Tens Of Thousands Flee Syria After Alleged Chemical Attacks

Thousands of Syrian refugees entered Iraq last week, fleeing the violence between extremist groups and Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin speaks with Alan Paul of the charity Save the Children about the flow of refugees entering Iraq.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. U.N. inspectors are on the ground in Syria, attempting to determine with certainty whether chemical weapons have been used in that conflict. Those inspectors had been barred from an area outside Damascus, where an alleged chemical weapons attack happened last week. But today, the U.N. announced an agreement with Syrian officials that will allow inspectors to investigate the site starting tomorrow. The aid group Doctors without Borders issued a statement yesterday saying approximately 3,600 hundred people in the area displayed symptoms that would indicate, quote, "mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent." Meanwhile, the White House has release a statement, saying the Obama administration has, quote, "very little doubt that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians." We'll hear more in a few moments about how a chemical weapons attack of this scale might change the Obama administration's position on Syria. But first, another startling headline from that conflict. The U.N. now says a million children have been made refugees as a result of the Syrian civil war. Just this past week alone, tens of thousands of Syrians crossed the northeastern border into Iraq.

ALAN PAUL: We're looking at 43,000 who have since crossed over. So, this is a very, very big influx in a very small amount of time that is stretching the resources of everyone who's here right now.

MARTIN: That's Alan Paul of Save the Children. He's in northern Iraq helping manage the influx of Syrian refugees. I asked him if there was a specific event that triggered such a large exodus.

PAUL: What we have heard from a number of different refugees that we've interviewed are a myriad of different factors. Just simply not being able to find enough food and water for their families, as well as increasing violence that they've been seeing closer and closer to their homes if not, you know, in the towns and villages with which they've come from.

MARTIN: Generations of families are living together in cramped refugee camps, waiting for word on when or if they'll be able to return home. Some families are separated. Those who got out wait to hear about family members who stayed behind, like the man you're about to hear from. He says was arrested by Syrian security officials for supporting rebel forces.

MOHAMMAD: They said why you are supporting the opposition? I said, no, I am supporting the civilians in need. I'm a human being. So, when I saw people in any area want food, want milk, OK, I will support them. So, it's very simple. But the government, you know, and the intelligence way of thinking, you know, anything is a threat for the national security now. They think this way.

MARTIN: His name is Mohammad. And he asked us not to disclose his last name because it could put his family in danger. They're still living in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Mohammad told me when he was arrested, he was prepared for a tough but brief detention.

MOHAMMAD: I thought this will be two weeks, you know, or three weeks or maybe two months. I don't mind. I know I have a good body, you know, and I'm strong and I will survive. I have no idea. And I wasn't afraid actually.

MARTIN: And you ended up being in there for 17 months, almost a year and a half.

MOHAMMAD: You know, the worst part that I spent about three months actually and three days at the intelligence centers, not in the center prisons. There's difference between the intelligence branch and this thing called the center prison. When you feel this horrible things and torture and the bad things, it always came with investigations so you can pull the information from you and make you talk and make you speak about your friends and your associates and your partners, you know, and people who supporting you and who is your supporting, you know.

MARTIN: And this was happening to you.

MOHAMMAD: Yeah, and to get and tortured, actually. And until now, on my body still there are scars and things.

MARTIN: Do you know what kind of information they were looking for?

MOHAMMAD: They looking for my associates. So, the main question from where you get food, from where you get your medicine, when, where, we need names, for whom you deliver those things and why and when, you know, and what's the quantities and if there is any FSA or, you know, officer, army or something, they are there at the site when you are there. And how many of them? And what did you saw? And they give me names of those. Those the questions asked.

MARTIN: While you were inside, the violence had intensified. The conflict had gotten worse. Did Damascus look or feel different to you?

MOHAMMAD: Yeah. It feels very, very different. When I came from the prison, I saw too many buildings. I know friends live in there just disappear, the building. And I just shocked. And when I get into Damascus, I saw the checkpoints. At the checkpoints, I saw arrested and people getting beated, you know, at the checkpoints. It's not Damascus that I know. Even before I get arrested, you know, Damascus was calm. The hot zones, not Damascus. It was at (unintelligible) Damascus and other cities.

MARTIN: Why did you decide you needed to leave Syria?

MOHAMMAD: I couldn't live there this way. When I thought about liberated area, I saw people with guns, you know, I saw Islamics, I saw, I don't know, maybe worse than Assad by the way.

MARTIN: Worse than the areas controlled by Bashar al-Assad.

MOHAMMAD: Yeah, yeah. I saw people with beards, you know, and wearing these Afghani thing, you know. In Damascus actually, in Duma, Daria, those areas, I'm not changing something bad for something worse, you know.

MARTIN: So, now, you're in Beirut. How are things going there? What is life like for you now?

MOHAMMAD: Actually, I have it better here. Even I love the streets. I love the sea. You know, I'm (unintelligible) the music. I saw my friends here. Even new Lebanese friends or the old Syrian friends, most of our friends moved to Beirut. Actually, if I'm walking the street I saw too many friends, so I'm really happy here. I like it here. But the main problem is I couldn't find some source to live, you know, like, to make living or make money here. Maybe if I find a job, I think, I don't know, I think it would be great for me. I can listen to music. I can see TV, you know. I can go to the bathroom whenever I want. So, the main thing actually is to be very luxury for me, to make things that any, anyone, he saw it like basic things, I saw it like a luxury, actually.

MARTIN: Just the basic needs.

MOHAMMAD: Yeah, basic needs, actually.

MARTIN: Your parents are still in Damascus, other family and friends I imagine.

MOHAMMAD: Yeah, there's other family and friends. 'Cause my father wouldn't, you know, he wouldn't leave Damascus. If he said I'm going to die, I'm going to die there in Damascus. He said those sad things, actually.

MARTIN: So, when you left your parents, I can't imagine. I imagine that was very difficult. Did you think you were leaving them for good? Do you think you will see them again?

MOHAMMAD: I have no idea, and don't want to think about it. It will hurt, you know. I'm not thinking about, and will never think about, it. I don't know. I just leave my parents and this is it. I don't know if I'm going to see them again, if something bad happen to them in Damascus, I don't know. You heard about chemical thing, you heard about missiles and bombing thing, you know. So, I don't know. I don't want to think about it. This is it. I'm here and they're in Damascus and this is it.

MARTIN: That was a Syrian refugee named Mohammad, now living in Beirut, Lebanon. He asked us not to reveal his last name to protect the security of his family still living in Damascus.

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