KARKAMIS, Turkey — Locals in this desolate border town seemed to mistake this journalist’s Syrian translator for an ISIS jihadist when they paid a visit last Friday. The entrance to the terror group’s so-called “caliphate” sat just a short walk down the road. Only a small border gate manned by Turkish gendarmerie separates NATO country from Jihadistan. The main street around the gate was almost empty, with half of the stores closed. Two blocks down sat a defunct train yard with rusty cargo cars. The beautiful stone buildings that once housed the engineers are now low-rent housing for impoverished residents. Soldiers are past the tracks, where the border line is just behind the two rows of small buildings.
Crossings like this one that sit on the Syrian-Turkish border are officially closed. But it was clear that smugglers in Karkamis were used to finding ways to get strangers across. “We can help them cross to the other side,” one said, approaching the driver who had brought the pair into town.
The fall last week of the main border town of Tel Abyad—which had served as the most important ISIS-held crossing from neighboring Turkey, offering easy access to their Syrian capital of Raqqa—has been hailed as a major blow to the militants. With the Kurdish YPG militia and allied Free Syrian Army rebels taking control last week of the town, ISIS lost control of key smuggling routes for people and supplies. However, it still controls other key patches of territory along the Turkish border, along a stretch of turf that runs some 45 miles long. And places like Karkamis, which borders the ISIS-held town of Jarabulus, have seen heavier traffic in the last few days as ISIS struggles to make up for for Tel Abyad’s loss.
Smuggling routes along Turkey’s porous, 566-mile border with Syria have been active for decades. Some sprang up at the end of World War I, when the Sykes-Picot border line through towns like Karkamis was drawn. Many families have lived off of transnational trade, either illegal or semi-legal, for generations, transporting anything from cigarettes to petrol to hash. Turkey’s open-border policy throughout most of the civil war in Syria allowed the smuggling business to flourish to new heights, and made it even more difficult for the authorities to control who and what gets across.
Locals say Karkamis has lost nearly half of its residents since ISIS took the other side of the border in January 2014. “This town turned into a small village after ISIS,” said Metin Demir, a lifelong Karkamis resident.
Businesses living off the border trade were the backbone of the town until Turkey closed the gate. After ISIS seized Jarabulus, the once-bustling crossing was open only Fridays and Mondays—only for Syrians traveling back to Syria. Even that stopped about two months ago.
Demir had a small kebab stand by the gate where he used to sell about 500 pita wraps daily, he said. He remembers young kids making up to 200 liras ($75) a day just helping traders carry their goods. It all changed when the border was closed. Demir said even the smuggling operations were hit hard due to the wall built on the border 18 months ago, just behind the stone houses. “The economy here was based on the border trade. Restaurants, offices for the middle man. All closed now.”
Across the street, in the coffee shop where traders bringing goods to Syria once smoked cigarettes on their breaks, all that blocked the view of the ISIS flag on the Syrian side of the border was a big gray wall. Turkish soldiers stood in their posts; locals said ISIS militants sometimes wave at the soldiers.
Zekeria Akyurt lives in an old stone house where the border wall is also the garden fence. He said it’s both exciting and horrifying to reside just a few feet from the border with ISIS. About a month ago ISIS blew up the hospital and the customs office on the other side of the wall, also blowing up windows in town. “My kids could not sleep at nights for a week.”
Residents are wary of having a visiting journalist in town. When asked about smuggling, all claimed it didn’t exist. Yet there are signs to the contrary. Aside from the offer to smuggle the journalists across the border, residents recounted stories that suggested the “unofficial” passage of people across the border was a routine occurrence.
Several residents recount seeing ISIS militants in town, trying to cross the border. They say they were quick to call the police if there was a suspicious person lurking. Turkey has upped its arrests of ISIS jihadists in the last year, largely bowing to Western and NATO pressure to do more to contain the terrorist statelet to its south.
Demir says that just last week, in fact, he had called the police on a suspected jihadist, who was then arrested. Yet Demir’s cousin, walking next to him by the train tracks, murmurs: “They arrest them, but then later they let them go.” A government official denied letting them go, saying they deport all foreign ISIS suspects after necessary security checks: “Sometimes the home countries let them free after we deport them.”
One Syrian refugee living in Karkamis, who asked not to be named to protect his safety, said that one day last month, six Syrians were crossing the border with a Turkish smuggler when they stepped on a land mine or IED. The explosion was so loud that several Karkamis residents recounted hearing it. A father and his son were killed, and a mother lost her legs, the refugee said, adding that the survivors were brought to a hospital in ISIS territory.
The refugee believed that the explosives were planted along the border by ISIS to stop defections, although this couldn’t be confirmed.
A Syrian aid worker in a refugee camp near Karkamis, who asked to use the nickname Um Ahmed, said fears of ISIS had driven her from Karkamis last year. She had lived in the town for three years, crossing back and forth regularly into her hometown of Jarabulus. But after ISIS took control they arrested her, she said, suspicious of her aid work. When she was released a few days later, she fled back to Turkey—and then decided to leave Karkamis too, thinking that ISIS had a presence there as well. “I just want to stay far from ISIS,” she said.