By Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher on the Turkish-Syrian border
Little is known of the life of the thousands of Syrians who have recently fled to Turkey, and are now living in camps in Yayladagi and Altinozu in the south-east of the country.
Not one civil society activist or journalist is known to have been able to enter the camps. Knowing that, and with Turkey virtually shut down for the national elections today, I chose to head for one of the hospitals in the regional capital Hatay where one can sneak in to talk to injured Syrians.
By all accounts, the Turkish government and people have received, hosted and treated an unspecified number of Syrians extremely well. Officially there are up to 7,000 Syrians now here in Hatay province but many believe the actual figure is much higher.
There are said to be up to 10,000 within a few kilometres of the border on the Syrian side, waiting to be able to go back to their homes or to cross into Turkey if the violence moves further north.
Strangely however, the Turkish government is hiding its hospitability by denying access to the camps and making it a gamble on getting in to see Syrians in hospitals.
I entered the hospital, walked past the security guard as if I was a regular and eventually, in a room with three single beds, I found the people I had been looking for.
These three Syrian men, all from the Jisr al-Shughur area, have been wounded in the recent clashes with security forces. I sensed their unease each time the door opened but they told me their stories.
One of them, a 40-year-old farmer from a village 2km from Jisr al-Shughur who did not want to give his name for security reasons, had been shot in the leg by security forces while tending to his land on 4 June. The army took him to a hospital in the nearby city of Idleb.
A doctor with tears in his eyes told him he was forbidden to treat him. Security forces took him to a military interrogation office nearby.
He was blindfolded, with hands tied tightly behind his back and badly beaten with rifle butts and kicks all over his body. The marks are visible on his face and all over his body.
“While they beat me, they asked me if I belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, or if I was on the payroll of [Lebanon’s former Prime Minister] Saad Hariri,” he told me.
An official went through his mobile phone and made a note of all the names and numbers on it, and a a high-ranking officer later demanded to know the names of the people organizing the protest.
After thumbprinting papers he didn’t understand as he is illiterate, he was released on 7 June and made it across the border to Turkey the same day.
Despite the volatile situation in his home country, he insisted that he will go back to Syria. “There’s no more fear,” he added.
The second man in the room, a 31-year-old building worker from Jebel al-Zawyah, had been shot in the leg by security forces while taking part in the Friday protests on 3 June.
Thousands of people from neighbouring areas took to the streets on that day, he said. Security forces were everywhere – on the road, perched on top of buildings. As the protesters approached a youth camp, the army suddenly opened fire.
He fell to the ground and security forces dragged him away to a nearby building.
“They asked me ‘Who is your god?’ ’Allah’ I said. ’No, say Bashar’ they said. They hit me with a stick on the back of the head and I fell down and lost consciousness. They must have thought I was dead and left me among some trees,” he said.
When he came to, the security forces had left and local people took him to a hospital in Idleb.
Like the farmer I spoke to, he said he was interrogated and asked for names of other protesters.
After his release, he reached Turkey where his wound has been treated and he now moves on crutches.
Abu Taha, 29, a Red Crescent ambulance worker from Jisr al-Shughur, described to me how he was shot in the back by security forces while attending to an injured person in the centre of the town.
Luckily for him, the bullet passed out on the other side.
On Saturday 4 June, the funeral for Basel al-Masri was held, he said. The town centre was packed with funeral-goers and around midday, security forces opened fire on the crowd.
Many were killed and injured, he said, adding that some people started shooting at the army from the roofs of government buildings.
“It was clear that the snipers were not locals – we all know each other in my area. They wore plain clothes with grenade belts on their chests. They have to be from the regime to make it look as if there are armed groups,“ he said.
Whoever the men shooting at the army were, the consequences for people in the area have been dire. Abu Taha gave a chilling description of the fate of some small villages in the area.
He said that on Friday 10 June, a number of tanks arrived in Kem al-Rumanah, a small village in the border area with only 50 houses.
“The tanks fired at the houses; once they were destroyed, some 300 shabiha militia soldiers entered. They killed or kidnapped anyone left behind, stole any possessions they could and burnt crops. They have done this in several villages,“ he said.
“Does the rest of the world want the end of the Syrian people? Why is the world silent?” he asked me repeatedly.
Several other Syrians came in and out of the room while I was there. They all spoke of Syrians being united and peaceful, with only the regime wanting divisions between communities.