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First published in  Now Lebabnon
Spotlight
June 6, 2012

Camp Life

Michael Weiss reports on his visit to a Syrian refugee camp

by
Michael Weiss

This commentary is from two separate articles written by Michael Weiss and published by Now Lebanon!

Part 1 is available here

Part 2 is available here

Boynuyogun, Turkey – At the entrance to the Boynuyogun camp for Syrian refugees stood a tall man I’d been told was a former solider in the Syrian army. His right hand was encased in a wool glove, and the ring and pinky fingers were noticeably empty. What happened?  Mahmoud, my Syrian-American translator and guide on this trip to Turkey’s Hatay province, explained: “When he defected, the regime cut his hand.” This soldier had been one of the early mutineers in Bashar al-Assad’s army, sent to the rural village of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib last June to fight what he’d been told were “armed gangs” and terrorists. Now he was confined to a fenced-off cordon amidst a sea of white tents, the tops of which resembled a rally of squat Klansmen when glimpsed from the distance of the long dirt road leading up to the Boynuyogun entrance. This defector had been one of the lucky ones, to lose only half his hand.

Entering the Turkish-maintained refugee camps in Hatay is easy for Syrians, less so for Americans, who are meant to obtain advance permission from Turkey’s Interior Ministry. Fortunately, I arrived with Yahye and Ibrahim, both residents of different camp in Altinozu, deeper inside Hatay, who have specially issued ID cards and many friends in Boynuyogun. Yahye is a Free Syrian Army rebel who continues to smuggle himself into Syria to fight the regime, then back out again to visit his wife and two children in Turkey. Ibrahim is a civilian from the same village as Yahye and the kind of compulsive Syrian smoker who encourages the people he’s with to take up smoking. Thanks to their late-formed friendship with Mahmoud, who recently relocated to Hatay to help with the revolution from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, I had a small posse of fixers to grease the laxly enforced bureaucracy of Turkish military supervision.

Mahmoud showed his Syrian passport to the camp guards and was let in after having his bag checked. Our first attempt to pass me off as Mahmoud’s brother-in-law didn’t quite work out. “Michael Weiss,” the guard said, reading my passport. He took one look at me and one look at Mahmoud. “No, no, no. What’s your father’s name?” “Steve,” I said.

There followed a friendly intervention by Yahye and Ibrahim, now joined by a man I’ll call the Sheikh: he had a medium-length black beard and a black robe and looked like the imam of the camp, although I was told he wasn’t. The Sheikh came over and chatted with the guards while we waited. “OK, Abu Steve.” We got in—but on the conditions that we keep to the back of the camp where a makeshift administrative complex of bungalows was located and that we be out by 5 o’clock when visiting hours were over. We made our way past a collection of red metal frames being soldered together to build more tents. The back of the camp also happened to be the area closest to Syria.

A chain-link fence is all that divides the refugees’ safe haven from the country they fled in terror just under a year ago. Many of the men I spoke with—and they were all men—told me that in the past several weeks they’d witnessed tank shelling and firefights in two villages in Idlib that were visible from Boynuyogun. The placement of these camps along the border is precarious. On April 9, Syrian forces fired into another camp in Kilis, which is about 150 kilometers east of here, killing two and wounding around 23. Shortly thereafter, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began strongly hinting at invoking the NATO Charter as legitimate grounds for imposing a buffer zone in northern Syria.

Cross-border violence isn’t all Turkey has to worry about. The threat of sectarian conflict creeping up within Hatay’s own native population also looms large. The entire province used to be part of the Vilayet of Aleppo under the Ottoman Empire and until the late 1930s belonged to French Mandate Syria. One of the important points in the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement that had been brokered in recent years, which the current uprising and its repression has dissolved, was Assad’s formal recognition of Hatay as the sovereign territory of Turkey. Still, the province is home to many Arab Alawites, which the Turks solecistically call “Alevis.” Alawites here, as in Syria, tend to favor the ruling regime, and already their loyalty and suspicion of the opposition has forced the Turkish government to adjust its dealings with refugees. A false report, originally published last August by an Alawite journalist, claimed that Turkish soldiers had raped 400 women in Boynuyogun. “At the time this story was published,” one refugee told me, “there were only 250 women in this camp.” But to preempt further incitement, the government has since prohibited Turkish soldiers from entering the camp. They’re now meant to be confined to the entrance and perimeter, checking the IDs of visitors. The administration of Boynuyogun is left entirely up to the residents themselves.

