ATIMA, Syria (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrian refugees have poured into a makeshift refugee camp overlooking the Turkish border, fleeing a week of what they say are the most intense army bombardments since the uprising began 19 months ago.
In the past two days, 700 tents have been erected in a sprawling olive grove on a hill just inside Syria and all of them have already been claimed.
Dozens of stranded families struggle into the camp to find no shelter, but are afraid to return home to the horror of the constant shelling.
Nabil, a pale 20-year-old with dark rings under his eyes, watched dozens of women and children who came with him from his mountain village of Jabal al-Zawiya cram themselves back into the truck that brought them, hoping to find refuge in a nearby village.
“Some of the bombs were so big they sucked in the air and everything crashes down, even four-storey buildings. We used to have one or two rockets a day, now for the past 10 days it has become constant, we run from one shelter to another. They drop a few bombs and it’s like a massacre,” he said.
“My family came home this morning and found our house was completely destroyed. Luckily we were hiding in a cave. I had nothing to bring with me.”
Like Nabil, most of the refugees were from Idlib province and said they were paying the price for rebel advances in the area.
Fighters trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad have seized the strategic town Maarat al-Numan along the north-south highway, the army’s main supply route, as well as several military positions.
War planes launched a series of bombing raids on Maarat al-Numan and nearby villages on Wednesday morning, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It said that so far five people from one family, including a child and a woman, were killed in Wednesday’s assault.
For two weeks, rebels have surrounded and attacked Wadi al-Deif, an army base east of Maarat al-Numan, and the army has responded with heavy bombardment in the surrounding areas.
More than 32,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the Observatory, and the number rises daily.
Bassam, a 19-year old construction worker from a village near Maarat al-Numan, accused the army of revenge attacks.
“Every time the rebels make an advance, we get hit. Plus we have Free Syrian Army members in the town. So we are basically getting the brunt of army’s revenge attacks.”
Refugees are given two meals a day by volunteers from Turkish charities but those living here are suffering from the rain and cold nights that warn of winter ahead. The tents were provided by various charities although the major international agencies did not appear to be present.
At dusk, families huddled around camp fires, their only source of heat.
Most had hoped to go to Turkey but have been stuck on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey, with more than 100,000 refugees, says it is filled to capacity until it can build more camps. In the meantime, families here wait in the hope those promises will come through.
With no official patron, conditions are poor and worsening as the inhabitants increase. There are only two toilets for a group that likely numbers around 10,000 people.
The reek of sewage pervades the camp and a small first aid tent is always crowded with those seeking medical help.
Women complained they had no place to bathe - washing areas are out in the open.
“I haven’t been able to wash myself since we arrived a week ago. I see women rinsing off in their clothes” said Lama, a young woman whose family fled with dozens of people from their small village in Idlib, Kafar Awaid.
Families began gathering on the border here two months ago, and those who first arrived spent weeks camped under the trees before charities started to bring tents.
With numbers now rapidly rising, they are calling for more aid, particularly blankets and clothes for people who have arrived with nothing.
At the bottom of the hill, Haitham Balbash and his sons dug channels around their mud-splattered tent, hoping to channel the rain away from their tiny shelter that houses his family of 12.
“Bombs, bombs, bombs. I’ve lost five relatives this month,” he sighed. “My house was leveled. We went to another village. Then it started getting hit, so we felt there was no choice left but to come and wait here.”
He wiped the rain off the leathered skin on his face, shaking his head as he considered where his country is heading.
“Is there anything left of Syria? I don’t even think about my own future, my life is over at this point. I just hope it will end for my children.”
Many families, desperate to find shelter and fed up with waiting, headed to the nearby Bab al-Hawa crossing, but Turkey grants entrance only to those with passports. Many have fled with no identification or never got a passport.
A crowd of men and women holding crying babies demanded entrance but officials shut the gates on them.
Inside the makeshift camp in Syria, young Nabil considered returning to home to Jabal al-Zawiya despite the shelling.
“I think I’d rather die as a martyr from bombs than live here, like an animal.”
Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Angus MacSwan