Middle East
12:25 am
Fri August 31, 2012

Relentless Attacks Send Syrians Fleeing For Relief

Originally published on Fri August 31, 2012 9:48 am

Syria's president has vowed to crush the rebels by any means; his air force has not spared the towns and villages that support rebel brigades. In August, the death toll often topped 250 a day, according to Syrian activists. The fighting between troops loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel forces has also sparked a refugee crisis for Syria's neighbors as thousands flee to the borders.

Much of northern Syria is now in rebel control, from the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria's financial hub, to the Turkish border. But the regime still controls the skies and the rebels lack the weapons to challenge the air force attacks.

Camped at a border post waiting to cross into Turkey, Syrian refugees tell a similar story about why they packed up and ran from home. Like many others Yousef decided to leave a rebel-held town.

"Because the airplane takes the city every day, I feel terrible, horrible," says Yousef, who's from Aleppo province. "We are tired."

Like many others, Yousef decided to leave a rebel-held town. Rebel brigades have grown bolder in ambushing regime troops and tanks, but are mainly powerless against the air force attacks.

'An Attempt To Incite People'

Just a few miles down the road into northern Syria, a middle school has been battered with gaping holes in the two-story concrete walls.

A rebel group, the Northern Storm Brigade has set up a headquarters here. The Brigade is the largest in this part of Aleppo province and sends men to Aleppo city to fight alongside other brigades says commander Abu Joulan. The 26-year-old fighter defected from the Syrian army last year. He can see the refugees heading by car and on foot to the Turkish border. He believes the regime is targeting civilians even more than the rebels.

"It's an attempt to incite people against us because the moment we are gaining control over areas then it is increasing," he says. "There are areas where there are no military battles, but they are targeting it, so people turn against us."

The rebel base is on the outskirts of Azaz, a prosperous border town that once was home to 70,000 residents. Now, only 10,000 remain. Rebels pushed the army out last month in a series of street battles that left four army tanks buried in rubble in front of the town's largest mosque.

In the town square, children play in the wreckage and families pose for photographs in front of the burned out symbols of regime defeat.

But daily life in Azaz is hardly normal. Regime loyalists are gone, but garbage is piled in the streets and the schools are closed.

At the local hospital, the windows of the X-ray room are shattered. There is only one doctor who sees patients. The rest fled to Turkey.

The shops are mostly empty. Not much food gets delivered to Azaz. International aid is almost nonexistent; baby formula is now impossible to find. On the main street, residents line up for bread at a bakery where flour is supplied by a Turkish charity. But there won't be enough for everybody.

Refugees At Home

The larger hardship comes from the mortars and artillery shells that land in Azaz almost every night. The Syrian military still controls an airbase about 10 miles outside town. A fighter jet dropped two bombs in one neighborhood, killing at least 60 people earlier this month.

At sunset, many here clear out of town, says shopkeeper Hamid Ajuma. That's when the shelling often starts.

"Many people just take their families. We take a mattress, we take whatever we can," he says. "We spend the night outdoors, and then, in the day, we come back to our houses."

Many more are now heading for the Turkish border — about five miles away — to join the mass of Syrian refugees.

Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today, August 31st, the bloodiest month in the Syrian uprising comes to a close, and there are no signs of fighting easing up between government forces and rebels. In the month of August, killings rose to more than 200 people a day, that's according to relief agencies. Tens of thousands of Syrians are fleeing to neighboring countries and flooding refugee camps.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And it's been a very busy several weeks. In Jordan, which is hosting most of the refugees, security officials suggested they would expel more than 100 Syrians who have violently protested camp conditions. Turkey asked for international aid, and for the establishment of a safe zone within Syria, an idea that was mocked by Syria's President Bashar al Assad. And diplomats spent the week flinging insults and accusations.

GREENE: And at a summit in Iran, Syrian delegates got up and walked out when Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi called Assad's government an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy. All of this as Assad's forces continue to pound towns and villages in Syria. NPR's Deborah Amos has this report from Aleppo Province in Syria's north.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The Syrian refugees camped at this border post, waiting to cross into Turkey, all tell a similar story...

YOUSEF: My name is Yousef.

AMOS: ...about why they packed up and ran from home.

YOUSEF: Because the airplane takes the city every day. I feel terrible, horrible. We are tired.

AMOS: Yousef is from Aleppo Province, and like many others here, he decided to leave a rebel-held town. Rebel brigades have grown bolder in ambushing regime troops and tanks, but are mainly powerless against the air force attacks. Just a few miles down the road in northern Syria, we stop at a Syrian middle school. There was a tough fight here. The buildings look pretty battered. You can see the artillery shell holes in the concrete of the building.

There is rebel group who are now using this as a headquarters. Twenty-six year old Abu Joulan is the commander. He says he can see the refugees heading to the border. He believes the regime is targeting civilians, even more than the rebels.

ABU JOULAN: (Through Translator) It's an attempt to incite people against us, because the moment we are gaining control over areas then it is increasing. There are areas where even there are no military battles, but they are targeting it, so that people turn against us.

AMOS: The rebel base is on the outskirts of Azaz. Rebels pushed the army out last month in a series of street battles that left four army tanks buried in rubble in front of the town's largest mosque. The tanks, you can see, have been burned and blackened, the tank tracks have come off the wheels. The regime loyalists are gone, but life here is hardly normal. More than 70,000 people lived in this border town, now only 10,000 remain.

Garbage is piled in the streets and the schools are closed. At the local hospital, the windows of the x-ray room are shattered. There's only one doctor who sees patients. The rest fled to Turkey. The shops are mostly empty. Not much food gets delivered to Azaz. International aid is almost non-existent. Baby formula is now impossible to find. On the main street, residents line up for bread at a bakery where flour is supplied by a Turkish charity. Do you have bread for everybody?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No. It won't be enough for everybody.

AMOS: But the larger hardship comes from the mortars and artillery shells that land in Azaz almost every night. The Syrian military still controls an airbase about ten miles outside of town. A fighter jet dropped two bombs in one neighborhood, killing at least 60 people earlier this month. At sunset, many here clear out of town, says shopkeeper Hamid Ajuma, because that's when the shelling often starts.

HAMID AJUMA: (Through Translator) Many people just take their families. We take a mattress, we take whatever we can. We spend the night outdoors, and then, in the day, we come back to our houses.

AMOS: But many more are now heading for the Turkish border, about five miles away, to join the mass of Syrian refugees. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.