Kürd dağından Filistin’e uzanan,
ulu bir ölmez ağacının altında
Bir avuç kırmızı toprakla sildim kanını
Göbeğini turkuaz bir taşla kestim
Ve gömdüm etimi
köklerine zeytin ağacının.
Ve ben şimdi, bu adsız çocuğu,
iki sınır arasında,
- ölüm gömülü bu topraklarda -
bir zeytin ağacının gövdesine
ve gölgesine sığınmış
toprağın uğultusuyla büyütüyorum.
Geceleri, çöl ayazında,
Kuşların dilinden ninnilerle,
Ölüm şarkıları fısıldıyor kulağına
Acıyla yansa da yüreğim,
Ben anneyim bilirim, ölümün yurdunda,
adı konmaz bebeklerin...
The taxi had a white, Syrian numberplate but it was the bags spilling out of the boot, secured by rope wrapped around the lid, which told you where the vehicle had come from. Inside the vehicle were a married couple and their three young children, squeezed in beside all the possessions they managed to bring from their old life. As the taxi parked in the snowy streets of Gaziantep, a Turkish city an hour’s drive from the border, the family stood shivering on the pavement hand in hand. We smiled and said welcome. They smiled back and on their faces there was a look of relief, a sense of reassurance which couldn’t quite mask the new quality of trepidation they must have felt on arriving in a new country. They were now 'guests' in a foreign city hosting a vast multitude of Syrians who fled the bombs and the bloodshed that has engulfed their homeland.
Since the conflict in Syria began in April 2011 it is estimated by the Turkish government and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that 600,000 Syrians have crossed the 511 mile border into Turkey. Yet the true figures are estimated to be close to a million with only one third living in the country’s 21 refugee camps while the remaining two thirds are living in urban areas like Gaziantep. Like this family they have fled their homes in search of safety in Turkey which has welcomed Syrians allowing those who hold passports to enter as normal and those without being admitted to the temporary refugee camps. Initially referred to as ‘guests’ the Turkish government has since awarded Syrians ‘temporary protected status’ but with increasing numbers of refugees crossing the border they are now attempting to limit those who can cross without official documents. This has led to the creation of over 20 camps along the Syrian side of the border and a rise in the number of Syrians entering Turkey unofficially.
Of all Syria’s neighbours Turkey has done the most to secure the protection of refugees but with the increasing strain on resources the government’s use of terminology clearly hints that they perceive their displaced neighbours as transitory visitors. It is this process of transit which becomes truly apparent during my time working with Vural, a social documentary photographer, in southeastern Turkey; but it’s a form of transit which is difficult to define and understand. Perhaps inherent in the very nature of transit are two conflicting elements: here there is at once an active form of movement, where people travel backwards and forwards between Syria and Turkey, and yet those displaced are also undergoing a stationary paralysis, finding themselves in a holding-pattern on the edge of their country with no end or destination in sight.
With a population of one and half million Gaziantep is the sixth largest city in the country and is a growing centre for industry, textiles, and agriculture making it the economic centre of southeastern and eastern Turkey. Spread across a number of hills the city has benefited from the last ten years of political stability and economic growth and despite its location, and the snow which envelops the city on my arrival, it is not provincial in its outlook. These facts coupled with its reputation for delicious food tell you a lot about the city which is becoming increasingly confident about its place in the emerging modern Turkey. It is this economic draw and its proximity to the border which have brought thousands of Syrians to the city seeking safety, work and a place to live.
Ahmed is one of Gaziantep’s urban refugees. I met him in a small Syrian cafe serving espresso shots of strong Arabic coffee located just down the road from the bus garage which has regular departures for the Syrian border. Ahmed is a smart young man with a clean shaven face and immaculate thin sideburns. As he elegantly smokes one cigarette after another he tells me of his life in Gaziantep, occasionally looking up difficult English words on his smartphone. “Before the war I was studying English at university in Aleppo,” he explains. “When I arrived the camps were already full so I had to find a flat to live in. The rent is very expensive and many of the landlords in Gaziantep are taking advantage of the Syrians, because there is such a huge demand for accommodation they can charge what they like.”
