Syrians lament their losses in Turkish border village

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 14, 2011 9:34 AM
Syrians lament their losses in Turkish border village

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

GUVECCI, Turkey (Reuters) - From the roof of his cousin's house across the border, Syrian villager Ahmad Sadeq can see two Syrian soldiers strolling around the farm he abandoned four months ago to seek safety with Turkish relatives.

Sadeq laments how nine months of unrest in Syria have shattered his once tranquil existence as the owner of more than 50 acres of orchards producing bountiful crops of apples, apricots and olives in Khirbet al-Jouz.

The Sadeqs were among thousands of terrified villagers who streamed into Turkey from northwest Syria since June, when President Bashar al-Assad launched an offensive to quell anti-government protests in his town.

"The army is in my house because I am wanted for a lot of things. We are closest to Turkey. We lived on the apple harvest and sent it to Al Hall market in Aleppo," said Sadeq, 48, referring to Syria's second city, further from the border.

"We were living a life that made us not in need of anyone," said Sadeq, whose family of 11 is now crammed into a room next to his cousin's home in the sleepy border village.

The area, which became part of the French mandate of Syria after the 1923 collapse of the Ottoman Empire and was then given to Turkey in 1939, now shelters around 8,000 Syrian refugees, mostly living in five camps set up by the Turkish government.

The villagers, from Syria's majority Sunni community, say they face certain danger if they go back to the homes they fled when militiamen known as Shabiha from the minority Alawite sect raided their villages and towns.

"There is no security and no choice or way out except to stay here, because if one leaves, one gets killed," said Atef Kareem, 32, a plumber from the nearby town of Ain al-Baida. "Any security agent can do whatever he wants and kill you or cut you in pieces and no one will hold him accountable."

Many took the same path across the border that thousands of survivors of the massacre of the city Hama in 1982 took when they fled Syria. Assad's father, President Hafez al-Assad, then sent troops to crush an Islamist uprising in the city Hama.


The old and young refugees pass their long days trading news and watching Syrian troops and snipers perched in hillside watchtowers overlooking the valley, ready to do whatever it takes to prevent more Syrians from fleeing.

"Look at the snipers on hills and mountain tops," said Musa Alawi, pointing to a tall building above the thin asphalt road marking what was once a lightly patrolled border.

Villagers recount how a mother was killed and her husband and two children were wounded when they tried, and failed, to join relatives in Turkey last month.

The serenity of the countryside belies the tensions building up around the Turkish village of Guvecci, where word of mouth spreads talk of more troops and tanks deployed and trenches dug in forests and valleys.

"The Syrians are more afraid of us than those inside because the people can hit and run back and even smuggle weapons. They have dug trenches in the mountains behind the border and concealed more tanks," said Ibrahim Said, 21, a teacher from Jabal al Zaywa.

Glued to the television, Ahmad Soufan, 42, a farmer from Janoudieh several kilometers away, fumes at what he sees as foot-dragging by Turkey in setting up a safe zone inside Syria.

Turkey has been one of the most vocal critics of Assad's crackdown and has made clear that if the situation gets worse it will push for international backing to set up a protected buffer zone for Syrians fleeing a humanitarian crisis.

Like many other refugees, Soufan believes only such a zone will protect thousands of Syrians in danger.

"Assad is killing 20 or 30 people every day. Every day action is delayed, more innocent lives are lost," Soufan said.

Braving intermittent gunfire by soldiers shooting at night, some local villagers and army defectors do venture across the border under cover of darkness, taking well-trodden foot paths to check on their property and plantations.

Defectors also go on reconnaissance missions for the Free Syrian Army, a loose collection of army deserters believed to be operating a command post and headquarters in a heavily protected facility not far away.

Refugees worry that informers hang around trying to find out where the activists are, a constant reminder that they are still not completely safe.

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"Here I don't think they can do anything, but they send them to know what's happening and ask about us," said Abu Fahed, who fled his village of al Kastan after his brother's body was dumped near his home five days following his detention by Syrian security forces.


The relationships between the communities on the two sides of the border are strong, linked by history, family and tradition.

"We are brothers. It's the borders that divided us, we never moved or came from anywhere. When they drew the borders this area became Turkey," said Arfan Subhi, 58, a dairy cattle farmer who sheltered his daughter, son-in-law and their family from Khirbet al-Jouz.

Subhi recollected his daughter Nasseema's marriage to her Syrian cousin in better days when they crossed the border on foot.

Many on the Turkish side have offered extra rooms or employed their relatives as farm laborers to help them manage.

"What is happening pains us deeply. I don't want our Syrian brothers' dignity violated and with everything I own I will welcome him and help him because he is my brother in religion," said Fadel Fizo, whose relatives live in Damascus and Aleppo.

Still, the people from both sides who have been caught up in the crisis are showing the strain.

A thriving black market smuggling everything from cigarettes to cheap fuel and even cows from Syria has now come to a halt.

"We are all eating from our savings," said Ammar Abdullah, a civil servant in the town of Jabal al-Zawya, who moved in with his Turkish uncle and complains how expensive Turkey is.

Nabil Zaid, from the border village of al-Shughr, said: "We have moved from a life that was difficult to a more difficult one here."

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)