Russian Airstrikes Escalate Conflict Forcing More Syrians To Flee

Feb 19, 2016
Originally published on February 19, 2016 7:48 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Syria, fighting continues in the north of the country despite international efforts to get a cease-fire. People there say the Syrian regime's air campaign backed by Russia has gone into overdrive. The U.N. has condemned the destruction of hospitals and schools. More Syrians are being displaced, and NPR's Alice Fordham met some of them just over the border in Turkey.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Rowdy Syrian refugee children are playing on swings while their parents collect food provided by a Turkish charity. Hundreds of people line up every day for a free lunch. It feels peaceful in this sleepy Turkish border town of Kilis, but there's a huge refugee camp here and many more Syrians living in cheap rented apartments, and the war is close. Sitting under a tree is a man who gives his name as Abu Mohammad. His wife and 10 kids, they look exhausted. They fled Syria earlier this week, and he's clear about why.

ABU MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) The Russian airstrikes are crazy. Before, it was every two or three days there'd be a Syrian airstrike. After, with the Russians, there'd be four or five planes at once. It comes, and when it leaves, the whole area is burned completely.

FORDHAM: The airstrikes are not Abu Mohammad's first catastrophe. He's from the Syrian city of Aleppo but his house was destroyed in fighting. He went to the town of Manbij and stuck around even after it was taken by ISIS.

A. MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) With ISIS, they ordered us - shave your mustache, shorten your robe, whatever. They ruled us by force, but we didn't have planes. When the Russians came, the situation was already bad, but with the planes what can you do?

FORDHAM: Since Russia began its air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September last year, residents say the strikes have been more frequent and deadly than the Syrian air force's attacks. Lately it's got even worse. Abu Mohammad only gives his nickname because he's afraid. While he talks, his children play with piles of pine needles. He says they're never going back home because the regime and its foreign allies are in control.

A. MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) They sent the naval fleets to the sea and the skies are full. The soldiers came and the Iranians came and the militias, and they all get paid in dollars.

FORDHAM: I speak to several others who fled in recent weeks. Most are from rural areas that joined the rebellion against the government. Many of those areas have now been retaken by the regime. One woman, who gives her name only as Zainab, walked through the night to escape the bombardment 10 days ago. She's pregnant and said it was so hard. I ask if she'd return to live under the government's rule.

ZAINAB: (Through interpreter) I would be really afraid to go back for my husband's sake because if he gets taken by the regime, what am I supposed to do? He didn't fight. He's just a regular person. He had a regular job. But even so, I - there's been plenty of people taken without reason.

FORDHAM: Many here see a sectarian dimension to this. They say all those being driven out - maybe forever - are Sunni Muslims. Assad belongs to an offshoot of Shiite Islam and so do many of his allies. One furious refugee, named Jamal Mohammad, chimes in that the Russians are aiding a sectarian cleansing.

JAMAL MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says, "they're killing only the Sunnis. The Russians will bomb us all and then they'll have an election with no Sunnis, and Bashar al-Assad will be the president." Such an outcome of the Syrian civil war is far from assured, but for these people, almost everything is already lost. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Kilis, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.