KILIS, TURKEY – Every war has its hotels, its lounges, its press rooms, its conduits that funnel the press to and from where the choreographed elements are.
For the Turkish border crisis with Syria, and to a certain extent the entire Syrian civil war in general since 2012, the point of interest has been Kilis. It was portrayed to me before I went there as either a sleepy, boring, ugly border town, or a place of intrigue. There is always some “helpful” suggestion, such as “be careful, Islamic State is active, don’t tell people where you are from or where you are staying.”
You imagine narrow alleyways, shops selling weapons secretly, terrorists creeping behind parked cars – for good reason. Kilis is where most of the journalists kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS passed through. In the days when the Syrian revolution was romantic in Syria, when there was a feeling it might win and democracy might prevail, journalists used to travel to Aleppo via this corridor.
At the Gaziantep airport, which is only 30 minutes from Kilis, there is still a large mural depicting Syria and Aleppo at a roundabout near the entrance. Green traffic signs tell drivers its only 120 kilometers away – but it might as well be on the moon.
There are ghosts in Kilis. Not just the ghosts of murdered journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, the latter of whom a movie has just been made about. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrian ghosts. These refugees who passed through may still be alive, but the ghost of the Syria they left behind still haunts this place. How many hopes and dreams were broken at the inaptly named Bab al-Salaam (gate of peace) border crossing? The refugee tragedy is still unfolding.
As I sat in the lobby of the new Olea Hotel on Saturday, a mass of men in black suits came rushing through. They were holding a meeting about the refugee issue.
Some 100,000 Syrians now live in this Turkish town that until recently had only 90,000 people. The new apartments for them dot the roads the ring the town. But except for that, you wouldn’t notice a heavy Arab presence. There are few Arabic signs. There are no Syrian flags, not even the flag of the Syrian opposition.
There are no Islamist flags, either. The stories of the “old days” in Gaziantep and other areas where ISIS flags were spotted, seem to have passed.
There has been a de-nationalization of the refugees. Even in the camps. It’s Turkish – Turkish flags, and Turkishness. Syria has been broken into a thousand pieces. It will not be re-assembled. Half its people are refugees, a million of whom are in Europe. Aleppo itself has been deracinated, its ancient “old city” burned, its housing projects cluster-bombed. The city has decamped for Turkey and Europe.
I asked a friend, a Syrian journalist who has contacts all over the conflict among the rebel and Islamist forces, what became of those he grew up with in Aleppo.
“I keep in contact with them, they are everywhere, some in Turkey, Lebanon, Europe.”
The Olea is located on a main square. It has 100 percent occupancy due to the war. Press, many of them Turkish, have converged here to await what many think will be a war. A bust of Atatürk adorns the place, and there is a figure of the father of modern Turkey on an old building as well.
A wonderful little Turkish restaurant, which if you didn’t know better you’d think was a run-down greasy spoon, offers amazing local dishes. Apparently, despite the negative reviews of Kilis, people here claim there is real cuisine in this area. One dish has a meat patty packed at the base of a tin and baked in a taboon. It is served with hot peppers, grilled tomato, and comes with a steaming hot giant piece of bread ballooning from having just been in the oven. I gorged at this place two nights in a row; why waste a good thing? Over by the university there is a state-of-the-art girl’s dormitory. Few of the women wear headscarves.
A line of large open-air cafes serve nargileh. An ancient Christian mosaic recently discovered in the hills nearby is a reminder that this area of Turkey has a long history reaching back to the Crusades. If you didn’t know there was a war going on nearby, you’d think it was actually a quaint, decent town.
I had heard that Turkey was shelling Syria. There were rumors that there could be war between Turkey and the Kurdish YPG. On the day I arrived, a bombing had targeted Turkish soldiers in Ankara. President Erdogan was on TV blaming the Kurdish PKK and YPG. But the signs of war seemed hidden.
The Turkish charity AFAD runs a large refugee camp by the border that houses 13,000 refugees. It has recently completed a new project of multi-level caravan-style dwellings for an additional 10,000. On a hill in the distance in Syria, one can make out dozens of tents inhabited by refugees there. It is believed that some 100,000 refugees are clustered and will wish to cross if the war intensifies. There are also rumors that refugees have forced their way across Elbeyli, a town 30 kilometers to the east.
My first day was spent interviewing refugees at the AFAD camp.
