My name is Ahmed al-Khālid. I come from Gisr as-Shughour, North of Syria. Yesterday, I entered the refugees camp of Altınözü, beyond the Turkish borders, to visit friends and find out how they are, whether their tents are still warm like mine. I do this every week when the Turkish soldiers give me the permission to leave Boynuyogün, the camp where we disembarked when we left our home fleeing the siege of the Syrian loyalists.
Altınözü is the smallest ones of the five camps established by the Turkish authorities to accommodate those running away from Gisr as-Shughour, Idlib, al-Qāmishly and other towns in the North of Syria. We are talking all in all about 8,000 people still hosted in the camps, to which a thousand living in Antakya are to be added. Altınözü is for Boynuyogün what a youth hostel is for a four star hotel. Altınözü is a former tobacco factory, two huge warehouses on the side of a road that crosses mountains and villages, where the tents have been put up on the concrete or wooden floors of the establishment (and therefore not planted, because it is not possible to fix a nail on a hard base). They have everything, including a TV station room, a clinic, a prayer area, a kindergarten and an asphalt basketball field. However, the space is very small, and you spend your days going up and down stairs to visit people around the barracks. I cannot complain since Boynuyogün is much better. There, the tents are new, made of new fabric and never used before; the camp has been set up on a wild land. We have a lot of space, the toilets are clean, the alleys and the sidewalks are well planned and our asphalt is bright; we breath, we play volleyball with Turkish soldiers, and we can see our dear land, Syria, just beyond the river: hills of olive trees, small villages, gentle slopes. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish Prime Minister is behind our good luck. When they have announced his visit in Boynuyogün, everything has been polished and organised as it must be, even in emergency situations like ours. Yusuf, an artist of Gisr as-Shughour, has even sculpted a memorial for the victims of the regime’s repression: graves covered with blood-like red splashes where he has symbolically buried the Arab League, Russia and China. Around it, small stones placed on the dirt with the names of the Syrian cities crying their dear martyrs: Derā, Hamā, Damascus, Homs, Idlib, al-Lādhiqiya, Tartous, Gisr as-Shughour, al-Qāmishly…
All my friends are fine, and most of them keep cooperating with the Magālis at-Tansīq al-Mahalliya, the local coordination committees which are smuggling images of the repression abroad. The best one is Salam, who managed to flee with his laptop and found a pen modem to operate directly from the camp. Through his networks, he disseminates the images of his beloved hometown Gisr as-Shughour, currently besieged. Images are arriving through memory pens, via Skype when the land line upholds the size of the files, rarely via satellite phones, so dangerously used by some activists, or via cell phones through Turkish mobile operators near the Northern borders. The morale is high and none of us doubts the question of the questions: Bashār al-Asad will be wiped off. Whether it will take six months or nine months, the way is mapped out. No matter how many spies he is trying to infiltrate the camps, we will isolate them. Salam told me about that man from Homs who landed alone in the camp in the late summer. We were watching him at a distance. He was not from the districts situated along the Northern borders. He easily crossed one of the frontiers under the tightest surveillance in the world and he was showing a peculiar curiosity for the new arrivals in the camp. When he glided on a slippery question about friends who were about to adventure in crossing the borders at dawn, we followed him and caught him phoning a Syrian security official. The Turkish soldiers eventually expelled him from their country. No matter how many mercenaries are employed and deployed around the insurgent towns, Abū Sāleh heard security forces in the districts of Gisr as-Shughour talking in Farsi. The arrangement of the repression machine is very simple and proportionate to the money the men are doing for the job: the army’s soldiers are in the frontline; if they do not follow the orders, they are arrested or even shot by the intelligence operators situated in the second line. These are observed by the mercenaries situated in a third line. The mercenaries are merciless, blindfolded and cruel. They are ready to pull the trigger to eliminate any doubtful. Those are the perpetrators of the scariest operations. The military tanks are on the fourth line. No matter what, we shall overcome them, as we overcame the tiresome food served at the camps.
