Returning to an unsafe Syria

Some refugees in Turkey feel that returning home is a better option than spending the winter in a camp.

It may be hard to understand why some Syrians are choosing to return home when their country is still at war. After all, they fled seeking safety from the violence. But for Abu Omar, it is a choice he had to make even though it was a difficult one.

“We have two choices really – a slow death in exile or cheat death at home,” he told me while we were sitting in his family’s tent in a refugee camp on Turkey’s border with Syria.

His five-month old grandchild, Taem, has been sick for days. Turkish authorities do provide medical assistance. But winter is around the corner. It will get cold and the tents won’t be able to withstand the rain.

“We cannot live like this. I cry every single day. My sons stayed behind in our village. I miss them. I worry about them. I Worry about my country,” Abu Omar explains.

There is a growing realisation among Syrian refugees that their life as refugees may last for a long time. The camp’s residents have been here since the camp was set up six months ago.

“We thought we would be here for 20 days, a month at the most,” Abu Omar’s grandchild, Ahmed, told us. “No one thought we would be here six months later.”

We heard these words time and time again while speaking to refugees in the camp. “You probably will see us here in 2016!” Mohammed said.

Many were relying on the support from the international community. The hope was for a no-fly zone to be enforced. That of course didn’t happen.

Many of the refugees come from villages and towns where the armed opposition has been able to drive government forces out. But that freedom has made them targets of the state’s superior firepower.

Abu Omar understands the dangers of returning. The threat of air strikes and artillery bombardment hasn’t gone away. It is the danger of a prolonged conflict however that worries Abu Omar even more.

“This war needs to end quickly. If the situation continues, pockets of territory in Syria will become havens for terrorists. The conflict will affect neighbouring countries,” he said.

It has affected Turkey. The presence of tens of thousands of mainly Sunni refugees in regions along the border populated by Turkish Alawites has raised tensions. The country already hosts more than 100,000 Syrians – and those are the ones registered in camps.

Thousands of others are stranded in border regions inside Syria waiting for Ankara to build new camps to accommodate them.

Turkey has had to carry a big burden and officials say they are providing the refugees with their basic needs. They are fed hot meals. There are field hospitals and if a patient’s case is serious, they are taken to hospitals

While Abu Jimaah is thankful for the help, he still worries about the winter. “What will happen when heavy rain starts? There will be a flood here. Look at the tents,” he said. That is why he is taking his family back.

“Is your village safe,” I ask him. “No, but what should we do. I don’t want to be here forever.”

He didn’t want us to reveal the name of his village. It is in Aleppo province and I know the area still comes under bombardment. There is still fear of the state.

And there is fear for the future. “What happens next is anyone’s guess,” Abu Jumaah said. “The war in Syria is heading to the unknown. The situation is getting worse, not better. It is worse than when we left.”

That is why very few are packing their belongings and waiting for Turkish authorities to provide the buses to take them to the border. Those who are going back don’t feel safe to do so.

Then why? “We are safe from the bombs here but death is easier than living here,” Abu Omar said. Those who have made this choice seem to believe there is a reality in this war. And the reality is it is not ending any time soon.

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