The Long Shadow of Damascus: Syrian Refugees Fear Kidnappers By Rania Abouzeid
Ramy al-Dow, 21, draws his thin-striped V-neck sweater up to his neck and crosses his arms over his chest in a futile bid to shield himself from the piercing chill cloaking this mountainous southern Turkish village overlooking the Syrian border. He’s noticeably on edge, despite the fact that on this night he’s in a safe house. Three generations of women sit in the courtyard outside, shelling buckets of pomegranates harvested from their nearby fields. Ramy’s cousin Mahmoud al-Dow, 16, stands watch on the street. « Just in case, » Ramy says.
The young Syrian refugees have spent the past two weeks sleeping outdoors, in mosques, in people’s courtyards, in the fields along the border. They are afraid of being kidnapped by spies and sympathizers working for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ruthless regime and being taken across the border by force. They want their real names published in the event that if they are captured they will not disappear into the nameless, faceless pit of victims, but that somebody may ask after them. Their fears are not entirely unwarranted.
There’s a palpable change in the border area since the heady, bustling days this summer when the sleepy village of Guvecci was inundated with refugees. Activists who swaggered around town have now moved deeper into Turkey, into the city of Antakya, where they keep a low profile. Gone are the days of illegally trekking across the Turkish border into Syria unimpeded by the security forces of either country, and of the hopeful optimism that the Damascus regime would soon fall. It’s all been replaced with a sharp fear that Assad’s reach extends well beyond his borders. Although Turkey pursues a foreign policy hostile to Syria, has opened its arms to thousands of Syrian refugees and housed them in a network of well-maintained camps, many of the fugitives still feel it is not a safe haven.
Human-rights groups are working to document the cases of Syrian refugees in countries bordering Syria, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, who are being kidnapped and forced back across the border. Some are reportedly sold by mercenaries, according to Syrian activists, others have been picked up by roving Syrian mukhabarat (intelligence and secret police) agents. In Lebanon — which shook off Syrian occupation in 2005 but is now firmly back in the Syrian sphere of influence — the country’s top cop, Ashraf Rifi (an anti-Syrian stalwart), recently claimed that Syria’s embassy in Lebanon was behind the kidnapping of three Syrian activists, the Jassem brothers, in Beirut, and that personnel from Rifi’s own Internal Security Forces aided the alleged kidnapping. The Syrian embassy in Beirut denied any involvement.
Amnesty International’s Syria researcher, Neil Sammonds, says several cases have been reported to the rights group in Turkey. « We can’t verify them, » he says, « but there’s one — the case of Hussein Harmoush — we have written to the Turkish government about. But that was only the week before last, so we don’t have a response yet. And we raised the alleged cases of three other people as well. »
Colonel Hussein Harmoush was one of the earliest and highest-ranking officers to defect from the Syrian army. He disappeared under mysterious circumstances on Aug. 29, before surfacing on Syrian state TV two weeks later, retracting his claims of leading the Syrian Free Officers Movement and insisting that he returned to Syria of his own free will. He’d been staying in a Turkish refugee camp along with his wife Gofran Hejazi and their four children. It’s unclear if he was picked up in Turkey or Syria (which he reportedly frequented, according to people who spoke with him daily). Still, his wife lays the blame for her husband’s capture squarely on Turkey.
Although Turkish authorities denied TIME’s request to meet Hejazi, we reached her by phone. She says her husband was in regular contact — both on the phone and in person — with an Arabic-speaking Turkish man known as Abu Mohammad. Hejazi, 33, said she had met the Turk several times. Abu Mohammad called Harmoush before his disappearance, promising to provide weapons to the Syrian revolutionaries and to help the colonel ferry them across the border. « I heard this. I was near my husband during this call, » she says. Abu Mohammad reportedly insisted that Harmoush keep the plan to himself, and insisted he meet him as soon as possible. According to other Harmoush family members, on Aug. 29, the colonel left the refugee camp to meet the mysterious Turk. That was the last time he was seen in the country.
