In Atmeh Camp
This account of my visit to Atmeh camp was published at Foreign Policy. In deference to their new paywall, I’ve waited a week before posting it here, and I haven’t posted the edited version, which for a change is better than the original, and which includes a brief commentary on the proposed intervention after the chemical weapons attacks. (I think you can read a certain number of articles at FP before paying – though if you can pay, do. FP is a great resource. I may give up my subscription to the sadly orientalist London Review of Books and subscribe here instead).
At the north eastern corner of the Mediterranean lies what used to be called the Sanjak of Alexandretta. Historically part of Syria, the French Mandate awarded the territory to Turkey in the late 1930s. The Turks named the area Hatay, after the Hittites. The extreme Turkish nationalism of the time held that the Hittites, like the Sumerians and other ancient peoples, had been proto-Turks, and that the Hittite ruins in the area justified its annexation to the Kemalist republic. The Arab population of the province produced their own mythology in response. Zaki Arsuzi, one of the founding ideologues of the Ba‘ath Party (its slogan: One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message), did much of his agitating in Antioch, the provincial capital. Ba‘athism appealed particularly to non-Sunni minorities throughout the Levant. Today a debased version of the creed provides ideological cover for Syrian president Bashaar al-Assad’s campaign of slaughter.
Reyhanli (Reyhaniyeh in Arabic) is a town in Hatay right on the Turkish-Syrian border. Its population of Turks and Alawi, Sunni and Christian Arabs has recently doubled with the arrival of Syrian refugees. The crisis has boosted the local economy but also brought tragedy – a car bombing on May 11th, almost certainly the work of Assad’s intelligence services, killed 51 people. It was the worst terrorist atrocity in Turkey’s history.
A hotel in Reyhanli served as my base in late June while I worked with refugees on the other side of the border. A pleasant respite from the dust and trauma of the camp, it felt something like the setting of a Graham Greene novel. Saleem Idriss, chief of staff of the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, wandered in one evening. Expatriate Syrians, charity workers or weapons smugglers, smoked shishas in the courtyard. And an American called Eric, with no surname, introducing himself as ‘a researcher’, visited the charity offices outside.
The back streets feature Syrian women being promenaded in their wheelchairs. It happens frequently that you shake a hand and realise that fingers are missing. One of my first friends there was Malek, an eleven-year-old boy from rural Hama with a big smile, a scar on his cheek, and only one leg. The hotel staff included Muhammad from Kafr Zeita, who escaped Syria after a year and a half’s imprisonment and torture.
With well over a quarter of a million refugees now lodged in Turkish camps, displaced Syrians are no longer allowed to cross over. Instead they shelter in the fields and at roadsides nearby, including at the Atmeh camp, planted exactly on the border. The entrance from Turkey involves no passport control but only a gap in the barbed wire fence, where cars deliver the wounded into Turkish ambulances and, in the other direction, trucks of food and medical aid are unloaded and repacked into vans headed for Aleppo and Idlib. Unemployed men hoping to work in Turkey mingle here with kerosene smugglers and fighters from the various Free Army and Islamist militias.
One morning a Syrian jet bombed a village on a nearby hillside, then soared close to the camp. The crowded entrance space cleared in a matter of seconds. A war novice may wonder at the uselessness of running to flimsy tents for shelter, but the point is to disperse, so as not to offer a densely-packed target.
In a sense, Atmeh is Syria in microcosm. Over a quarter of Syrians are now persisting in similar or worse conditions – fled to neighbouring countries or displaced inside their own, living under trees, in abandoned apartments, in mosques and schools – making this a far larger crisis than the Iraqi tragedy of 2006/2007.
The camp currently houses 22,000 refugees from shelling, aerial bombardment, gunfire, torture and rape. They come mainly from the Idlib, Hama and Aleppo regions. Most are rural people, but there are middle class urbanites too. Some come from further afield. One man I met was from Adra in the Damascus suburbs. After four regime rockets struck his home, he moved his family in with neighbours. When the regime attacked the area with poison gas, he gave up on Damascus and moved north.
The camp isn’t an easy place. In the summer it’s cursed by a hot, dust-laden and energy-draining wind; in the winter knee-high rivers of mud flood the temporary homes.
Some tents are fire resistant, some are plastic, some are concoctions of canvas, blanket and mat. Some have been distributed by the UNHCR, some by Turkish and expatriate Syrian charities. There are tents pitched between the silvery olive trees, around some of which herbs have been planted. The area closer to the barbed wire, where tents are set unshaded on the baked and stony earth, is much grimmer. There are toilets (unpleasant, and not nearly enough of them), rough shower blocks, and daily deliveries of clean water. But there are also streams of green liquid filth, which the children fall into as they play. Many children have something that sounds like a bad smoker’s cough but is most probably tuberculosis, a disease, like typhoid and leishmaniasis (this last transmitted by the sand flies which breed in uncollected rubbish), once defeated in Syria but now resurgent.
There’s a ‘main street’ with stalls set up in tents selling cigarettes, cola and sandwiches for those who can afford them, and barbers in tents, and of course a tented mosque. A ‘ready meal’ breakfast is sent in by the Turks each morning, and a simple lunch – lentil soup, for instance – is prepared in communal kitchens and distributed in buckets around the camp. There’s no dinner.