The camp was kept in good condition; it was clean and spacious, although I can’t imagine how warm fabric tents are in the winter when it snows in this part of the Mediterranean and temperatures can drop to freezing. During my stay, I saw kids playing soccer near the entrance and consignments of eggs and food products delivered, courtesy of the Turkish Red Crescent, whose emblem adorns nearly all the signage. At its maximum capacity, Boynuyogun held around 4,800 refugees, but now there are just 1,700, the rest having been relocated to other camps. The people here are well-fed, and so are you if you’re lucky enough to be hosted by them. Syrian hospitality can be wonderfully aggressive and despite protestations that I wasn’t hungry, Yahye’s cohort would later bring Mahmoud and me a mezze platter of humus, olives, cheese and bread. We each received a whole loaf. Under the circumstances, I didn’t think it wise to decline even one of the many Gauloises cigarettes or cups of moist bitter silt otherwise known as Turkish coffee I was offered.

We were led to a small trailer-sized bungalow at the back of the camp, which seemed a kind of ad hoc administrative building. Inside there was a desk with a fax machine and phone, a few chairs and a bed. The Sheikh took pride of place at the desk and was joined by three men I’ll call Khalid, Hamza and Rachid.

Khalid was the youngest, dressed as if he were ready for a night of clubbing in Cyprus: acid-washed jeans and a fitted knit shirt patterned with soft-colored Tetris geometry. He had blue eyes and light skin, his hair was gelled, and his chin was lined with a few days’ of scruff worthy of an aspiring bassist. Like almost everyone I’d meet that day, Khalid was from Jisr al-Shughour and first came to Hatay fleeing the regime’s massacre there last June. Since he looked the most well-kept out of the bunch, I asked him how he was holding up. “OK. The beginning was better than now.” After 11 months, he wanted to go home.

In a white baseball cap and light blue shirt, Hamza was the political one. When I put it to the assembled why they thought the United States hadn’t intervened in Syria, as they all hoped it would, he answered: “Because Americans don’t like Muslims, and the US wants to protect the security of Israel.” Mahmoud was unimpressed with this response and replied matter-of-factly that in his 20 years of living in Atlanta, he’d had a better life, and had been more accepted, than he had during his youth in Hama or in any European country he’d lived in since. Joe Lieberman, he said, was a Jewish senator and very pro-Israel, and he was the one calling for military intervention in Syria. Khalid and the others nodded.

Everyone wanted a buffer zone, a no-fly zone and weapons. This answer to the question I posed to every Syrian I met of what the West could do to help was so universal that it became a kind of exile’s catechism. Rachid, dressed in a brown kaftan, cleanly shaven with short hair, was an Air Force colonel who defected and wanted to go back in and fight and vowed to do so when there was a buffer zone. He suggested that an air campaign against the regime could just target the Republican Guard headquarters and the Presidential Palace and that’d be enough to cause mass army defections, if not regime collapse. “For Libya, you had the no-fly zone for the whole country. You don’t need that for Syria,” he told me.

Now it was their turn to query me about politics and what they saw as American indifference toward their plight. “Why have they forgotten about us?” Rachid asked. “If George Bush was president, Assad would be finished,” another said in what was also a common refrain among the stranded Syrians of Hatay.

I won’t pretend that I was the finest spokesperson for stated Obama administration policy, but I ran through the usual arguments trotted out to push diplomacy over military action: Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons, his allegedly robust air defense systems, fear of stoking al-Qaeda or jihadist involvement, Syria’s awkward location in a deeply restive neighborhood. There was also the obvious matter of an upcoming presidential election featuring an incumbent who wanted the US out of the Middle East altogether and a challenger who poll-tested his way into the same general campaign posture. Though it was significant, I said, that John Kerry, who wants to be Secretary of State and would say or do nothing to jeopardize this appointment, had recently come out in favor of a buffer zone.

