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Itinerants and pawns

An unwanted population trying to survive an unstoppable conflagration, Syrians face forced relocation and deadly dangers

A Syrian girl evacuates with other civilians from the town of Jisreen on the eastern outskirts of Damascus on March 17. AFP/Getty Images

Itinerants and pawns
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GAZIANTEP, Turkey—In the Damascus suburb of Douma, the mothers who’ve been around this war know when to go underground, and when to run. Residents were taking shelter in basements from unending bombings that began at dusk, until someone yelled, “Gas! Gas!” Thirty-four-year-old Amani grabbed her daughter Masa to run back up the stairs. Staying underground where the gas became trapped, she knew, would mean instant death.

She ran to the apartment building’s upper floors, dousing Masa, aged 4, in water as they went. Still they felt the white cloud and dust enveloping them and Amani felt her own body collapsing, needing oxygen.

“The gas was spicy,” Amani told reporters for London’s Sunday Times, the first to reach survivors. “Spicy in my throat like chili. I was vomiting and coughing. No one could breathe. Around me, people were just falling to the ground.”

Amani and Masa survived, though for a time Masa lay unconscious, foaming at the mouth. On the building’s second floor the two found Masa’s twin sister Malaz and Amani’s husband, Diaa Mohammed. The family coughed and puked as the building continued to shake and bombs fell, then finally made it outside. There they saw neighbors and relatives convulsing on the ground, some already dead.

“There are three basements in our street,” Amani explained to the reporters, sobbing. “Only three people died from ours, because we were warned. But the basement next door didn’t hear [about] the gas. They all died where they were.”

The April gas attack in Douma provoked a barrage of airstrikes launched one week later by the United States, Britain, and France—targeting three sites where the Syrian regime was believed to manufacture and store chemical weapons. Since 2013, when a sarin attack killed 1,400 people, numerous other attacks have been documented. The Assad regime alone has the air power to deliver such weapons.

The Douma attack—believed to be a combination of chlorine gas and nerve agent—killed at least 50 people and injured hundreds, but it is only one episode. Day after day through seven years of war, civilian populations have become strategic targets. By forcing the collapse of once-tight communities, President Bashar al-Assad is borrowing from the terrorists’ playbook—creating enough fear and upheaval to quell future dissent.

But while the United States and its allies came to the aid of the mostly Muslim population of Douma, the coalition at the same time ignored and refused to take military action to stop atrocities in northern Syria, areas that are largely non-Muslim with historic populations of Assyrian and Armenian Christians, Yazidis, and Kurds.

You meet the horror stories from the Syrian War on distant ground, often far removed from the scene of the crime. The Times reporters found survivors of the April 7 attack—3,000 in all—about 200 miles from Douma in northern Syria at a camp for the displaced. As they talked outside his tent home, Diaa Mohammed hung on a line the girls’ clothes, still reeking one week later of chlorine used in the attack.

But for these and many other average Syrians, leaving their homes and cities doesn’t end their trauma. Some of them relocate many times. To remain inside Syria, they face danger from bombardments and ever-present jihadist groups who meld with rebel forces fighting the Assad regime, taking up positions inside residential areas. Nonfighters face impossible choices: to join the jihadists or be conscripted into the Syrian army. The only way for men to remain with their families is to accept forced relocation to areas under the regime’s control.

Outside Syria, nearly every country in the world has restrictions on Syrian refugees. Syria’s neighbors—some at break points themselves from the seven-year war—now make it difficult for Syrians to cross their borders.

In all, nearly 12 million people of Syria’s 20 million prewar population are displaced: 5.6 million Syrians registered as refugees with the United Nations, living outside the country, and 6.1 million people displaced inside Syria. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also counts nearly 3 million Syrians living in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. Altogether, it’s the world’s largest displacement crisis.

TURKEY, with a 500-mile shared border, currently has 3.6 million Syrian refugees—and overall the largest refugee population of any country in the world. For the NATO member straddling Europe and Asia, absorbing so many Syrians is like adding a city the size of Los Angeles inside a country the size of Texas.

At the height of the migrant crisis that began in 2014-15, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an agreement with the European Union to halt refugees streaming from Turkey across the Aegean Sea to Greece and beyond. Erdogan agreed to stanch the migrant flow in exchange for EU payments to help shelter the refugees inside Turkey’s borders. From 2016 to 2017 the EU provided Turkey $1.7 billion in humanitarian aid under the pact.

