Ahmed Elbatrawy

How Syrians escape

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(CNN) — On Thursday, CNN correspondent Ivan Watson was at a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey. A stone’s throw away, a barbed-wire fence marked the border with Syria, a porous frontier that has become a lifeline for the Syrian opposition inside the country. For hours, he watched Syrians, whole families even, crawl through a hole in the fence to go back and forth across the border. Most of them would eventually return to the refugee camp.

A morning cease-fire in Syria appeared to be working. Some were skeptical that it would last. The mood inside the country was still tense as protesters took to the streets.

President Bashar al-Assad has not allowed journalists inside Syria since the uprising to oust him began more than a year ago. But CNN has managed to send reporting teams to Syria despite great risks to their safety. Reporters and photojournalists from news organizations around the globe have been wounded and killed covering clashes between Free Syria rebels who want al-Assad gone and security forces loyal to him. The conflict has been long, complicated and vicious.

CNN spoke with Watson on Thursday; the following is an edited transcript.

CNN: Where are you now, and what are you seeing?

Watson: I’m in Turkey right now, standing next to a fence of a refugee camp, about 30 feet away from a tent that refugees are in. Across the street, 150 feet away, is the barbed-wire fence of the Turkish-Syrian border that is being patrolled by Turkish gendarmerie soldiers. An armored personnel carrier just went past.

CNN: You can see this barbed-wire fence …

Watson: About 3 miles away in an official border crossing between Syria and Turkey. It’s a large kind of compound that has customs and before this crisis got substantial crossing back and forth through there. The refugees don’t use that exit and entry point to leave their country. They have climbed through holes in the barbed-wire fence that snakes through the hills here. That’s been their way out because the customs crossing is patrolled by security forces, and people who want to escape — we’ve watched them throughout the day go back and forth through the hole in the fence. It’s allowing them to move freely from the camp into Syria and back.

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CNN: How are you able to interact with anyone there, interact with people crossing through the hole? What do you have to be mindful of?

Watson: The story today is inside Syria. It’s about the violence diminishing significantly. Today has been the quietest and most peaceful day we’ve seen in months. For days, we’ve had from 30 to more than 100 people killed a day. For the most part, we’ve been communicating with people inside (Syria) and watching videos that activists have put out. We talk to the odd refugee about what’s going on. The refugees don’t really have television inside their tents, so they can’t see what’s going on. They just come out of their tents and blame and curse Assad for forcing them to leave their homes. They are being decently cared for.

CNN: Are you seeing whole families or kids, for instance, coming out of Syria? Do some of them have kids that aren’t necessarily theirs but that they’ve attached to someone else just to get the kids out?

Watson: There are whole families here. This is one of a handful of refugee camps that the Turks have set up. There are close to 25,000 Syrians in Turkish refugee camps. We don’t know how many tens of thousands of more (Syrian refugees) have moved into Turkey and have apartments and are trying to eke out a living in exile who may have more resources to relocate. But many of these people have been here for more than three months. A number of babies have been born in Turkey. Across the board, all of these people blame the Syrian government for their predicament.

CNN: You said they are being cared for decently. What are they eating? What are they being given? Who is providing for them? Is it is the Turkish government?

Watson: The Turkish government’s policy to care for the refugees and not really to allow foreign organizations like the UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency) to play a role in this. The Turkish Red Crescent and Turkish organizations are distributing food. One of the other camps a short drive from here has been giving housing container units for people to live in. Many of the refugees have moved up to that camp — it’s called Kilis — and that’s a few hundred yards away from the border.

The problem (at Kilis) is that on Monday, a gunbattle between rebels and Syrian forces on the Syrian side of the border spilled across the border and resulted in Syrian forces firing into the refugee camp and wounding at least four people: two refugees, a Turkish police officer and a Turkish translator. There have been more shooting incidents into that camp since Monday.

That has caused the Turkish government to suggest that if there are further attacks into Turkish territory, that it could invoke an article in the NATO Alliance agreement that says an attack on one NATO member country is an attack on all, and they would call on NATO to help defend Turkish security forces.

Read: Could Turkey attack Syria?

CNN: Were you there on Monday?

Watson: No, the Turks shut down access.

CNN: Are there people who are armed in the refugee camp? There’s got to be a logical fear …

Watson: There are no weapons whatsoever in the refugee camps.

CNN: How do they ensure that there are no weapons in the camps?

Watson: I haven’t seen searching, patterns of searching or anything like that, but I have met refugees who are also fighters in the Free Syrian Army. What they do is leave the camps and cross the border and pick up weapons inside Syria.

CNN: So they are stashing weapons somewhere in the forest as they are crossing over into Syria, and they pick them up?

Watson: There seems to be an unwritten rule that weapons will not be tolerated in Turkey. Those who are fighters go in and pick up weapons and do whatever they do.

CNN: How do you build trust with these refugees? Is there an immediate embrace of you because they think you’re going to get their stories out?

Watson: You have to remember what these people have gone through. They are now stateless. They don’t have rights in Turkey. They cannot travel freely around Turkey on into other countries. They’ve left their loved ones behind. They are desperate for the outside world to hear them. Many of them feel betrayed by Western countries that have intervened, for example in Libya, using the argument of defending civilian populations from dictators, and they ask why the same hasn’t happened for them.

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Ahmed Elbatrawy