Syrian activists find no safety from ISIL in southern Turkey

Killing of Naji Jerf in Gaziantep on Sunday comes months after two beheadings claimed by extremists.

Women hold pictures of Naji Jerf, a Syrian journalist who was shot dead in Gaziantep, during his funeral in the southern Turkish city on December 28, 2015. AFP
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BEIRUT// For years, towns in southern Turkey such as Gaziantep, Kilis and Sanliurfa were safe places for Syrians who oppose ISIL and the Assad regime to live and organise their struggles. But recent killings on the Turkish side of the border show that activists are far from safe outside Syria.

The latest target was Naji Jerf, a 37-year-old Syrian activist journalist who had worked with the prominent anti-ISIL group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, who was shot with a silenced pistol in Gaziantep on Sunday afternoon.

Beyond his work with the group, Jerf was the editor of a monthly news magazine called Hentah and recently directed and produced a documentary on ISIL in Aleppo that aired on Al Arabiya.

Along with his wife and two daughters, he was to have left Turkey for France this week after they were granted asylum visas.

The murder has not been claimed, but given Jerf’s work against ISIL, many in the Syrian opposition quickly blamed the extremist group for his assassination.

If ISIL was behind the attack as many believe, it would once again show the extremists’ willingness to reach across the border to silence critics.

In late October, two anti-ISIL activists were found beheaded in the southern city of Sanliurfa, about 150 kilometres east of Gaziantep. ISIL claimed those murders, of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently activist Ibrahim Abdul Qader and Fares Hamadi, who worked with the pro-opposition news website Eye on The Homeland.

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently is dedicated to documenting human rights abuses committed by ISIL in their de facto capital of Raqqa. It has also worked to document violations by the Syrian government and rebel groups, as well as coalition and Russian air strikes on civilian targets. Earlier this year, the group was given the International Press Freedom award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“May every apostate know that he will be slaughtered silently,” said ISIL in a video claiming the killing of Abdul Qader and Hamadi, released days after their bodies were discovered.

Gaziantep and Sanliurfa used to be places where Syrian activists, Free Syrian Army fighters and other members of the opposition felt comfortable operating openly. Meetings were held in cafes and hotel lobbies. Little was done to hide their affiliations. Fighters joining ISIL passed through these towns, but that did little to dissuade members of the opposition from feeling relatively safe in southern Turkey. But as ISIL became more visible and overtly threatening in southern Turkey, the mood changed.

In September, The National met Abdullah, a Syrian activist journalist who shuttles between southern Turkey and his hometown of Aleppo to document the war. To protect his identity, his name has been changed.

Four times in August, his wife was stopped on the street in Gaziantep by men who Abdullah believes were ISIL militants who threatened her, asking about his work, his whereabouts and his associates.

The first time she was stopped “the man just pulled his jacket aside to show her a gun. It was weird he was wearing a jacket in the summer,” Abdullah said. “And the places he stopped her when she was on the street, they were places where there were no cameras around. So they know what they are doing. And every time he stopped her, he had a black car standing by with many men inside.”

Abdullah said he tried to file a police report, but the officers did take the matter seriously, suggesting that it was probably friends pulling a prank on his wife.

“The police don’t care about what is happening, which makes me nervous. All I did was change my house. I don’t know what to do next,” he said.

Another Syrian activist recounted a time in another southern Turkish city where he was offered a ride by an insistent stranger. He refused until the stranger addressed him by name.

“He said, ‘brother Omar, don’t be afraid.’”

Omar, whose name has also been changed for his safety, realised he was being threatened and got into the car.

As the car drove to Omar’s home without guidance and he was told intimate details about his life, he noticed the stranger was wearing a ring emblazoned with ISIL’s logo.

The stranger maintained a friendly demeanour and dropped Omar off at his home, but the message was clear: he was being watched.

“They know everything about our lives,” said Abdullah.

* with agencies