Syria: Return to a dying land

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

As Europe turns its back on refugees, Syrians who can’t afford the “luxury” of fleeing are making the perilous journey back to their ruined homeland.

Syrian refugees in Turkey cross back into Syria, placing their lives in grave danger. Photo: © Elio Germani

Syrian refugees in Turkey cross back into Syria, placing their lives in grave danger.
Photo: © Elio Germani

Monday 7 March 2016

On the Saturday morning when the ceasefire in Syria came into effect, a weeping woman slowly approached the Turkish-Syrian border crossing Bab al Salama (Oncupinar) near Kilis. She was carrying a little girl, wrapped up in a heavy blanket. For an hour, she begged the Turkish policemen to allow her back into her broken land before she gave up.

Her aim was to take her visibly depleted and painfully pale little girl to the hospital in Azaz, located a mere four kilometres from the border. Yet the Turkish men refused to let her pass. The woman kept crying and stroking the poor girl, who soon passed away in her hands. It was only then that the Turks allowed her to cross the border.

To avoid the possible consequences.

___

Right before the border with Syria, the Turkish army vehicles turned off the main road leading to Aleppo. The blue sky above nearby Azaz was empty, violated neither by Russian jets nor the regime’s bombers. For the moment, it was also clear of Turkish Army artillery fire, which had been inflicting a week’s worth of heavy pummelling on the members of the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG. At the moment, the border into Syria was open only to a number of heavy trucks flying the insignia of various Turkish and Qatari humanitarian organisations. The drivers were frightened. One of the vehicles was filled with bread ovens. Lone refugees or couples were trickling in from the Syrian side, having set off from the refugee camps located between Azaz and the border.

Large bands of refugees were resting on the grassland near the border. The majority of these were really extended families, mostly children, all of them absolutely clueless as to where or whom to turn to next. A few goats and a decrepit-looking horse were grazing close by. The Turkish policemen were simply biding their time, gazing at the sky. From the look of things, accidental visitor could be easily forgiven for failing to notice he or she had just come up on one of the Syrian conflict’s most important frontlines.

“I come from a village north of Aleppo. My youngest daughter was killed last week in a regime air raid. I buried her back home in Syria and then ran away along with the rest of my family. I myself was wounded, too – my head had been hurt,” I was told by a man named Ibrahim, who pointed to the blood-soaked rags on his head. He had received medical assistance in the hospital located in the Turkish town of Kilis, where the population had more than doubled since the beginning of the Syrian war. Over the past five years of armed conflict, the far from affluent Kilis has absorbed more than 120,000 refugees and has done its best to accommodate them in a decent and humane fashion. This is the reason why the town is one of this year’s candidates for the Nobel peace prize.

“They took really good care of me. But now I have to return to the refugee camp on the Syrian side. My entire family is there,” Ibrahim clarified. From his shrapnel-nicked face, it was clear he was lucky to be alive. His humble ambition was somehow to find a place for himself and his family in Turkey, but the chances of that were looking exceedingly grim.

Turkey is hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Last week, 35,000 refugees arrived at the Oncupinar crossing in the space of 48 hours. Suleyman Tapsiz, the local governor on the Turkish side of the border, claims Kilis and the neighbouring towns will not be able to take them in. “Our doors are not closed. But there is no need to let these people into Turkey right now,” he said. Some 140,000 people are currently stuck between Azaz and the border. Should Aleppo fall, which could happen quite soon, at least 600,000 more are expected to bolt for Turkey in a matter of days.

Even a few days ago, it looked like the Turkish army was about to take control of the area between the border crossing and Azaz, thereby preventing the strategically vital town from falling into the hands of the YPG. Without doubt, that would have been a horrendous strategic blunder, triggering a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions. According to our sources, the Turkish government has opted to take “a time out” for now – mostly on account of all the pressure exerted by both the EU and the United States, especially since NATO is as yet unwilling to risk a military showdown with Russia. If the Turkish forces were to take over Azaz, such a showdown would become an inevitability.