Women and children make up the majority. The kids play amidst the white caravans erected in row after row. Some men huddle in a park and smoke and talk. Women, many of them dressed very conservatively, wander from place to place and hang laundry or fill jugs with water.
There is a communal laundry. One building hosts arts and crafts where women work on looms or knit; the rugs they make are sold for 800 lira.
Two men do paintings. In another room, teenage boys play computer games. None of them seem to be playing first-person shooter games.
They’ve seen enough of war. Many of their fathers or brothers have been fighters in Syria and may still be there. But life must go on.
Marriages are celebrated and children learn Turkish.
THERE ARE a surprising number of women in full face veils, some with even their eyes covered. No one seems to think its a sign of increased religiousness, but Syrians say they rarely saw this manner of dress before the revolution. Islamist groups have certainly had their effect. Syrians I spoke to, however, even secular ones, claimed that these Islamist groups get a bad reputation in the West, whereas there are vast differences between them.
Some try to impose religion, but others do not. They are also dedicated fighters.
The scenes along the border here are in stark contrast to what I saw in the borderlands of Europe, where chaos prevailed among the countries and their inability to handle refugees flows. Turkish NGOs seem to have done a good job innovating and meeting the needs of these people. Although a caravan is not a long-term solution, it provides a bit of dignity. These people have seen their villages and cities reduced to ruins, and some have been on the move for years. At least here there is safety.
The safety may be partly an illusion.
At night the sound of artillery fire shakes the air. Outgoing shells can be seen from Kilis. A photographer on the Syrian side used a long exposure to illustrate their arc, from guns stationed a few kilometers east of Kilis into the Afrin province in Syria where the YPG dominates.
A drive to Reyhlani on Friday revealed just how much the military presence has increased here.
At one point we got stuck amidst a convoy of light armored vehicles and trucks carrying generators for the unit. Because of the Ankara bombing and PKK terrorism threats, the army has been instructed not to stop at red lights, so sometimes when we came to a stop in a civilian town, an army cavalcade began beeping and rushed through the cars.
At another point we got stuck behind a truck transporting young troops. There is national conscription in Turkey and all men are supposed to serve a short period in the army. The men in the back of the truck had pulled the tarp up to peer out. One by one their young faces appeared, with the sun, which was setting, shining on their faces. I wanted to snap a photo, but it was too difficult. Eventually the truck exited and headed toward the border with Syria in an area controlled by the YPG.
The mountain road we were on passed so close to the border you could see the Kurdish-controlled villages on the other side. Turkish road workers and engineers were busy carving out a fence along the border. Guard towers paid a close watch. When I stopped, my friend from Syria said it was best not to linger.
“They could shoot us if they think we are smugglers.”
Later that evening he would find out that a friend of his in Syria working as a photographer had been hit and killed by a Syrian regime tank shell. It’s a reminder of how this war that erupted with the shooting deaths of peaceful protesters against Assad’s regime has turned into a grinding conflict in which 500,000 have been killed.
A restless night at the hotel: the film ‘Fury’ was shown, dubbed into Turkish. The dubbing wasn’t as odd as the fact that the TV here blurs out cigarettes and alcohol in film.
In one scene where the men are all smoking and boozing, it seems like just one long blur, with smoke emanating from the blur. Erdogan detests smoking, so smoking shall go. Not just because it’s a health vice, but also due to the fact that Islamists regard it as unacceptable.
It’s a reminder that Turkey is in some ways a janus-faced society.
There is alcohol for sale in some places and people are not outwardly religious in many urban areas.
However, giant sparkling mosques dot even some small villages. One village near Reyhanli didn’t have paved roads, but had a giant white mosque with two minarets. Whether people attend the mosque is an open question, since except for shepherds and truck drivers, I rarely saw anyone praying.
TO INVESTIGATE rumors of refugees coming into Elbeyli, which has been a transit point since before 2015, I decided to drive out toward this rural area along the border.
The journalist scrum at the Bab al-Salaam gate was growing by the day. Dozens had set up cameras along the border to film nothing.
That’s what they were filming.
Trucks come and go, a UN vehicle passes. Nothing happens. Yes, there had been several busloads of Syrian rebels that Turkey allowed to transit from Idlib to Bab al-Hawa via this gate, but that was several days ago. Turkish charities like IHH were sending in huge amounts of food to the refugees on the other side.
Foreigners couldn’t cross. What was everyone waiting for? “There may be war, my bureau sent me here for a month and got us a caravan to live in,” one man said.
Leaving that behind, the road to Elbeyli cuts through pretty fields.
