KILIS, Turkey (AP) — Thousands of Syrians in a refugee camp voted Thursday to select camp leaders and administrators in elections the Turkish government has described as a practice for democracy. But with the sound of gunfire reverberating from across the border, gloom reigned in the camp over whether the nearly two-year-old civil war would ebb soon to allow free elections in Syria in the near future.
About 6,500 refugees at the Oncupinar camp in Turkey's border province of Kilis cast ballots into clear plastic ballot boxes inside a makeshift school under banners that read: "Syrian citizens elect their own representatives freely."
They were voting to select six neighborhood administrators among 20 candidates running for the posts, as well as an 18-member administrative council. A day earlier, the sound of fierce clashes could be heard from across the border in Syria's Idlib province, dampening spirits and taking away from the excitement over the elections at Oncupinar.
Loved ones left in Syria were never far from their minds. "We have martyrs, we have women who have been raped, houses that have been destroyed," a refugee who gave his name as Ali said. He declined to give his family name out of fear of reprisals against family members still in Syria.
"This democracy here is very good, but it is more important to have it in Syria," he said. Turkey organized the vote so that refugees can administer themselves for services relating to security, health, education and religion in coordination with the Kilis governor's office. But Turkish officials have also touted the vote as an exercise in democracy they hope the Syrians can one day take back to their country.
"I regard these elections as an important step that our Syrian brothers are taking on the path to democracy and a very important start," Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan said this week. Syrians voted in parliamentary elections in May, when for the first time, parties other than President Bashar Assad's ruling Baath Party were allowed to run for the 250-member parliament. But opponents of the regime boycotted the elections calling them a sham and saying they were designed to strengthen Assad's grip on power.
"There is no democracy in Syria. All we have is corruption," said Omar, another refugee who also declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals. "For the first time in Syrian history we will vote in a democratic election here, in Kilis. We can apply the democratic ideals we gain here in our country."
The candidates campaigned hard, hanging banners, holding town hall meetings and knocking at every door at the camp. One of three women running for the post of neighborhood head administrator, or muhtar, was Jumana Tatto, 34, who fled to Turkey with her two children two years ago to escape fighting in Idlib.
She pledged to work toward improving women's conditions in the camp and said she would like to run for office in Syria one day. "I would like to pursue the same political duty when I go back to Syria," she said.
It was not clear when the results would be out, but Turkish officials anticipated counting would be finalized later Thursday. The camp, which houses about 13,500 people, is the most populous out of 14 refugee camps in Turkey and the only one where Syrians live in container homes instead of tents. Turkish officials say similar elections may be held at the other camps at a later date. More than 150,000 Syrians have found refuge in Turkey.
Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara. Ezgi Akin in Ankara, and Ayse Wieting in Istanbul, contributed to this report.