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Syrian rebels smuggle people, goods across border with Turkey (WASHINGTON TIMES) By Michael Gunn and Rose-Anne Clermont ORONTES RIVER, Syria 03/17/12)Source: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/mar/16/syrian-rebels-smuggle-people-goods-border-turkey/ WASHINGTON TIMES WASHINGTON TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
ORONTES RIVER, Syria — In snow-flecked forests separating Turkey and northern Syria, a band of some 50 Syrian rebels regroup in a makeshift hillside base, safe for the moment.

With an escalating crackdown against regime opponents and no more than 30 assault rifles and a few shotguns among them, they still say time is on their side.

“We are not going to retreat nor give up,” says Abu Youssef, a 43- year-old building contractor-turned-revolutionary from Darkush, a few miles across the border in the Idlib province in Syria.

Mr. Youssef, who asked that his real name be withheld for his family’s safety, takes supplies across the border almost daily.

He says he was not political until he was held and tortured last autumn after being detained at a local mosque. He joined the revolution upon his release.

“The regime’s forces don’t respect anything,” he says. “I was arrested when I was praying.”

Meanwhile, his four sons, the eldest in his early teens, are refusing to leave Syria.

“I told them they had to leave,” he says. “The eldest told me ‘no,’ that they will bring down the regime or they will die trying.”

Waiting in the woods

As President Bashar Assad’s regime continues to shell Homs and escalates attacks on towns in the Idlib province, hundreds of Syrians — including rebel fighters — are fleeing to Turkey.

Among pine trees in a makeshift camp with a few mud-spattered tents, the rebels plan guerrilla raids into Syria, escort smuggled people and talk about the regime’s defeat.

They worry about how to get basic supplies such as food, weapons and communications equipment for themselves and into Syria. They express concern over informants among them, lured by money or threats against their families. And they hope for aid from the Arab world and the U.S.

But they express gratitude for their Turkey’s lack of interference.

“The Turks give us no problems,” says Mazen Khalil, 34, gesturing to a watchtower where Turkish soldiers keep watch.

This night, lookouts scan the surrounding hills from deep in the scrub. Down in the valley, the rebels have laid primitive boobytraps for Assad forces seeking to catch the wounded and the wanted being smuggled out of Syria.

As fog descends, a call is made to a mobile phone across the river, then the light signal comes. Finally, a car pulls up on the opposite side of a river there.

Sixteen men come across in four relays of a sagging rowboat with an oar made from a wooden sign.

“It’s more dangerous at night,” says Abu Jaffar, the nom de guerre of a human smuggler at the Syrian-Turkish border. “The snipers are nervy, if they hear anything, they will open fire.”

Some of the men, ranging in age from 20 to 35, have walked almost all the way from Hama — about 48 miles to the south — in about four days.

They travel in ones and twos, making contacts in villages but mostly sleeping outside in the mountains or in the countryside so as not to endanger the locals.

Three of the men are defectors from Syria’s army. “We need to regroup and get weapons,” one says over the sound of artillery in the distance. “I’ll be the first back across this river.”

Two days later, four extended families come across the same way, including 40 children, the eldest 13 years old. They are taken to a spartan second-floor apartment in a northern suburb of Antakya, Turkey, a property owned by an elderly Turkish businessman.

“Crossing is getting harder and more dangerous,” says Mr. Jaffar. “But it’s never impossible. Assad cannot control the entire border with the forces he has.”

For a taste of freedom

At least 30,000 Syrians have fled the escalating violence at home, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, the majority of them to Turkey.

Samer, 40, who asked that his last name be withheld, brought his wife and four children across from the border town of Darkush via a boat crossing this week.

Samer goes back and forth between Syria and Turkey to film protests and get footage out, using mini-cameras in pens and buttons.

He says it’s too dangerous for his children in Syria now. “The soldiers took a 15-year-old boy hostage and demanded the father hand himself in,” he says. “I can’t take the risk of them doing that to my children.”

Still, his wife, Sahar, weeps over the parents she has left behind. “They were too old to make the journey.”

Since the beginning of the uprising a year ago, more 8,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the U.N. And the violence and its aftershocks only seem to be intensifying, locals say.

“Life has become a struggle,” says Abu Ali, 31, a wounded army defector at a safe house in Guvecci village, Turkey, where gunshots occasionally piece the silence.

He says he joined the rebel army three months ago and has fought in five skirmishes against Assad forces, the latter in the village of Ain Al-Baida last Friday.

He details his new career as an armed escort for civilians, saying he has lost count of the people he has helped get across the border.

But the rebels ferrying footage, supplies and people across the border say they don’t think twice about the risk.

“If I die for this then at least my children might become free,” says Samer. “Haven’t you tasted freedom? Isn’t it worth dying for?” (© 2012 The Washington Times, LLC. 03/17/12)

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