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FILE PHOTO - A general view shows tents housing internally displaced people in Atma camp, near the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib Governorate, February 5, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By John Davison
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Fawaz Atmeh and Mohammed Musa's families were among the first to flee Russia's intervention in the Syrian conflict, sheltering in tents on boggy ground near the Turkish border as jets bombed their villages further east.
As Syria's battle lines have shifted in nearly 18 months since, the two young men have watched their camp swell with families and fighters escaping government territorial gains, insurgent infighting and Islamic State violence.
The blue and white tarpaulin tents have doubled, Atmeh says, and rubbish is strewn along a shallow ditch running through the camp, where boys play football and men sit on plastic chairs to pass the time, sometimes going out on fruitless job hunts.
Atmeh and Musa, who first spoke to Reuters when they arrived at the camp in Idlib province in October 2015, still hope they will one day go back to their homes in the southern Aleppo countryside.
But each new twist in the conflict makes return a more distant dream for those huddling at the border.
Trapped between fighting in western Syria on one side, and an increasingly tightly sealed Turkish frontier on the other, they are beginning to prepare for a lifetime of exile.
"We're on Turkey's doorstep, but forbidden from crossing - Turkey has put a wall up, and shoots at anyone who gets close," Atmeh, 33, said, speaking by phone from his camp.
"In the other direction - inside Syria - we can only move about 15 km (9 miles) away from the camp," before getting dangerously close to the insurgent infighting in Idlib.
"And we can't go back to our homes - the regime is in control of that area. I'm wanted by the government, and for my family it's the same - half of us are accused of terrorism" for sympathising with the Syrian uprising that began in 2011, he said.
The Syrian battlefield has shifted since Russia began its air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad, and has sent more displaced flooding to the Idlib camps.
Assad won back Aleppo in December, forcing many rebels and their families to leave to Idlib in the process. Insurgents and their kin have also headed there from around Damascus as the Syrian government flushes out rebel-held pockets of territory near the capital.
More recently, Syrians in Idlib province itself have fled fighting between jihadist insurgents and more moderate factions. U.N. data shows some of the displaced near the Turkish border have come from as far as al-Bab, where Turkish-backed rebels recently drove out Islamic State.
In all, some 900,000 displaced Syrians are sheltering in Idlib, nearly half the province's total population, the United Nations says. The Syrian conflict has displaced more than 11 million people, around half within Syria and half as refugees abroad.
Turkey, which conducted its own incursion into Syria in support of the anti-IS rebels, is meanwhile erecting a wall and fortifying stretches of the frontier, in a clampdown which is keeping out both militants and refugees.
Seeing no escape, Atmeh and the 11 family members in his tent, including his wife and three children, have tried to make the abode more livable, putting up curtains as screens and laying down blankets for a floor.
Musa, 25, and his family lived for almost a year alongside Atmeh, but he moved to a tent on higher ground in recent months with his wife and a six-month-old baby to escape the damp and mud, he said.
The two men say they rely on irregular food basket deliveries by international NGOs or the kindness of other residents or locals to survive. There is not even casual work available nearby for Atmeh, a former civil servant and Musa, a former student.
BORDER WALLS AND GUNFIRE
The nearest town, of several thousand people, cannot absorb even a fraction of the labour force among the displaced, they say.
Daily life is dull, with little to do other than survive, but the fear of further upheaval is always there, Musa said.
"When there are clashes between the factions (insurgents), they can get fairly close. We're scared for the children and women - if a stray bullet hits one tent it will go through 10 of them, we're very vulnerable should the violence get closer."
In the camps, there are those who do not want to wait around, and are so desperate to leave that they regularly brave the gunfire of Turkish troops to try to cross the border.
Mohammed al-Ali, a 30-year-old who fled Hama province further south about three years ago, approaches the wall which is visible from the camp on a daily basis to see if there is a chance to cross over.
"It's dangerous, you take your life in your hands if you try. The Turks have clamped down a lot at the border," he said.
"If you're on the Syrian side and you're trying to get across (illegally), they fire above your head. If you manage to get onto the Turkish side, they'll shoot at you. Someone was killed that way the day before yesterday," he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, has reported regular injuries and deaths from Turkish troops firing at people trying to cross the border.
Turkey has been sealing its frontier with Syria with fences, mines and ditches, in an effort to halt the movement of Islamic State fighters and curb Kurdish militias. The clampdown has also sharply reduced the flow of Syrian refugees.
An EU-Turkey migration deal to stem movement of refugees to Europe has also put pressure on Ankara to accommodate the nearly 3 million Syrians it already hosts.
As Ali tries each day to get to Turkey, Atmeh and Musa wait it out.
Atmeh sent a picture of a dwelling he said belonged to the "richest person in the camp" - four muddy brick walls with two metal doors and tarpaulins stretched over as a roof.
"Syrians - we've become like gypsies," he said.
(Reporting by John Davison; editing by Peter Graff)