The villages become more simple and rural. Most consist of a dozen or so houses clustered around each other. In one, “MHP” has been spray painted, the name of a rightwing nationalist party – some of the only political graffiti I saw.
Eventually the road straightened out to reveal refugees wandering along a road and a Turkish army checkpoint. The army wasn’t happy to see a non-local and didn’t want press here. After looking through my bags, they sent me on my way, back to Kilis. Obviously a sensitive situation has developed along the border here, away from the press. Large tractor-trailer trucks were transporting concrete barriers toward the border. I passed a half-dozen of them. Turkey is constructing a concrete barrier, it seems, along the border somewhere.
Previous stories about this had claimed it was against ISIS-controlled areas, which are down this road, east of Aybeli. If they were headed there, it was impossible to follow.
So rather than drive along the border with ISIS, I headed a bit inland to the massive 0-52 toll highway that runs 130 kilometers from Gaziantep to Sanliurfa. These are both ancient cities dominated by old walled forts. The highway has little traffic and passes through an increasingly parched khaki-toned landscape of grass and fields devoted to agriculture.
The reason for the jaunt to Sanliurfa was touristic; the city has a famous fish pool with a beautiful mosque around it, like a kind of mini Taj-Mahal, with flowing water and gardens. Nearby is the town of Suruc, which was the main gateway to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani during the great war against ISIS in 2014. It was here that the YPG was forged in battle against ISIS when ISIS was at its peak of strength. Here the YPG, which has now become the most effective anti-ISIS fighting force and earned itself western allies in the process, broke the back of the extremist advance.
But the price was high. Behind the bravery and the epic struggle, the city was devastated. Testimony to that is the massive refugee camp of 35,000 on the road to Suruc.
When I saw it in the distance it stuck out improbably in the landscape.
But something about covering refugees for so long makes one’s heart sink when one sees another camp. There’s a sense of accomplishment for having found the “story,” and then a sense of being a parasite on suffering.
The road to the camp is dirt. On both sides, in the pretty rocky fields, hundreds of people have gathered in groups of four or five to sit and enjoy the Saturday afternoon. It’s the little they can do to have a normal life outside a stagnant, monotonous, soulless camp of rows and rows of identical white caravans. A small Saturday famers’ market has also grown up outside the camp.
Dozens of people come from the area to sell fruits, vegetables, used clothes. Women take away huge bags of potatoes, perching them on their heads. Kids wander about.
These Kurdish refugees say they have nothing to return to. War has ravaged their villages, and for those from Kobani, their city. One man who was a student in Kobani, now walks with his father to look at blankets for sale. He wants to go to Europe or America. There’s nothing to return to.
The visit to the camp precludes any time to drive towards the border to catch a glimpse of Kobani on the other side. But what is the point of seeing a ruined city, when its residents have all de-camped for this refugee camp? In the old days when cities were ruined by war and people built new towns near them they sometimes kept the name.
But this won’t be “new Kobani.”
No roots will be put down here.
Anyway, Turkey is waging a tough war against the Kurdish PKK in Turkey and these refugees are caught between the conflict that may break out with the YPG. They are representatives of millions across Syria and Iraq who are a lost generation, children growing up without permanent homes, students missing years of school, with no university possible.
Driving back across these plains, the road takes on a dystopian flair.
The major toll highway has reduced traffic on this road from Suruc to Gaziantep, which used to be a major transit artery. Abandoned gas stations, motels and shops line the way. Villagers eke out a tough life.
At Birecik, a pretty metal bridge spans the epic Euphrates river, the river that gave breath to the first civilzations in the Middle East, the very civilizations that ISIS has sought to eradicate. Here an attractive promenade lines the glassy water and white birds flock.
Young couples stroll. There are no tourists. A piece of wood cast into the river here would float down, past the border, through the YPG controlled areas, past Assad regime checkpoints, past Shababi, the city YPG conquered on Friday, via ISIS to Deir ez-Zour, and then on to Iraq, past the graves of Shia cadets ISIS massacred in 2014, and to the lines of Shia militia and Iraqi army.
This is the new cradle of war and mass exodus of people, ethnic cleansing, religious cleansing, genocide, terrorism, beheading, and also rebellion and the creation of new polities like the YPG’s women fighters.
We can only look on as the river flows. We cannot change its course.
We can record how it nibbles at the bank and ripples as we dip our feet in, but we are only witnesses to history. We cannot stand astride it, only tell its story.