Democracy Comes to Syrians — in a Turkish Refugee Camp

The task of electing camp leaders is a novel experience for many displaced Syrians, who still remember the corrupt polling practices of the Assad regime

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A Syrian child helps a man cut wood at a refugee camp near the northern city of Azaz on the Syria-Turkey border on Jan. 9, 2013

Small crowds of men and women swelled near the polling stations. An older woman, having just dipped her finger in red ink, posed for the cameras. Outside, a group of young men and children hopped around to the beat of a drum, singing, chanting and bidding Syria’s President, Bashar Assad, to burn in hell.

For most of the 14,000 Syrians housed in Turkey’s Oncupinar refugee camp, the voting on Thursday was the first free election in living memory. The offices at stake — camp leaders and administrative council members — would not exactly give the winners uncontested authority or prestige. And the controversy about prices at the local supermarket hardly made for a burning electoral issue. Still, the enthusiasm was palpable. “This is real democracy,” says Abdulaziz Kattash, pointing toward the voting booth. Kattash, a bear of a man, his massive face framed by a gray, neatly cropped beard and a black cotton hat, had been a truck driver in Jisr al-Shugur, about 19 km south of the border. He fled to Turkey last year. “Voting wasn’t secret in Syria,” he explains. “When I voted for President, they gave me a list of my family members, 68 names. I checked. Some of the people on the list were already dead.” Kattash had to cast votes in the name of all 68. “Of course, we knew that it was wrong, but we were afraid to say it.”

For Muhammad Nizar al-Nadjar’s clan, which hails from Marea, less than an hour’s drive from Aleppo, there was no need at all to go to the polls when the Assad regime scheduled a vote. Around election time, recalls al-Nadjar, key members of his clan would receive a visit from envoys of the notorious al-Berri tribe, who would offer them cash for votes. “One of the al-Berri people would take our IDs, hundreds of them, and vote on our behalf.” There was little to do but comply. “People feared for their children and for their jobs,” al-Nadjar explains.

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Because of such experiences, says al-Nadjar, “some people here still can’t get it out of their heads that all elections are nonsense.” He believes otherwise, which is why he was running for headman in one of the camp’s six electoral districts. “I was born in 1963, when the Baath Party came to power in Syria,” he says. “I never lived as a free man.”

Habits acquired over years of repression, corruption and rigged elections aren’t easy to shed. Several men reportedly showed up at the polling station carrying thick stacks of IDs, believing they could vote for their whole families. “We had to turn them back,” says Kemal Saysli, a translator who assisted in the elections. The campaigns themselves were a tad listless, he adds. “But it’s not the candidates’ fault. Under the regime people had no way of knowing how to do this.” What was also noticeable was that most people appeared to be voting en bloc — as relatives, as neighbors, or as clans. Kattash, the truck driver, made for a notable exception. “I didn’t tell anyone in my family how to vote,” he says. “Everyone should make up their own mind.”

The idea to hold the elections had come from the Turkish authorities. It was they who provided the candidates with campaign materials, posters, flags and balloons. At a town-hall meeting with a beaming Zafer Caglayan, Turkey’s Minister of Economy, and the head of the U.N.’s World Food Programme, the candidates took turns praising the Turks. A few also looked at things from a wider perspective. “Every country except Turkey has abandoned us,” someone proclaims. It was an understandable sentiment. To date, Turkish camps have accommodated more than 150,000 Syrians — at a cost of $360 million to Turkey’s budget, according to Caglayan — with tens of thousands more lodged in cities across the country.

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In drawing up the election rules, the Turks had insisted on a quota for female candidates, one for each of the camp’s districts. For the residents, a fiercely conservative, rural community, this became a key sticking point. “It was very difficult. Some people were against the elections because of this,” Ilker Ozerk Ozcan, the local deputy governor, tells TIME. Eventually, he says, they came around to the Turks’ view.

Whoever took the lead in protesting against the idea of electing women probably didn’t dare do so within earshot of Randa Bitav. “Some women are shy, they don’t know how to communicate with men and with the Turkish authorities,” says Bitav, one of the candidates. “But I have that ability.” That went without saying. Sitting among several men inside her container — home to her husband, their five children and her brother’s family, 11 people in all — the rambunctious, gesticulating, fast-talking Bitav, wrapped in a headscarf and black overcoat, dominated the room and the discussion. A lawyer by training, she and her family had escaped Syria after the fighting reached their home in Jisr al-Shughur. If she wins, Bitav announced, she would try to help women inside the camp gain more access to vocational training and to extend benefits to families of rebel fighters killed inside Syria. Her husband fully supported her decision to run. If he had to cook, clean and look after the children while his wife tended to her constituents, he says, so be it. “I will stay at home instead of her. The kids are well behaved. That’s how democracy works.”

As she complained of being woken by the sound of shelling at night — the camp is only a short walk from the border with Syria — Bitav put the election into perspective. “A lot of places in Syria have no heating, no electricity and no food, but here we have everything,” she says to the group. “We shouldn’t be talking about bread. We should be talking about going back to Syria.”

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Back at the polling station, Mahmoud, 23, a rebel fighter who had recently returned to the camp to visit his family, just cast his vote. “It’s nice to practice democracy,” he says, his face devoid of any expression. His mind appeared to be elsewhere. In a week, he says, he would be going back to Lattakia on Syria’s coast to join his brigade and fight.

A day before the election I had spoken with Ahmed Lemmur, another of the candidates. “I don’t expect to win,” he said matter-of-factly. “We as Arabs always deal with relatives. When your relatives are more, the more votes you will get. And I don’t have many relatives here.”

Lemmur was right. When the results came in, his name, unlike al-Nadjar’s, didn’t figure among the 18 members of the administrative council (neither did Bitav’s). Was Lemmur disappointed? “No,” he says. “On the contrary, I’m very happy for the ones who won. The most important thing is that we finally have one of our own people to represent us.”

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