« In my opinion, the Turks played a role, » Hejazi says. « I think they pay lip service to the revolution, but under the table they are making deals with the Syrian regime. » Harmoush, she alleges, « was under surveillance [by the Turks] — even his phone, his Internet conversations. That’s what Internet activists in Antakya and Ankara told me. So how could the Turks not know anything about his disappearance? »
The Harmoush family submitted details about Mohammad, including his cell-phone number, to Turkish authorities, but according to Hejazi, the Turks have told her that they do not have any suspects in the case. Now she fears that the same people who captured her husband can harm her and her children. « I want to apply for political asylum in an Arab country. Please, can you get my message out? I am not safe here. I am living in fear, not for myself, but for my children. A mother cannot see her children harmed. Look at what happened to my husband. He thought he was safe here. »
Many exiled Syrian activists now live in the shadows. Mohammad Fezo, 31, hasn’t left his barely furnished rented home in Antakya for more than two months. When he does venture outdoors, he’s accompanied by several family members, lest he « disappear. » « Ziad, » another activist, has lived in three different places in Antakya since August. He’s looking to move again, in part because he’s running out of money, and in part because he and his activist roommates have recently noticed Syrians they don’t know following them. « It has scared us, » says Ziad, 26, a raised semicircular scar under his left eye a permanent reminder of a brush with Syrian security forces during a demonstration in his hometown, the coastal city of Latakia. « I’ve received threats, both direct and indirect, from Syrians here in Turkey, » says Fezo. « It’s not safe for us, they can reach us anywhere. »
Ramy al-Dow’s troubles started in earnest two weeks ago. In the summer, he and his family fled their native town of Jisr al-Shoughour, some 40 km south of Antakya, after his activist father was arrested by Syrian security forces in a raid. They joined the thousands of Syrians streaming into safety in Turkey, and soon settled in the Yayladagi refugee camp. Ramy continued to cross the border illicitly, ferrying food, water and other supplies to groups of Syrians huddled on the Syrian side, including more than two dozen military defectors in the tiny village of Ain al-Baida.
Two weeks ago, Ramy got a phone call from an associate of a Turkish Alawite businessman, a man he knew well. He’d seen him around Guvecci during the summer, offering food, water and shelter to Syrian refugees. « He said he wanted to help support the revolution, but that he couldn’t discuss the matter over the phone, » Ramy says. He and his cousin went to see the man in his home in a nearby village. « It was a trap, » Ramy says. He claims he and his cousin were handcuffed and were pressed to enter a pickup truck. They resisted and a scuffle ensued, during which they managed to escape. After several hours, they made it back to Guvecci. More than 20 villagers saw the frightened, handcuffed pair. The Turkish businessman has reportedly told police that the young cousins were trying to sell him stolen smuggled weapons.
« I’m very scared. I can’t go to Syria, and now I’m wanted in Turkey, » Ramy says. « It’s my word against a rich Turkish man’s. I don’t know what is going to happen to me. If there’s a way I can get a guarantee that I won’t be sent to Syria, I’ll go to Turkish authorities and hand myself in. »
A Turkish official familiar with the case says the young men have not been charged with a crime and have nothing to fear from Turkish law enforcement. « We have strong orders — very strict orders — not to detain Syrian guests or send them back to Syria. It’s not possible. It might just be that we have some questions, that’s all, » he told TIME, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the issue. The cousins « should go back to the camps. »
But they won’t. It doesn’t matter that they haven’t been formally charged, their fear of men in uniform runs deep, such is the formidable psychological barrier of fear cultivated by Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez Assad in the decades they have ruled.
In any case, many of the residents of these refugee camps don’t feel any safer than the Syrians living outside the wire. There are six camps in all, housing some 7,500 Syrians. About 3,800 are in Yayladagi, just kilometers from the border. It’s a well-organized, clean camp with white tents pitched along paved walkways. « We won’t leave the camp and go into town alone anymore, » says Nihad Hashari, a 45-year-old from Jisr al-Shoughour staying in Yayladagi. « We organize groups of four or five. »
Hashari sits with about a dozen men on plastic chairs under a white canvas awning. They are all immensely grateful for the Turkish government’s help, and for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s blistering attacks on Assad, but they fear that there are spies in their midst. « We have noticed cars of Syrian intelligence in the town, » says another refugee, Mustafa. « We know that they are intelligence because their plates are either all zeros or there are several cars with consecutive numbers and Damascus plates. »
The Turkish official acknowledges that possibility but says there is little his government can do about it. « We cannot know who is mukhabarat, » he says. « The camps are open to everybody. We do not ask why you are coming or why you are leaving. If [the camp residents] say, ‘This person is mukhabarat,’ we become more careful. There are some allegations about people, but we cannot prove it. What are we supposed to do? » he says, becoming exasperated. « Please offer us a solution, and we will do it. Should we interrogate all of the refugees? »
The Dow cousins don’t have solutions to offer. They just know that they’ll be spending another night out in the open. « Sometimes we stay in homes, but we don’t want to jeopardize anybody else, » Ramy says, as he and his young cousin make their way down a gravel pathway toward fields of olive and pomegranate trees. They have one blanket between them. Ramy doesn’t even have a jacket. « Don’t worry about us, » he says cheerfully. « We’re used to hardship here and over there, » he says, nodding toward the nearby border. « We’ll be fine, as long as they don’t find us. »