Anti-Assad fighters take refuge in Turkish refugee camps
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is made up largely from defectors from the Syrian army, which remains loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The Turkish government denies that there is an FSA presence in refugee camps on its soil, yet fighters told RFI how they enter to rest and visit their families in between battles.
As battle rages in Aleppo and the FSA feels the strain of holding and attempting to expand its stronghold between Syria’s second city and the Turkish border, many of the soldiers' families have fled to Turkey.
The Kilis refugee camp sits on the border with Syria is home to 12,500 refugees and is constantly patrolled by the Turkish police.
Hassan, Mohammed and Khalid are all FSA fighters. Hassan explains that they cross into Turkey illegally by finding a hole in the fence that marks the border.
“We come here to rest and see our families, to eat decent food, to have a bath and to be with our relatives," he says. "We need to be able to recharge like this to be able to go back.”
The soldiers cross illegally as none of them have passports: they are all defectors. Yet they are registered as refugees, which allows them to pass through the tight security at the entrance to the Kilis camp.
The Turkish government states that it is trying to limit the presence of the FSA on the border itself but, as many are both refugees and soldiers, they are able to slip into the camp undetected.
Mohammed is staying the Kilis camp to recover from an injury to his leg:
“When the Syrian army attacked my village, Marant, I was shot by a sniper. Two of my friends were killed.”
The level of Turkish government support to the FSA is controversial: one camp on the border has been erected purely to house defected soldiers but entry is strictly forbidden to anyone else.
Hassan spoke of their families’ relief at seeing them, as they are unable to contact them safely from inside Syria. All Syrians regularly receive propaganda texts from the Syrian government, even on Turkish mobile carriers, as a way of showing them that they are being watched.
“We visit every month, every month when they see us coming, they are happy to see us,” says Hassan, who insists their families support them, despite the dangers of fighting.
“We are fighting for our homes, for our lands, for the rights of our families. We do this for them. For this reason, they support us.”
Not all of the people in the Kilis camp are so lucky. Um Sharif is Hassan’s sister. Her son, aged 23, was killed when he was fighting with the FSA. It is clear that even mentioning him is painful to her.
“Before he went to join the FSA, I reminded him that he was about to get married. I’d seen what was happening in Dara’a and those places on TV. I didn’t want him to go and destroy his life. He told me that he had to go and fight: for the sake of God and for the sake of freedom.”
It is difficult to find Syrians who do not have a dead family member. The refugees inside the Kilis camp said that they are happy to be safe but that does not erase the horror of what has happened to them:
“I don’t know where his grave is," says Um Sharif. "I never saw him before he died.”