The border is still being crossed by humanitarian convoys, merchants, those refugees who can no longer afford to stay in Turkey and members of certain rebel groups supported by Turkey. I managed to talk to some of the fighters who were waiting at the border to be readmitted to Syria. Two of them, both 18, were from the Free Syria Army (FSA), And on their way back to the front north of Aleppo after having spent the previous 10 days in a Turkish hospital. “We are under attack from all sides: ISIS, regime forces, Russian planes, and now the Kurds as well… We are all alone. No help is on the way. But we shall fight until the very end,” I was told by one of these two young fighters, who refused to tell me his name. He did relate that his family was living in Turkey, yet despite all his injuries, his only wish was to return to the frontlines as soon as possible: “My friends are dying. I am fighting for my homeland.”

After the regime’s forces and Russian planes cut off the supply lines to Aleppo, a few hundred members of various Syrian rebel groups entered Syria from Turkey. They have done so with Ankara’s official support. The Turkish authorities are desperately trying to prevent the fall of Azaz because it would mean all the Kurd-dominated areas in the north of Syria would become connected into something resembling a unified whole. In addition, the fall of Azaz would almost certainly spell the fall of Aleppo, the Syrian conflict’s decisive battlefield.

Quite the privilege

On the Turkish side of the border, about a hundred people, mostly civilians, arrived to wait to be readmitted into Syria each day. Many of them are wounded or seriously ill, their lack of funds forcing them to return home after a brief stay in one of the Turkish public hospitals. Most of the ones I talked to were not returning to their homes but rather to some form or another of temporary lodgings. As far as the world’s attention is concerned, the heart-wrenching misery of the people who had lost their homes and remained in Syria is almost forgotten. Yet inside the ransacked land, almost half of the population is currently not living at their normal addresses. These are the people who cannot afford to flee – not even to Turkey, let alone the European Union. One of the great modern ironies is that, in some quarters, being a refugee is now justly considered quite the privilege.

A number of utterly exhausted people were standing in front of the metal-wire barrier on the Turkish side of the border, waiting to be allowed to pass into their homeland. Among them, two glassy-eyed little boys were sitting on the concrete floor. Their heads were seemingly turning uncontrollably, their eyes darting hectically all over the place. It was obvious they had been profoundly traumatised and were in urgent need of medical assistance. All they had on them was one plastic bag each. The others were simply ignoring them.

Mohamed Rahmo and his blinded son, Mustafa, on their way back to Syria. Photo: © Elio Germani

Mohamed Rahmo and his blinded son, Mustafa, on their way back to Syria.
Photo: © Elio Germani

While on the Syrian side more than 100,000 people staying in refugee camps were hoping to be allowed to enter Turkey as soon as possible, a man named Mohamed Rahmo was trying to convince his 16-year-old son to get up and rejoin the line of those waiting to return to Syria. Tears were streaking down Rahmo’s cheeks, yet his son Mustafa remained seated, his gaze aggressively pointed to the ground. He kept hiding his face away from the light.

A little over a month ago, a Russian air raid on their small village north of Aleppo had cost Mustafa his left eye, while the right one has been severely damaged. His entire face was covered in burns. His father decided to take him to Turkey – back then, the border was still open. Mustafa underwent surgery at the public hospital in Gaziantep, but the operation was not a success. Soon after he lost the sight in his right eye as well. His father then took him to a private doctor who told them the only procedure capable of saving the eye would cost $4,000. By then, the two of them were penniless, and their only recourse was to return to Syria.

“We have to get home. I need to take care of my family. The bombing raids have cost us everything we had. Our house is badly damaged. It is so horrible, but there is nothing I can do for Mustafa. We are so poor. We cannot even afford to remain in Turkey. How could we possibly press on to Europe? We cannot afford to buy bread. Yesterday was the last time we had something to eat. We are starving,” Mohamed Rahmo recounted with a heavy heart.

With a visible effort Mustafa finally stood up. Still staring at the ground, he broke into sobs and placed himself in the queue, where most of the people were not at all eager for conversation. They were patiently waiting to be allowed to be readmitted into a war zone.

Neighbouring on ISIS

A concrete wall and a small minefield are what now separates two formerly closely connected towns, the Turkish Karkamis and the Syrian Jarablous. Today, this artificial border is one of the most unusual – and dangerous – ones in the world.

