ATMEH, Syria: Hundreds of Syrian refugees have poured into a makeshift refugee camp overlooking the Turkish border, fleeing a week of what they say are the most intense army bombardments since the uprising began 19 months ago.
In the past two days, 700 tents have been erected in a sprawling olive grove on a hill just inside Syria, and all of them have already been claimed.
Dozens of stranded families struggle into the camp only to find no shelter, but are afraid to return home to the horror of the constant shelling.
Nabil, a pale 20-year-old with dark rings under his eyes, watched dozens of women and children who came with him from his mountain village in the Jabal al-Zawiya region as they crammed themselves back into the truck that brought them, hoping to find refuge in a nearby village.
“Some of the bombs were so big they sucked in the air and everything crashes down, even four-story buildings. We used to have one or two rockets a day, now for the past 10 days it has become constant, we run from one shelter to another. They drop a few bombs and it’s like a massacre,” he said.
“My family came home this morning and found our house was completely destroyed. Luckily we were hiding in a cave. I had nothing to bring with me.”
Like Nabil, most of the refugees were from the Governorate of Idlib and said they were paying the price for rebel advances in the area.
Fighters trying to topple President Bashar Assad have seized the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan along the north-south highway, the army’s main supply route, as well as several military positions.
For two weeks, rebels have surrounded and attacked Wadi al-Deif, an army base east of Maaret al-Numan, and the army has responded with heavy bombardment in the surrounding areas.
Bassam, a 19-year-old construction worker from a village near Maarert al-Numan, accused the Syrian army of revenge attacks:
“Every time the rebels make an advance, we get hit. Plus we have Free Syrian Army members in the town. So we are basically getting the brunt of army’s revenge attacks.”
Refugees are given two meals a day by volunteers from Turkish charities but those living here are suffering from the rain and cold nights that warn of winter ahead. The tents were provided by various charities although the major international agencies did not appear to be present.
At dusk, families huddled around camp fires, their only source of heat.
Most had hoped to go to Turkey but have been stuck on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey, with more than 100,000 refugees, says it is filled to capacity until it can build more camps. In the meantime, families here wait in the hope those promises will come through.
With no official patron, conditions are poor and worsening as the inhabitants increase. There are only two toilets for one group that likely numbers around 10,000 people.
The reek of sewage pervades the camp and a small first aid tent is always crowded with those seeking medical help.
Women complained they had no place to bathe – washing areas are out in the open.
“I haven’t been able to wash myself since we arrived a week ago. I see women rinsing off in their clothes,” said Lama, a young woman whose family fled with dozens of people from their small village in Idlib, Kafar Awaid.
At the bottom of the hill, Haitham Balbash and his sons dug channels around their mud-splattered tent, hoping to channel the rain away from the tiny shelter housing their family of 12.
“Bombs, bombs, bombs. I’ve lost five relatives this month,” he sighed. “My house was leveled. We went to another village. Then it started getting hit, so we felt there was no choice left but to come and wait here.”
He wiped the rain off the leathered skin on his face, shaking his head as he considered where his country is headed:
“Is there anything left of Syria? I don’t even think about my own future, my life is over at this point. I just hope it will end for my children.”
Many families, desperate to find shelter and fed up with the waiting, headed to the nearby Bab al-Hawa crossing, but Turkey grants entrance only to those with passports. Many have fled with no identification or never got a passport.
A crowd of men and women holding crying babies demanded entrance but officials shut the gates on them.
Inside the makeshift camp in Syria, young Nabil considered returning to home to Jabal al-Zawiya despite the shelling: “I think I’d rather die as a martyr from bombs than live here, like an animal.”