Syrian refugees in 4 countries talk of pain, fear

Associated Press
In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 photo, Basel Baradan, an 18-year-old farmer who fled his southern restive border town of Daraa, Syria with his family in July, wipes his eyes as he speaks during an interview at the Zaatari Refugee Camp, in Mafraq, Jordan. Jordan now hosts 200,000 Syrians, the largest number of refugees of any neighboring country. After months of delay, Jordan finally opened its first official refugee camp in July at Zaatari, near the border with Syria.(AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)
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A woman loses her children, her husband and both legs. A penniless family is forced to flee from Syria back to Iraq. Camps are overflowing with people and with bitterness, and refugees are living in limbo without passports.

As war rages in Syria, the stream of refugees into other countries shows no sign of stopping. More than 100,000 people fled Syria in August alone — about 40 percent of all who had left since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began last March. And the United Nations refugee agency said Thursday that the number of people escaping Syria could reach 700,000 by the end of the year.

Here, AP reporters tell the stories of refugees and their families from four countries.

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TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Hasna Um Abdou lost her children, her husband and both legs to a mortar.

Now the veiled 38-year-old woman lies in a hospital bed in this northern Lebanese city, with the Quran, the Muslim holy book, on her table. She talks slowly, with pauses, and is visibly trying to hold back the tears. Abdul-Aziz, 3, and Talin, 13 months, were her only children.

"Every time I remember, I feel the pain," she says.

Um Abdou is one of thousands of Syrians who have been wounded in the uprising against Assad and its aftermath. Hundreds of the wounded have been taken for treatment in neighboring countries, mostly to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. More than 74,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Lebanon, itself a small country of just 4 million people that is struggling with instability.

Um Abdou and her family fled their village in Homs province in March amid intense shelling, to a second village and then a third. Two days later, it seemed quiet, and they decided to return home. The family rode back on March 31 on a motorcycle, with Um Abdou's daughter asleep in her arms and her son sitting in front of his father.

Then her world fell apart.

Um Abdou keeps hearing the sound not of the mortar, but of the terror.

"I cannot forget the noise of the hearts beating quickly as people gathered around us," she says.

Her daughter died immediately from a shrapnel wound in the head. Her son bled profusely and died minutes later, even as she looked at him. She did not want her husband to know the children were dead, so she said nothing and started to pray.

But her husband was severely injured too -- the shrapnel had blown out his intestines. And Um Abdou looked down to find her own legs hanging slightly from her body.

"The moment I saw myself, I knew that my legs were going to be amputated," she says.

She and her husband were rushed to makeshift hospitals in the Syrian border towns of Qusair and Jousi. With the help of Syrian rebels, she was carried on a stretcher all the way across the border to Lebanon, amid 12 hours of shelling and shooting. Her husband died en route.

Um Abdou's children are now buried in a plot of land in Syria owned by the state. Her husband was buried in the cemetery in Jousi because it was too dangerous to take him back to his hometown.

"Even the dead have no right to be buried," she says.

Um Abdou has undergone four operations in Lebanon, including the two amputations. Her parents and sisters are looking after her, and she displays the green, red, white and black flag of the Syrian revolution in her room.

She knows the pain will be unbearable the day she goes back to Syria and visits the place where her family is buried. In the meantime, she has written a poem in the hospital.

"I lost my children and husband, but my soul is still strong," it reads. "I will keep saying until my last breath, long live freedom."

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BAGHDAD — The gang of masked gunmen broke into the small apartment near Damascus where Waleed Mohammed Abdul-Wahid and his family had lived for nearly three years. "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" they shouted, as his three children began to cry.

"We are Sunnis!" answered his wife, Wasan Malouki Khalaf.

"Do you know any Shiites who are cooperating with the Syrian government?" the gunmen demanded.

"We do not know any such people," she said. "We are from Baghdad."

The gunmen left. The brief but terrifying invasion sealed the decision Abdul-Wahid had been mulling for weeks: to leave behind an increasingly violent life in Syria and return to Iraq.