As a result, most Syrian refugees have limited options for resettlement from Turkey, only life in one of Turkey’s organized camps or on their own. Apart from the camps—which house less than 5 percent of Turkey’s refugee population and are closed to most international aid groups and reporters—little aid actually appears to go to refugees. Most of the Syrians live in rough, unorganized camps on the outskirts of cities or are trying to start from scratch in urban areas.

For the West, the Turkey-EU deal involves unintended consequences, giving Erdogan inordinate power in exchange for stemming the migrant tide. Erdogan in 2016 enacted emergency laws following a coup attempt, and they remain in effect. Under those laws the government has arrested thousands of political opponents, judges, journalists, and others, including foreign workers like American pastor Andrew Brunson.

Erdogan launched a massive campaign to build mosques across the country, and a colossal mosque is underway atop Taksim Square, one of the most popular areas of Istanbul. Organized as a secular democracy, Turkey has growing ties to Islamic institutions that coincide with evidence of Erdogan supporting Islamic State militants.

Thousands of ISIS fighters gained entry to Syria across Turkey’s border. Turkey repeatedly has given cover to ISIS fighters advancing on mostly ethnic Armenian, Assyrian, and Kurdish communities in northern Syria. In recent months, Turkey launched an offensive with heavy weapons into Syria’s Afrin region and sent ground forces into Iraq, while positioning tanks and heavy artillery along both borders. All with little to no protest from Turkey’s NATO allies, including the United States.

“Erdogan has the trump card. He can act with impunity and against the West’s interests, and if it protests, he can threaten to release another million migrants,” said an officer with one international aid group who’s not named for security reasons. “He holds Europe hostage and blackmails NATO and the United States.”

FOR THE REFUGEES who find themselves pawns in this great game, daily survival trumps everything else. Gaziantep is just one hour’s drive from Syria’s front lines. The prosperous city of 1.9 million in eastern Turkey has surged with 500,000 Syrian refugees.

Flowering almond groves and new highway construction greet newly arriving refugees, along with a hulking new mosque under construction in the city center. Syrians from Aleppo, Afrin, Manbij, and other recent battlegrounds have found an uneasy new life: Some have opened cafés and other small businesses, but language—Syrians speak Arabic and Turks Turkish—is a barrier, and the government requires Syrians to use different license plates. Turkish residents have complained of an uptick in violence and thefts, while many refugees—having lost everything—are left to find abandoned housing in some of Gaziantep’s poorest neighborhoods.

First Hope Association, a local NGO working with World Relief/Germany and other partners, runs the Gaziantep Refugee Center in one such neighborhood, along with similar aid work and ministry in other cities. Laborers were just beginning to add a second floor to a school building when I arrived at the center. When I asked how soon it would be ready, one of the workers said, “Maybe two days.”

Urgency defines First Hope’s mission: On the first floor, two classrooms already are full, and the small center serves about 40 students ages 4-9.

“When the refugees arrived they were not welcomed. Everyone thought they were beggars. They couldn’t see that they were dentists and doctors and working people,” said Demokan Kileci, director of First Hope. Kileci set up home visits, and his team quickly saw that refugee families were traumatized, afraid, and distrustful. Starting the small school was a way to build trust, create routine, and provide education for children who mostly have missed an education. “Slowly they saw this as a safe place where they could send their kids,” he said.

Some students came to the school not speaking. Teachers thought they were mentally disabled, but they were traumatized from the war. Others had lost the most basic skills, like buttoning a shirt, holding scissors, or being potty trained. One teacher said she caught a child trying to wash his face in a toilet.

Now the mute children are talking, and when I entered one classroom, they sang out greetings to me in Turkish and Arabic. At recess they played in an enclosed courtyard while other children looked on from the street. Home visits continue, and the refugee center has become a community hub, hosting meals and adult gatherings. The second floor space will hold classes for parents wanting to learn Turkish.

Most of the families are from non-Sunni Muslim sects targeted by militant groups during the fighting. Many husbands were killed or forced into fighting. Cunyt Ahmet is rare among the refugees. He’s an 86-year-old survivor who, with his wife, fled the fighting near Damascus for Aleppo, then fled Aleppo for Turkey. “I will never go back,” he told me. “Why would I go back? I don’t have anyone or anything left there.”

