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Syrian Refugees Make Do With Little Near Border

A family prepares dinner in Syria. Many of the people who have gathered in the makeshift camp at the border say they are waiting for family members before crossing into Turkey.
A family prepares dinner in Syria. Many of the people who have gathered in the makeshift camp at the border say they are waiting for family members before crossing into Turkey.

Just outside the Syrian village of Khirbet Al-Jouz, a 27-year-old Syrian named Ali splashes water on his face in a muddy creek.

He jokingly cries out, "Syria hurra! ["Free Syria!"]"

In a valley framed on one side by Syrian mountains and on the other by the Turkish border, tents and blankets are strewn across the hillside. Displaced Syrians continue to make their way over rough mountain roads and trails to the northwestern corner of the country. Free Syria, for these uprooted farm families, is a long valley studded with evergreens and strewn with boulders.

To the west is Syria, where the relatives of these refugees say the army continues to occupy towns and villages, arresting and shooting people. To the east, safety lies in Turkey, albeit under heavy restrictions.

Many of the people here have similar stories of deception and death: they speak of families enticed to return to their homes by messages that everything is safe, only to have their homes shot at or shelled by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Stories of random killings and rape could not be verified, but they were widespread.

Many here say they haven't followed the roughly 9,000 Syrians already in Turkey because they're waiting for family members still trying to get by army checkpoints.

What people find in these makeshift camps are the barest of subsistence conditions. But right now, that seems pretty good compared with what they left behind.

In a tent cobbled together from blue tarps, sacks and blankets, a baby swings in a hammock. His father, Abu Ahmed, says that at the moment, nothing could persuade him to bring his wife and 10 children home to face the army or Assad's militiamen.

"It's not easy here," he says. "The water is dirty; there's not enough food. But, by God, we will stay here until the very last minute. If the Syrian army comes here, then we'll try to cross into Turkey."

In a nearby fruit tree orchard, a man who gives his name as Abu Ayman says his wife and children are already in Turkey. He's waiting for permission to bring the family car across the border.

Ayman says he has no problem staying in Turkey temporarily, but it would be better if the Turkish army set up a buffer zone in this valley.

"Yes, we'd agree with that. And we thank Prime Minister Erdogan. He's better than our president. Our President Bashar al-Assad, who kills his own people, is a traitor. If the Turks make a safe zone here, that would be great," he says.

This idea of a Turkish buffer zone inside Syria has reportedly been discussed in Ankara, but analysts say putting Turkish troops on Syrian soil would likely be a last resort.

For now, the Turks are allowing a limited number of food and medicine convoys to come here. But as more Syrians pour into this valley, such stopgap measures may not be enough.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.