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Newly Displaced Syrians Head For Turkish Border

Feb 18, 2013
Originally published on February 18, 2013 9:01 pm

A new surge of Syrian refugees is swamping humanitarian aid agencies in southern Turkey, where official refugee camps are full.

But the newcomers may be just the tip of the iceberg. In central Syria, civilians under attack by combat jets, tanks and artillery have fled towns and villages north of the city of Hama, and thousands are on the move.

"What they do now, they burn everything ahead of them. They bomb this area with everything they've got," says Hossan Hamadah, a Syrian-American from Texas.

He's seen firsthand the devastation of the new army offensive. He was in central Syria a few days ago to deliver bread and blankets to families on the run, but found only burned and abandoned houses.

"And I'm telling you, it's a very, very weird feeling when you walk into a place and there's not even a cat," he says. "I just want to see something alive moving. Nothing."

'It Just Got Worse'

Some of the newly displaced are driving across the border to Turkey. At the Bab al-Hawa crossing, on the southwestern border, the cars are backed up for miles.

"There was a lot of shelling. We were hoping that it will be better, but it just got worse," says a husband and wife. They say they are farmers, but do not give their names.

They are anxious after leaving home in central Syria, in the suburbs of Hama, waiting for six other members of the family who are farther back in line. The bombing forced them out.

"We didn't even have the courage to go to another house to visit neighbors."

'My House Is Broken'

There are as many as 200,000 people fleeing central Syria, heading north to rebel-controlled areas, says Adeb Shishakly, head of the aid coordination unit the ACU. This is the humanitarian wing of the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group. The ACU office is in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. Shishakly is coordinating aid shipments for the displaced inside Syria, but large-scale international aid has yet to reach these areas.

"No matter how much aid and food baskets, flour we are getting in — it's not enough. The number of people trying to cross illegally increased dramatically," Shishakly says.

But there is no longer room in Turkish refugee camps.

"Past six days, heavy crossing to the Turkish areas," says Shishakly, "so many people did it on their own. They rented a lot of wedding ballrooms here to house these people."

There are five wedding halls in Reyhanli, a southern Turkish town. All of the halls have been rented by Syrians and turned into private refugee camps where up to 400 are sheltered. Blue plastic sheets separate the living spaces, and laundry is dried on the railings. Everyone tells a similar story about leaving Syria.

"Shelling, mortars, barrel bombs, airstrikes — and my house is broken, " says an 18-year-old named Zeinab, who does not give her last name.

'The Unlucky Ones'

A Turkish sanitation truck comes once a week to remove the waste from the wedding hall decorated for celebrations, but now a place of human misery. Private Syrian aid groups deliver food baskets, and individual donors from the Gulf drive the wounded to clinics and hospitals. But the humanitarian community is overwhelmed.

Still, says Hossan Hamadah, there is food and shelter for those who make it to Turkey.

"And these are the luckiest of them all. These are the people that have money, that have money to pay for transportation to make it here," he says. "They make it here, they are very lucky."

Hamadah has seen the worst conditions inside Syria, where some of the displaced have found shelter in cold, dark and damp caves.

"I swear to God, if you see this, it breaks your heart, because it moves you back to tens of thousands of years ago," he says. "People actually were taking mud to block the holes where the snakes come out. And they said, 'We can't sleep at night because we can hear them digging out.' Those are the unlucky ones."

Hamadah is collecting more aid to bring to the cave dwellers, but, he says, without a large-scale operation to deliver flour and blankets to the newly displaced, desperation will drive thousands more to the Turkish border.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

A new army offensive in central Syria is sending a new surge of refugees fleeing into neighboring countries. The United Nations says about 5,000 Syrians leave the country every day. And in this part of the program, we'll hear reports from two bordering nations. We begin with NPR's Deborah Amos in Antakya in southern Turkey where the resources of humanitarian aid groups are swamped.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm standing at the Turkish border with Syria. And the cars are backed up for miles. This is a legal crossing, and there are thousands of Syrians coming to Turkey every day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: The bombing is constant says this man in a business suit. He's a merchant from Aleppo, who lived in a government-controlled neighborhood. But there's no safe place anymore, he says.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: This husband and wife wait anxiously for sons and grandchildren further back in line. The family comes from central Syria, where there's a large wave of civilians running from towns and villages. The Syrian army is on the move from a military base north of the city of Hama, says Hossan Hamadah, who says he's seen the army driving out civilians.

HOSSAN HAMADAH: What they do now, they burn everything ahead of them. They don't fight. They bomb this area with everything they've got.

AMOS: Hamadah is a Syrian-American from Texas. He was in central Syria to deliver bread and blankets to families on the run but was startled to find abandoned towns.

HAMADAH: There was nothing, absolutely, just burned houses. And I'm telling you, it's a very, very weird feeling when you walk into a place and there's not even a cat. I just want to see something alive, moving. Nothing.

AMOS: There are as many as 200,000 people fleeing central Syria, says Adeb Shishakly. He heads the aid coordination unit of the Syrian National Coalition, a main opposition group. The office is in a Turkish border town, and he's coordinating aid shipments for the displaced.

ADEB SHISHAKLY: The number definitely going up. No matter how much aid and food baskets, flour we are getting in, it's not enough.

AMOS: And so they head for the border, but the refugee camps here are full.

SHISHAKLY: Past six days, heavy crossing to the Turkish areas. So many people did it on their own. They rented a lot of wedding ballrooms here to house these people.

AMOS: We visited one ballroom. This one houses 400 Syrians. Blue plastic sheets separate the living spaces, laundry is dried on the railings. Everyone tells a similar story about leaving Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Through translator) Shelling, mortars, barrel bombs, air strikes, everything.

ZEINAB: And my house is broken.

AMOS: Your house is bombed?

ZEINAB: Yes.

AMOS: And what's your name?

ZEINAB: Zeinab.

AMOS: A Turkish sanitation truck backs up to the hall to remove the waste from a wedding hall decorated for celebrations. Private Syrian aid groups now deliver food baskets. Individual donors from the Gulf drive the wounded to clinics and hospitals. The humanitarian community is overwhelmed. But at least, there's food and shelter here says Hossan Hamadah.

HAMADAH: And these are the luckiest of them all. These are the people that have money. They have money to pay for transportation to make it here. They make it here, they are very lucky.

AMOS: He's seen the worst conditions inside Syria, where some of the displaced have found shelter in caves.

HAMADAH: I swear to God, if you see this, it breaks your heart because it moves you back to tens of thousands, you know, years ago. People actually were taking muds(ph) to block the holes where the snakes comes out. And they said we can't sleep at night because we can hear them digging out. Those are the unlucky ones.

AMOS: Hamadah is collecting more aid for the cave dwellers, but he says without a large-scale operation to deliver flour and blankets to the newly displaced, desperation will drive thousands more to the Turkish border. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Antakya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.