Some have estimated that the rent has increased three fold in the city since the conflict in Syria began. Since his arrival Ahmed has worked as an account for an Iraqi textile firm but was laid off a month previously. He is now working as a journalist for a Syrian radio station in Gaziantep, reporting on the news in his home country from across border. However like many of the Syrians I meet Ahmed regularly returns home, taking money to his family who have remained in Aleppo.
At a restaurant Vural and I met the waiter Mohb who has found more stability in the city. Mohb is another student from Aleppo but is fortunate enough to have enrolled at the University of Gaziantep. His father is a Psychology professor who is now working at the university and has arranged for Mohb to continue his medical studies at the cost of 8,000 Turkish Lira a year, the equivalent of £2,500. He explains that the university has also allowed Syrians who cannot afford to pay to attend lectures and that it will provide them with some form of accreditation which they can present to their original universities once they are able to return. It is clear that as a more affluent Syrian, Mohb has managed to gain a degree of permanence in the city. By continuing his studies he has at least managed to find one element of continuity between his old and new life, an activity which offers a future and stability which is absent from the uncertainty of most lives played out in the city.
Whilst it is not difficult to encounter Syrians working in cafés, collecting rubbish in the street or sitting under trees in the park and roadside wasteland in Gaziantep, it is when you head out of the city towards the border that you can really feel their presence. Driving out into the plateaus surrounding the city with their red soil and orderly olive and pistachio trees, as the numbers on the road signs counting down the distance to ‘Halep’ (the Turkish ancient name for Aleppo) begin to decrease, the Syrian white number plates increase. On the road to Akcakale, one of the nearby border crossings, we pass four refugee camps. Positioned a few miles outside rural towns, these camps are isolated tent cities where drying clothes flap on the wire fences and families walk in the scrub beside the tarmac. Roughly half of the 21 refugee camps in Turkey are container camps, where refugees are housed in containers rather than tents, and although they are never good places to live the Turkish government has received praise for the quality and services they provided.
The Akcakale border is one of the smaller crossing points in the area and there appears to be little movement on the day we visit. The traffic is made up of a few people crossing on foot. Most people are milling around the gates or sitting on the pavement or on their bags; it is unclear if they are coming or going but here the idea of destination, of direction, feels foolish. Behind a cart selling falafel, a group of young men are quick to start a conversation with me. Nasir is he young, sombre man who talks in soft and rhythmic bursts of English breaking off his sentence regularly to look off over my shoulder to Syria behind the fence. He’s keen to tell me about the situation in Syria, attempting to explain the increased sectarian nature of the war and the growing power of Islamic militant groups like the al-Qaeda linked Islam State of Iraq and al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nursa. He explains that ‘the war is not about freedom anymore. It’s about Sunni, Shia and Alawite’. Nasir introduces me to his cousin Mohammed, a defected solider. Mohammed pulls up his trouser leg to reveal a series of black and blotchy scars on his calf, where the live electric wire met his skin during torture. The reason for his torture: he had refused an order to fire at innocent civilians. Then looking off again over my shoulder Nasir points to a collapsing building 50 metres behind the border which was hit by one of the regime’s scud missiles.
I ask Nasir to tell me his own story. He was a law student from Deir ez-Zor in but has been living and working in Akcakale for the last two months travelling over the border every ten days to take money to his family. He doesn’t have a passport but the border guards let him pass. ‘This is my passport,’ he says, showing me a scratched ID card with a fading photo of face on it, ‘I go to Syria and back, go and back, go and back.’ When I ask him why he doesn’t stay in Syria he explains that there is no work, that ‘Deir ez-Zor is finished, bomb, bomb, bomb, my town, my university, my everything is finished.’
‘I go to Syria and back, go and back, go and back.’
With only one year of his studies remaining, Nasir’s country, his life and his future has suddenly been taken from him. Many of his student friends have died and the rest are spread across Turkey working for poor wages, cooking food like the young man serving falafel from the cart beside us. Unlike Mohb, Nasir hasn’t the money to attend the university in Gaziantep and so the only future he can foresee is gaining asylum in Europe where he could try and continue his studies. Although the Turkish government has been good to him, Nasir tells me that he cannot stay and has spoken to smugglers who can arrange the dangerous journey to Europe. ‘Some people go to Germany, Sweden, Italy, we go, go, go, go but when the war finishes we will come back to Syria.’ He asks to tell his story and we shake hands and say goodbye.
