The Victims of Assad: Photographs by Peter Hapak

6 minute read

It was approaching midnight but many of the hundreds of Syrians who had arrived at the Reyhanli refugee camp in southern Turkey just hours before were still restless, even the toddlers. Most were concerned with where they were going to sleep that night, and if friends and family members had reached safety. It was difficult to get people to talk. Many were afraid to speak for fear of reprisals against relatives still in Syria, others were clearly physically and emotionally worn down. Nevertheless, some were prepared to share their experiences, their fears and thoughts.

TIME was granted vast access during the first week of April to the Reyhanli and Yayladagi camps in Turkish territory to document, through words and pictures, the travails of the thousands who were fleeing Syria. As photographer Peter Hapak and his assistant took portraits of several of the refugees against a white backdrop set up just beyond the tents, other residents of Reyhanli—both newcomers and those who had been there for months—swirled about.

A wiry young newlywed in a thin aqua blue zippered jacket was searching for his wife among the families milling around the cramped canvas tents. His Syrian border village of Kili in Idlib province was shelled and strafed by helicopter gunships that morning, an account repeated by many of the other refugees from the town. The 26-year-old with a thin mustache and enraged eyes was seething: “I buried a man today. Two others and me, we buried a man who had half of his head missing.” When the young man, who refused to give his name, returned to his house after the burial, his wife wasn’t there. Believing she had fled across the border, he headed for Turkey as well. “Now, I learnt from others who arrived after me that my family was behind me, that they have reached the border but haven’t crossed it yet.”

Peter Hapak photographs Syrian refugees in Reyhanli.Brent Herrig for TIME

Like so many others in Reyhanli that night, the young man had made a perilous journey on foot through mountainous terrain to reach Turkey, guided and aided by members of the rebel Free Syrian Army along backroads and mountain trails to avoid Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops. Some had walked for hours; others for days; most brought nothing but the clothes on their backs and harrowing tales of what they had fled. They spoke of mass killings, of homes being shelled, burnt to the ground, of relatives marched in front of tanks as human shields in the village of Taftanaz.

“Assad’s army is trying to find us, they are hunting us down in these hills to shoot and kill us,” the young man said. His group, however, was lucky. It did not encounter Assad loyalists. Just days later, a Syrian refugee was killed and several wounded after Syrian troops fired across the border at a refugee camp in the Turkish town of Kilis after a skirmish with rebel fighters. It wasn’t the first time the regime’s firepower had chased its opponents across borders into Turkey and Lebanon, but where the Lebanese government has been pliant and weak in its response to the attacks, Turkey’s patience is waning. The country already houses more than 24,000 Syrians, and is expecting thousands more.

In just one day last week, more than 2,800 Syrians streamed into Turkey from Idlib, the highest 24-hour figure to date. The exodus belied President Assad’s pledge to adhere to an internationally backed ceasefire agreement brokered by joint United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. The deal called on Assad to withdraw his troops and heavy weaponry from besieged cities and towns by Tuesday April 10, and for both sides to cease violence. But instead of winding down, the regime’s muscle escalated operations to crush the year-long revolt.

Syria has routinely ignored diplomatic deadlines and scoffed at half-hearted international ultimatums, relying on its Russian and Chinese allies to shield it from censure. But this time, Assad’s powerful friends signed off on Annan’s initiative. His dismissiveness may yet chip away at their support, or at the very least make it harder for them to insist, as they have, that the Syrian president must be part of any diplomatic solution.

International discord is one thing. The disunity among the opposition to Assad is another. The Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile, remains divided and beset by claims of corruption, personal pettiness, feuds and rising suspicion that its secular leader Burhan Ghalioun is merely a front for the powerful Islamists. The nominal military leadership of the Free Syrian Army isn’t in better shape. Corralled in a camp in Apaydin, they have offered little to the men fighting and dying inside Syria in its name.

In the real struggle, within Syria, it has always been a revolution of ordinary people, of farmers and taxi drivers turned armed rebels, of students and laborers who have become community leaders. But, if the accounts of the refugees in Turkey are any indication, these revolutionaries despair of receiving the help they need to beat Assad. Early on, they had baptized their uprising a “revolution of orphans,” bereft of support. As he scurried away with a thin foam mattress tucked under his arm, one man said, “Before we thought that the world didn’t know what was happening to us, now we realize that you do and you don’t care.”

“We only have God and our own hands!” said another man, who had been standing nearby. It was a view shared by many. Said the young man searching for his wife: “Tanks we can stand in front of, we can try and stop them, stand in front of them, die as martyrs, but how can we stop a helicopter? We are now in Turkey, we don’t want to be here.” Growing more agitated, he says, “We want weapons, we want to fight… We want weapons, we want weapons, we want weapons.”

More: Syria’s Year of Chaos

Abouzeid is a Middle East correspondent for TIME. Follow her on Twitter at @raniaab.

Hapak is a contract photographer for TIME. In December of 2011, Hapak photographed The Protester, TIME’s Person of the Year.