You can see that Salam is his mother’s son: she cooks for all the activists in Boynuyogün camp, and the men at Altınözü are envying her. When someone comes back from the nearest village’s market with fresh vegetables and meat, she prepares substantial meals with electric cookers, tolerated by the camp administration. Do not ask me how, but she is skilled in making marvellous delicatessen out of basic ingredients and equipment while the men are moulding torpedo-shape Kebba balls. Salam has two other brothers in Antakya, the nearest Turkish city, about 20 km away from the camps. They have a temporary residence permit as they were among the first to flee Gisr as-Shoghour and reach Antakya when the army surrounded it, and they are the first ones wanted for their active militancy. The day of the first battle is still in Abdurrahman’s mind: it was at the end of May, precisely Saturday the 21st. People were peacefully demonstrating in the main square. Snipers started shooting from the windows of the Post Office building killing eight. Then the protesters rescued the martyrs’ corpses and headed to the cemetery through the bridge over the river al-‘Āsy. When they were about to march besides the intelligence buildings situated around the cemetery, the security forces attacked them and thirteen were shot dead. Only in that town, the local intelligence has recruited 360 operators. It is very easy to get a job with them (provided that you are stupid). «I am sure they ask the job candidates questions such as 'Is that a pen?' while showing a pen, and if their answer is positive, they are rejected» – suggests one of the guys at tea-time in the Boynuyogün camp. Life in Antakya is certainly more motivating than in the camps: you can enjoy its cafés and alleys, shop in the pedestrian area or meet other Syrian fugitives. Ibrahim, from al-Qāmishly, and Nawal, from Damascus, are voluntarily counting the Syrians living in Antakya in small, crowded and scattered apartments providing them with material such as mattresses. Their aim is to make them feel connected and taken care of. One of them who lived in Italy for fourteen years in the nineties, still remembers the fifty-three days spent in a prison cell when he was in his twenties. He had been arrested for having reported to his military service with a delay of two months. The cell was two levels underground and every day he was beaten up to the point that he could not stand up for a period of two weeks. He was quivering inside while he was talking to me. His friend had just told him over the phone about the torture they are using in this uprising against his acquaintances: placing a glass bottle in the rectum or inflating it with a pump. Even though relatives ask him to come back from Turkey, he has no trust: «Our life is made of pain».
But my name is not Ahmed al-Khālid, Ahmed the immortal. My name is Istico, and Fādī is the brave refugee who helped me sneak in his Altınözü camp using this identity pretending I was one of them. It was in Mid-November. I remained silent while he was registering my name in front of the Turkish police officer. I was unshaved wearing a leather jacket and sport shoes. That was the price to pay: a fake name for true stories, anonymity for intimacy. The Turkish authorities deny regular access to other organisations than the Red Crescent that could provide assistance including local and international NGOs, the UNHCR as well as journalists. A young refugee in his twenties told the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, that managed to get the permission to shortly visit the camps at the end of August 2011: «Our main problem is that we have no access to the media. We want to tell our stories, we want to talk about the killings we witnessed there and many of us have no idea where their father, brother or children are. We need to tell the world what happened to each and every one of us.» That is why I got in touch with the Syrian activists in the area and asked for a special treatment. Anonymity for intimacy, intimacy for reporting. But what can I do now with all these stories, with the hospitality I have received, the cups of tea I have drunk in every single tent I entered? From how to organize the contacts with the Syrian resistance inside the country to the daily reports of violence and oppression, from political hopes to family connections, from country’s corruption to living conditions under their refugee status - everything was part of the conversation. I would like to repeat these stories to others, but who is going to listen to me when the same things happen day after day in their surrounded towns and chronicle is faster than memory?
Those men and women are so sure to go back in a free country. However, when you glimpse at their faces, there is such a mixture of resignation and defiance, of solitude and determination that you can measure by the excessive number of cigarettes they smoke. Only Abdurrahman and his brother Salam do not smoke, but that is a singular family, as I told you before. «What do we Arabs have in common?» – asked me one of those men, assuming I could give a knowledgeable answer from an objective perspective; and the only thing I could figure out was: «A beautiful language and dictatorial regimes». Is this the price to pay for preserving the beauty of culture and history through the centuries? Subjugation is the price otherwise the Arab distinctiveness with its warmth, its poetry, its towns and religious scholars would dissolve into a global world?
On the slopes encircling Antakya, I went to rest at Saint Peter’s temple, carved into the mountain, where the Father of the Church used to pray and according to tradition, established the term 'Christians'. Fādī and Abdurrahman, both Muslims, were with me. It was a moment of peace. I did not know that the view on the valley was so beautiful and calming. Abdurrahman thanked me for that and said he would come back whenever he needs to slow down and be with himself. For the time being, that was the only precious gift I could offer them.