Syrian refugees began protesting Wednesday inside camps in Southern Turkey, demanding that the world take action act against the regime in Damascus even as it called for them to return home.
Refugees who managed to speak through blue plastic sheeting, thrown up around one of the Turkish camps to keep them from international media, also said there were defecting soldiers from the Syrian military inside the camp, including intelligence and air-force officers.
The protests began Wednesday morning, when a Turkish foreign-ministry official for the first time brought reporters close to one of the camps to make a brief press statement. When refugees saw the cameras they began to chant: “What are you afraid of?” before being driven away by police.
“No Iran! No Hizbollah! We want someone who believes in God!” the refugees chanted from inside the camp. “Down with the system!” Iran and Hezbollah are the Syrian regime’s staunchest allies, with Iran playing an alleged role in aiding Syria in the crackdown against protesters.
The protests came as Syria’s government called on the refugees, most from the area around the northern town of Jisr Al-Shughour, to return to their homes “after calm and security were restored in the area,” according to the state news agency. Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said Syria’s Red Crescent aid agency would make contact with Turkey’s Red Crescent to start facilitating the return.
On Wednesday, however, there was little sign of violence ending. Residents in Syria’s northwest reported armored vehicles moving towards a new village. Jamil Saeb, an activist who said he was in hiding in the mountainous terrain surrounding Jisr al-Shoghour, said 40 armoured army-personnel carriers were seen heading to al-Janoudiya, a village that has been “politically active”.
Activists said little information was coming out of Maaret Al Numaan, a town the army surrounded on Tuesday, or Qariha, a town east of Jisr al-Shoghour. Qariha has been cut off from communications since Sunday, though people fleeing the town said at least six people were killed there by gunfire over the past three days, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Hundreds of Turkish and international media have been parked in and around villages along Turkey’s border with Syria since refugees began crossing the border about 10 days ago, to escape fighting in and around Jisr Al-Shoghour. But Turkish military police have swept them into camps and kept media away, triggering speculation as to whether Ankara was trying deliberately to restrict the flow of information from Syria.
Turkish officials deny any such intent and say they need to keep the camps closed in order to protect the identities of the refugees, so they will not risk retribution when they return home. Turkey’s government, at least until recently , was close to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. It has opened its borders to Syrians but also has sought to keep tight control, insisting that those who cross the border to safety aren’t refugees but temporarily displaced.
Refugees inside the Yaladag camp said Wednesday they were unhappy about their isolation and wanted to talk to journalists to get their message out. They confirmed, however, that the Syrian military defectors were afraid to talk or to be identified.
“Our government is asking the Turkish government to return us to Syria so they can kill us,” said a woman speaking from behind the blue plastic perimeter of the Yaladag camp, from Jisr Al-Shoghour who gave her name only as ‘K’. She said she didn’t want to give her name for fear that her brother, who is in the Syrian military, would be killed. She was the shooed away from the fence by police.
“The soldiers are being ordered to shoot at everything,” said Joma Mohammad Ali, another resident of Jisr Al-Shoghour, who said he had arrived at the Yayladag camp at 10 p.m. Tuesday night. He said the army had used tanks and helicopters in an assault on the town.
“There are army defectors and members of the air force and intelligence officers in the camps with us,” said Mr. Mohammad Ali.
Another refugee speaking through the plastic, who declined to give his name, said he had come overnight from Al Taibbat, a village outside Jisr Al-Shoghour, where he said shooting started at around 10pm. “There are a lot of [Syrian armed forces] defectors in the camp, but they are afraid to speak,” the refugee said.
A Turkish foreign ministry official gave a brief statement outside the Yayladag camp Wednesday, for the first time allowing journalists near, though still not inside the camp.
The number of “Syrian citizens who were allowed to enter Turkey in the temporary tent cities” was now 8,421, according to the official. He said three “tent cities” were now in use and that two more were under construction. He said the camps had hot water, food and—on request from the Syrians—prayer facilities. The official, who asked not to be named, declined to take questions.