Dispatch

In the Camps

For Syrian refugees stuck along the Turkish border, war brings a slow and simmering cruelty.

ATMEH, Syria — The town of Reyhanli, Turkey, on the Syrian-Turkish border is bursting at the seams. Its population of Turks and Alawi, Sunni, and Christian Arabs has recently doubled with the arrival of Syrian refugees. The crisis has boosted the local economy but also brought tragedy -- a car bombing on May 11, almost certainly the work of Bashar al-Assad's intelligence services, killed 51 people. It was the worst terrorist atrocity in Turkey's history.

A hotel in Reyhanli served as my base in late June while I worked with refugees on the Syrian side of the border. It felt something like the setting of a Graham Greene novel: Salim Idris, chief of staff of the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, wandered in one evening, while expatriate Syrians, charity workers, and weapons smugglers smoked shisha in the courtyard. An American called Eric, with no surname, introducing himself as "a researcher," visited the charity offices outside.

With well over a quarter of a million refugees now lodged in Turkish camps, many displaced Syrians are refused entry into Turkey. Instead they shelter in the fields and at roadsides nearby -- including at the Atmeh camp, planted exactly on the border.

In a sense, Atmeh is Syria in microcosm: Over 5 million Syrians, a quarter of the country's population, are persisting in similar or worse conditions -- having fled to neighboring countries or displaced inside their own, living under trees, in abandoned apartments, in mosques and schools. As the United States threatens a military response to the Assad regime's latest atrocity -- an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus that left hundreds dead -- the world is still seemingly unmoved by the suffering of these people.

The United States may strike Assad's bases, but it seems clear that it won't go so far as regime change. Its aim is punishment -- to uphold the international taboo on weapons of mass destruction attacks and show that President Barack Obama's words mean something, not to dramatically alter the balance in Syria so that these people can return to their homes.

This part of the world used to be known as the Sanjak of Alexandretta and was historically part of Syria. The French Mandate awarded the territory to Turkey in the late 1930s. The Turks named the area Hatay, after the Hittites; the extreme Turkish nationalism of the time held that the ancient community had been proto-Turk and that the Hittite ruins in the area justified its annexation to the Kemalist republic.

The Arab population of the province produced its own mythology in response. Zaki al-Arsuzi, one of the founding ideologues of the Baath Party (its slogan: "One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message"), did much of his agitating in the provincial capital of Antioch. Baathism appealed particularly to non-Sunni minorities throughout the Levant. Today, a debased version of the creed provides ideological cover for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's campaign of slaughter.

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There is no passport control at the entrance into and out of Turkey, just a gap in the barbed-wire fence where cars deliver the wounded into Turkish ambulances and trucks of food and medical aid are unloaded into vans headed for Aleppo and Idlib. Unemployed men hoping to work in Turkey mingle here with kerosene smugglers and fighters from the various Free Syrian Army and Islamist militias.

One morning, a Syrian jet bombed a village on a nearby hillside and then soared close to the Atmeh camp. The crowded entrance space cleared in a matter of seconds. A war novice may wonder at the uselessness of running to flimsy tents for shelter, but the point is to disperse, so as not to offer a densely packed target.

The Atmeh camp currently houses 22,000 refugees from shelling, aerial bombardment, gunfire, torture, and rape. They come mainly from the Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo regions. Most are rural people, but there are middle class urbanites too. Some come from further afield. One man I met was from the town of Adra, near Damascus. After four regime rockets struck his home, he moved his family in with neighbors. When the regime attacked the area with poison gas, he gave up on the capital and moved north.

The camp isn't an easy place. In the summer it's cursed by a hot, dust-laden, and energy-draining wind; in the winter, knee-high rivers of mud flood the temporary homes.

