Boynuyogun refugee camp, in Southern Turkey, sits around 15 kilometres from the Syrian border. The families of Jisr al-Shughour find themselves there, having left their homes and livelihoods behind, escaping what they described as scenes of horror and a town overrun by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The Syrians at the camp are not simply visiting family in this predominantly Arab part of Turkey, despite the claims of the Syrian government’s media assault. At Boynuyogun 3500 people, including many children, are housed in a campsite set up by the Turkish government. A further 6500 Syrians have made their way into Syria, with another 10000 reported to be in the mountains on the Syrian side of the border.
A crowd of people came towards the fencing on our arrival, mostly children and adolescents, and began speaking to the journalists.
The people of Jisr al-Shughour were finally being given their opportunity to tell their story.
They described how protests erupted in the town, which has a population of around 50000, more than three months ago. As each week passed the protests against the Assad regime grew bigger and bigger. From their stories it appears that the brutality of the regime matched it.
The refugees described how the army and armed thugs, ‘Shabiha’, fired indiscriminately at protesters. One man said that he had lost two sons, and his family had had to leave another injured son behind with neighbours who had stayed behind. It was simply impossible for him to make the journey to Turkey.
Rawan, a university student in her 20s, lived in a building that overlooked a mass grave. She also recounted how girls had their hair shaved off for not supporting the regime enough, and fridges in mortuaries full of bodies. Along with other university students she was forced to attend rallies in support of Bashar al-Assad.
“We saw the example the regime was trying to set in Deraa, we knew what was going to come to us,” Rawan added.
The refugees also described how planes fired at protesters from above, and how the Shabiha fired on them with paralysis darts and then abducted them.
Many of the refugees had fresh injuries to show. One young man, who did not want to be named, said that he was the first protester to be detained in Jisr al-Shughour. He told of how he was imprisoned for a month, blindfolded, and then hung up by his arms for two days.
“I just wanted to live with dignity, with freedom. They arrested me because I wanted freedom,” he said.
The refugees were eager to address the accusations being thrown at them by the Syrian regime. The military’s excuse for its latest incursion into Jisr al-Shughour is that the protesters there were not peaceful, and killed 120 soldiers.
Those I met in the refugee camp were quick to counter. They denied possessing any serious weaponry, and questioned the plausibility of a couple of hundred armed men taking on a military force. They also added to the already heard claims that those soldiers killed in Jisr al-Shughour had defected onto the side of the protesters, and had been shot for this.
“We did not have proper weapons, we could hardly defend ourselves. Some of us had hunting equipment, but it was only used as people were fleeing,” one of the refugees explained.
The issue of sectarianism has been used by the government to strike fear into ordinary Syrians. Painting the protesters as violent religious radicals has scared many Syrians from minority sects to support the regime as the only bulwark against Islamic extremists.
Those at Boynuyogun refugee camp had a different version of events. “We do not want sectarianism, the government is creating it,” ‘Abu al-Shaheed’, ‘the Father of the Martyr’ said. “Even some Alawis are oppressed,” added another refugee.
All were angry that what they called non-violent protests were being labelled by the government as an armed insurrection by Salafis. Pointing at the crowd of children in the small playground one of the men screamed, “Are these Bashar’s Salafis? Are these the terrorists?”
However, it was clear that sectarian differences were playing on the minds of some of the people of Jisr al-Shughour.
“We do not want anyone to be favoured, but Alawis are preferred, given better jobs – everyone has to have connections,” one man claimed. Another made a slightly outlandish claims that ‘Sunni’ air force planes would attack empty farmland, whereas ‘Alawi’ planes would attack the protesters.
For those refugees with longer memories, images of the 1980 government attack on Jisr al-Shughour are fresh. In March 1980 200 people were killed after an uprising erupted in the town. Like today, the protesters then were labelled as terrorists and extremists. For the older refugees it was as if the tape were being played again.
The Turkish government appears to be attempting to stage manage visits to the refugee camp, arriving at the camp we were informed that we would not be able to film or talk to the refugees inside the camp, and that some refugees would be picked out and come to talk to us afterwards. Supply trucks conveniently started appearing as we arrived.
It is strange that the Turks appear to be taking this approach. Although there was some criticism of the Turkish government’s statements on Syria, with many refugees saying that they did not go far enough, there was much praise of Turkey for providing a refuge for fleeing Syrians.
Conditions in the camp were satisfactory, with rows upon rows of tents with clean mattresses and sheets. Women were washing clothes and making makeshift clotheslines in between the tents, and water was also being supplied. Supplies were coming in, but it was clear that the arrangement was very makeshift, especially as many of the refugees came with nothing but the clothes on their back.
Yet despite their hardship the refugees persevere. They were totally against foreign military intervention and yet swore not to return to the country until the regime had been overthrown.
Housed in Boynuyogun the Syrians of Jisr al-Shughour now find themselves as refugees. Their attitude exemplified the terror they had described living through. As one young man put it, “We just want to be safe and away from the regime. In this camp it is the first time I can breathe.”
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East