aid it promised remains undelivered, and it has actively prevented Arab Gulf states from delivering heavy weapons to the resistance.

Part of the problem is Western fear of the opposition’s greatly exaggerated Islamist-extremist element. The irony is that the longer the tragedy lasts, the greater the empowerment of once minor and irrelevant jihadi forces.

Atmeh village, on a hill behind the camp, has been turned into a barracks for the foreign Islamist fighters of Hizb ut-Tahrir. These men are not, apparently, fighting the regime, but waiting for "the next stage" — in other words, the coming struggle between moderates and Islamist extremists after the fall of the regime. Syrians, including democratic Islamists, refer to them derisively as "the spicy crew" and shrug off the risk they represent. One assured me it would take "two minutes" to expel them once the regime falls.

But sectarian hatreds — stoked by the regime’s propaganda, its Alawite death squads, and assaults on Sunni heritage — are certainly rising. I met a man whose wife and 11 children were killed in an airstrike and who plans to marry again and produce 11 more children, "just so I can teach them to kill Alawites." There’s a teenager who boasted, "Afterwards, we won’t leave a single Alawite alive."

This deliberate attack on the social fabric is perhaps the regime’s greatest crime. When tyrants light the fuse of sectarian war, they are unleashing passions that extend beyond politics. They are killing people who have not yet been born.

There are still glimmers of hope, both inside and outside Atmeh camp. Sheikh Muhammad, an authority in the camp, told me how he’d accompanied Free Syrian Army militias as they overtook Alawite villages. Although some Alawite villagers, fearing revenge, have fled from the approach of the Free Syrian Army, there has been no mass slaughter of Alawite civilians to mirror the sectarian massacres and ethnic cleansings perpetrated by the regime. Muhammad described how the rebels investigated the local men for membership in the regime’s shabiha militias, while the women and children were left alone. "We aren’t Assad," he said. "We’re better than that."

Aziz, a Syrian from the town of Salamiyah and an adherent of the Ismaili faith — a minority community that has been solid in its support for the revolution — was guardedly optimistic. "The regime will go; that’s certain. Then we’ll face a very difficult year, perhaps five years, perhaps even 10. After that we’ll live together as we did before, but better than before. We’ll live in freedom."

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