Syrian soldiers near the Turkish border - New York Times - June 12 2011.
Syrian soldiers near the Turkish border, June 12 2011. Photo by New York Times
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Having reoccupied the rebel city of Jisr al-Shughour, Syrian security forces are stepping up their offensive in outlying villages. Residents of areas in northwestern Syria report that soldiers have plundered their villages, committing acts of murder and rape, burning fields and killing livestock.

Groups of frightened residents from these areas continued to stream toward Syria's border yesterday with Turkey, hoping to find protection in the neighboring country.

Muhammad Midgam, a resident of a Syrian village located about 10 kilometers south of Turkey, managed to cross the border before dawn. Like most of the other 300 residents of the Silmanya village, he managed to flee his home before Syrian forces entered. Perched on a hilltop, he watched the forces attack his village. "They attacked the village at 5 A.M.," he recounted, speaking from a hiding place in Turkey, close to the border. Syrian army soldiers, along with a civilian militia of Alawite supporters of the Assad family, he said "started to fire shots at our livestock, the moment they entered" the village.

The only residents to remain in the village were the sick and elderly who were unable to flee.

"They fired at these old people," he said. "We saw them kill a 70 year old. They also raped women."

Syrian forces burned wheat fields in Midgam's village, as well as in other villages in the Jisr al-Shughour area. Midgam is just one of hundreds of residents of Jisr al-Shughour and its neighboring villages who over the weekend streamed across the border into Turkey. Two refugee camps organized by the Turkish government, along with the Turkish Red Crescent, are already jammed with residents. The camps lack proper sanitation infrastructure, the air surrounding them is filled with stench, and staff at the sites appear overwhelmed at the prospect of dealing with thousands of refugees.

Officials have covered fences around the camps with dark blue cloth to prevent contact between the refugees and local Turkish residents, and between the refugees and the media. A field hospital is being set up in the area. Yesterday morning, overcrowding at the two existing camps prompted the government to transfer some of the refugees to another compound, consisting of 400 white tents, in long rows, covering an open field. Turkish workers were busy at these new refugee camps yesterday, setting up shower and restroom facilities.

Before authorities could finish installing a high fence around this third camp, a bus arrived, dropping off 300 Syrian refugees who had crossed the border either late Saturday night or before dawn yesterday. These refugees, who arrived with no possessions, hailed from Jisr al-Shughour. Some had wandered around the hills for two days, while others had crammed into vehicles and sped toward a makeshift opening in the border.

Muhammad Haswari, a 26-year-old student from Jisr al-Shughour, recounted that he took control of a local ambulance after its driver disappeared. At first, he tried to help evacuate city residents who were injured in clashes with Syrian security forces, and on Friday night, he joined the masses of fleeing residents. "We packed 22 people into the ambulance, and we fled the city," he said. "Nobody was left in the city.

He confirmed reports of desertion within the Syrian army. "Soldiers were shooting at other soldiers," he recalled.

An argument erupts between Haswari and local Turkish officials who try to prevent him from giving his account of events. "We are here only because our government is killing people who demand freedom," he declares.

In contrast to the flow of refugees streaming over the border at nightfall, during the day, the Syrian-Turkish border was quiet, and official entry points remained open to vehicles and merchants. Entire families worked in fields, even near sections of the border close to the Syrian army.

One resident of a local Turkish village tried by cell phone to reach relatives in Syria. "They've taken down this phone network," he said, as he peered into the hills on the Syrian side and uttered, "I don't know what's happening to my family over there."