Reyhanli: the border town where Turkey meets Syria

Tales of despair permeate this melting pot of Arab and Turkish culture, bruised by Syria’s nine-year war

A truck driver talks to the shepherd at the Cilvegozu border gate, located opposite to the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa, in Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
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On the walls around Reyhanli, Arabic and Turkish scrawls layer over one another like the tangled conversations in local tea shops. ‘You are mine’, one scribble of black graffiti says, with another striking across it to say ‘love is a lie’, the words at once together and divided - like the town itself.

This Turkish border town is the main crossing to and from Syria’s besieged province of Idlib, where at least 900,000 people have been displaced by a brutal regime offensive since December. In Turkey’s southernmost province, it is an area whose sovereignty has been disputed, although peacefully, for decades.

Many here already spoke Arabic as their mother tongue, but nine years of civil war over the border has forced at least 3.5 million Syrians to flee to Turkey, leaving Reyhanli arguably more Arab than Turk.

The local restaurants offer falafel rather than kokorec, a Turkish offal dish. Women walk their children to school with their faces veiled under a niqab, something rarely seen elsewhere in Turkey. Yet every building and shop front flies the crimson Turkish flag in honour of the spilled blood of the country’s 36 ‘martyrs’, soldiers killed by Syrian air and artillery strikes in Idlib last week, which also left more than 30 troops wounded.

Escalating tensions over the deaths just several kilometres across the border from Reyhanli culminated on Sunday when Ankara launched Operation Spring Shield against the Syrian Arab Army. Turkey downed two Syrian jets - followed by a third on Tuesday - and destroyed several air defence systems in military action bound to continue at least until a meeting between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin - a key ally to Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad - scheduled for March 5.

Turkey has in recent weeks called for international assistance to help end a regime offensive to reclaim territory in Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold that has infringed on a de-escalation zone agreed in Sochi with Russia in 2018. But no one has answered, despite almost a million people being displaced to overstretched camps and makeshift settlements along the border since December, a situation aid groups have called the biggest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century.

With space in non-regime areas now at a premium, many are forced to live several families to a tent, or out in the open, exposed to the elements. Around 80 per cent of the displaced are women and children, having fled for the second, third or even seventh time.

Speaking over the phone from Idlib, Ahmed, a media assistant at relief organisation the Syrian American Medical Society, who did want to use his real name, said 97 hospitals and clinics had been destroyed since November due to the regime’s advance, and that the cold had killed at least five children.

Syrians cross into Turkey through the Cilvegozu border gate, located opposite the Syrian commercial crossing point Bab al-Hawa, in Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

“The humanitarian situation is a catastrophe,” he said. “People are worried they will have to flee even the camps they have already fled to.

“They don’t know what is happening today, or tomorrow, so I hope that Turkey will stop the advancement of the regime and the wave of displacement because the living conditions are miserable.”

This week, fortune has been a little kinder and the sun is shining, offering much-needed respite from the biting cold of previous weeks when temperatures have dropped to nearly freezing. A clear day makes for a cold evening, though, and the thin walls of a tent offer little warmth or comfort.

The Cilvegozu border gate separates the thousands seeking refuge from the carnage in Idlib from those sipping tea in Reyhanli’s cafes by just a few kilometres. The dividing wall snakes across basil-coloured hills that are dotted with grazing sheep in all shades of coffee, the calm belying the tragedies taking place a short distance away.

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2020, file photo, Turkish troops and artillery prepare to enter Syria, in Reyhanli, Hatay, Turkey. Syria’s civil war has long provided a free-for-all battlefield for proxy fighters. But in its ninth year, the war is drawing major foreign actors into direct conflict, with the threat of all-out confrontations becoming a real possibility. (AP Photo, File)

Abdel Jaleed leans up against a concrete road barrier on the Turkish side as a convoy of UN 4x4s is spat out from the gate marking the end of the no man’s land between the two countries. He is unable to control the wide smile that lights up his face as he waits for a car alongside his wife and two young children.

He has not seen them for eight months, since he was brought to a hospital in Turkey in a critical condition after being caught in a regime airstrike that cost him his left leg.

Although few are now able to cross from Syria into Turkey, they are some of the lucky ones. Now bound to a life on crutches, Mr Jaleed managed to navigate an intensely bureaucratic system of paperwork to obtain the necessary documents to bring his loved ones to him.

“Thank God I finally saw them,” he said.

Now the family can start again, away from almost a decade of war, but they face the challenge of a new life in a foreign country that is increasingly less welcoming as its economy stutters.

“We are harassed by Turks,” said Ababdu, 42, who works in a Reyhanli restaurant. He has lived there since fleeing Idlib’s Jebel Al Zaweey with his wife and children in 2013. Thinking he was just weathering the storm, he had expected to be back home within three months.

His desperation had led him to consider attempting the perilous journey to reach Europe.

“They don’t accept that we fled Syria because of the war and that we can’t change that. Especially the young men - if he has a problem with his wife, he comes to disturb Syrians.”

Days before Turkey’s fourth incursion into Syria, Mr Erdogan announced that he was opening the country’s borders with Europe to allow refugees passage to Greece, part of the European Union. through land and sea. Thousands have since amassed on the border with no shelter, food or water, clashing with Greek police. Critics say Turkey has created another humanitarian disaster so it can put pressure on Europe for political gain.

“It’s all for political interest,” said Ababdu.

“We are worried that if more Turkish troops are killed that we will be targeted. That’s why people are rushing to Europe. No one would like to live in this country unless they have to - we are not safe.”

But despite friction between the two communities in Turkey, the country is being hailed as a saviour in Syria, with people celebrating significant gains against the regime.

A stone’s throw over the unimposing border in the Syrian city of Harem, Yousouf, 21, who asked not to use his real name for fear of reprisal, said over the phone that since the regime turned its sights on Idlib, all people can do is try to survive.


Comment: Turkey's Syria offensive has exposed the regime's weaknesses – and the world's apathy

He said the recent wave of displacement has forced landlords in the area to put up their rents. From Aleppo province, he has been displaced several times and now shares a cramped three-room apartment with his wife, two children, and seven other family members. They pay $100 (Dh367) a month, but only one member of the family is working.

“Nearer the border prices for goods are also higher, such as food and water. Many people have lost their houses and jobs, I really wonder how they can afford these costs.”

But people feel safer since Turkey began its operation, says Yousouf, with their troops on the streets and drones in the sky. In fact, he feels encouraged to return to his home and help in the effort to push Syrian regime troops back.

“We don’t want the international community to think of what is happening as a humanitarian disaster. No. We are resisting Assad.” he said.

“We are living like this because we don’t want to live under regime control - we are showing the world that we choose tents and camps over that.”