07/07/2011

Hunger strikes begin in Syrian camps

This is the best photo we could get. Things were tough in the initial confusion of the Syria crisis, and this is as close as any outsiders could get.

On a day in which two out of five of the Syrian camps along the Turkish border declared a hunger strike, we join a couple of activists on a visit to deliver a handful of goods to alleviate conditions for the refugees.
An abandoned tobacco factory, site of the Yayladağı camp, is surrounded on all sides with steel fencing capped with barbed wire and blue plastic sheeting to block any view from outside. Police and security services focus most of their attention on guarding the main gate, which seems to be the only way in-and-out of the camp. They seem a little tense. With no exchanging of salams they inform us that only families or spouses can enter the camp – and no pictures please. Perhaps they are particularly tense as the local provincial governor is also on a visit. Our friends, both Turks and Syrians have asked if they can enter. Police send a go-between to ask the governor, who returns a short time later to say that he has given them the go-ahead. Maybe the police are not convinced – we are still unable to cross. At least we are allowed to pass bags of clothing through the fence.
The open hunger strike at the camp was announced in a statement last night aimed towards the Turkish government. Although the refugees thank Turkey for the support and provisions it has provided thus far they none-the-less aim to address issues that have arisen in the last few weeks. Namely, these issues have been the “poor treatment [received] from the camps supervisors”, and a severe lack of “medical and nutritious supplies, and the care for children.” The statement goes on to emphasise the last point as up to 50% of camps’ populations are made up of children. This fact is clearly no exaggeration, from the noise coming from within. The statement continues to “demand” that Turkey allow in more international bodies to provide humanitarian aid.
The most concerning aspects of the announcement was the statement that refugees “are exposed to internal and external pressures in an attempt to force [them] to go back to Syria”. This is a perception supported by local activists, who point to several examples in the daily running of the refugee operation as evidence of this. As one source wryly commented, “if you urgently need an ambulance it can take two days to arrive, if you say you’d like to return to Syria they can have a car ready in fifteen minutes”.
And indeed many Syrians have chosen to stick it out and return to their home villages despite continued military activity in the north-west by the infamous 4th brigade, of whom Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stated "don't behave like humans."
However, encouraging many refugees to return prematurely have not just been the poor conditions at the camps, where all but a few Turkish NGOs have been refused the right of access. There have also been suspicious claims that pro-regime agents from Syria have been entering the camps to inform the ‘guests’ (Turkey refuses to use the legally significant term 'refugee') that everything is alright and that they may return home unharmed. Unfortunately this has not turned out to be true for many returnees, and hideous stories of torture have returned to the camps. Whether these agents are complicit in the fate of those who return is debatable – at the very least though, Syrian state TV has been emphasising reports of poor conditions at the camps to dissuade would-be activists from looking to Turkey for help. Refugees returning home looks good for the regime and discredits the uprising. The representatives of the regime, themselves from local areas and villages in the north-west of the country, have the freedom to arrive and then leave the camps at will where many agencies, and of course the refugees themselves, have no such rights.
Media Blackout
Circling the perimeter fence, every few metres we are greeted by tiny faces peeping out from beneath the material. One young girl shouts “come come” in Turkish, and after some waving and smiling we exchange a “bye bye” in English. This must all be a curious spectacle for some of the youngest at the camp – the funny foreign words, the tents, the older kids climbing the fence to tease police. But this is as much of the camp as we can see. Restrictions on communication have also been almost entirely restricted.
According to Selcuk Unal, the spokesman for the Turkish Foreign ministry, “the Syrians in the camp reacted when we recorded them first at the camp”, the restrictions have been set in place to ensure the safety of those fleeing the strife, at a time when the results of the conflict are still unclear. Protection for army defectors and their families has also been alluded to as a reason for not allowing journalists inside. This has created the impression that many in the camps are unwilling to talk, however the following story shows a different current within the camp;
A journalist who arrived a few weeks ago heard second-hand, the story of a woman whose husband, satisfied with the arguments of pro-regime personnel entering the camp, decided to go home – although she chose to remain at the camp. Unfortunately once back in Syria, he was shot dead by soldiers. Immediately after this occurred his wife called. One of the soldiers present proudly answered to inform her of what he had just done.
The journalist was overcome by the story, and so was a little uneasy asking a mutual contact to arrange an interview with the widow so soon after the event. Yet surprisingly, the woman was more than happy to speak about the events, and agreed to an interview over the fence. After a few questions the police were on the scene and escorted the journalist to a nearby police station. Here she was made to sign a declaration promising to never return to the camps.
This is not the only example of refugees having suffered extreme hardship, wanting to tell their stories. Whether to journalists, psychologists or even to wandering Swedish artists wanting to collect paintings from the children of the camp, outside contact has been restricted to only telephone communications and one instance of a visit from journalists, where a certain six refugees were given the shared time of half and hour to talk. Cameras are banned both in and around the site, despite the ability for refugees to use camera-phones to smuggle some pictures from inside the camp. Written accounts from people inside the camps are also being smuggled out to activists who are working to get some media attention on the situation.
It appears that the refugees want to be heard from inside the camps. As Turkey has been providing for its ‘guests’, criticism has not been so forthcoming from Syrian opposition, activists or the international community. Refugees stress a need for more external support, in terms of better healthcare and food as well as a means to communicate with the outside world.
This was written with Bethany Shiner, who I must thank for her great contacts, media-savy, sneakiness and of course, great company, in Hatay this week.

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