- - Friday, March 16, 2012

ORONTES RIVER, Syria — In snow-flecked forests separating Turkey and northern Syria, a band of some 50 Syrian rebels regroups in a makeshift hillside base, safe for the moment.

With an escalating crackdown against regime opponents and no more than 30 assault rifles and a few shotguns among them, they still say time is on their side.

“We are not going to retreat nor give up,” said Abu Youssef, a 43-year-old building contractor turned revolutionary from Darkush, a few miles across the border in the Idlib province in Syria.

Mr. Youssef, who asked that his real name be withheld for his family’s safety, takes supplies across the border almost daily.

He said he was not political until he was held and tortured last autumn after being detained at a local mosque. He joined the revolution upon his release.

“The regime’s forces don’t respect anything,” he said. “I was arrested when I was praying.”

Meanwhile, his four sons, the eldest in his early teens, are refusing to leave Syria.

“I told them they had to leave,” he said. “The eldest told me ‘no,’ that they will bring down the regime or they will die trying.”

Waiting in the woods

As President Bashar Assad’s regime continues to shell Homs and escalates attacks on towns in the Idlib province, hundreds of Syrians — including rebel fighters — are fleeing to Turkey.

Among pine trees in a makeshift camp with a few mud-spattered tents, the rebels plan guerrilla raids into Syria, escort smuggled people and talk about the regime’s defeat.

They worry about how to get basic supplies such as food, weapons and communications equipment for themselves and into Syria. They express concern about informants among them, lured by money or threats against their families. And they hope for aid from the Arab world and the U.S.

They also express gratitude for Turkey’s lack of interference.

“The Turks give us no problems,” said Mazen Khalil, 34, gesturing to a watchtower manned by Turkish soldiers.

This night, lookouts scan the surrounding hills from deep in the scrub. Down in the valley, the rebels have laid primitive booby traps for Assad forces seeking to catch the wounded and the wanted being smuggled out of Syria.

As fog descends, a call is made to a mobile phone across the river, then the light signal comes. A car pulls up on the opposite side of a river there.

Sixteen men come across in four relays of a sagging rowboat with an oar made from a wooden sign.

“It’s more dangerous at night,” said Abu Jaffar, the nom de guerre of a human smuggler at the Syrian-Turkish border. “The snipers are nervy. If they hear anything, they will open fire.”

Some of the men, ranging in age from 20 to 35, have walked almost all the way from Hama — about 48 miles to the south — in about four days.

They travel in ones and twos, making contacts in villages but sleeping mostly outside in the mountains or in the countryside so as not to endanger the locals.

Three of the men are defectors from Syria’s army. “We need to regroup and get weapons,” one said over the sound of artillery in the distance. “I’ll be the first back across this river.”

Two days later, four extended families came across the same way, including 40 children, the eldest 13 years old. They were taken to a spartan second-floor apartment in a northern suburb of Antakya, Turkey, a property owned by an elderly Turkish businessman.

“Crossing is getting harder and more dangerous,” said Mr. Jaffar. “But it’s never impossible. Assad cannot control the entire border with the forces he has.”

For a taste of freedom

At least 30,000 Syrians have fled the escalating violence at home, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, the majority of them to Turkey.

Samer, 40, who asked that his last name be withheld, brought his wife and four children across from the border town of Darkush via a boat crossing last week.

Samer goes back and forth between Syria and Turkey to videotape protests using miniature cameras in pens and buttons.

He said it’s too dangerous for his children in Syria. “The soldiers took a 15-year-old boy hostage and demanded the father hand himself in,” he said. “I can’t take the risk of them doing that to my children.”

His wife, Sahar, weeps over the parents she left behind. “They were too old to make the journey.”

Since the beginning of the uprising a year ago, more than 8,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the United Nations. The violence and its aftershocks only seem to be intensifying, locals say.

“Life has become a struggle,” said Abu Ali, 31, a wounded army defector at a safe house in Guvecci village, Turkey, where gunshots occasionally pierce the silence.

He said he joined the rebel army three months ago and fought in five skirmishes against Assad forces, the latest in the village of Ain Al-Baida on Friday.

He detailed his new career as an armed escort for civilians, saying he lost count of the people he helped get across the border.

But the rebels ferrying footage, supplies and people across the border say they don’t think twice about the risk.

“If I die for this, then at least my children might become free,” said Samer. “Haven’t you tasted freedom? Isn’t it worth dying for?”

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