Reaching the Syrians trapped on 'the other side'
By Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International's Syria researcher.
Having been continually frustrated in my attempts to meet displaced Syrians on the Turkish side of the border, I decided the only way to find out about their situation was to somehow reach them myself.
Along with the 8,500 refugees staying in camps on the Turkish side, to whom access is forbidden for Amnesty International, I was told there are thousands of Syrians camped just beyond the border living in desperate conditions. This is where I would attempt to go.
I’ve seen countless Syrian men and boys scrambling down to “the other side” of the border from my position in Guvecci village, Turkey. This time, I follow them.
I loop an imposing Turkish security outpost a few hundred metres south of Guvecci and pursue, at a distance, some Syrian teenagers.
This involves climbing a hill, crossing a couple of fields and dashing through bushes and woods, including a couple of sprints that would have been in clear view of anyone manning the outpost. Then, it’s all downhill.
It’s all Turkish territory and there are no signs to show I am doing anything wrong, so I keep going until I come to a road crossing my path.
The sprightly lads ahead jog along the road to a small break in the bushes on the other side. A rusty gate lies on the floor. I follow, stand beside the gate and survey the scene along the border.
Scores of tents are scattered along the edges of farmland and woods. They stretch a mile or so further south; it’s said they continue for miles further north in a ribbon of land hugging the border.
There are vehicles, motorcycles and huddles of people sitting under and around fruit trees. One woman is sitting on the earth, slumped forward with her head in her hands.
They are grateful to the Turks across the border, who have been smuggling them much-needed supplies.
“We would all have died of hunger if it wasn’t for the people of Guvecci,” says Abu Ahmed, pointing to his family’s makeshift tent metres from the border. It’s obvious that there are no facilities anywhere: no water, electricity, toilet.
“The Turkish people send down bread and medicine. And the owner of this field is a good man who lets us stay,” says Abu Ahmed.
He introduces me to Abu Muhammad and Abu ‘Abdu – for security reasons all prefer not to give their full names. They are agricultural workers in their twenties from villages near the town of Jisr al-Shughur.
They, along with others who then approach me, repeat many of the stories I have heard in the past few days.
They tell me the water supply has been poisoned. And that the body of Basel al-Masri, a shopkeeper and enthusiastic participator in peaceful protests in Jisr al-Shughur, was returned with three lethal bullets in it. Snipers from the security forces fired at those returning from his funeral.
The camp-dwellers also say that that army tanks, based on the edge of Jisr al-Shughur, had shelled houses, while livestock was killed and crops burnt.
Another group of people tell me that 100 people from the village of Freykah were taken away four days ago to a detention centre. No one has seen them since.
Women from the more distant town of Ma’aret al-Nu’man, two holding babies, tell me of men who have disappeared. Another woman tells me about a young man called Isma’il, who was shot in the back and head during a protest in her village. Around 20 people from Jisr al-Shughur told me they had heard about the sexual abuse of several girls by members of the security forces or Shabiha (regime-backed militiamen), but didn’t want to mention the names of the families concerned.
Suddenly, there is a commotion and people talk quickly among themselves. The Turkish officer considered the strictest has started his shift. I should go. I scamper across the road, up and around the hillside and puff and sweat my way back to Guvecci.