© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Refugees Creating 'Instant Cities' Across Syrian Borders


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Passover is in full swing and Easter is just days away. And Pati Jinich joins us. She'll tell you how to put a Mexican touch on your holiday feast. But first we turn to Syria. Reports out of the Middle East say rebels have captured a key strategic town near the Jordanian border, but while the fighting continues into its third year, more and more Syrians are trying to flee the country.

And that's putting enormous pressure on the neighboring countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Israel that are struggling to house all of these refugees. We're joined now once again by Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington D.C. bureau chief for Al Jazeera. And also with us is NPR's Deborah Amos. She won a Peabody Prize this week for her coverage in Syria. So first of all, congratulations, Deborah.

DEB AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.

HEADLEE: Nice to have you. Let me begin with you, Deb. And we've heard a lot about what's been happening on the Syrian borders this week. Could you update us?

AMOS: Well, what you have is a beltway of misery on every border with Syrian. And in each place there's been trouble this week. In Turkey you had a mini riot in a refugee camp. The Turks were accused of deporting refugees, which they really can't do. These are people who have a protected status. The Turks said no, we didn't do that. We said that because of the trouble in the camp we will prosecute these people. And they voluntarily agreed to go back to Syria.

In Jordan, same thing. There was a fire in one of the camps. There was a mini riot there. All of these places, Celeste, have populations that are just too huge for any country to handle. You know, half a million. And there are estimates that it could be up to...

HEADLEE: Wait, wait, wait.

AMOS: ...a million.

HEADLEE: Half a million in one refugee camp?

AMOS: Half a million in one country.

HEADLEE: Oh, I see.

AMOS: There's 100,000 in one refugee camp in Jordan. It is now the fourth-largest city in the country.

HEADLEE: The refugee camp is Jordan's fourth-largest city?

AMOS: Yes. And this is without, you know, proper facilities with a U.N. agency that is completely overwhelmed. These are instant cities in these countries. In Jordan, they have the bulk of the refugees. In Lebanon there are no - not very many camps. Mostly people find whatever they can, places to live. People are now in debt because you have to pay for a tent when you move to Lebanon.

So what you are seeing is a refugee population in the region that is destabilizing in its numbers.

HEADLEE: Well, let me ask you, Abderrahim, then. Are we reaching - we talk a lot about the breaking point in terms of the military. I mean, the fight between the rebels and the government, but is there a breaking point simply in terms of the flood of refugees?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Well, I mean, it has to be said that the main challenge is not so much on these countries. The main challenge is for the refugees themselves.

AMOS: Yeah.

FOUKARA: I mean, they've gone through a tough winter. Now we're gearing up for the summer. They'll be going through a tough summer. And, as we heard from Deborah, the lack of facilities in all these refugee camps, in all these countries. I have to say you mentioned Israel. Israel faces a political and strategic challenge. It doesn't face any real challenge from refugees.

But countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey - we just heard about, from Deborah, about the problems there - these face massive challenges. In the case of Jordan it faces financial challenges because it doesn't have the funds to cope with the influx of refugees from Syria, although the United States has - or President Obama has promised $2 million.

There are all different types of impacts and challenges for other countries. In Lebanon, for example, we know that the ethnic and sectarian balance in that country is already very sensitive. And with the influx of these refugees, most of them are Sunni, although they may also be Christian and Alawite, but most of them are Sunni. So they also add to the sectarian and ethnic problems of these countries.

HEADLEE: Well, Deborah, Abderrahim just mentioned, you know, help coming from the U.S. and other countries. Every day we get a new rumor about how the U.S. may or may not help, whether there will be a no-fly zone. What is actually happening or not happening in terms of U.S. involvement?

AMOS: That's a very good question.


AMOS: And I don't know what's actually happening and I think nobody really does. There have been such conflicting reports. The New York Times tells us that there have been a variety of cargo planes coming from - with the help of the Jordanians, from Croatia. We hear from commanders in the field that they're not seeing these weapons.

I think that the truth is somewhere in between and what you have to watch is there are now a group of people who watch the videos. This perhaps is the most documented conflict that I have ever seen. We've got two years of almost 24 hour a day coverage. And so what these military experts have done is they are watching the videos, they are seeing some of these new weapons coming in.

Some from Croatia. And they see it in the south, some in the north. You look at the official statements from, certainly the Jordanians, the Saudis, the Turks, the (unintelligible). We're not arming anyone, but you see them.


