Lucky few cross Turkey's border as Syrians flee offensive

ONCUPINAR, TURKEY, Fulya Ozerkan- While tens of thousands of people fleeing fierce fighting the Russian-backed regime offensive in Syria huddled in makeshift camps and hoped to get across the border into Turkey, just a handful were lucky enough to make the crossing.
One of them was 15-year-old Mohammad Rahma, who lost his eyesight in a Russian air strike about a month ago. He was allowed passage for essential medical checks on his eyes, which were still covered by a fresh white bandage.

"We've been living out in the open because we don't have any place to stay," Ahmad, his father, told AFP.
An estimated 30,000 Syrians who fled the offensive on opposition strongholds in northern Aleppo province have been massing for days around the Bab al-Salama border gate, across from Turkey's Oncupinar crossing.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Monday that his country -- which is already hosting 2.7 million Syrian refugees -- could see a fresh influx of up to 600,000 from the latest fighting in a "worst-case scenario".
"Our objective for now is to keep this wave of migrants on the other side of Turkey's borders as much as is possible, and to provide them with the necessary services there," Kurtulmus said.
New arrivals struggled into the Syrian-side camps, weighted down by bags and suitcases, as others pounded stakes into the barren ground for their tents. Children darted around the neat rows of white shelters that had already been pitched.
One bearded man in a camouflage coat, who looked to be in his mid-thirties, pleaded with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to open a humanitarian corridor into Turkey.
"Look at the women and children here -- they fled because of the intensity of the Russian air strikes," he said.
Humanitarian aid trucks were getting through the crossing into Syria, bringing more tents and food as the number of arrivals continued to swell.
"We are facing the most crucial scene in the Syrian tragedy," Mohamed Wajih Juma, a Syrian opposition health official, told AFP at Oncupinar.
"The Russian air strikes have broken their strength and forced them to flee."
- 'Open the gate' -
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday that Turkey would take in a new wave of refugees "if necessary", but that the country cannot be expected "to shoulder the refugee issue alone."
The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which is providing food for 20,000 refugees, said it had set up a camp with a capacity of 10,000 near Bab al-Salama, on top of eight camps for the internally displaced already run by Turkish agencies in the area.
"Our operations are aimed at taking care of people inside Syria," Serkan Nergis, a spokesman for the foundation, told AFP by phone.
Kerem Kinik, vice president of the Turkish Red Crescent, said there was "a de facto safe zone near the Turkish border".
"Since February 5 we have sent roughly 2,000 tents and 6,000 blankets, as well as food," he added.
The human build-up is not only on the Syrian side of the border.
Families carrying bulging luggage have also been waiting on the Turkish side, hoping to get back to Syria.
Others aim to join the battle.
"I want to cross the border to join the fighters," said Ghayath Najjar, a 30-year-old Syrian, adding that he was a member of the Free Syrian Army.
"I've been here for four days. Turkey must open the gate."

Wednesday, February 10th 2016
Fulya Ozerkan

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