A son and daughter were killed in the war, and Ahmet has a son living in Izmir. He and his wife receive 80 Turkish lira—about $20—a month from the Turkish government. First Hope helps the couple with basic food supplies and some medical care. “This refugee work is like a black hole. Whatever we do it’s not enough, and our resources are limited,” said Kileci.

SINCE FEBRUARY more refugees are arriving in Gaziantep, driven by a military offensive across the Syrian border in Afrin—one started by Turkey. Turkish special forces gathered in Gaziantep before launching the attack into what had been a safe haven—won back from ISIS and controlled by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. Erdogan considers the Kurdish YPG units “terrorists” and attacked Afrin to secure his own border, he said.

Afrin had become home also to thousands of displaced people from Aleppo, including many Christians and other non-Muslims. Villages in the wider region include historic Armenian and Assyrian Christian areas as well as Yazidi enclaves.

Besides Turkish troops and special forces, Turkey deployed 25,000 Free Syrian Army fighters, most of them battle-hardened Islamists who fought alongside al-Qaeda and ISIS. Armenian and Assyrian organizations warned of an impending slaughter as early as January, according to Elizabeth Kendal of the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin.

The YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—which include Kurds, Arabs, and Christians—appealed for help to U.S. forces stationed only 70 miles away in Manbij. They asked for anti-aircraft weapons and no-fly-zone coverage, but received nothing. Though YPG and SDF units fought alongside coalition forces in 2016 and 2017 to liberate many areas, including ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, the coalition abandoned them in Afrin.

As Turkish forces in February launched airstrikes in Afrin—ignoring a UN Security Council resolution—the Vatican’s Apostolic Nuncio to Syria Mario Zenari said the situation in Afrin was “hell on earth.” Kurdish units retreated with civilians, but at least 200 civilians were killed, and multiple sources told WORLD Turkish forces “cleansed” the area of Christians and others.

“In Afrin they believed internationally it would not be tolerated for Turkey to attack the city,” explained Nemam Ghafouri, a cardiothoracic surgeon and aid worker in Afrin. When Turkey began airstrikes, “they had to flee for their lives, yet the Syrian regime was waiting for them and asking money in order to be allowed to pass.”

Ghafouri—who left her practice in Sweden to work in Iraq and founded Joint Help for Kurdistan, a U.S.-registered nonprofit—took medical supplies and a team of volunteers to the Afrin region. She said she faced numerous checkpoints operated by Russians, Iranian militias, and Syrian forces. What should have been a 12-hour journey from Iraq over land took 38 hours.

Ghafouri said Syrian forces demanded up to $3,000 from each Afrin resident trying to escape. Many instead took up hiding in villages ransacked by ISIS and “in ruins,” she said.

Survivors became dehydrated and ill, with children and the elderly suffering the most. Others, Ghafouri and other aid workers report, were tortured, killed, or taken away.

“Some were detained by Turks and ISIS men who joined them, Arabs who do not speak Turkish,” Ghafouri said.

As atrocities unfolded in proximity to U.S. forces in Syria, the Trump administration focused world attention instead on April’s chemical attack in Douma. Since the April 13 retaliatory airstrikes, U.S. officials have floated the idea of an “Arab army” backed by Saudi Arabia to replace American troops near Afrin.

“This makes sense on paper and could prevent Turkey from filling the void left by the United States,” explained Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project. “But sending Arab forces to secure a section of Syria that is only partially Arab ignores local cultural dynamics. This could easily exacerbate tensions.”

It could also seal a genocide of Christians and Yazidis already forced from their homelands by ISIS.

Apart from multilateral action led by the United States, experts agree Turkey will continue to use its vast refugee population as collateral to seize territory and power. Christians, Yazidis, and others will be the unsupported victims of dislocation campaigns by both Erdogan and Assad, as they were in Iraq under ISIS.

“Erdogan from the start had this notion of changing the demography to make it more favorable to his own rule,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former opposition member of Turkey’s parliament, now a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. “Forceful dislocation serves to rid areas under his control of undesirable elements.”

Displacement data

Nearly 12 million Syrians displaced: 6.1 million inside Syria, 5.6 million outside Syria.

Turkey: 3.6 million Syrians • Jordan: 656,000 • Lebanon: 1 million • Iraq: 250,000 • Egypt: 128,000 • Other North Africa countries: 33,000

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine’s first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.



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