The Syrian side is controlled by ISIS fighters. At the moment, the Islamic State also controls another 50km of the Turkish border stretching westward. As far as Turkey is concerned, this area forms a sort of buffer zone with no armed Syrian Kurdish presence. For some time now, members of the YPG have been trying to gain control of Jarblous, but the town is still firmly controlled by the Sunni extremist militia. The area east of the town, on the other hand, is controlled by the Kurds.

Up until the end of last year, the border was rather peaceful. From 2012 on, a hundred people or more were crossing it daily in both directions without major problems. Many of them were foreign fighters aiming to join the various insurgent groups in the north of Syria. Some of them were certainly crossing the border to join ISIS. The part of the border stretching between Karkamis and Kilis was the most porous segment of the more than 900-km-long border between Turkey and Syria.

The conditions started to deteriorate when Turkey officially entered the war against ISIS. This, it is worth remembering, was after a long period of what some have termed “Turkish active passivity” which enabled the terrorist militia to grow in strength.

It certainly holds true that, for a while, Ankara had found the Islamic State activities quite useful. But then things began to change. A series of suicide bombing attacks came to pass, and the geo-strategic situation grew more complicated as well. Turkey suddenly found itself in a rather unenviable position. At the same time, the Kurdish question was reopened, and in a rather spectacular way.

The Turkish authorities’ first move was to shut the border with Syria, then to send in heavy military reinforcements, while placing kilometres and kilometres of concrete walls and barbed wire along the frontier. As numerous watchtowers rose up to the sky, the closing of the border severely hurt the prospects of the Syrian civilians trying to flee the war crimes perpetrated by all sides. Tens of thousands of people remained trapped on the Syrian side of the border, while some 100,000 Syrians are currently staying at Karkamis and the neighbouring refugee camps.

On the other side of the border, the members of ISIS have set up minefields to shield themselves from any possibility of Turkish incursions. To the Islamic State, Jarablous has become a key strategic operation. The only question is why the almost 70 countries which make up the coalition against ISIS are so reluctant to attack the positions of extreme Islamists around theis small town which has been deserted by most of its civilian population.

At the end of January, Karkamis saw the first direct clash between ISIS and the Turkish state. The ISIS fighters began to fire at the Turkish soldiers who had come to clear the minefield. Several gunshells came crashing down on the small impoverished Turkish town. The Turkish army responded by deploying tanks. A few days later, the Turkish security forces captured a group of people from Jarblous trying to illegally cross the border. They were equipped with suicide-bomber belts and headed for Gaziantep, located about an hour’s drive from the border.

Since then, Karkamis, situated in the immediate vicinity of the Euphrates river, the region’s key water resource, has been plunged into a state of turmoil. The residents live in constant fear of new ISIS attacks and the Syrian war spreading to the Turkish territory. The entire town has become militarised. Police cars are patrolling its every silent and dusty street, and if you are a foreign visitor, your every step is closely monitored if not actively hindered.

Streets apart

“Life here is extremely hard. You have to be on the lookout all the time,” I was told by Merwan Kaya in his small kebab shop. A year ago, Kaya escaped from Jarablous to Karkamis. “You see that street over there? If you were to follow it to the railway station, you would reach the place where my old shop used to be. The spot is precisely 400 meters away from where we are standing now. It’s incredible, isn’t it? When the Islamic State took over Jarablus, things changed. My store was destroyed, and I was forced to flee to Aleppo and then to Karkamis. Now I am a refugee who lives two streets away from his former home.”

As he recounted his tale, Kaya brewed us tea while his two sons prepared the food. There are not very many inns in Karkamis, so the talkative Syrian was quite pleased with his earnings. “Over here, a kebab costs about six times what it costs in Syria,” he laughed, right before answering the phone. The call was from his daughter, checking in after a lengthy period of time. At the moment, she was living in Latakia, a Syrian coastal town and regime fortress.

The streets in the centre of the border town were almost deserted. Up until the fighting broke out, the residents hadn’t really been all that trouble by the ISIS presence only a shot away. Less than 200m now separate the population of Karkamis from the ISIS positions, and many expect their town will become yet another frontline in the Syrian conflict, which is evidently entering its decisive phase.

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