Thousands of Syrian Kurds deal with displacement
All that separates Mohamad Muslim from his village in Syria is a barbed wire fence running along the Turkish border, but the dull thud of artillery and the rattle of machinegun fire suggest he will not be going home any time soon.
Muslim, dressed in a battered suit, his moustache flecked with grey, is among more than 150,000 Syrian Kurds who have fled to Turkey over the past week to escape the advance of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, who have seized villages and beheaded residents as they push towards the strategic border town Kobane.
“I don’t want to be in Turkey, I want to be in my village, I want to die in Kobane,” Muslim said, running prayer beads through his hands as he watched Kurdish and ISIS fighters exchange fire in the valley below.
“If the war goes our way, then of course we’ll go home, but it looks like it will be difficult.”
Turkey, already home to an estimated 1.5 million refugees from Syria’s civil war, is pushing the United States and its allies to create a safe haven for refugees inside Syrian territory. A safe haven along the border would require a no-fly zone policed by foreign jets.
“You’ve seen it in other places along the border. There’s no fighting any more but people stay in Turkey,” said Umit Algan, who runs the relief effort in the border town of Suruc for IMPR, a Turkish aid organization.
“I think it’ll be the same here, they never know when ISIS might come back,” he said, adding that his group’s initial relief effort aimed to help refugees camping out in mosques, schools and parks for a month only.
Crowds of mostly Syrian Kurds cheered from the Turkish hillside as Kurdish shells kick up plumes of dust near ISIS positions just across the border, but the next day the militants seized new ground.
The United Nations, which has warned that as many as 400,000 people could flee Kobane to Turkey, has said that the number of displaced makes the influx from the besieged border town the most serious yet of Syria’s civil war.
Many of those who have fled were from poor farming communities in the semi-arid terrain and were forced to leave their most valuable possessions behind — particularly livestock and vehicles.
“We have nothing here, nowhere to sleep. If they let us collect our cars, we can sleep in them,” said one Syrian Kurdish refugee, 60-year old Hussain Kadir Cumo.
Small crowds of Syrian Kurds gathered at crossing points along the border to plead with Turkish officials to be allowed to go back and collect their possessions, their vehicles tantalizingly visible through the barbed wire fence.
A steady stream of new refugees kept arriving, many of them herding cattle.
Labor Minister Faruk Celik, who visited the border gate, was later quoted as saying the authorities would start to let livestock and vehicles cross.
Turkish military outposts occupy commanding positions on high ground along the border, ISIS front lines clearly visible below them. Armored military vehicles patrol the frontier, but Turkish guns have remained silent, with Ankara reluctant to be dragged into the war.
The conflict has stirred up deep-seated resentment among Turkey’s Kurds, who inhabit large parts of the country’s southeast and accuse Ankara of backing the Islamist insurgents in a bid to stifle a three-decade insurgency by Kurdish militants pushing for greater rights.
Thousands of Kurds from across Turkey have descended on the border in recent days, some living in quasi-refugee camps, in solidarity with displaced Kurdish communities, with police repeatedly firing tear gas to disperse protesters.
“Our family and friends are in Kobane, this border has no meaning for us,” said Songul Morsumbul, a protest organizer.
“But the state attacks us with gas, tells us we’re terrorists.”
Cemile Gunay’s son and daughter both left their home in Turkey’s southeastern city of Mardin to fight against ISIS four months ago, and she has heard nothing from them since, except one brief glimpse in a TV news report.
“Sometimes I think if they just come close to the frontier I might catch a glimpse of them,” she says, spending her night sleeping under small trees in a dusty field overlooking the border along with dozens of other Kurds.
“Of course it’s difficult… When I hear the tank shells, it feels like my heart will explode. [But] it’s an honor for me that they fight, an honor for the nation.”
Turkey’s government categorically denies any support to ISIS militants, but is concerned that Western plans to arm Kurdish fighters could boost the PKK, the Kurdish militant group with which Ankara has been negotiating a fragile peace deal to end the three-decade insurgency.
The main Kurdish armed group in northern Syria, the YPG, is a sister group of the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara, the United States and European Union.
“It’s very difficult for the Turkish army. ISIS are very dangerous,” said one soldier patrolling the border, declining to be identified. “But YPG are very dangerous too.”