Escaping Violence in Syria Now Threatened by Landmines Near Border

In this sleepy Turkish bordertown, locals pass the time playing a dominos-like game and drinking strong black tea from tulip-shaped glasses.

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It's here that a Syrian refugee named Mahmoud chooses to tell his story about the government offensive in Idlib. He arrived on Saturday from Jisr Al Shigur a town in the Idlib region. He was scouting an escape route for his family. He found the situation was worse than expected.

"If I could return to Syria to get my family and bring them here I would," says Mamoud. "But I would be killed if I went back now because of all the snipers, tanks and soldiers in the mountains. I will try but if I can't we'll have to depend on God."

He says the shooting started on Friday. Before he left, friends had warned him that the Syrian military had recently placed landmines in fields favored by refugees. On his seven hour journey by foot, he says he saw the freshly turned earth where they had been placed. Like many Syrians nowadays, Mahmoud is well-versed in the esoteric world of military hardware he saw on the way.

"A huge number of tanks, APCs (armored personal carrier), about 40 BMB tanks, 50 or 60 vehicles with soldiers, 10-15 cannons," says Mahmoud. "And the Shabiha militia's pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the back. I saw this convoy with my own eyes as I was leaving."

There are reports Tuesday of fighting in Idlib between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel movement and government forces.

Mustafa Haid is a Syrian human rights researcher. He says that the military is moving to control the city before international demands are realized for a humanitarian corridor to deliver aid.

"They talk about these these secure lines for humanitarian aid and buffer zones, some countries have started talking about that," Haid says. "It sounds like the regime knew Idlib would be the perfect place to do such things. And that's why they want to make sure they'd keep Idlib under control."

Human Rights Watch released a press statement Tuesday condemning the use of anti-personnel mines in the border regions.

Haid says he saw the mines in the field during his research.

"This kind of mine is Russian-made and it's called BMN2," he says. "It's also a pressure mine, only 15 kilograms [33 lbs] are needed to explode it, its not 30 or 40 [66 or 88 lbs]. It's even anti-children. Which means that they didn't put it there because they are afraid of the Free Syrian Army going back and forth to Turkey. They just want to kill people. They are placed in known refugee crossings."

Haid met a Syrian living along the border who received anti-mining training during his military service. The man personally removed 300 mines near his home but had no training in how to defuse them.

"He crossed like 10 km [about 6.2 miles] with one in his hand to show it to me just to take a photo to show me for proof that they are placing landmines," Haid said.

Leaders of the FSA believe the new Assad offensive is about projecting power rather than capturing land. Captain Ayham al-Kurdi is an FSA commander. He says the government has been sending forces to Idlib for several weeks. Al-Kurdi doesn't expect Assad to destroy the entire city but just a neighborhood, to set an example.

"He wants to terrorize Idlib by staging strategic attacks and create maximum terror among the civilians," says al-Kurdi. "He is making a massacre in each city in the north. And just like they did in Hama, in the massacre of 1982, the rest of the country was so afraid that they did not even react.

Al-Kurdi says Idlib has opposed the regime since Bashar Al Asaad's father — Hafez Al Assad — first took power in the 1970s. Recent government gains have driven almost all of the rebels out of the cities. Al Kurdi says Idlib will be a hard battle, and a long battle, because the mountainous terrain of northern Syria is favorable to the rebels' guerrilla tactics.

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    Tea house in Yayladagi, a Turkish town on its border with Syria. (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)

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    Syrian lawyer Ahmed Hasoun from B'dama in the graveyard in Yayaldagi, with fresh graves for Syrians who died of injuries crossing the border. (Photo: Matthew Brunwasser)