More than 2.2 million people fled Iraq during the war and sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and almost half of them ended up in neighboring Syria. Now Syria is plagued with the same sectarian conflict, and many of the same people are on the run a second time. At least 22,000 Iraqi refugees are thought to have left Syria to return to Iraq, despite the dangers they thought they had left behind.

Abdul-Wahid had worked as a deliveryman back in Baghdad, bringing cylinders of cooking gas to both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. Militants kidnapped him outside his Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Azimiyah in 2009 and tortured him for four days. His arms still show the burn scars.

The family packed up and fled to Syria, where they built a new life in a mostly Shiite suburb. The children settled down in school, and the United Nations gave them food and an income. Abdul-Wahid, 49, found a job in construction and started taking medication for the severe depression he had suffered after the kidnapping.

Then the uprising against Assad began, and violence returned to Abdul-Wahid's life. Mortars bombarded their neighborhood, and snipers shot at people in the streets. The last straw was the gunmen storming their home in late July, and asking his daughter if she was Sunni or Shiite.

"She did not reply, because she does not know the meaning of such a question," Abdul-Wahid says.

The bus fare from Damascus to Baghdad cost about $110 for each person. Abdul-Wahid had to ask his brother for money, he says, his eyes filling up with tears of sadness and shame. His family is living in a room in his brother's house.

"I have lost everything now," he says. "I am jobless and penniless...I am even afraid of going outside my brother's house. Now, I have to start from zero."

He plans to go back to Syria when — or if — the violence ebbs. Wasan, his wife, says the shortages of electricity and water in Iraq are unbearable, as is the lack of good medical care, security and jobs.

But Abdul-Wahid is doubtful the violence will end any time soon, or Assad will be ousted from power.

"I think that the armed struggle in Syria will continue for a long time," he says. "He is clinging to power...I think that he will survive."

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ZAATARI, Jordan — At this Syrian refugee camp opened in the desert just two months ago, anger sizzles in the scorching sun.

It is anger at being crowded with about 32,000 other people onto a parched, treeless strip of land, where the day is too hot and the night is too cold. But it is also a murderous anger among the Sunni Muslims here against the Shiites back home, whom they blame for the war. Many Sunnis oppose Assad's ruling regime, which is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"When I return, I will kill any Shiite I see with my dagger. I will chop him to pieces," shouts Basel Baradan, a bitter 18-year-old farmer who fled the southern town of Daraa with his family in July. He is weeping.

Jordan now hosts an estimated 200,000 Syrians, including those not registered with the U.N. -- the largest number of refugees taken in by any neighboring country. After months of delay, Jordan finally opened its first official refugee camp in July at Zaatari, near the border with Syria.

Already, about 30,000 refugees live at the camp, and they keep coming. This poor desert nation says it can no longer afford to welcome Syrian refugees into its towns and houses.

So they live apart at Zaatari, and they grow angrier. Late Monday, dozens of furious refugees hurled stones and injured about 26 Jordanian policemen, demanding better camp conditions or their return home.

Baradan's father Ghassan, 50, also a farmer, says that with the ubiquitous dust, snakes, scorpions and swings in temperature, living at Zaatari is a "worse struggle than Assad's missiles falling on our heads back home." He too is angry, and blames Shiites under Assad for killing Sunnis.

Baradan lived most of his life exchanging visits and sharing meals with Shiite neighbors. But he grew increasingly resentful in recent years because he thought the Shiites were getting more food and money, and were supported by Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation.

"Sunni Muslims have no respect in Syria and we fled here to find ourselves confined to this dirty prison," he sighs, puffing on his cigarette under a once-white tent, yellowed from the desert sun and heat.

The thirst for revenge that is palpable at the Zaatari camp does not bode well for Syria's future.

Baradan's tent is marked with the Arabic scribbling "Get out, Assad." Outside, a group of young Syrians lines up to fill buckets with drinking water. One of them, Mohammad Sweidan, 17, wears a green T-shirt with an Arabic emblem that reads: "Proud Sunni."

"Shiites and Alawites are not Muslims," he says. "They should be killed because they are infidels, who are killing the Sunnis, the true believers and followers of Islam."