The Kilis border crossing is a forty minute drive from Gaziantep and is somewhat different to the smaller crossing at Akcakale. It is the largest entry point in the area and has a large arching roof spanning two wide lanes of traffic and the border control offices. If the cities and camps hold the stagnant elements of transit then it is here that it’s most active form of movement is played out with brisk orchestrated activity. There is a long line of trucks and lorries queuing to cross the border. We’re told that they won’t actually enter Syria but will unload their goods in a buffer zone where it will be collected by Syrian truck drivers and then distributed throughout the country. A steady follow flow of Syrians are crossing in both directions on foot and after what appears to be only a cursorily cursory glance at their passports those entering Turkey are quickly herded into packed waiting taxis which will ferry them to the centre of Kilis. Ambulances are paid no notice as they speed back and for forth, their sirens silent but their lights still flashing denoted denoting a controlled emergency. Like the truck’s cargo wounded civilians and fighters are brought to the border in Syria where the ambulances collect them and take them to the local hospital a few miles down the road.
Vural and I spent some time at the official border crossing, talking to the Syrians who are waiting for family members to cross, drinking tea and warming our hands and feet over an open fire. However it’s not long before we notice a steady follow flow of people with bags in their hand hands and children over their shoulders walking in and out of the olive groves where the border fence runs off to the left. After walking into the fields we soon hit a track running parallel to the border. In the hundred metres between us and Syria are olive trees, a minefield and a two metre high fence. Border zones are always liminal spaces where people pass from one state to another but here a new informal border crossing? area has been created since the beginning of the conflict where refugees seem to emerge, bag in hand, set either on return or escape. On the Syrian side of the border vehicles ply back and forth along the fence waiting to drop off Syrians who have paid to cross, whilst Turkish military armed cars follow, mimicking their movements. And then, set back from this on the track we are standing on, are the taxis moving up and down shadowing the other vehicles’ trajectory. There is a strange orchestration to these movements, a game where each participant knows their part. For despite the military presence hundreds of people cross the border each day either by climbing over the fence or through its many gaps and wholes holes. It’s clear that whilst the Turkish authorities don’t officially allow this form of illegal entry they are unwilling to use further force to prevent it.
An elderly man soon appears on the dirt track asking if we are going to Syria.He’s wearing a grey suit with wide, tapered trousers and jovially remarks that he is fighting for an opposition group and is returning to Syria after receiving medical treatment in the nearby Kilis hospital for a wound to his neck. As part of Turkey’s ‘temporary protected status’ policy Syrians have been offered access to healthcare and it is now common for opposition fighters to cross the border to receive medical treatment. He pulls three small photos from his pocket, a boy and two girls, and tells us that the two young girls are now dead. In 2003 he had fought in Iraq and now he is fighting against the Assad regime. When I ask him which opposition group he is fighting for he turns a little coy but smiles and lifts up his jacket to reveal a black keffiyeh wrapped around his waist. As we are talking people wander out of the trees towards to us. One young man shows us the cuts on his hands from where he has scaled the fence. A yellow taxi trundles slowly along the broken track and picks up these new arrivals and ferries them towards the city. Another group of four young men soon arrive but this time they are attempting to cross into Syria. The elderly man speaks to them and then leads them off towards the border fence to wait for an opportune moment to pass.
It’s as we’re leaving that we see two teenage brothers with their two sister’s sisters jump out of the back of a white pickup truck on the Syrian side of the border. They find a gap in the fence and coming come running, zigzagging into Turkey with tears and fear in their eyes. We shout at them to stay on a rough small path which leads out of the minefield. When they reach us we tell them they are safe and I see that same sense of relief that I’d seen days early on the faces of the family in Gaziantep. They get into a taxi which has suddenly appeared behind us and head off to the main road towards Kilis.
These are just a few stories from the million or so refugees in transit in and on the fringes of Syria. It is clear that as the conflict continues with increasing violence and the country fractures further, their temporary displacement becomes a permanent limbo, a transitory existence with no know destination in sight.
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