Story Publication logo July 24, 2012

No Return to Syria

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From afar Turkey is a model for others. But within the country, Turks wrangle over their legacy and...

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Ahmet Bettar, newly arrived from Syria, feels no urge to rush back into the crisis. Image by Stephen Franklin. Turkey, 2012.

You can't see Cengiz Abdullah's face because of the video he is holding up on his cellphone.

The video shows a man down on the ground, struggling for his life. All you can see are hands pummeling him. Suddenly someone reaches down with a knife and slits his throat in one long slow swoop.

Blood pours out, staining the street and he's left lying there like a slaughtered animal.

You can't see his face, Cengiz explains very intensely, up close, face to face, because he is a soldier who also deserted from Syrian army. "And they'll cut me up the same way," he says, clutching the cellphone. "They do it everyday and all over Syria."

You can't see his face for another reason, he says.

He still has family in Syria and if the government can identify him, it will go, he says, to his family, capture them and demand his return in order for them to go free.

So the 20-year-old lives here in a refugee camp, which is not far from his village on the other side of the Syrian border. It's a Turkmen village and it has been empty for the last eight months, almost the same time as when he fled Syria. All 3,000 of its residents fled.

He fled the army because he wouldn't follow orders during the demonstrations. His commanders were getting angry with him and he knew he would be in danger soon. "They yelled at me and so I just escaped," he says.

Some days in the refugee camp that sits in a high valley looking up the Syrian mountains he thinks he can hear shooting across the border coming from his village and he wonders what's happening in his village and why there's shooting.

Most days he does nothing in the camp, which the Turkish government has set up close to the border. He finds work one or two days a month in nearby Antakya. But he figures that his life will go the same way for a while, so he struggles to adjust.

When his cousin Essam Abdullah, 23, who is standing next to him, smilingly says he is thinking of joining the Free Syrian Army, Cengiz shows no emotion.

"It's hard," is all he says.

Down the street from the Turkish government hospital where Essam and Cengiz were waiting in the broiling heat for a doctor's visit, Ahmet Bettar, 23, was getting his first taste of freedom in Turkey.

He crossed two days ago in the refugee stream that rarely slows nowadays and usually carries a large number of injured and emotionally damaged.

He spent 40 days in a Syrian prison after being swept up in arrests at a demonstration. He lived in a cell so crowded that he had to sleep standing up, he says.

He immediately pulls up his sleeve to show where prison guards attached electric wires and where they hit him. It's a common reflex among refugees here, showing the scars they carry.

He is talking with a group of relatives, one of whom cheerfully says he crosses over regularly to help the Free Syrian Army.

But that thought is far from the thinking of Bettar, who sold all he owned when he left. He was an economics student at a Syrian university before his capture and imprisonment.

"I can't go back to Syria," he says flatly.

So just as for Cengiz Abdullah, there's no return trip home these days.


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Peace Initiatives

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