izbjeglice-migranti.jpg
Photograph: HINA / Tamino PETELINŠEK / STA / mm

The situation on the Turkish border has become desperate as thousands of Syrians flee from a fresh Russian-backed offensive on the city of Aleppo. With the border crossing at Kilis closed, many have been forced to camp out and wait.

On the muddy, wet ground, in temperatures below zero, thousands of people are sleeping rough, or inside mosques.

Safety inside Turkey is just a kilometre away but, having fled endless Russian airstrikes, the Syrian refugees now find the border shut and they are camping out, waiting.

Exposed to winds and rain, men in one group and women in the other, the families try to find some shelter under trees until the morning light, bundling their children in blankets to keep warm.

"The people here only have their clothes they are wearing. Most of them don't have any bags even. They just ran away with what they had," says Anas al Khatib, a 20-year-old Syrian who hopes the Turkish authorities will reverse their decision and let them in.

The UN estimates some 35,000 people are at the border and in nearby rebel-held towns, fleeing the fresh offensive of the Syrian government, backed by fierce Russian airpower.

Turkey is allowing in humanitarian aid, including tents, hot food and water, which is a lifeline for tens of thousands. But there is not enough to go around and fights are breaking out over bread.

Al-Khatib sent his family back their village, despite the risk of airstrikes, preferring them to sleep indoors rather than in the freezing cold.

"The humanitarian situation here is tragic," al-Khatib says by telephone. "People don't feel safe here at the border. It is dangerous here. Our people are living in fear."

The refugees worry about fresh airstrikes and shelling from government forces in the west and the possible advancement from the east of Islamic State extremists, whom Syrians call Daesh by its Arabic acronym.

They feel squeezed between two rival armies and abandoned by their allies, including Turkey and Europe.

There is a sense of desperation after peace talks in Geneva failed to make any headway this month. The opposition was demanding an end to the airstrikes as one of the conditions for their participation.

Instead, the bombardments from Russian and Syrian government forces have only intensified, helping ground forces seize territory from rebels, and then the talks broke down.

"Our friends failed us. We want a solution to this war. The Europeans and Americans they send in food and tents, but this is not the serious help we need," says Mahmoud, whose house was destroyed in an airstrike two weeks ago.

He crossed illegally into Turkey last week along with his mother, his wife and his four-month old baby Amina, whom he cradles in his arms, wrapping her in a used white and pink blanket. The smugglers charged 500 dollars to take them on the back routes out of Aleppo but even those roads are now completely closed.

"Every day there were different explosions. Hundreds every day. Airstrikes, cluster bombs, mortars, shells," he recalls his last days in his village as he fiddles with a coal heater in the small basement he is renting.

Inside Aleppo city, thousands are preparing to flee, but tens of thousands remain even as they dread that the rebel-held parts will become besieged in the coming days.

If the gates to Turkey open, then many thousands more might head towards the border. People are sympathetic to Turkey, which hosts more than 2 million Syrians already. There is growing demand for Europe to step up.

"I think Europe must open its borders to us, this would help. Because Turkey can't take in everyone. There are too many refugees," says one activist who speaks by phone from inside Aleppo city.

Mahmoud is safe now inside Turkey, but is struck by pangs of guilt at having left his homeland.

"In the end, if everyone leaves, the land will be left to Daesh."

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