CEYLANPINAR, Turkey — Thousands of Kurds have fled Syrian army attacks on the strategic town of Ras Al Ain on the Turkish border, running for their lives after their homes were shelled and the corpses of fighters left strewn on the streets.
With nothing but the clothes on their backs, grandparents, women and children rushed to the border and, when their numbers turned to thousands, Turkish soldiers opened the gates and offered them refuge.
Ras Al Ain is one of just two Turkish border crossings still controlled by the Syrian army. Rebels fighting to bring down President Bashar Assad have captured four others while a seventh is controlled by Kurdish militia.
Samira Rushi and her four children were among the thousands who left. Now they are living with 150 people, mostly neighbours from the predominantly Kurdish town, in a single home tucked away in a back alley in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.
From a neighbour’s rooftop, they can see Ras Al Ain, nestled on a hillside in the distance. When night falls and they huddle together, sleeping 13 to a room, they are kept awake by the sound of artillery and gunfire which raged on into Sunday.
“There were bodies on the ground, houses were destroyed and after that, we left. My home was destroyed in the shelling,” said Rushi.
Now she worries about her husband and the other neighbours who stayed behind to look after their homes and “help anyway they can” to defeat Assad and the regime they despise.
More than 11,000 Syrians fled into neighbouring countries in the space of 24 hours — 9,000 of them into Turkey in the face of deadly fighting between rebels and the army in the northeastern province of Hasakeh.
The United Nations warns that the number of Syrian refugees in the region will reach 700,000, and the head of its humanitarian efforts said those in need of emergency aid in Syria would rise to more than four million early next year.
Turkey has shouldered a huge burden. The latest exodus brings the number of registered Syrian refugees in the country to more than 120,000.
Samira and other refugees who spoke to AFP in Ceylanpinar spoke movingly of how Turkish soldiers granted them shelter.
“The soldiers opened the gate and said welcome and helped us very much,” said Amira Taboush, a mother of five children. “And the people in this area have helped us very much, they are Kurds,” she added.
“Thank you Erdogan for helping us,” interrupted another woman, standing in the kitchen next to crates of vegetables donated by Kurdish Turkish neighbours.
Analysts say that like their Iraqi brethren, Syrian Kurds, could find in the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a valuable ally.
Last month, US magazine The Atlantic predicted that if a de facto Kurdish autonomous zone emerges in northern Syria as a result of the 20-month war, Turkey could prove a natural ally.
While Ankara has been hostile to an independent Kurdish state, its calculations could be changed by the prospect of chronically unstable Sunni Arab neighbours, and the need to counter Iran’s Shiite axis, the magazine said.
Many religiously motivated Sunni Arab rebels in neighbouring province Aleppo look on the Kurds as collaborators with the Assad regime and have clashed with Kurdish militia, but refugees from Ras Al Ain claim to be at one with the rebel cause.
They complain about years of marginalisation, abuse and discrimination at the hands of the Assad government and say that in their town, Kurdish militia work closely with the Free Syrian Army, the main Arab-led rebel group.
“Bashar is filth, filth, filth. He is very bad with the Kurds. He doesn’t let us learn [our language and culture] and when some Kurds finish university, they can’t find work in the government,” said Taboush.
Despite opposition claims that Ras Al Ain had fallen, refugees said the town was still divided 50-50 between the army and the rebels, and fighting flared anew on its outskirts early Sunday, the Syruian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Over the weekend, Kurdish residents backed by militia peacefully took control of a string of towns in the northeast leaving just two major cities in Hasakeh province under central government control, the Britain-based watchdog said.
A similar deal granted Kurdish villages unprecedented freedoms in governing their own affairs in Aleppo province in the northwest, but has fueled rebel accusations of collusion.
When it comes to the future, Ras Al Ain refugees are clear what they want — peace, return to their homes and an independent Kurdistan.
When Quchar Mustafa, 55, fled to Turkey, she and her daughter took it in turns to carry her handicapped son, Mohammed. His arms and legs withered, he lies on the floor, immobile on his back.
“My first hope is that Bashar goes and the regime goes and that people live in peace and safety,” she says in Kurdish. “Then we want an independent state — a country and justice for the Kurdish people.”