Some tents are fire-resistant; some are plastic; some are concoctions of canvas and blankets. Some have been distributed by the United Nations' refugee agency, some by Turkish and expatriate Syrian charities. Some tents are pitched among the silvery olive trees, but the area closer to the barbed wire, where tents are set unshaded on the baked and stony earth, is much grimmer. There are toilets (unpleasant and not nearly enough of them), rough shower blocks, and daily deliveries of clean water. But there are also streams of green liquid filth, which the children fall into as they play. Many children have something that sounds like a bad smoker's cough but is most probably tuberculosis -- a disease, like typhoid and leishmaniasis, once defeated in Syria but now resurgent.

A "main street" in Atmeh features stalls set up in tents that sell cigarettes, soda, and sandwiches for those who can afford them; there are also barbers in tents and of course a tented mosque. A "ready meal" breakfast is sent in by the Turks each morning, and a simple lunch -- lentil soup, for instance -- is prepared in communal kitchens and distributed in buckets around the camp. There is no dinner.

Most impressively, a civil society infrastructure has been established -- something that was effectively forbidden in Assad's Syria. Atmeh has its own Coordination Committee -- an extension of the committees that sprang up across Syrian cities and villages from the revolution's first days in order to provide services the state wouldn't and to organize protests and media work. Over half the assembled members and speakers at the meeting I attended were women, a fact which illustrates both the expanded social role of women in the revolution and the disproportionate numbers of women (and children) in the camp, because so many men are dead, imprisoned, or fighting.

One of the committee's duties is to help set up schools for the camp's children. I saw three schools: the Revolution House, which was a single-room concrete shack; the Ghurabaa ("Strangers") School, run by Salafi Islamists and disapproved of by many because it entirely ignores the old Syrian curriculum in favor of a purely "Islamic" education; and the Return School, which serves 500 children, cramming 40 at a time in stifling tent classrooms.

The Return School was where I gave my storytelling workshop as part of the Maram and Karam foundations' Camp Zeitouna project, which included workshops in calligraphy, art, dental care, and soccer skills. We were assisted by some of the school's 20 unsalaried teachers and inspired by the laughing, shouting children. Some of these children have had only one month of schooling in the last two years. Some are physically scarred and emotionally traumatized. They responded well to the workshops and of course to the soccer field and playground constructed by Maram. They responded best of all, simply, to attention.

One of the trip's highlights was sitting in the dust on the new soccer grounds and being sung to by a group of boys and girls -- a surreal mix of revolutionary nationalist, jihadi, and romantic songs. One of the low points was meeting Manar, a woman whose two children died in a tent fire caused by a fallen candle. Another woman said she'd prefer to be dead than living in such conditions. American teenagers say such things in English, and it means nothing much. In Arabic it means a great deal.

Tamador, a volunteer psychologist, does her rounds. She advises a woman whose husband has abandoned her for another wife, but still turns up to take her money. She hears about a man who sexually abuses his son's wife. Pre-existing social problems have been immeasurably exacerbated by war trauma, unemployment, entrapment, and the forced proximity of the extended family.

Muhammad Ojjeh, our soccer coach and professional photographer, went down on one knee with his long lens to shoot a picture of a child. The child screamed in terror, turned, and ran. His mother shouted after him, "It's a camera, stupid, not a gun."

A woman welcomed us to her tent shamefacedly. "We've become Bedouins," she apologized. Deprived for so long of influence on the public space, Syrians of all classes take inordinate pride in their carefully ordered homes. Now this, too, is denied them.

An angry man reacted badly to the playground under construction. "What's the use of this?" he complained. "We don't want to stay here. The insects are eating us! We want to return to our homes. We need weapons. We need help."

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People like him will likely become still angrier in the coming months. Betrayed by an international media which increasingly portrays the revolution not as a struggle for freedom against a genocidal minority regime, but as an equal fight between two equally barbaric armies -- one Alawite, one jihadi -- it's unlikely that Syrians will receive any serious support soon. The United States has indicated it has no interest in a radical change in the status quo: As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained, America can't find a powerful wing of the resistance that is ready to promote America's "interests."