Salwa, 30, (holding her baby niece, Hadeel, 2 months old) and Khadija, 33, Salwa’s auntKhadija: "Some of our relatives are missing. I think they have been martyred. May God have mercy on their souls."Salwa: "There is a woman, my neighbor, who forgot one of her sons. He's still in Syria. We left in such a hurry. Can you imagine? She forgot one of her children."Peter Hapak for TIME
Ammar Raja, 13"I remember my life in Syria, how I went to school, how I used to play with my friends. We came here because the army started shooting at us."Peter Hapak for TIME
Em Ahmad, 34"We walked for several hours to get here. Some of the children fell several times along the way. We could hear the shelling behind us. The children understood what was happening."Peter Hapak for TIME
Abdul-Salam, 40"We are not extremists. Our goal is freedom, democracy, a civil state. Why can't we have that?"Peter Hapak for TIME
Nowraz, 19"There is Free Army in our village but what's a Kalashnikov going to do against a tank or helicopter?"Peter Hapak for TIME
Adla (in niqab), 21, with her sisters Wedad, 13, Hala, 12, and Raghad, 9. Their grandmother Ammi, 82, and their mother Rima, 50."My family and I just left, but my father stayed behind. We don't know what's happened to him."Peter Hapak for TIME
Mohammad Khalaf al-Ugla, 25, defector from the Syrian Army"I was ordered to fire live ammunition at protesters. It was unbearable."Peter Hapak for TIME
Ahmad Jolaq, 39, and daughters Fatme, 5, and Israa, 4"My family crossed into Turkey yesterday. The children were very frightened. They still are—look at them. They're not sure where they are. It's foreign. It's not normal."Peter Hapak for TIME
Jamil Wassouf and his grandchildren Tayma, Mohammad and Israa"The security forces came and took my son. He wasn't a revolutionary. He was martyred 10 days ago. They took him, they killed him but what they did with his body, we don't know."Peter Hapak for TIME
Sohayib Hussayno, 25"I was trying to retrieve the wounded, when another shell fell near me. Two guys who were near me were martyred."Peter Hapak for TIME
Fadia al-Abdo, 27, with her year-old son Mohammad Dali“My son had a hernia and needed to be operated on [in Syria]. I left him for just a minute, and that’s when the soldiers came into the hospital. By the time I got back to my son’s room, his insides were outside his body. He has had four operations so far. They say a small bullet or shrapnel hit him, cut him open. I have spent a year like this, watching him suffer. God damn Bashar.”Peter Hapak for TIME
Abu Mohammad, 81"They have all abandoned us, the Arabs, the Europeans, the world, because of their fear that Syria will become an Islamic state, or that there will be sectarian war."Peter Hapak for TIME
Wasila, age not available"My son was picking olives on our land with his wife and children. They heard shots and my son told them all to lay on the ground. He was shot many times. His wife rushed to him but she says he was already dead."Peter Hapak for TIME
Ahmad (in wheelchair), 13, and his brother Abdullah, 20Ahmad: "I've had this chair for a while. It had to come with me. My brother carried me, and a good man carried my chair."Abdullah: "I could see that death was behind us, and in front of us, there was a faint hope of life. He drives me mad sometimes, and he's a handful, but he's my brother. I would not leave him. I carried him on my back for about four hours, from hill to hill."Peter Hapak for TIME
Abu Zaal, 32"It seems like everybody is against us, against this revolution of orphans. Nobody is standing with us. We are sitting here like animals, imprisoned, but being fed."Peter Hapak for TIME
Jamal, age not available"I was detained about three months ago, picked up from a protest. I was burnt with cigarettes and electrocuted, on my legs and other parts of my body."Peter Hapak for TIME
Young man from Idlib, 26"All day today there were dead in the streets. I buried a man today. Two others and me, we buried a man who had half of his head missing. What is this?" Peter Hapak for TIME
Sheikh Samir Ibrahim, age not available"I came with great difficulty. I'm a little overweight and I had to walk through mountains, long distances until I reached Turkey."Peter Hapak for TIME
Khalil, 23"I decided to defect because I thought God will not forgive me." Peter Hapak for TIME
Salha, 13"I have lost my brother, the dearest thing to me."Peter Hapak for TIME
Abu Mohammad, 31"I used to participate in peaceful protests, then the security started using tanks and guns, so I joined the free army."Peter Hapak for TIME
Ammar Ghaliyoun, 17"I want to go back to my country because my country is like a part of my body, that's what Syria means to me."Peter Hapak for TIME
Em Ahmad, 33, with members of her family"This morning, we heard a helicopter in the fields near our home. The children started crying, we were scared. We had to get out.”Peter Hapak for TIME
Abu Khalid, 23"I'm thinking now that I just want to heal and hopefully go back, go back and fight. I don't want to sit here like this. I want to go and defend my family, defend my country. I don't want to sit here."Peter Hapak for TIME
Names not available"Here we are living with some dignity, over there, he [Bashar al-Assad] can do whatever he wants to us, nobody can stop him."Peter Hapak for TIME
Em Ahmad, 35"We found out that my husband’s name was on a regime list. They would detain him if they found him, and my son also because he is 14 and participated in a protest."Peter Hapak for TIME

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at