refugees - AFP - June 12 2011
Two refugees from Syria in the Turkish Red Crescent camp in the Yayladagi district, two kilometers from the Syrian border yesterday. Photo by AFP
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All he is willing to say is that his name is Moussa and that he comes from a village near Jisr al-Shughour, where he arrived on Thursday to shop at the market. To prove that he was there, Moussa holds up his cell phone and plays a video of burning fields with sounds of gunfire in the background.

Moussa says that the incident which the Syrian regime claimed left 120 soldiers dead at the hands of "armed gangs" began when the security police and Baath party activists brought two buses of pro-regime demonstrators into the town and urged residents to join a procession celebrating the rule of Bashar Assad. The residents refused and instead staged a counter-protest.

"The policemen told the soldiers to shoot at the people," Moussa recalls. "Some of the soldiers refused to open fire, so they themselves were shot."

He says he doesn't know where the figure of 120 dead soldiers comes from, but notes that 37 protesters were also killed, and "other civilians were taken away, we don't know where. Anyone who could ran off, and policemen stayed behind to shoot at whoever would come back. In the end everyone ran away."

On that night, the residents of Jisr al-Shoughour and the surrounding villages began a massive exodus toward the Turkish border. "On the way we saw them burning fields and bringing in reinforcements," Moussa says. He recalls hundreds of soldiers arriving in convoys of armed vehicles and tanks. The tanks shelled buildings, hitting two mosques in the process. The forces appeared to belong to the staunchly loyal Fourth Division of the Syrian army, commanded by Mahr Assad, the president's brother.

Moussa is sitting curled up on the roof of a house in a small village on the Turkish side of the border, casting furtive glances from left to right. He is one of the few Syrians who have succeeded in crossing without being detained in a refugee camp by the Turkish authorities.


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About 300 meters from the house is an asphalt road marking the border. A dirt road leading up to it from the Syrian side is full of vehicles abandoned there by Jisr al-Shoughour refugees.

Later that day, at around 7 P.M., about 100 people stand on the asphalt strip. They arrived hours before with a coffin on their shoulders. They said it contained the remains of a young man killed by Syrian security forces. They were stopped at the border by a Turkish armored vehicle and told to stay on that side of the road.

Warning shots

A young Turkish lieutenant is driving up and down the road in a jeep and yelling at Turkish civilians who try to help the refugees and the journalists who want to film them, warning both to stay away. "It's a closed military zone, this is a border," he shouts. One of the soldiers fires two warning shots into the air. About half an hour after darkness falls, a convoy of white mini-buses arrives. The refugees board them and are taken to one of the two refugee camps, both already nearly completely full. An ambulance takes some of the wounded to a hospital in the nearby city of Antakya. Those with less serious wounds are taken to a field hospital nearby.

While there is still no clear account of recent events in the northwestern province of Idlib, the picture that emerges from statements by refugees and reports compiled by human rights organizations is that at least some of the fatalities among the soldiers were caused when security forces loyal to the regime shot at them, after these soldiers refused to shoot protesters.

There are also reports of widespread defections from the army, and it is clear that events in Syria are resonating beyond the country's borders.

According to reports, nearly all 41,000 residents of Jisr al-Shoughour and thousands of other villagers from the area have fled south, toward the Turkish border. It is not yet known how many of them succeeded in crossing into Turkey and how many are still hiding in the mountainous terrain near the border. One group of refugees that did break through yesterday said that Syrian soldiers shot at them, wounding some. There were also reports of groups of armed civilians and soldiers who defected and stayed behind in Jisr al-Shoughour to fight regime forces.

Various official Turkish announcements have put the estimated number of refugees who crossed the border into their country at anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000.

While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week strongly condemned Syria's brutal suppression of the protests, Turkish gendarmes and soldiers are preventing any contact between the refugees who made it over the border and local journalists and citizens.

The Turkish Red Crescent organization and the Health Ministry have built two refugee camps that are already operating at capacity, one at Altinozu and a second in Yayladagi. A third camp is slated to go up near Boynuyogun, just over the border, today. A field hospital has also been built.

The camps are surrounded by gendarmes who have prevented not only journalists, but also relatives of the refugees who live in Turkey, from entering or even speaking with people inside.

"We came to check whether our relatives were here because we haven't been able to make phone contact with them," said Ahmet Demel yesterday.