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Syrians Hear 'Shooting Through The Night'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later in the program, we will be looking ahead to the 19th international AIDS conference that will be meeting in Washington, D.C. starting this weekend. Today, we're going to tell you about some of the latest tools to fight the disease, including new test kits that are easier to get and use than ever before. That's just ahead.

But first, we want to take another look at the ongoing violence in Syria. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday the situation there is, quote, "rapidly spinning out of control," unquote. That was just after Syria's defense minister and two other high-ranking officials were killed in a bombing in Damascus, Syria's capital city. On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross officially designated the conflict a civil war.

Now, there have been reports of atrocities across the country for many months now, but today, we want to focus on one part of the story: what the violence means for people who have fled and headed to refugee camps across the border. Here to tell us more, once again, is Abderrahim Foukara. He is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Great to be with you again.

MARTIN: Now, when we've spoken to you in the past, we've talked a lot about fighting in towns across Syria, but yesterday, of course, we heard about this bombing in the capital city. What do you think that means about the state of this conflict?

FOUKARA: Well, obviously, that indicates that the armed opposition has succeeded in taking the fight to Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus. And as we've been hearing today, unconfirmed reports still, that he is now in the city of Latakia - not in Damascus - directing the response to what happened yesterday. It is a very significant development that now the fighting is happening in the capital, Damascus.

And, obviously, the regime has been all but decapitated with the killing of so many very, very important security officials who are actually the core of the regime, other than Bashar and his family.

MARTIN: Now, what has Bashar - has he been - Bashar Al-Assad, has he been heard from? What is he saying about this? Has he made any public statement, or at least has he - has there any statement that is believed to have come from him?

FOUKARA: There's been no statement from him. He has not been seen on national television, which is lending some credence to people who were saying that he may actually have been also injured, or something happened to him during the event yesterday. We don't know, but what we know for sure is that what happened yesterday is definitely a very, very serious blow to his strategy to deal with what's going on in his country.

MARTIN: We want to talk about many of the people who have already left the country. According to the United Nations refugee agency, around 112,000 people have fled Syria for neighboring countries in the last year. And we wanted to hear something about their experiences, so we were able to catch up with a man named Mahmoud Moussa(ph). He says he escaped with about 25 relatives to Turkey when the Syrian military attacked his town.

Now he's living in Turkey's largest refugee camp with more than 11,000 other people from Syria, and I just want to play a short clip of a conversation we had with him earlier.

MAHMOUD MOUSSA: Since they put us - they sent us to tents for nine months, then sent us here at the end of March. And the situation here in the camp and, of course, is better than tents, because we have electricity. We have the water. We have bathrooms. The Turkish authorities, they have a new camp called Orfa. Orfa is difficult to live in. There is no electricity, no water. People suffer a lot.

And a lot of them, (unintelligible) they went back to their country, to Syria, because they were not able to live in the camp. And they said that we will die in Orfa, so we prefer to die in Syria.

MARTIN: And it sounds like there is a wide range of conditions, even within one country, and how these refugees are being received. What are the governments saying in neighboring countries about the situation?

FOUKARA: Well, obviously, for a country like Jordan, for example, Jordan has traditionally received refugees from other neighboring countries, such as Iraq. Many of the Iraqi refugees are still living in Jordan. So, financially, it's obviously a big burden. Politically, it's also a big burden - not just in Jordan, but also in other countries such as Lebanon.

Lebanon is already politically unstable, and to have Syrian refugee - more Syrian refugees flowing into Lebanon adds to the complexity of the situation. You know, the story of refugees in that part of the world in recent decades is really the story of a tragic musical chairs, because first, you had Palestinian refugees for almost 50 years in Lebanon and Syria and other parts of the country.

Then you've had Iraqi refugees in Turkey, in Syria, in Jordan. And now, the Syrians, who had received many of these refugees in the past, have now become refugees themselves in neighboring countries.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Abderrahim Foukara. He is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He's kind enough to join us from time to time to talk about events in the Middle East. Today, we're talking about the ongoing violence in Syria, and also the people who have fled Syria and the conditions that they're facing in other countries, you know, in the region.

I just want to play another clip from Mahmoud Moussa, the gentleman we heard from. He is actually a translator, and he's been going back and forth across the border, which has to dangerous. And I just want to play another clip where he describes some of the conditions he's seen for the people who are still in Syria. And I'll play that for you.

MOUSSA: I went to Latakia, in the mountains in Latakia. People there, most of the time, they don't have electricity. They don't have water. They don't have gas, so they cook on wood. Of course, they don't worry. They want to leave. They know shelling is every time and shooting all the night. One of the fathers told me how his children now cannot sleep unless they hear the sound of shooting. They're used to hear the sound of shooting. So it's a difficult life.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, so a final thought from you about what you're hearing as, you know, we've reported many times, it's been very difficult for Western reporters to get into Syria to get a sense of what's going on. What are you hearing from your people?

FOUKARA: Well, what we're hearing is a reminder of the things that we tend to forget in a situation like this, because in a refugee situation, we usually focus on the strains on the receiving countries, on the plight of the refugees going to those countries. But we often forget about the conditions of displaced people within their own countries being forced to flee, either because the government has been attacking them or because they've been caught in the crossfire between the Syrian government and the armed opposition.

They live in dire conditions. And although many of them still hold the hope that one day they'll be able to return to their towns and villages, some of them have been in limbo for almost a year, when they initially thought it was only going to last a few weeks.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for this update, and hopefully you'll keep us up-to-date on this important and evolving story.

Abderrahim Foukara is a Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He was kind enough to join us from our Washington, D.C. studios. Abderrahim, thank you once again.

FOUKARA: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: And, of course, this a rapidly developing story, so please stay tuned to NPR and npr.org throughout the days and weeks to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.