Now that the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah is openly fighting on the regime's side, the West seems intent on aiding the opposition just enough to "restore the balance" -- a balance that results in 100 dead Syrians each day. Until the mass chemical attack, the United States had failed to match its tepid rhetoric with any concrete support for the opposition. The military aid it promised remains undelivered, and it has actively prevented Arab Gulf states from delivering heavy weapons to the resistance.

Part of the problem is Western fear of the opposition's greatly exaggerated Islamist-extremist element. The irony is that the longer the tragedy lasts, the greater the empowerment of once minor and irrelevant jihadi forces.

Atmeh village, on a hill behind the camp, has been turned into a barracks for the foreign Islamist fighters of Hizb ut-Tahrir. These men are not, apparently, fighting the regime, but waiting for "the next stage" -- in other words, the coming struggle between moderates and Islamist extremists after the fall of the regime. Syrians, including democratic Islamists, refer to them derisively as "the spicy crew" and shrug off the risk they represent. One assured me it would take "two minutes" to expel them once the regime falls.

But sectarian hatreds -- stoked by the regime's propaganda, its Alawite death squads, and assaults on Sunni heritage -- are certainly rising. I met a man whose wife and 11 children were killed in an airstrike and who plans to marry again and produce 11 more children, "just so I can teach them to kill Alawites." There's a teenager who boasted, "Afterwards, we won't leave a single Alawite alive."

This deliberate attack on the social fabric is perhaps the regime's greatest crime. When tyrants light the fuse of sectarian war, they are unleashing passions that extend beyond politics. They are killing people who have not yet been born.

There are still glimmers of hope, both inside and outside Atmeh camp. Sheikh Muhammad, an authority in the camp, told me how he'd accompanied Free Syrian Army militias as they overtook Alawite villages. Although some Alawite villagers, fearing revenge, have fled from the approach of the Free Syrian Army, there has been no mass slaughter of Alawite civilians to mirror the sectarian massacres and ethnic cleansings perpetrated by the regime. Muhammad described how the rebels investigated the local men for membership in the regime's shabiha militias, while the women and children were left alone. "We aren't Assad," he said. "We're better than that."

Aziz, a Syrian from the town of Salamiyah and an adherent of the Ismaili faith -- a minority community that has been solid in its support for the revolution -- was guardedly optimistic. "The regime will go; that's certain. Then we'll face a very difficult year, perhaps five years, perhaps even 10. After that we'll live together as we did before, but better than before. We'll live in freedom."

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Civil War Within Syria's Civil War

Armies of Kurdish women are taking on Syria's Islamists -- and winning.

RAS AL-AYN, Syria -- "Quick, run, run," shouts Kurdish commander Roshna Akeed, as she orders two young female fighters to move toward a brick wall that represents the front line between Kurdish forces and al Qaeda-linked militants in this northern Syrian town.

Six male Kurdish fighters are already guarding this part of the front. They have removed some of the bricks from the five foot-high wall, and their guns peak through small holes toward the enemy, which is positioned in a hamlet roughly one-third of a mile away.

At the moment when the two female fighters arrive, the shooting erupts. One girl sporting a pony tail runs to the right, sticks her Kalashnikov through a hole in the wall and opens fire. Her male colleagues are also firing now. One man shoots through a hole in the wall while sitting on a white plastic chair. On the back of the chair is written in Arabic: "I love you until death."

As if Syria does not have enough war already, fighting recently broke out in the northeast of the country between Kurdish forces and radical Islamists -- both of whom are no friends of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. In Ras al-Ayn, all the country's problems come together: The town not only sits on the front lines of fighting between Kurds and Arabs, it is also located right on the edge of the Syrian-Turkish border. The Kurdish fighters in Syria are separated from Turkey's border troops -- traditionally the implacable enemies of any form of Kurdish separatism -- by only a 5-centimeter-thick iron gate.

