Syrians Flee Aleppo for Turkey

 By Aref Haj Youssef, Damascus Bureau - Syria
19 Feb 14

The staggering numbers of refugees in the Turkish city of Kilis on the border with Syria are hard to miss.

They have escaped the barrel bombs being dropped on Aleppo by regime forces, and their makeshift bedding is everywhere – in the mosques, parks and at the local bus station.

Their exhausted faces are maps of the pain they have had to endure as they made their way here, carrying all they were able to take from the houses they left behind.

Abu Ahmad, a resident of the Ansari neighbourhood, one of the many in Aleppo that has been bombed, was able to escape with his wife. They have laid out their bedding on the floor of the bus station – the “garage”, as most of the Syrians call it – just a kilometre away from the border.

Abu Ahmad is waiting for the rest of his family to cross over. “My sons and daughters have been stuck at the border for two days, while my wife and I sit here waiting for them,” he said.

Abdel Ahad, who is blind and has seven children, could find no shelter other than the bus station for his family. He describes the circumstances under which his family fled Aleppo.

“We were in the Salihin neighbourhood and we ran away under a barrage of barrel bombs,” he said. “My eldest son is still in Aleppo because he wasn’t at home when we escaped. We have no one here in Turkey. We’ve been here for two nights so far, waiting for God to bring us respite.”

Since the escalation of daily air raids on opposition-controlled eastern Aleppo on January 19, many residents have fled the area altogether. Some sought shelter on the other side of the city – the half that is controlled by the regime – while others fled to the countryside, although that too is the scene of shelling and fierce battles between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other armed factions.

A large number of residents from the areas under fire in Aleppo escaped to the border with Turkey, Many try to enter illegally because the Turkish authorities have been denying entry to anyone without identity papers.

Thousands are waiting on the Syrian side of the border, according to eyewitnesses who have managed to cross.

Before the air raids and shelling intensified, the eastern half of Aleppo was home to over a million-and-a-half people. The area was rarely quiet, but the shelling was not heavy enough to drive people in their thousands away from jobs and homes.

Abu Abdo is standing at the station, waiting for the bus that will take him to Istanbul to live with his son. He can hardly find words to describe the violence he escaped.

“I’ve just now come from Aleppo. People might think I’m exaggerating, but what’s happening there now is a real humanitarian disaster in every sense of the word. It’s a ghost town,” he said. “I will tell the truth even if it costs me my life. Both sides [in the conflict] are responsible for what is happening to innocent civilians.”

For more than two weeks, around 300 people have been staying at the Kilis bus station. At night, the women and children stay inside, where it is relatively warmer, while the men sleep on concrete pavements and grass outside.

Despite these difficult conditions, Shahed, 7, her childish laugh tinged with some embarrassment, says she far prefers living in the “garage” than in her home in Aleppo.

“I feel happier here and I don’t want to go back,” she said. “[In Aleppo] there’s shelling and warplanes.”

A local refugee camp which houses about 15,000 Syrians has stopped accepting any more.

Outside the bus station, a long line of Syrians queue for lunches served by Turkish government volunteers. The meal consists of bread, a small amount of rice, and some white beans. One of the men standing in line expresses pleasure at being able to secure some food for his family.

The cost of living in Turkey means that refugees without much money cannot afford a family meal in a restaurant, which can cost up to 18 US dollars. Most of the Syrians who fled to Kilis before the latest exodus live on a monthly allowance of around 67 dollars or even less, and some survive only on food rations handed out by neighbourhood officials.

Many of the refugees who were unable to find shelter in Kilis crossed the border again in the opposite direction, trying to find new homes in refugee camps near the Bab al-Salama crossing-point.

The Bab al-Salama refugee camp has also been struggling with the flow of refugees. A new camp was started in early February about five kilometres away, in an area called Shummarin.

A Syrian aid worker called Abul Rim described conditions at the Bab al-Salama refugee camp.

“The services are absolutely terrible,” he said. “There is no water, no electricity, and the tents are very old and falling apart. Today, 800 new people arrived at the camp and most probably they’ll be forced to sleep outside for a night or two at the doors of the camp before their turn comes to enter.”

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.