Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Syria refugees face camp hell

AT the gates of an enormous refugee camp in Ceylanpinar, Turkey, among all the women with scarves knotted under their chins and men with thick hands and coarse woolen trousers, there was one young couple who just did not seem to fit in.

Khalid Haleet was clean-shaven and dressed in a Polo shirt, jeans and white leather lounge slippers, his inky black hair rakishly thrown back. His wife, Abir, was wearing an ankle-length trench coat cinched at the waist, rings glittering with gold.

The two of them, who married just a few months ago, escaped last week from Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, because, as Khalid put it: "We saw tanks, we heard rockets and it was time to leave."
But as soon as they crossed the border, they were shocked.

Imagine snakes, scorpions and stupefying heat.

And kilometres and kilometres of white tents spread across a gravel parking lot. This is what life is like in one of Turkey's newest refugee camps, where the Haleets arrived on Sunday morning.

The Ceylanpinar camp, home to more than 12,000 Syrians who fled their country's civil war, is in the Turkish equivalent of Siberia, a barren, dusty, rocky plain in southeastern Turkey, hours away from the nearest metropolitan area.

By 9am, it is 37.7oC degrees out here. By noon, maybe 46oC. There is so much dust in the air that the sky is white.

Though the Turkish government, because of its asylum policies, prefers to call the 44,000 Syrians who have sought refuge in this country "guests", the Ceylanpinar camp is surrounded by razor wire and is patrolled by armoured personnel carriers.

Every morning, buses unload as many as 400 new arrivals. Many have grit in their teeth, bloodshot eyes and greasy hair, signs of rapid flight from Syria's inferno, where rebel fighters and government soldiers are steadily levelling the country's biggest cities.

To get out of Aleppo, where the fighting is especially vicious, Khalid Haleet said he used a number of cars, constantly switching, before he emerged into rebel territory and was safe. He never planned to go all the way to Turkey.

Khalid tried to stay cheery through the fingerprinting process at the camp's registration tent, which might have been reasonably cool except for three unusually large men standing in front of the air-conditioner, absorbing the cool, delicious air and blocking it from reaching others.

But when a minibus pulled up and it was finally time for the Haleets to be assigned to their temporary home, a 3.3m-by-3.9m tent, Abir began to cry.

It seemed that all the stress and sadness of fleeing -- leaving behind her apartment, her parents, the only world she knew -- had finally hit her.
"It doesn't feel like there's any meaning to life anymore."

On their way to the tent, the sun glinting off the windows of the minibus, they passed row after row of white tents, an emerging city rising from the gravel floor. Countless lives were neatly warehoused.

Children sat in the shade and played languidly with rocks. Laundry hung from ropes, going from sopping wet to bone dry within minutes.
"What do I do all day?" said Mehmed Aziz, a stocky factory worker and the father of three, who recently fled the Aleppo area.

"I pick up one kid, run over to the air-conditioned lounge, freeze him for a few minutes, run him back, then grab another kid, run to the air-conditioned lounge."
Then the conversation turned to snakes. Abir Haleet grimaced. One man whipped out a cellphone to show a picture of a 3-foot-long creature that had slithered into his tent a few nights ago. He said he promptly beat it to death with a stick.

But things could definitely have been worse. In many parts of the world, refugees fleeing war zones are lucky to get a plastic sheet. Here, there was good security, occasional electricity, three meals a day and a nursery school tent with Mickey Mouse painted on the walls.
The main problem, really, was the location, said Carol Batchelor, head of the United Nations refugee office in Turkey.
"And I don't know why they chose it; you'll have to ask them."

Turkish officials said they had chosen Ceylanpinar because it was flat government-owned land with some water nearby. The half-dozen or so other guest camps are now full.

But during the summer, Ceylanpinar is barely inhabitable. When Abir Haleet parted the canvas flaps and peered inside her new home, her cheeks were stung by a sauna-like heat. Tears were streaming down her face, and she slid behind her husband, almost as if she were hiding from something.

Khalid Haleet then mused out loud about going home, prompting several camp dwellers to speak up, and in a crowd like this, everyone was a poet.
"The heat here that burns is better than the fire of the tanks," Aziz said.
Someone translated: "Don't go back." But some people were going back.

According to the Turkish government, nearly 28,000 Syrian guests had returned since last year. While the urban areas remain hotly contested, the rebel Free Syrian Army has seized large chunks of the countryside, providing some openings.

By midafternoon, the Haleets had made up their minds.
"We're going back," Khalid Haleet announced, a bit tentatively. "We're just not used to this."
They walked arm in arm to the camp manager's office.
"I need a ride back to the border," Haleet said, a little more confidence in his voice. "I'll figure it out from there."