BAB AL-SALAMA CROSSING, Syria — When their urban neighborhoods were bombed by government aircraft, many northern Syrians hid in nearby villages. When those were bombed, they fled to the fields. When the fields were targeted, the refugees had little option but to head for this rebel-held border station and try to cross into Turkey.
But as Turkey scrambles to build additional camps to accommodate the influx, thousands of Syrians have found themselves temporarily stuck here under the shelter of concrete vehicle-inspection hangars — and several said this week that they would stay put.
Rumors are rife that Turkish camps are squalid, and many refugees calculate that Syrian jets are unlikely to strike so close to the border. For now, this way station has become a de facto buffer zone, a default version of the haven that Turkey and many Syrians want created on a far grander scale inside Syria.
With such a haven, “it would take two or three days to topple the regime,” said Khaled Abdullah, 40, who sat in paralyzing midday heat on a dun-colored sheet, his back supported by tall piles of Syrian flat bread, and announced that he had no intention of leaving. “This place is safe.”
Abdullah was among 10,000 or so Syrians waiting on Turkey’s borders this week, most of whom were trying to join the 80,000 refugees already in that country. Turkey repeated calls Thursday for a humanitarian corridor inside Syria where civilians would be protected. Although some countries, including France, have expressed support for the idea, there is little international momentum on the issue. The United Nations said this week that the proposal “raises serious questions.”
“How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said at the United Nations on Thursday. He added, “We need to focus on the steps which must be taken within the borders of Syria.”
That is a popular idea at Bab al-Salama, now a sort of accidental mini safe zone. Rebels smoking Gauloises cigarettes stamp passports near what was once an Aleppo post office branch; others keep watch and maintain order. A Turkish charity serves rice and bread, while workers assemble a trailer housing seven showers that the Turkish government had donated. A man who said the Syrian regime has kept his father imprisoned for 31 years sells Pepsis inside a shop.
Abdullah, a grocer from the nearby town of Marea, said that hiding from shelling under the stairs had worked for awhile. But things got unbearable when Syrian jets — MiGs, he and everyone here calls them — began pounding the region early this month.
The children jumped at any noise. The adults could not go out to buy milk. Finally, it fell to Abdullah, as the eldest son in his family, to lead 44 women and children to safety. His wife gave birth to their ninth child, a stillborn girl, as they hid in fields on the way, he said, betraying no hint of self-pity.
“I am ready to give three of my children to get rid of Bashar,” Abdullah said of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Instead, Abdullah’s children and countless others roam the grounds of this fenced station with a sort of aimless abandon, and he said he is sure many Syrian soldiers would defect if their families had such a place to come to. Next to him, a toddler in a cartoon sweatsuit fingered a bullet casing. Another small boy was summoned to belt out an anti-Assad song, which began: “You Iranians, say goodbye to your dog.”
No one claims, though, that Bab al-Salama is ideal, and many Syrians here do want to enter Turkey. Rockets can be seen flying in the distance. Government strikes on other rebel-held zones mean there is no guarantee of safety.
“The aircraft followed us to shoot fire on our house. When we escaped to another area, it also followed us,” said Abd Al-Moummen, 21, wringing his hands as he summoned words in fractured English, which he had studied at the University of Aleppo.
“Maybe Assad regime send aircraft to shoot this base,” he said. “And we are afraid of that.”
The town of Azaz, a 10-minute drive away, and the surrounding countryside have been hit by airstrikes regularly for three weeks, said Samir Haj Omar, a former teacher who now heads the Azaz political office of the rebel Free Syrian Army, or FSA.
“The regime wants to destroy all the country,” Omar said, walking briskly through Bab al-Salama. “The whole world watches, and nobody says a word.”
Conditions here are grim. There is water but only two bathroom facilities for thousands. The giant, open-walled hangars provide shelter and air circulation but also access for mosquitoes. Medical care is scarce, and refugees said stomach bugs are spreading among the children. On a curb near a sign marked “Loaded Truck Entry,” a graying man with a gangrenous, fly-encircled foot said he had entered Turkey, been denied medical care and now felt trapped.
“It’s not a perfect solution,” said Mohammed Noor, an FSA representative who pulled up in a silver Hyundai bearing a rebel license plate. “If these people go to Turkey, more people will come.”
At the back of the hangar, Abu Hassan, a neatly dressed tailor, dozed on a thin mat with his two young sons, who wore matching outfits. They had been here a week and still looked slightly bewildered.
In their Aleppo neighborhood, Hassan explained, they had a life with touches of luxury: a fifth-story apartment with a balcony and two showers a day. Then jets bombed the buildings in front of and behind his, he said, and soon he and 12 relatives were on the run for weeks, moving from village to village, until they ended up here.
Most would stay, he said, but he, his wife and three children would not.
“I’m going back to Aleppo tomorrow,” Hassan said. “It’s better to hide in a house than stay here.”
Source: Washington Post