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Angelina Jolie's visit to Syrian refugees draws mixed reaction

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, at 3:20 p.m.

YAYLADAGI, Turkey — Hundreds of displaced Syrians in an old tobacco factory-turned-refugee camp in this southern town rallied Friday against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and surged against a Turkish police cordon, hoping that the publicity surrounding a visit by Angelina Jolie would bring attention to their plight.

But even on a day when news reports indicated that at least 18 people were killed in Syria in demonstrations against the dictator, the arrival of paparazzi buzzing over Jolie seemingly submerged the import of the uprising. One popular Turkish newspaper focused not on the protesters in Friday's editions but on the sultry good looks of the internationally known actress who was to visit, running a prominent photo of Jolie sporting a bare midriff and plunging neckline. Her visit also was mocked on Twitter by users who described it as a publicity stunt.

And in the end, the actress and U.N. humanitarian ambassador ended up touring another camp in southern Turkey.

"A famous actor comes and there's so much media, but they left when she left," said Rosh Abdelfattah, an exiled Syrian filmmaker who tried to shoot footage of the camp for a documentary on the uprising.

A handful of reporters, curious passers-by and irate Turkish policemen were the only witnesses to the camp's announcement of a hunger strike and other unrest to underscore Turkey's delicate position as both ally of the Syrian regime and host to more than 9,500 refugees who've fled Assad's deadly military campaign to crush a three-month-old uprising.

"Help us! The regime is killing us! They've burned our towns!" yelled a sobbing woman who held a cardboard sign calling for Assad's ouster.

Human rights organizations estimate that more than 1,000 people have died in Syria and scores more have been wounded in the government's fierce crackdown on anti-regime demonstrations that erupted as part of the Arab Spring rebellions.

Newly re-elected Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose once-warm relationship with Assad has been strained by the bloodshed next door, has demanded reforms from his Syrian counterpart but hasn't advocated regime change.

As the crisis grinds on with no peaceful resolution in sight, concern is growing about what Turkey will do with the thousands of Syrian refugees who are massed just across the border, unable to return to their battered villages but reluctant to live under the prison-like conditions of the Turkish camps.

Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, the international monitoring group, said the unrest in the Turkish camps highlighted Erdogan's tricky position.

On one hand, Bouckaert said, Turkey has fulfilled its humanitarian obligation by providing a haven for Syrians who want to cross the border. On the other hand, Turkey is restricting the movement of refugees and preventing them from sharing their horrific ordeals with the news media, which goes against international norms for dealing with asylum seekers, he said.

"Turkey is afraid that stories of Syrian atrocities will leak out from Turkish soil," said Bouckaert, who'd spent the past two days recording testimonies from traumatized refugees camped out in a valley between the countries.

Turkish workers spent hours early Friday sprucing up the Yayladagi camp, giving it fresh coats of paint and cleaning the iron bars that surround the compound, as part of the fanfare that preceded Jolie's arrival in southern Turkey.

Authorities have covered the exterior with blue plastic tarp to prevent journalists from seeing the goings-on inside. Frustrated by the restrictive conditions, many refugees peel back the tarp and shout their stories to reporters, or surreptitiously pass notes through the bars when the Turkish police aren't looking.

A Turkish policeman pushed away a McClatchy reporter who was speaking to refugees through the bars.

"You want to interview and photograph them here so their families can be killed over there?" he chided.

Indeed, many families in the camp who were reached through the bars or by phone later said they were worried about retaliation against loved ones who were still in Syria. But many more were eager to talk, typically without using their full names, about the slain relatives, ransacked homes and torched farmlands they left behind. Several refugees were seen sporting fresh bandages.

By late afternoon, hundreds of refugees had pushed their way to the main gates of the camp, which offers a clearer view because it isn't covered, and staged a sit-in. At least 10 refugees said they were on a hunger strike, but it was impossible to verify how far the strike extended in the camp, which houses more than 3,000 Syrians. Police parked a large bus in front of the demonstration to block photographs.

A man who was using the pseudonym Abu Tayyeb peeled back the tarp to show off his 26-day-old baby boy, who was sleeping in his mother's arms. Abu Tayyeb shifted on his crutches; he said he was shot in the leg in late April during a demonstration in the port city of Latakia. He scribbled his phone number on a scrap of paper just before Turkish police yanked down the tarp and shooed him away.

Reached later by telephone as his bandage was being changed in the camp's clinic, Abu Tayyeb said the family had fled to Turkey two months ago, before the camp opened. Once admitted to Yayladagi, he said, they've received excellent care from Turkish aid workers, but have resented the lack of access to the media.

Refugees organized a one-day hunger strike Friday, he said, though many in the camp planned to extend it as rumors abounded of regime loyalists raping women or luring back displaced families to execute them.

One of the most often-repeated stories Friday was of a sugar factory in the targeted Syrian village of Jisr al Shughour. Several refugees, interviewed separately, said Assad's forces were using knives meant for sugarcane to torture and kill detainees held there. There was no way to independently verify the claims.

"The hunger strike is our way to show the world we need to remove Bashar and change the government, and also to be able to speak to the journalists," Abu Tayyeb said.

He held out hope that Jolie hadn't passed them by, saying he'd heard she might visit the next day. Unlike some other displaced Syrians, he thought that the celebrity's presence would shine a light on one of the darkest chapters of Syria's recent history.

"I was really happy she was coming because it would show the world what's happening to the Syrian people," he said.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

How one Syrian dissident found his voice on the Internet

Turkey vows to keep border open as Syrians seek refuge

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Sudan fighting brings accusations of ethnic cleansing

Bahraini woman's poetry lands her in jail

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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