The result is a civil war within a civil war. As the United States prepares for a military intervention in response to what it says was an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime on the eastern Damascus suburbs, it is just these sort of divides that could give American policymakers headaches for months and years to come. While U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has signaled that any strike will not aim to topple Assad, deeper U.S. involvement in the country's two-and-a-half-year civil war will mean more than a few Tomahawk missiles lobbed at military installations in Damascus - it will require grappling with the sectarian and ethnic divides that promise to define Syria's future.

For the Kurdish fighters in Ras al-Ayn, there is no doubt which side the United States should support.

 "We are fighting America's war on terror right here on the ground," says Kurdish fighter Dijwar Osman. "Our enemies are those al Qaeda fighters who want to destroy our 4,000-year-old Kurdish culture. These jihadists come from Belgium, Holland, Morocco, Libya, and other countries. Unfortunately, the U.S. and Turkey are on the side of al Qaeda, just like the U.S. was on al Qaeda's side in Afghanistan during the '80's."

The fights erupted after Syria's 2 million Kurds declared "self-governance" this past June in a region the Kurds call "Western Kurdistan" or "Rojava," which is Kurdish for "where the sun sets."

Kurds account for 10 percent of Syria's population, making them the country's largest ethnic minority. And they have turned Rojava, which covers roughly 10 percent of the country, into a de facto Kurdish mini-state: They have their own army and police here, names of towns have been changed from Arabic to Kurdish, and the Kurdish language is being taught in schools -- something that was forbidden under the Assad regime.

While the Assad regime and the mainly Islamist Syrian opposition are engaged in a fight to the death elsewhere in the country, they are both staunchly opposed to Kurdish separatist ambitions. Both sides consider the self-governance declaration a first step toward Kurdish independence and a possible break-up of Syria. The move also alarmed the authorities of neighboring country Turkey, which is home to the world's largest Kurdish population and has a long history of violent Kurdish separatism.

The only way to enter Rojava is to sneak in illegally from Turkey or Iraq. We waited in the fields until soldiers weren't on the lookout and then followed a local smuggler across the no-man's land between the countries: We not only jumped a barbed wire fence but also traversed a narrow sand path through a minefield. As we crossed, the smuggler pointed to the area outside the path, saying "boom, boom" by way of warning.

In the town of Rumeilan, about 12 miles from the border with Iraq, you can hear the sound of outgoing mortars. "These go to the Islamists," says Aras Xani, a teacher at a local school who carries a pistol for protection.

"We Kurds are neutral," Aras continues. "We aren't with the regime, and we aren't with the rebels. The regime and the opposition are fighting a sectarian war, which can last decades. We don't want to have anything to do with it. We speak of the Kurdish Spring, not the Arabic Spring."

Although there is not much destruction in Rojava, the situation is far from normal here. In Rumeilan, the main street is barricaded by metal garbage containers -- a precaution against Islamist-made car bombs.

Al Qaeda-linked groups have started kidnapping Kurds in the area. Two of Aras's uncles have been taken after Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, attacked their family home. During our visit, Aras's mother sat expectantly on the floor in the living room next to a green phone, waiting for the latest information about them. Only five miles down the road, heavy fighting continues between Kurds and Islamists for control over the Syria-Iraq border town of Yarubiya.

Despite these problems, Aras is happy and proud of this Kurdish enclave. "I am now a Kurdish teacher in the same school where I as a child was not allowed to speak Kurdish," he says. "Look, that is what I call victory."

Aras's brother, Sores, is head of Rumeilan's police force. He meets us at his new office inside the former Syrian state oil complex, wearing a new police uniform. "Not Assad, but the Islamists are now our biggest enemy," he says. "The Assad regime only oppressed us. The jihadists want to exterminate us."

According to the police commander, the Kurds did not have a choice when they opted for self-governance. "The war created a vacuum. There was no authority," he explains, "What we have on the ground is not separatism, but self-administrative areas. We are just filling up this vacuum. We don't want to separate. We want to get our rights and stay within Syria."

