Refugees in the Dark: Fleeing a Devastated Syrian Town

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Vadim Ghirda / AP

A Syrian refugee brings laundry to an irrigation canal, located in a camp in Boynuyogun, Turkey, on June 14, 2011

There was little possibility that the frail Syrian woman in her 70s could make the arduous, illegal trek across the steep, mountainous territory separating Syria from Turkey, but she nonetheless stood with a few young men who were hiding on the Syrian side, waiting for a Turkish soldier to move away from an opening in the coiled razor wire before dashing through it.

After about a half an hour, she gave up. "My daughter," she told me, "can you bring me back a sheet of plastic or a blanket, just an old, worn blanket? Please," she pleaded. "Look, my clothes are wet." She tugged at her black abaya and white headscarf, talking through tears. "I'm soaked, there are 15 of us, we are sleeping in the mud, and we have two blankets. May God have mercy on you!"

There are thousands of refugees, entire families of several generations, who have fled their homes in northwestern Syria, mainly the village of Jisr al-Shughour, seeking refuge near the Turkish border. The lucky ones sleep in their cars or in pickup trucks they normally use to transport produce to nearby markets. Many have fashioned makeshift shelters from sheets of plastic, burlap bags or tree branches. Others, like the old woman, have nowhere to shelter from the bitter night chill or from downpours like those on Sunday and Monday nights, which turned the camp into a muddy mess. They sit in the dirt of plowed fields and orchards full of apple, plum and flowering pomegranate trees. Some brought their livestock with them; others were able to grab a pot or two. Many, however, escaped with just the clothes on their back.

The Turkish town of Guvecci, with its military outpost atop the mountain, is less than a kilometer (as the crow flies) above the informal encampment. Many of the refugees say they think they'll be safe here and that Syrian President Bashar Assad's military won't chase them so close to the Turkish border.

Although foreign journalists are banned from reporting in Syria, TIME managed to get across the Turkish border along steep mountainous terrain to reach refugees on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Khirbet al-Jouz.

They have little food or clean water. There are no bathrooms, no showers, no privacy. A nearby stream is being used to maintain basic hygiene and wash utensils, and as a source for drinking water. One young woman rinsed a baby bottle in the flowing water. Other refugees tried to wash the mud out of their clothes. Young men plying old smuggling routes sneak across the border to Turkey and return with as many bags as they can carry of bread, bottled water and items of clothing. Some travel in the other direction, toward the towns they fled, to find food. On Sunday, dozens of women crowded around a white sedan. Its driver, who had just returned from deeper in Syria, was distributing a trunk full of cooked rice from large buckets as well as yogurt.

"Em Ahmad," a young woman in her early 20s, sat on a plastic mat, cradling her 2-month-old daughter Noreen near a plate with a handful of tomatoes and a plastic cup full of olives. Her family had spent a week outdoors after fleeing Jisr al-Shughour. "Would Assad like it if his children had to live like mine?" she asked. "If the people of Jisr asked for the army [to intervene and save the town], we wouldn't be here, living like this, would we?" Syrian state media claim that the army entered the town in response to the residents' pleas for help against "armed gangs" that were allegedly terrorizing them.

Ahmad's older brother Mohammad listened nearby. Despite the dire conditions they were in, he said his extended family feared crossing over into Turkey. "People are saying we might be targeted in Turkey, that Assad's men can still find us. Is that true?" he asked. "Should we go from one hiding place to another?"

Turkey has set up camps for some 7,000 refugees but expects many more to cross over in the coming days, according to local press reports. At least once a day, usually around 6 p.m., Turkish soldiers wait alongside a paved road near a small clearing in the thick scrub along the border, just wide enough for a person to pass through. The razor wire is pulled away at this point, and Syrians hoping to benefit from the food, water and shelter provided by Turkey walk across a 6.6-ft. (2 m) gangplank to the other side. Then they're transported by the military in minivans or trucks to the camps.

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