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Syrians find calm after carnage

By Daniel Lippman, Special for CNN
January 25, 2013 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Refugee children outside a building housing displaced Syrians in the Turkish border town of Hacipasa.
Refugee children outside a building housing displaced Syrians in the Turkish border town of Hacipasa.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Turkish border town is dealing with an influx of refugees escaping Syria
  • Some refugees find shelter with friends and relatives; others in a warehouse
  • Hacipasa mayor says they have seen little international aid
  • Refugees say that after a tough journey out of Syria, they feel abandoned by international community

Editor's note: Daniel Lippman is a freelance journalist based in Washington and has written for The Wall Street Journal, McClatchy Newspapers, Reuters and The Huffington Post. He is on Twitter @dlippman.

Hacipasa, Turkey (CNN) -- Umm Isham, a 34-year-old housewife, lost her husband five months ago to a blast from a Syrian tank, and had her house near Damascus leveled by a bomb. Her two sons, 11 and 12, will grow up without their father.

She tried to stay in her country but recently decided to seek safety in Turkey, crossing the border illegally, with little money and few clothes. She had arrived in Hacipasa just four hours earlier, with the ankles of her jeans still wet and muddy from crossing the Orontes river that divides the Turkish border town from northwestern Syria.

Read more: Special coverage on the Syrian refugees

The regime is "shelling houses and killing people along the way. It's not safe to send your son anywhere because a sniper might be shooting. Nobody is safe. What kind of regime is killing its own people?" she asked.

Umm Isham, who asked that she only be identified by her nickname, and her two children are among the latest of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled the intense civil war that has raged for almost two years.

Read more: Syria's grim toll continues into 2013

More than 1,000 Syrian refugees are in Hacipasa, Mayor Mehmet Zia Kirk said -- living with relatives or friends, in rented houses or under tarps in a warehouse.

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The United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 Syrians have died since the uprising against the regime started in March 2011.

Read more: How Syria's bloodshed drove a peaceful protester into the battlelines

The conflict is mainly between the majority Sunnis who are battling against the minority Alawite-dominated regime led by Bashar al-Assad.

In December, the U.N. called for $1.1 billion for externally displaced Syrians' humanitarian needs, but only 18 percent of the appeal has been funded, according to a briefing by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday.

An international aid conference is planned for January 30 in Kuwait to try to raise more of the money.

U.N. regional refugee coordinator Panos Moumtzis recently said the U.N. estimates that five million Syrians in 2013 will be in urgent need of assistance with shelter, medical treatment, food, and water.

In the Bab al-Salam camp on the Syrian-Turkish border, Syrian refugees try to carry on their lives through the bitter winter. Muhammad Zafir, 13, steps inside the hole he dug with two of his friends: a bomb shelter they have made for children. In the Bab al-Salam camp on the Syrian-Turkish border, Syrian refugees try to carry on their lives through the bitter winter. Muhammad Zafir, 13, steps inside the hole he dug with two of his friends: a bomb shelter they have made for children.
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Turkey says 156,801 Syrians as of January 21 are registered as living in the country -- an increase of nearly 50,000 people since early November and all camps are reported to be operating at or above capacity -- and the figure is rising daily.

Read more: Scavenging for food, Syrian children witness war

As the war has dragged on with brutal street fighting and air attacks by the Syrian military, many civilians have been killed or injured.

Refugees in Hacipasa say they feel abandoned by the international community. According to the town's mayor, while some Turkish groups are helping Syrian refugees, only one international group, a German aid organization, is currently in the town. UNHCR says it is working with the Turkish government to help support Syrian refugees.

"What is so urgent now is heating devices [for the winter cold], the basic food people need, especially flour, to make bread and other basic stuff like milk for children. This is so urgent. They need many things," the mayor explained.

Read more: The Syrian crisis: Where's U.S. aid going?

Military shells from fighting just across the border have landed on the Turkish side raising tensions. A little further inside Syria is Aleppo, scene of some of the fiercest fighting.

Just getting to Hacipasa is perilous for Syrian refugees who have to endure cold winter weather, navigate around Turkish border guards, and avoid fighting between the army and the rebels.

Life in Hacipasa has been changed by the war which has come so close to the town -- the refugees need help and residents often hear the sounds of shelling or bombs hitting targets inside Syria.

Hasan, who declined to give his last name, was a furniture factory worker in Aleppo but fled the city after the war intensified, work dried up and prices sharply rose.

Read more: 'Innocence' survives 11 hours under bomb rubble in Syria

He then went to Darkush, Syria, but left again because of bombing, ending up in Hacipasa two months ago with his brother Tahsan, 23, an economics student. Both men occasionally find odd jobs when locals need men to carry shipments from one place to another or farmers need workers to harvest olives.

They have lost some friends and two cousins in the war and want to return home but say they will stay in Turkey until it's safe in Syria and the fighting has subsided.

"If we don't get support, it could be eight months or a year until the rebels win. It's up to the will of God. But if the international community decides to help Syria and establish a no-fly zone, toppling the regime would happen much more quickly," says Hasan, 26.

Syrian children mingled around a building that houses around 100 refugees under tarps. They played with each other and made "V" signs while chanting "The people want the fall of the regime" to a reporter.

Farah, which means "Joy" in Arabic, is a 15 year-old girl from Darkush, Syria, who has been in Hacipasa off-and-on for a year.

Read more: Syrian refugees continue to flood Jordan amid warnings of crisis

She says that because she participated in demonstrations and her father was known as an anti-Assad activist who is now an FSA fighter, she was kicked out of her school.

Sectarian divisions in Syria, she says, were even present in school exams with Alawite teachers helping Alawite students cheat on their tests to get into better high schools.

"The soldiers came and went inside my school and they went inside the school and since that time, nobody went to school. We were afraid," she says softly.

She misses her hobbies of knitting and painting and longs to see her friends who have fled to different Turkish towns.

"All the time I am so worried about my father. I always think about people on the other side because I hear bombing and shelling. I don't want to be selfish and forget them... I am safe maybe but I am not happy at all because I had to leave my own country and I always worry about people, my family and my father."

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