Most impressively, a civil society infrastructure has been established – something which was effectively forbidden in Assad’s Syria. From the first days of the revolution, Coordination Committees were established in Syrian cities and villages to provide services the state wouldn’t, and to organise protests and media work. And the Atmeh camp too has its Committee. Over half the assembled members and speakers at the meeting I attended were women, a fact which illustrates both the expanded social role of women in the revolution and the disproportionate numbers of women (and children) in Atmeh, because so many men are dead, imprisoned, or fighting. The Committee addresses urgent logistical needs, works with charities based outside the camp, and manages the Friday demonstration. It also helps to set up schools for the camp’s children.
I saw three schools: the Revolution House school in a single-room concrete shack; the Ghurabaa (Strangers) school, run by Salafist-Islamists, and disapproved of by many because it entirely ignores the old Syrian curriculum in favour of a purely ‘Islamic’ education; and the Return School (the name a tragic reminder of the Palestinian expulsion), which serves 500 children, cramming 40 at a time in stifling tent classrooms. This was the school where I gave my storytelling workshop as part of the Maram and Karam Foundations’ Camp Zeitouna project, which included workshops in calligraphy, art, dental care and football skills. We were assisted by some of the school’s twenty unsalaried teachers, and inspired by the laughing and shouting children. Some of these have had only one month of schooling in the last two years. Some are physically scarred and emotionally traumatised. They responded well to the workshops, and of course to the football pitch and playground constructed by Maram. They responded best of all, simply, to attention.
One of the trip’s highlights was sitting in the dust on the new football ground being sung to by a group of boys and girls – a surreal mix of revolutionary nationalist, jihadist and romantic songs. One of the low points was meeting Manar, a woman whose two children died in a tent fire caused by a fallen candle. Another woman said she’d prefer to be dead than living in such conditions. Every teenager says such things in English, and it means nothing much. In Arabic it means a great deal.
Tamador the volunteer psychologist does her rounds. She advises a woman whose husband has abandoned her for another wife, but still turns up to take her money. She hears about a man who sexually abuses his son’s wife (the family shares a tent). Pre-existent social problems have been immeasurably exacerbated by war trauma, unemployment, entrapment, and the forced proximity of the extended family.
Muhammad Ojjeh, our football coach and professional photographer, went down on one knee with his long lens to shoot a picture of a child. The child screamed in terror, turned and ran. His mother shouted after him, “It’s a camera, stupid, not a gun.”
A woman welcomed us to her tent shamefacedly. “We’ve become Beduins,” she apologised. Deprived for so long of influence on the public space, Syrians of all classes take inordinate pride in their carefully ordered homes. Now this too is denied them.
An angry man reacted badly to the playground under construction. “What’s the use of this?” he complained. “We don’t want to stay here. The insects are eating us! We want to return to our homes. We need weapons. We need help.”
It’s probable that people like him will become still angrier in the coming months. Betrayed by a media which portrays the revolution not as a majority struggle for freedom against a genocidal minority regime, but as an equal fight between two equally barbaric armies – one Alawi, one Salafist – and by a global left which for the most part thinks only in terms of geopolitical chess, it’s unlikely that Syrians will receive any serious support soon.
Now that Hizbullah is openly fighting on the regime’s side, the West expresses an intention to aid the opposition just enough to ‘restore the balance’ – a balance which was anyway slaughtering a hundred Syrians a day. In any case, Britain, France and the US have failed to match their tepid rhetoric with weapons.
Part of the problem is Western fear of the opposition’s greatly exaggerated Islamist-extremist element. The irony is that the longer the tragedy lasts, the greater the empowerment of formerly irrelevant jihadist forces.
Atmeh village, on a hill behind the camp, has been turned into a barracks for the foreign fighters of Hizb ut-Tahreer, who are not, apparently, fighting the regime but waiting for ‘the next stage’. Syrians, including democratic Islamists, refer to them derisively as “the spicy crew” and shrug off the risk they represent. One assured me it would take “two minutes” to expel them once the regime falls. But sectarian hatreds, instrumentalised by the regime’s propaganda, its Alawi death squads and assaults on Sunni heritage, are certainly rising. This deliberate attack on the social fabric is perhaps the regime’s greatest crime. When tyrants light the fuse of sectarian war, they are unleashing passions which extend beyond politics. They are killing people who have not yet been born.
The Sunni backlash is apparent in the camp. We met a man whose wife and eleven children were killed in an airstrike, who plans to marry again and produce eleven more children, “just so I can teach them to kill Alawis”. There’s a teenager who boasted that “afterwards, we won’t leave a single Alawi alive.” There’s the commonly-heard argument that “We don’t hate them, but they have an ancient grudge. It’s in their upbringing to hate us.”
On the other hand, Shaikh Muhammad, an authority in the camp, told me how he’d accompanied Free Army militias as they overtook Alawi villages, how the men were investigated for membership of shabeeha militias and the women and children were left alone. “We aren’t Assad,” he said. “We’re better than that.” (Though some Alawi villagers, fearing revenge, have fled from the approach of the Free Army, there has been no mass slaughter of Alawi civilians to mirror the sectarian massacres and ethnic cleansings perpetrated by the regime.)
Aziz, an Ismaili from Selemiyyeh – a minority community which has been solid in its support for the revolution – was guardedly optimistic. “The regime will go, that’s certain. Then we’ll face a very difficult year, perhaps five years, perhaps even ten. After that we’ll live together as we did before, but better than before. We’ll live in freedom.”