Turkey’s Haunted and Dangerous Syrian Border

Melik Kaylan ventures to the dangerous Turkish-Syrian border, which thousands crossed seeking safety.

Dawn light illuminates the puffs of mist over a sleepy stretch of the Orontes River, part of the border of the shared Hatay region between Turkey and Syria for some 50 miles. It's more like 75 miles if you count the river's tight switchbacks through this ancient valley of silent, fecund farmland in the plains of Antioch around Altinozu—only 15 miles from the city of Antioch itself (Antakya in Turkish). The region has certainly scored its imprint on history over the millennia—the Pharaohs fought battles near here, as did the Assyrians and Byzantines—but now time seems to move as sluggishly as the Orontes. Visible to the eye are a handful of young men across the fields, alertly watched by Turkish soldiers in distant, shimmering watchtowers. The river slinks between lush trees, its bends offering cover to the solitary figure wading across.

Virtually half of Turkey's Hatay population are ethnic Arabs. As it happens, I speak both Turkish and Arabic. I came to the river in the guise of a farm worker with the help of a Turkish landowner friend to see how the locals are faring across the river. The flow of refugees into Turkey's overall Hatay region virtually stopped after June 20 when the Syrian army closed off the usual escape routes into Turkey. The flow of cross-border information too has slowed to a trickle. Which is why I have come—to look along and over the divide. According to my landowner friend, until now only the Turks always policed the border. It seems the Syrians still don't monitor here. According to refugees, elsewhere along the Hatay border they are likely to shoot unauthorized crossers on sight. The Turkish military also prevents anyone from unofficially going across to Syria.

Most of the human traffic came through mountainous country 80 miles south of here near the villages of Guvecci and Yayladag. There are five highly efficient tent cities, run by the Turkish Red Crescent, nestled in the landscape between Altinozu farmland and the mountain passes. Precisely ordered, almost opulently supplied with food, toys, volleyball, medicine, cell phone access, and the like (much to the chagrin of poorer local Turks who cannot afford such things) the camps house over 10,000 Syrians. Some three quarters of the refugees are women and children. The camp population has decreased from a high point of 11,700, as Turkish authorities say almost 1,000 people have gone back to Syria in the past 10 days. The inmates cannot leave except to return home. The media cannot get in to parlay with them. These days, Turkey seems to enforce the information blackout on the border as tightly as Syria. Friday's reports, backed up with videos, showed sizable street demonstrations in Syrian cities, but one couldn't find any confirmation of the opposition’s claims that Syrian military had killed three people near the Turkish border. Indeed, the Turks reported that 300 more refugees had gone back.

A local correspondent for the national daily Sabah, Mithat Kalaycioglu, echoes some of the ambivalent sentiments of the locals toward the refugees. “The information we all get is so tainted,” he tells me. “The numbers keep fluctuating—if things are that bad why do they go back? It's clear that generally people in the largest cities such as Aleppo and Damascus are not joining the marches. Meanwhile normal Syrians still come here to shop—some of them see the TV news here and cannot understand. They haven't seen such things in their areas. So many questions remain unanswered. How is it that along the 540 plus miles of border, famously the longest in the Middle East, the refugees only come through Hatay—a short stretch, less than one sixth of the total length? Most of them come and drop off their families, then the men go back. Probably to join marches. Most of them are Sunni. If they stay—and of course we should keep them if they are in danger—but if they stay and their entire families come it will change the ethnic balance of this area. When Turkey allowed some 200,000 refugees into the Kurdish region during the first Gulf War, it caused tremendous instability in that part of the country for years.”

This kind of doubtful, questioning, view of the Syrian troubles is surprisingly widespread here. I have been approached repeatedly by local Turks—many of them ethnic Turco-Syrian Alawites—who complain that the world media tells only one side of the story. I have been shown videos of Syrian policemen being beheaded or shot. To many Alawites, members of the minority religion which controls power in Syria, such scenes indicate that the uprisings are led by extreme Sunni Muslim Brotherhood types. The fear is the problems are deeply sectarian and will lead to widespread ethnic bloodshed that will spread to Turkey. According to Mithat, some 15 percent of Antioch's population of 160,000 is Alawite, and other smaller towns are even more solidly Alawite. According to Reshit Kuseyri, a local historian and a highly respected octogenarian landowner from a top local family, Syria's (Alawite) Assad family originally hails from Turkey's Samandag hills, near the Hatay coast. “Part of their family left to go to Damascus in the 1930s when the area was divided between the two countries. In Turkey they're called Aslan, meaning 'lion,’ same as Assad. They're still very close to each other. They always vote en bloc for left-wing parties. I like to joke that they take orders from Damascus.”

Until Friday, the last remaining place one could still speak openly to refugees was in the hill village of Guvecci. That's because Guvecci is a smuggler's stronghold. (You can buy a pack of 20 Winston cigarettes for $1.) Rickety earth-and-cinder houses with cows wandering inside stare down on the border that runs along the valley, below the Turkish military fort. In the mountains opposite lived fellow smugglers. The Syrian military began purging those villages systematically 10 days ago and many inhabitants moved in with friends in Guvecci. Turkish journalists say the Syrians acted to stop the villagers from smuggling refugees across into the media spotlight. Virtually every scrappy smuggler has cell-phone videos of Syrian towns thronged with unrest as soldiers and tanks open up with automatic gunfire. They also tell you hair-raising firsthand accounts—rape and slaughter, sudden death of relatives from sniper fire, “disappeared” friends, and the like. Their stories often change depending on the interviewer. But there is no denying the video evidence. On Friday, these people all evaporated deeper into Hatay when word came that Turkish authorities planned to intern them as refugees.

The children are the bravest. They would often sneak across to get images of Syrian soldiers occupying their villages. (You have to wonder about anyone who allows children to serve such purposes.) The one person who agreed to take me across at dusk on Thursday, braving the Turkish military watchers, and the Syrian snipers opposite, stopped a few hundred yards past the boundary in scrubby woodland. Dusk is the time of least visibility to the eye and to night-vision sniper goggles, they said. A child of 10 suddenly appeared near us and went on ahead. He crawled along over the hill and waited for me. We eventually got to a vantage point where an empty village was visible some miles away occupied with armored vehicles. A bus full of people, some in civilian clothes, wound its way to the village. The boy told me they were “Mukhabarat” or secret police. They are settling strangers in our houses, he said. We saw glints in the woods opposite, possibly specially muffled muzzle-flashes. He pointed to them and began to run pell-mell back to the border, and I followed.

Back down along the Orontes, very early the day before, my friend dropped me off on a dirt track by a copse of trees. He was worried mostly that the Turkish soldiers would be angry with him. He also knew that no Syrian had defected from there, and suspected them all of being Assad loyalists. The Turkish farmers take irrigation water from the Orontes via steel pipes. It's normal to inspect those pipes periodically. I waded into the mulchy bank and swam some thirty yards across and sloshed through high reeds to the wooded edge of a tomato field. Two men sat breakfasting under a tree. They seemed only a little surprised. I explained about the pipes, that I came to say hello. The water's very dirty, they said. We chatted. Finally I asked in Arabic, “So you don’t have any problems here with ‘the Arab Spring’? They laughed sourly. “Spring? Does that mean it's a time when everybody kills each other? What is the Arab Winter going to look like?”