And they have filled this vacuum with alacrity. On the roads through Kurdish territory in Syria, heavily-armed Kurdish defense units (YPG) stand guard over checkpoints every six miles or so. The YPG is the unofficial army of Rojava; most members are local Syrian Kurds, but they have also been joined by Kurds from Iraq and Turkey.

Most of the YPG fighters wear buttons of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of Turkey's Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a staunchly secular Kurdish nationalist organization that has long waged a guerilla war against the Turkish state. As a result, it has been designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.

"We are not a threat to Syria's unity," says Sinam Muhammad, a pro-YPG politician and a member of the Higher Kurdish Council in the town of Qamishli, 30 miles west of Rumeilan.

Nor does Muhammad, one of the top leaders within Rojava, believe that the burgeoning Kurdish movement in Syria is a threat to Turkey. "It is in Turkey's interest to have safe borders," she said. "But until now Turkey is supporting radical fighters, not the Kurds. This I find very strange, because these extremists might turn against Turkey any moment. These Islamists say they want to topple the Assad regime -- but Assad is in the heart of each of them."

At least 40 percent of the YPG fighters are women, and they are organized in units called the YPJ. Kurdish men and women fighters have separate barracks where they prepare for war, but they fight in mixed-gender units on the front lines. Women also command units comprised of men and women throughout the Kurdish areas.

"These al Qaeda guys go crazy when they hear that we are women fighters," says Roshna Akeed, the YPG commander who leads the Kurds on the frontlines of Ras al-Ayn. She notes that the Islamists benefit from thousands of volunteers from Europe and the Middle East, but the imbalance in numbers does not bother her. "Yes, they have quantity," she says. "But they are lousy fighters. They are unorganized. It is easy for us to kill them."

The Kurds, however, have not been successful in beating back the Islamists everywhere. In northern Syrian cities like Aleppo and Raqqa, the Kurds have lost territory. In the countryside around Aleppo, meanwhile, YPG officials say Kurdish towns have been ethnically cleansed by Islamists. Most Kurds in and around Aleppo have fled to the town of Afrin -- which is itself partly surrounded by Islamists and is not connected to the main parts of Kurdish territory.

But at least in Ras al-Ayn, the YPG is winning. On July 17 it kicked al Qaeda-linked groups out of the town. "Kurds and Islamists first both controlled it," remembers YPG spokesman Redur Xelil. "But the Islamists became more and more aggressive. They destroyed places where alcohol was for sale. They started to forbid women to walk on the street without a veil. What kind of revolution is that?"

The Kurdish victory, however, came at a high cost for the town. Most of the civilians of Ras al-Ayn have escaped and now wander the country as refugees. The Sunni Arab population of the town generally went west, to the areas under control of the Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups. The Kurdish civilians of Ras al-Ayn went east, deeper into YPG territory and toward the border with Iraq, where Kurds live in relative safety.

Ras al-Ayn is now a ghost town. Many walls are still covered with Islamist slogans. YPG fighters have erased some of them and added their own: "Kurds and Christians will always be friends" is scrawled next to one church.

During the night, sounds of shooting and shelling between the YPG forces and Jabhat al-Nusra in the neighboring western villages often fills the air. And if there isn't shooting, Ras al-Ayn residents are often woken by the rumble of Turkish tanks.

Everyone is worried about what will happen in this slice of land. Syrian Islamists are concerned that the Kurds will break up Syria and start their own country. Turkey is worried that an independent Kurdistan in Syria will give a new momentum to separatist aspirations among Turkey's own 30 million Kurds. And the Syrian Kurds themselves fear that their tenuous new independence will be obliterated by the powerful forces that surround them. As the United States expands its role in Syria, how it will deal with this war's many complexities remains to be seen.

Harold Doornbos and Jenan Moussa