The council accepted that intervention, if it did come, wouldn’t come soon, but the consensus was still that the US had got Syria all wrong from the start of the uprising.  The notion that the armed opposition or al-Qaeda had been waging terrorist attacks in Syria was met with hostile skepticism here, as it had been by the Turkish cabbie that drove us to the camp. “If the FSA had a 1,000-kilogram bomb,” one refugee said, referring to the huge explosion that rocked the Syrian intelligence headquarters in Damascus two days earlier and was allegedly the work of jihadists, “then this war would be over by now.” Rachid was particularly incensed at Western media coverage of the siege of Jisr al-Shughour last June, in which many outlets lazily led with whatever SANA—the regime-controlled media bureau—was putting out about “armed gangs” killing security forces. The fact that army defectors had turned their guns on the mukhabarat had yet to penetrate the popular imagination.

As to the threat of an Islamist takeover of Syria following Assad’s fall, Western officials besotted with this deterministic lament ought to come to Boynuyogun and canvas opinion of this constituency. Even the Sheikh, for whom a daily Norelco regimen was all that kept him from being physically mistaken for a Salafist, was no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I asked what kind of state everyone wanted to see built on the ashes of Baathism. They affirmed that Syria was a pluralistic nation where minorities had lived equably with each other for centuries, even in the rural districts of Idlib. Sectarianism was what Assad was trying to exploit to turn Syria into another Afghanistan, but democracy, which they all favored, was still possible owing to a cultural memory for the pre-Assad era.

To prove their point, the Sheikh explained that shabiha—pro-Assad mercenary gangs that have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities against civilians—had been infiltrating refugee camps in order to gather intelligence for the regime. So in September, Boynuyogun decided to hold an election for a kind of camp security council. “Right here, there was the first real election Syria has had in half a century,” said the slender, mustachioed man who ultimately won the chairmanship of the council after belatedly wandering into our meeting. Roughly 500 people voted; he won a little over 50 percent of the votes. “You see, it was a close race. Not like back home.” He smiled. The council’s responsibility, he said, is to vet visitors and newcomers to make sure they’re legitimate, and to ensure that everyone’s safety is guaranteed.

I asked about the locals, particularly the rumors of Assad loyalists in Hatay antagonizing refugees who often travel into nearby towns to go shopping. The Sheikh said the difficulty was that most of the doctors in this part of Turkey were Alawites, and whenever a camp resident went in for medical treatment in a local hospital, he was bullied and asked why he wanted “terrorists” to take over Syria. The care could also be substandard. The Sheikh told me that he suffered from a chronic back ailment and a short while ago had to be ferried to a hospital in an ambulance, the technicians and drivers of which were Alawite. “They hit every pot hole in the road,” the Sheikh laughed.

I soon realized that my party had overstayed its welcome. It was now 5:20, past visiting hours, so Yahye, Ibrahim, Mahmoud and I walked back to the camp entrance, though not before exchanging Skype details and posing for a few photographs with our new friends. On our way out, however, we noticed two men in tennis shirts and khakis who greeted us in American English walking into the camp blissfully free of interrogation or scrutiny from the Turkish guards. Were they journalists or NGO representatives? And how were they allowed into Boynuyogun after 5 o’clock?  Mahmoud muttered the words “mukhabarat Amirki” and Ibrahim seemed hopeful.

Michael Weiss

About Michael Weiss

A widely published journalist, Weiss has expertise in the Israel-Palestine conflict and human rights in the Middle East. He recently wrote HJS's Media Briefing: "Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation: A Preliminary Assessment". Weiss has been published in Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The New Criterion, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Prospect, Standpoint, Democratiya and The New Republic. He keeps a regular blog on foreign policy and the Middle East for the Daily Telegraph and one on culture for The New Criterion.

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