Middle East
5:20 pm
Thu March 7, 2013

Thousands More Flee Syria After Latest Military Airstrikes

Originally published on Thu March 14, 2013 3:40 pm

A new flood of Syrian refugees is streaming into southern Turkey after the Syrian air force bombed the city of Raqqa, a provincial capital that the government lost control of earlier this week.

The Syrian rebels overran Raqqa, capturing several high-ranking prisoners, including the provincial governor. Many residents supported the rebels, but when the airstrikes began, they packed in a hurry and fled, believing it was safer to make a dash for the border than stay at home.

The shells started crashing into residential neighborhoods Tuesday, says Rima, the only name she gave. She was standing at the border gate with Turkey waiting for her father to get across from the Syrian side.

"Raqqa is so bad, so bad. Everything is bombing. It's a disaster," she said.

When a shell landed this week in an apartment nearby, killing a neighbor, the family decided it was time to go. They grabbed their most important belongings, leaving everything else behind.

Rima was with her sister, whose eyes were red from crying. Raqqa had been a safe place, where many displaced Syrians had come for shelter — tripling the population. But now Rima and her family are displaced, too, and had no idea where they would sleep on this night.

"We don't know, we don't know anything," she said.

People at the border turned to watch a cloud of smoke rising in the distance: another airstrike, at least 25 so far, according to activists in Raqqa.

Abdul Karim Ayteh arrived here in a van with 18 family members. Some of his neighbors didn't make it.

"So many people want to come here, but they can't because there's no car, no [gasoline], and some of them don't have a passport," he said.

Rebels Seize The City

For months, the army had stayed out of the provincial capital, in bases around Raqqa. But about a month ago, the regime militia known as the shabiha arrived in Raqqa, setting up checkpoints, arresting activists and stealing the food aid that humanitarian workers delivered to the displaced.

Anwar al-Hajwan, a pharmacist and aid worker, says he witnessed the widespread theft.

He says President Bashar Assad's regime is finished in Raqqah and that the soldiers didn't put up a fight. He brought his family out of Syria but says he's going back to help civilians who still need a way out.

Jeff White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, says government soldiers are still hunkered down in scattered bases. But the army appears stretched too thin to regain control of Raqqah. As rebels consolidate their hold on the city, it's a milestone in the almost two-year revolt to overthrow the government.

"Taking a provincial capital is symbolic," White says. "Piece by piece, province by province, the rebels are going to break the country away from regime control."

The cost is too high for a college student who says her name is Benan. Just a week ago, she was inviting Facebook friends to join her in a city she thought was not part of the conflict. But late Wednesday night, she threw on a coat and headed for the border, still in her pajamas.

"The bombing was beside my grandfather's house," she said.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, in north central Syria, a stream of people packed in a hurry and headed for the border with Turkey. They'll now be added to the growing numbers of refugees. According to the U.N., more than a million Syrians have fled during the two-year conflict. This latest exodus came as the Syrian air force bombed a provincial capital called Raqqah.

Rebels had overrun the city. Earlier this week, they captured several high-ranking officials, including the provincial governor. NPR's Deborah Amos was at the Turkish border today where she met some of the newest refugees.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULANCE SIRENS)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thousands of Syrians crossed this Turkish border post - families, children, the old and the most vulnerable - taking a chance that they would survive the drive to the border, certain they would die if they stayed at home. The shells started crashing into residential neighborhoods on Tuesday, says Rima, the only name she gives. She was standing at the border gate, waiting for her father to get across.

RIMA: Raqqah is so bad now, so bad. No more. No more.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everything is bombing, you know, and it's a disaster.

AMOS: When a shell landed in an apartment nearby, killing a neighbor last night, the family decided it was time to go. They swept up their most important belongings, leaving everything else behind. She got a plastic bag filled with medication.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know? Anything.

AMOS: You packed quickly? You packed...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes. Oh, very quick.

AMOS: Rima's sister's eyes are red. She's crying for her city, says her mother. Raqqah had been a safe place, where many displaced Syrians had come for shelter, tripling the population. Now, Rima and her family are displaced, too, and they have no idea where they will sleep tonight.

RIMA: Today, not - we don't know. We don't know anything.

AMOS: People here turned to watch a cloud of smoke rising in the distance, another airstrike, at least 25 so far, according to activists in Raqqah. Abdul Karim Ayteh(ph) arrived here in a van with 18 family members and says some of his neighbors didn't make it.

ABDUL KARIM AYTEH: (Through translator) So much people want to come here, but they can't because sometimes there is no car, sometimes there's no benzene, and some of them don't have a passport.

AMOS: This exodus was sparked by government airstrikes after the rebels seized the city. But many here say they support the rebel advance. For months, the army had stayed out of the provincial capital in bases around Raqqah. But about 30 days ago, the regime militia known as the shabiha arrived in Raqqah, setting up checkpoints, arresting activists and stealing the food aid that humanitarian workers delivered to the displaced. Anwar al-Hajwan(ph), a pharmacist and an aid worker, says he witnessed the widespread theft. So they were stealing.

ANWAR AL-HAJWAN: Yes, the aid.

AMOS: And they gave to the soldiers.

AL-HAJWAN: Yes. The regime is now - is nothing, and Raqqah is nothing.

AMOS: Al-Hajwan says the Assad regime is finished in Raqqah. The soldiers didn't put up much of a fight. He brought his family here, but he's going back to help civilians who still need a way out. More than a million-and-a-half displaced in Raqqah are now at risk, he says, after a rebel victory that he supports. But it was a big price. Now your city may be destroyed.

AL-HAJWAN: The freedom take a big price. No, no. No freedom without price.

AMOS: It's the price of rebel gain, says Jeff White, a military analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Studies. He says government soldiers are still hunkered down in scattered bases in the Northern Province. But the army is too stretched to regain control of Raqqah. As rebels consolidate their hold on the city, it's a milestone in the almost two-year revolt to overthrow the government.

JEFFREY WHITE: Taking a provincial capital is symbolic. Piece by piece, province by province, the rebels are going to break parts of the country away from regime control.

AMOS: The cost is too high for a college student who says her name is Benan. Just a week ago, she was inviting Facebook friends to join her in a city she thought was outside of Syria's conflict. But late last night, she threw on a coat and headed for the border. You're still in your pajamas?

BENAN: Still in pajama.

(Through translator) The bombing were beside my grandfather house.

AMOS: I'm not with any side anymore, she said, after her first long day as a refugee.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Gaziantep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.