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Middle East

Cat and mouse game gets refugees into Turkey

Fighters with the Free Syria Army (FSA) regroup at their base in Azaz, some 47km north of Aleppo, on September 13, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/MARCO LONGARI)

AZAZ, Syria: Between the olive trees and the barbed wire on the Syria-Turkey border, fleeing Syrians play a daily game of cat and mouse with Turkish troops that sometimes threatens to lead to confrontation. The Turkish position is clear – only Syrians with passports can cross.

But travel documents were difficult to get even before the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime erupted in March last year and, as the conflict has intensified, it has become impossible for many.

There are tents erected on the Turkish side for the refugees who have already been allowed in.

But they are all full and with new camps yet to be completed, the Turks have closed the border crossings.

Nonetheless hundreds still manage to get across illegally every day. The stretch of frontier near the small Turkish town of Kilis is a favored route, dodging the formal crossing point on the road from the Syrian town of Azaz.

Within sight of the border, a Syrian rebel flag flutters above a tent hidden in an olive grove. It marks the gathering point for those wanting to cross.

Free Syrian Army commander Abu Mahmud hands out reassurance and advice to the exhausted families who arrive in vehicles loaded with their possessions, desperate to find safety from the bloodshed now in its 18th month.

“There are Turkish soldiers, but not many. And there are countless holes in the border fence,” he says.

“We make a small diversion by sending one of our men. While he gets himself arrested, entire families manage to get across further along.”

Small red triangular signs indicate the presence of land mines.

“Oh that ... never mind, we know where they all are,” he says.

Mohammad Abu Ali arrives with his extended family of 25 in three cars and a baggage truck. Four women in black veils sit in the back of one of the vehicles not daring to get out.

“We are from Al-Bab,” Abu Ali says, referring to a rebel-held town northeast of Syria’s second city Aleppo.

“There were several air raids and our women were all terrified.

“We are afraid that the planes will return. The schools are closed. My father is sick in hospital in Turkey and we’re going to join him there.”

The family’s small convoy turns and follows a young man on a motorcycle who will act as their guide across the border.

He is one of a whole company of scouts who churn up the dust on the dirt tracks along the border, escorting would-be refugees to safety.

They all work for the smuggler in chief, whose family has been involved in contraband across the border for generations. He drives at top speed down a track in his unlicensed Kia, a telephone glued to his ear.

“You are joking,” he says with a big grin, when asked whether he is worried about the army. “There are too many of us, they only catch the people we want them to catch.”

A young man carrying a small sports bag squats on his heels waiting his turn to cross.

“I have been back and forth several times,” he says.

“It all depends on the Turkish officer. If he is an Alawite, the troops get zealous. If he is Sunni, it is easier. When they change commander, everyone knows about it in minutes all along the border.”

Suddenly Kalashnikov fire rings out. Rebel commander Abu Mahmud has loosed off warning shots even as he sits eating his lunch in the shade of an olive tree.

Two Turkish soldiers who had been engaged in heated discussion with three Syrians trying to slip through the border fence shoulder their weapons.

But before the confrontation has time to escalate, an armed rebel approaches the barbed wire and calms things down.

The three men retreat, and then slip through the fence a little further along the border.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 14, 2012, on page 8.

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