Breaking News Emails
AKCAKALE, Turkey — Thousands of desperate Syrians fleeing ISIS have defied Turkish troops to cross the border into this town.
Most sleep on the street or in parks under blankets given to them by locals and the Turkish authorities, with a lucky few seeking shelter from the searing heat in abandoned buildings.
These are their stories.
Malek Salah is among those refugees daring to say the unspeakable about Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"A lot of us are still afraid to say the truth,” Salah, 30, told NBC News. “But I believe that most of the Syrians would prefer Bashar Assad to ISIS even though we all know he's a dictator."
He was living in Raqqa when ISIS caught him smoking in public. Militants told the 30-year-old construction worker that he had broken Shariah law and whipped him 40 times in public.
“I spent two days in prison,” he said. “ISIS released me after I wrote a written pledge not to smoke again. After this humiliation in front of the people, I couldn't look anyone in the eyes. I felt ashamed. I was angry."
He left Raqqa — without his wife and two children — to seek work in then-ISIS-controlled Tal Abyad because no one knew him there, only to be forced to move again as the Kurdish forces advanced.
He fled across the border to Akcakale along with around 13,000 of his countrymen.
“Look at what I became,” he said. “I’m a refugee now.”
While hundreds crossed back into Syria last week, buoyed by a guarantee of safety from the Kurdish forces who took over Tal Aybad with the help of U.S. airstrikes, many more of the war-weary refugees are reluctant to return.
Fearing ISIS will try and retake the town — which is a vital supply line to their self-proclaimed Syrian capital of Raqqa — they would rather live on mattresses and blankets in Turkey than return home.
“People just want to stay safe,” said Abu Hani, who crossed the border with his wife, five-month-old daughter Hiba and seven more of his 10 children. His two other children already live and work in Turkey.
“Even if we don’t have anything, we’re safe and that’s all that matters,” the 51-year-old electrician from Tal Abyad told NBC News.
Hani said that during the conflict he had seen people in his town punished for their loyalty to Assad by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Then “because of fear people turned from the FSA to ISIS,” he said.
"Some joined as a proof of loyalty, others for fear, others joined to get some money for their families," he explained. "Life is hard. Just very few joined ISIS for religion reasons."
Now Hani said he feared the conquering Kurdish forces would punish those loyal to the extremist group.
“During these changes a lot of people got killed,” he said. "I hope that the Kurds will have some mercy with our children and sons who joined ISIS. A lot of people didn't have any other choice that time. I believe that we all are victims."
As the Kurdish troops advanced, Khalid Abu Ayman and his wife Aziza Um Ayman, both 49, also fled Tal Abyad with their eight children.
“We lost everything and became refugees sleeping in a park, waiting for people to feed us," a tearful Aziza told NBC News. “I couldn't imagine, not even in my dreams, that our life would be so hard.”
Vowing to return to her hometown, she added: “I didn't want to leave Tal Abyad. I wanted to stay and die there.”
Fears about being on the front line of the battle had prompted the family to leave, said her husband Khalid, who until earlier this month worked at the city’s water supply and sewerage office.
Aside from that he “didn’t mind living under ISIS,” he said, because as long he did his Islamic duties and abided by their laws, he knew that he would be safe.
"People could leave their shops open and no one would even think to steal," he added.
"They wanted to establish a real state.... They were asking people to send their children to Islamic schools to get educated and they provided bread, fuel, electricity, water, fruit and vegetables.”
While Aziza wanted to return as soon as possible, the couple’s eldest son, 17-year-old Ayman said he was hoping rent an apartment for the family.
After leaving Syria three years ago, the teenager got a job in an iron casting factory where he also lives and sleeps.
Keeping just enough money for food and cigarettes, he sent most of his 900 Turkish Lira ($330) wage home to his family instead of buying clothes, “new phones or things that other teenagers normally like.”
However, his father doubted that the money would stretch as far as an apartment and said they would need the money for food.
Um Mohammad hoped that by escaping to Turkey, she could provide a better life for her children and grandchildren that came with her.
The youngsters had grown up with air and artillery strikes, mortar shells, street fights, the sound of car bombs, dead bodies and injured people, she said, adding “they might also have seen public executions.”
"They don't even know how Syria looked like before,” she said. “How could they? I almost forgot how beautiful Syria was before the war. We have been suffering for years now."
Henry Austin reported from London.