Refugees in Camps Near Syria-Turkey Border Serve as Mouthpiece for Silenced Syrians

Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer reports from the Syrian-Turkish border and receives eye-witness accounts of atrocities committed by Syrian security forces.

NEAR THE TURKISH-SYRIAN BORDER - The reports from the Syrian refugees who have found refuge in Turkey over the past few days repeat themselves: Syrian security forces shoot indiscriminately at civilians; shoot soldiers who refuse to open fire on demonstrators; burn fields and hunt down those who flee to the mountains.

While new, previously unreported details are scarce, it is precisely the uniformity of the stories that the people are telling - who escaped from the massacre being perpetrated in the rebel stronghold of Jisr al-Shoughour - that serves an important principle of reporting: corroborating multiple versions of an event to determine the fact. Until recently, the international news media had been forced to temporarily abandon that principle due to Syria's near-hermetic closure for the past three months.

Syrian refugees - june 12  - AFP

We no longer have to rely solely on brief phone calls, unverified videos uploaded to the Internet and rumors and reports from opposition groups and human rights organizations that compete with government press releases from Damascus and the images broadcast on Syrian state television.

For the first time we could speak face-to-face with people who lived there - eyewitnesses. They were not political activists or even demonstrators, but rather ordinary residents of Jisr al-Shoughour and villages in the area. Craftsmen, farmers, parents, students - tired and frightened after the mass flight into the mountains and over the border.

This is still not the whole picture. They know no more than we do what has happened elsewhere in Syria.

We also met other Syrians, businessmen and families from cities such as Latakia and Aleppo, in late-model Mercedes-Benz cars. Most evaded our questions but those who agreed to talk said that the news reports were lies and exaggerations, and that their cities were completely calm. These Syrians grew wealthy under the Assad dynasty, and may have a reason for downplaying the disturbances, but presumably there is some truth in their words. Some of the frontier cities have rebelled, but the regime has maintained order in most other parts of the country.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt took place in the full glare of the media spotlight, undoubtedly contributing to their rapid pace. The continuing unrest in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain also receive near-constant exposure.

But Syria, like its ally Iran, tries and - is largely successful- to conceal events within the country from the eyes of the world.

Thanks to Jisr al-Shoughour's proximity to the border and the relative freedom of movement possible in Turkey, we have managed to shed light on the massacre in the city, but very similar incidents have almost certainly taken place in other towns and cities throughout Syria.

It is not known when the world will learn about them. In the meantime, the refugees in the camps near the border will serve as a mouthpiece for millions of silenced Syrian citizens.