Under Baradan's tent, his 46-year-old wife says she worries about ending up stateless, like Palestinian refugees displaced in wars with Israel. She cries as she cooks lunch on a small gas stove.

"I never thought we would become refugees like them," says the woman, who calls herself Um Basel after her eldest son, in keeping with conservative Muslim tradition. Her husband interrupts. "Even the Israelis do not treat the Palestinians the way Assad is treating Sunnis in Syria."

In a corner, Basel too is crying as he gazes at video on his cellphone of his 9-month-old nephew, Rabee, left behind in Daraa with his family.

"What is keeping me going is this video," he says, tearfully. "I can't wait to see Rabee again. I miss him dearly."

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CAIRO, Egypt — Syrian refugee Mohammad B.'s passport expired a few weeks ago, making official what he has long known: He no longer has a country.

The 26-year-old had nowhere to renew his passport. The Syrian embassy in Cairo was closed after protests. The embassies in Libya and Tunisia had switched loyalty to the opposition and could no longer issue passports. And the embassy in Algeria simply told him to go back to Syria.

That was not an option.

In Syria, Mohammad had been studying to become an English teacher. He fled in May 2011 after he was shot in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising. The bullet pierced his upper lip, broke his teeth, ripped through his cheekbone and exited near his temple. The deep, jagged wound identified him as an anti-government protester, which in Syria marked him for death.

At first all the protesters wanted was a new mayor and better amenities. Mohammad was hopeful.

"I didn't want to leave my country, I wanted it to get better," says the soft spoken young man with a ponytail and a right eye that droops slightly from his wound. He uses only his first name because he fears for the safety of his parents, both government employees in Daraa.

On April 25, the military clamped off the main road into Daraa. Then, he says, security forces started firing into the crowd of about 50 people with large machine guns.

A bullet sliced Mohammad's lip. He waved his hands for help, and a car came to his aid. A cellphone video he was shooting at the time, seen by The Associated Press, records the sound of a hail of bullets popping off the metal.

"It was very painful," Mohammad recalls. "I thought: Today is my last day....And the driver thought I was dead."

When he got home, his family fled to hide with relatives in the countryside. He stayed in bed for a week, unable to eat. Then he made the most difficult decision of his life: He had to leave Syria immediately.

He had never left Syria before. He chose Egypt because he would not need a visa, and knew a friend there.

Egypt does not share a border with Syria, and only about 1,700 Syrian refugees have registered there, according to the United Nations' refugee agency. However, the agency estimates the real number is closer to 95,000.

Mohammad's family gave him about $1,000 in cash, all they could spare. He put on dark sunglasses, wrapped a headdress over his face and prayed all the way to the airport. The bus passed a gauntlet of 25 checkpoints.

At the airport, he was detained for questioning but slipped interrogators a $300 bribe. He headed for his plane, sure he would be back.

Instead he is still in Cairo, with no money. He lives in a rundown apartment where eight people share three rooms.

With the help of a German-based aid group, Mohammad has had four operations for his face. His doctor says he will need more.

In February, one of Mohammad's five brothers made his way to Egypt, via Jordan. Bashar, 21, suffers from psychological problems after being shut in the house for a year watching the violence on TV. His presence both helps and hurts Mohammad.

"I feel like I have a family, but on the other hand, it made my life more difficult," Mohammad said. "He doesn't work."

Mohammad cannot legally work or study either. But he is teaching Arabic and translating for journalists. He also is considering starting a Web-based service to collect videos, photos and other documentation of the rebellion from citizens back home.

He talks with his family in Syria most days by phone or Skype. They never discuss politics. Since he left, security forces have gone to his house twice looking for him.

"I am worried all the time about my family and friends," he says. "When I check on them, I just want to know they are still there."

Above all, Mohammad longs to go home, study and have a good career. None of that is possible while he is stranded in Egypt with an expired passport.

"I just want to stop this bloodbath," he says. "I don't know how."

Mroue reported from Tripoli, Lebanon; Yacoub and Jakes from Baghdad, Iraq; Marjorie Olster from Cairo, Egypt; and Jamal Halaby from Zaatari, Jordan.

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