As news began filtering through that the Syrian town of Qusayr, next to Lebanon, had fallen to a combined force of the Syrian Army, Hizbollah and Shia and Allawite militiamen, at another of Syria’s borders, refugees from yet another civil war battlefield gathered.
At Kilis, a dusty village 40 miles south of the Turkish city of Gaziantep, hundreds queued up at the only open crossing on the Turkey-Syria border.
Some of the refugees had been waiting in the baking sun for as long as three days to be processed by the Turkish Red Crescent and sent to the nearby refugee camp.
Entire families were among those who have fled the ten-month-long battle around Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city. They have crossed over legally, resigned to new lives as refugees and an indefinite stay in the camp until the war dies down and they can return home.
Other Syrians, mainly young men, who do not want to while away their time in a camp, have crossed over illegally through the wood near the crossing. Some are just planning to meet their families and then go back again; others are hoping to get well away, as far as possible. As a military patrol draws near, they beat an escape back into the wood where they wait to be picked up on motorcycles.
Ahmed Ramadan, a young man with gelled hair and a flowery shirt says that two years ago he was a soldier in the Syrian army, until he defected and joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In recent months he said had been fighting in the battle of Aleppo, the FSA’s most ambitious campaign to date, which has foundered due to lack of co-ordination between the rebel groups and a shortage of weapons. The rebels control about half the city but now there is a new concern: hundreds of Hizbollah fighters have been seen in Aleppo’s suburbs. “We only have our Kalashnikovs,” says Mr Ramadan, “they have heavy machine guns and missiles, we had to flee.” Agel Hussein, who came from the Aleppo region with his family, said he also saw the Hizbollah members. “They were wearing bands around their head saying they are Ali’s soldiers. They came and murdered people in our village.”
Other refugees from the Aleppo region say that it is rare now to see soldiers of the Syrian Army fighting on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s side.
Hussein Hussein, an engineer from Aleppo, said: “You see mainly Hizbollah and members of the Allawite militia, the Shabiha. They give anyone who is willing to murder a Kalashnikov and let them join the Shabiha. Also from the rebel side we are seeing now fewer Syrians from the FSA and more volunteers coming from around the world, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, even Europe and America, to fight Assad.”
Ahmed Hamada, a student who left his studies in Damascus to return home to Aleppo, is now a volunteer nurse at a hospital in the rebel-held part of the city. “We are bombarded daily from the air but the hospital is in an old solid building so we survive. Afterwards we go out and collect casualties.” He is on his way to visit his mother in Gaziantep but he knows that he will not stay in Turkey. “I miss my country, I will go back to Aleppo.”
Not all of the Syrians on the border are refugees fleeing the Assad regime. Turkey is still the main exit-point for wealthy and well-connected Syrians wishing to reach the West, and at the crossing one can meet also those who continue to support Assad and rely on his survival for their comfortable lives. Muhammad Rukiah, an elderly gentleman in a well-cut suit says he has come from Damascus “on business”. He gestures disdainfully towards the refugees. “Don’t listen to them, everything is OK in Damascus,” he says, as he gets into his Mercedes and drives off towards Gaziantep.