AMOS: You see those weapons and you see an up tick, and certainly in the past couple of weeks, of attacks in Damascus. There has been a real escalation. Yesterday we saw that the University of Damascus, downtown Damascus, was hit with a mortar. There's been a rain of mortars in downtown Damascus. Those are not new weapons but they may be new tactics.

We also have reports that western powers are training rebels in Jordan. And we are seeing some different tactics on the battlefield, certainly in the southern part of the fight.

HEADLEE: Well, Abderrahim, let me take this to you. How do we know who's telling the truth? You'll get one version from the Syrian government, one version - well, actually, you'll get five different versions from different rebel groups, right? You'll get one from Alarabiya, one from Al Jazeera. How do we know what's true and what is not in terms of the coverage of what's happening in Syria?

FOUKARA: Well, I think it cycles back to the trite saying that the first casualty of war is the truth. And in this case it is so true because we're getting the truth, inverted commas, from so many different parts of the parties to the conflict. In terms of the arms, everybody, as Deborah has said, is denying that they're supplying arms to the Syrians.

AMOS: Yeah.

FOUKARA: But everybody is supplying those arms. You have the Russians denying that they're supplying arms to the regime. You have the Iranians denying that they're supplying arms to the regime. And yet the regime is getting arms. The same thing goes for the rebels. About two weeks ago we heard the British and the French government saying that they would be very willing to supply arms to the rebels and that it's only right that the rebels get arms.

More recently, over the last 24 hours, we've heard from the French president a 180. He's saying unless they know - unless the French know for sure that those arms would not end up in the hands of extremists in Syria, they would not supply those arms. But I think that comes in the context of what happened in the Arab Summit in Doha two days ago.

And one of the resolutions of the Arab Summit was that they would open the door for individual Arab countries to arm the rebels at their own initiative. So many Arab countries are already busy supplying those weapons. And sometimes on behalf of the French, on behalf of the Brits, on behalf of the Americans. But the Americans, the British, and the French can say if and when things go wrong...

HEADLEE: We're not doing this.

FOUKARA: ...we're not doing it. But those weapons are getting there.

HEADLEE: Well, Deborah, you mentioned videos that you're finding, I guess, on YouTube. Are you talking about the things that people, like, upload from their cell phones and that's helping you to determine what's really happening?

AMOS: Oh, it's much more sophisticated than that. And, you know, the saying that truth is the first casualty of war comes from almost 60-70 years ago.


AMOS: So that part's not new. What is new is almost - well, every brigade. And now there's a count of somewhere up to 1,000 separate brigades inside Syria, some as many as - or small as 20, others, you know, 10,000 strong.

All of them have a media unit, because part of the media unit's job is, when you are looking for funds, the way that you do that is you make a video of your great - you know, your greatest hits, your battle successes - and that goes out to your funders, so that they know that what they sent you, you used.

This also happens for people who are taking humanitarian aid into Syria. I meet many young Syrians who are - I see them standing at the border in Turkey. They're bringing seven ambulances and a video camera, because the money they raised in Britain - those people need to see that those ambulances got where they were supposed to go. So we are way past that part where it came from people's cell phones. These are sophisticated cameras, some of them given by the U.S. government, and these are produced pieces and almost every battle has somebody there who is taking videos.

The only group that doesn't do that is Jabhat al-Nusra. This is the group - Islamists - the Americans call them a terrorist organization. They're much more quiet about their operations. They've been a little bit more active in the video scene lately, but their battle video - they save it and they give it to you when they want to, not like everybody else who does it every day.

HEADLEE: And, Abderrahim, I apologize. We only have about a minute left, but we're going into our third year now. March 15th was the second anniversary. Are the chances, before the year is out, that Syria will not be at war?

FOUKARA: Well, nobody knows. I mean, when this whole situation in Syria started two years ago, everybody thought it was going to be quick.


FOUKARA: The same thing that we saw in Tunisia or in Egypt and yet, as you say, this is the beginning of the third year. I think, just to go back to what Deborah talked about, there are many other stories that we're not hearing about...


FOUKARA: ...as much as we should. We had a Syrian journalist visiting from Damascus, a few days ago, and she told me that the stories about the kidnappings, the stories about rape, the stories about the peddling in children and women in brides, in...

HEADLEE: Which may not come out until it's...

FOUKARA: ...in refugees - we don't often hear about that.

HEADLEE: That's Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera. He joined us in our Washington studio. And Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR. She won a Peabody Award this week for her coverage of Syria and she joined us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you to both of you.

AMOS: Thank you.

FOUKARA: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.