The Independent | Kim Sengupta in Idlib province | June 19, 2011
The houses looked abandoned, windows and doors locked, a broken shutter clattering in the wind. Then, one by one, they began to appear from their hiding places, mainly women and children, a few elderly people. The residents of this village had learned to their cost that being caught unawares in this violent conflict could have lethal consequences.
The raid by the secret police – the Mukhabarat – and the Shabbiha militia had come at dawn. The killings had been cold-blooded and quick, three men shot dead as, barely awake, they tried desperately to get away. A search for others had proved fruitless; they had fled the day before. The damage to homes vented the frustration of the gunmen at missing their quarries.
“They were working from a list. But they made mistakes. One of them was the wrong person. They did not even have the right name of the man they killed,” said Qais al-Baidi, gesturing towards the graves on a sloping hillside. “But none of them deserved this. They were not terrorists. They had just taken part in some demonstrations. These Assad people are vicious. They have no pity. They like killing.”
The three killings were among the many that had followed the ferocious onslaught launched by Bashar al-Assad against the uprising. Two centres of opposition in the north of the country had been taken after bloody clashes, Jisr al-Shughour early in the week, Maaret al-Numan falling on Friday. This village was among a cluster that had been subjected, according to a regime commander, to a “cleaning-up” operation.
The offensive had led to a terrified exodus of much of the local population, with 12,000 huddled in squalid conditions on the Syrian side of the border. Another 10,000 had made it across to Turkey, only to be herded into holding centres, locked away from the outside world, the government in Ankara making it clear that these people will be sent back at an opportune time.
The locals in the Turkish province of Hatay and the international media have been kept away from the dispossessed families. The Turkish government insists they are “guests”, as accepting they are refugees could lead to legal obligations towards them. But Angelina Jolie, Hollywood actress and UN goodwill ambassador, was taken to see one of the centres after expressing a wish to help to alleviate the suffering of Syria. A banner put up by the Turkish authorities at the entrance to the camp read “Goodness Angel of the World, Welcome”.
Away from the focus of celebrity attention, there is little help for those stuck at the frontier. The vast majority sleep under trees; a few have managed to drive pick-up trucks cross-country and use the trailer to sleep; others have built makeshift tents out of rags and plastic sheeting. A pond with floating rubbish and the waters of the river were being used for washing and drinking. Some of the injured had failed to survive without adequate medical help, and their funerals were held where they had died.
The only “aid” for a humanitarian crisis worsening by the day had been meagre supplies, bottles of water and loaves of bread smuggled in by groups of young men on foot across steep ridges, along the same path taken by The Independent on Sunday. Relief organisations have not been allowed access by either the Syrians or the Turks. But for those remaining in the village, the camps at the border, despite the desperate straits they are in, are the goals to reach. They offer relative safety from the savagery of a state waging war on its own people.
Hania Um Jaffar, whose 22-year-old nephew, Khalid Abdullah, was one of those killed, was convinced that the journey there was the only choice. “We had hidden in the fields the day before when we saw helicopters flying over us. But they went away and we thought it had passed. But then they came later on foot. They did not come into our home, but went to others, to the one where Khalid was staying. He was shot many times.
“I don’t want anyone else in my family to die. Surely that is what will happen if we stay here. My sons have gone to the mountains, and another nephew has done the same. They cannot come back to take us to Turkey. That is too dangerous for them. We have to make our own way there.”
The tiny community remaining in the dozen houses were running out of food. Bassem Mohammed Ibrahim, a 68-year-old farmer, spread his hands. “[The regime forces] did not burn the crops here like they have done in other places. But the only men left here now are old ones like me. We cannot work the fields by ourselves. Our farms will be ruined. But if we stay here, I don’t think we will survive.”
The journey to the border, however, is fraught with risk. The secret police and the Shabbiha, drawn from the community to which President Assad and the Syrian elite belong, had ambushed families, forcing some to turn back. A small group of opposition fighters provide protection along the route. “But we only have a few of these,” said Habib Ali Hussein, holding up his Kalashnikov assault rifle. “Assad has tanks, artillery, helicopters.”
Until two weeks ago Mr Hussein was part of those forces as a lieutenant in the army. He deserted, he claimed, sickened by the violence meted out to unarmed civilians. “They were shooting people who were refusing to follow orders. That is what happened at Jisr al-Shughour. I am from that area, and my people were being attacked. So I got my family away from our home and then I left. We haven’t got the weapons to go forward. All we are doing is defending.”
At the border camp, Isha al-Diri, a medical assistant at a clinic in Jisr al-Shugour, had been administering treatment as best he could. “The seriously injured have been taken to Turkey. But some died before that could happen. The problem here is that we haven’t got enough medicine.”
Rawat Khalifa had come seeking cough medicine for his six-year-old daughter. “It is the damp; a lot of the young ones are ill. We shall have to go to Turkey if they get any worse. We cannot take risks with their lives.
“We have not crossed over so far because we are Syrians. We want to stay in our own country. But we are afraid to go back home. We are afraid that our own leaders will try to kill us.”
Yesterday, Syrian troops arrived with tanks at Bdama, only 12 miles from the Turkish border. Dozens were arrested and houses were burned, according to eyewitnesses. The area had been considered a key region for passing food and supplies to people who have fled the violence in their villages but have yet to cross the border into Turkey.
Foreign Office advice: Britons warned to leave Syria
British nationals were urged yesterday to leave Syria immediately, as the situation in the country deteriorated further. Updating its travel advice, the Foreign Office warned Britons to use “commercial means” to leave while they were still available. It reissued an urgent warning against all travel to the country, adding it was “highly unlikely” the embassy in the country’s capital, Damascus, would be able to assist if the situation worsened.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “Because of the current situation, we advise against all travel to Syria. We ask British nationals to heed this advice and leave the country now.” He urged Britons to “take responsibility for their own safety and security”.