Syrian refugees test ties with Turkey

30,000 in camps; more crowd border

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“There was some kind of scorched-earth policy in that area which has driven them out,” said Amnesty International investigator Neil Sammonds, who spoke to refugees at the border.

“Many told me of tanks shelling houses, of the security forces machine-gunning their cows, setting fire to their crops, and even before the army came in just over two weeks ago, the water supply was poisoned.”

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, said the situation in the camps in Syria is dire.

“They don’t have access to clean water or bathing facilities, and there is very little food,” he said. “It’s hot, the camp smells bad, and as the army approaches, people feel very insecure out in the open because the army is now within viewing distance of the border.”

Still, he said, the refugees are relatively safe for the moment.

“It freaked many people out because it’s the last big town before the Turkish border,” Mr. Bouckaert said of Saturday’s attack on Bdama. “We were detained by the Turkish army yesterday, and they told us that they wouldn’t let the Syrian army come to the border.”

Bdama also had the area’s only remaining large bakery, which was an important source of food for the displaced. It has been shut down by the Syrian military, Mr. Bouckaert said.

Despite increasingly difficult conditions, many Syrians are holding off crossing into Turkey, aid officials said.

“Once they cross the border, they are put on buses and dropped at the camps where they live quite an isolated existence,” Mr. Bouckaert said.

“On the Turkish side, there certainly is a very efficient humanitarian and medical operation, but our concern is that it is also a very restrictive one in terms of barring people from access to freedom of movement, as well as preventing most international observers from entering the camp.”

Mr. Sammonds of Amnesty International said Syrians fear reprisals from the Syrian authorities if they leave.

“Some were saying to me, ‘If we leave and the regime doesn’t fall, then we’re not going to able to come back. If we do come back, we’re going to be sentenced to prison for six years for leaving unofficially.’ “

On Saturday, representatives of aid organizations visited two of the five camps in the Hatay province. This was the first access granted international aid agencies and coincided with a visit from the U.N. goodwill ambassador, actress Angelina Jolie.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the Assad regime’s suppression of the uprising in Syria. Two weeks ago, he told Turkish television that the repression of protesters in Syria amounted to “savagery.”

c Correspondent Nurhan Kocaoglu contributed to this report.

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