Safe in Turkey, a family flees rape, torture in Syria
BOYNUYOGUN, Turkey (Reuters) - It took three long days for 60-year-old Abdullah, his wife and son to hike across the hills to Turkey from their Syrian coastal city of Latakia, stopping only to hide from patrolling soldiers or to eat the sandwiches his wife had prepared for their escape.
When they finally reached their destination - a hole cut in the barbed wire fence that marks the Turkish-Syrian border - the grey-bearded father of eight was hungry, frightened and exhausted.
From his new home inside a Turkish refugee camp just across the border, Abdullah frantically recounts his harrowing journey to safety three days earlier and the horrors that drove his escape - now an all too common tale from the thousands of Syrians fleeing into Turkey.
"The secret police come in groups into our homes and take the women away to the police stations. They tear their clothes off and sexually assault them. Some of them, they rape," said Abdullah, his voice quivering as he speaks.
"They take the women because they want to draw the men out of hiding. They take electric wires and electrocute their feet, ears and genitals. Both men and women," he said.
"Is there another place in the world where the government does this to its people?"
Abdullah and his family are among a fast growing number of refugees pouring into Turkey day and night through unofficial crossing points, either scrambling through barbed wire or traversing the Orontes river that marks out part of the border.
Over the past few weeks, the number of Syrians crossing has increased dramatically with an average of 200 to 300 now coming into Turkey every day. This week 1,000 crossed in just 24 hours, the highest number since the first wave of refugees last summer.
Around 15,000 registered Syrian refugees now live in tented camps inside Turkey, making up almost half of the 34,000 people the United Nations estimates to have fled Syria since the start of the conflict a year ago. Hundreds of thousands more are thought to be displaced within the country.
Turkey fears a surge of refugees similar to the tens of thousands who crossed from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War and on Friday it said creating a "buffer zone" inside Syria was one of the options it was considering to protect the fleeing civilians.
Abdullah and his family are Syrian Turkmen, Syrian citizens of Turkish descent whose forefathers settled in the Syrian provinces of the Ottoman Empire centuries ago. He speaks a mixture of Arabic and broken Turkish.
Like the three-quarters of Syria's 22 million people, Abdullah is also a Sunni Muslim. In contrast President Bashar al-Assad and his security apparatus, including the core of the feared Shabiha militia, are from the minority Alawite sect.
Abdullah says the security forces are singling out Sunni districts in Latakia in their crackdown on anti-Assad protests.
"They have blocked off all the roads. They have split the city into different sections to stop people from travelling from one area to another," he said.
Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny full access to rights groups and journalists.
Abdullah picks up an ashtray from the floor and draws a circle around it with his finger.
"Their tanks surround the Sunni villages and fire on them, then the soldiers come into the villages, harass the people and beat the men and sexually assault the women," he said.
"They take any man over the age of 12 with them."
As Abdullah tells his story, his voice grows louder until he is shouting. A friend tries to console him, offering him a cigarette. He takes several puffs, filling his tent with smoke.
His 46-year-old wife waits outside the tent holding the entrance shut. She does not want to be seen or interviewed. Abdullah gives only one name and probably a false one. He does not want to be photographed. Even in the safety of Turkey, like many of the refugees, they live in fear of government reprisals.
Abdullah and his wife have also left seven of their children back in Syria and he fears for their safety. They could not come with him, he said, because the group would be too big to evade the secret police.
One of his sons was already imprisoned for 90 days where he was beaten and tortured.
"They take a piece of wood with metal on the end, wire it up and plug it in. Then they stick it into the person's mouth," he says, grabbing the television remote control from the cushion next to him and thrusting it into his mouth.
ASSAD IS YOUR GOD
Abdullah paints a picture of repression even before the uprising against Assad began in March last year. He sticks out his tongue and pretends to cut it with two of his fingers.
"I cannot talk in Syria. I cannot say the things I want, or how I feel. We are always under pressure," he said.
"I cannot even pray, I cannot be a Muslim. They take us to the police stations and say 'who is your god?' I say 'god is my god' and they put a picture of Assad on the floor and say 'no, this is your god, pray to him'," he said.
"Would they do this in your country? They are killing all of us. Why? Why?"
Abdullah said the things he had witnessed finally drove him to escape. He took his 22-year-old son and his wife and left during the night.
"There are taxi drivers that pick people up every night. If the road is clear, they will take two or three people and take them out of the city. The taxi took us from the centre of the city to the outlying villages," he said.
"From there we walked all the way to the border, maybe 50 kilometers (30 miles)."
They walked for three days across the hills and through farms. Every time they saw government soldiers they would hide, sometimes for hours at a time. Once the soldiers opened fire in their direction, but they managed to escape.
Like most of those who have left, Abdullah wants only one thing - to one day return home.
"With God's permission, like Libya, like Egypt, like Tunisia this government will fall. Hopefully then we can return to 0Syria. God willing tomorrow, tomorrow," he said.
(Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Jon Hemming and Sophie Hares)