Middle East
5:20 pm
Mon October 1, 2012

Turkey Pushes Syrians Into Limbo Across Border

Originally published on Tue October 2, 2012 4:34 am

Long before the Syrian uprising, Antakya, Turkey, was a storied place. Once known as Antioch, the city was home to Greeks, some of the earliest Christians, Jews and Armenians. It once was a major stop on the Silk Road.

Most recently, the Turkish city became a hub for the Syrian rebellion. For many months, Turkish authorities tolerated Antakya's status, and even encouraged it. Turkey built refugee camps for tens of thousands of Syrians, and even one for officers who defected from the Syrian army to join the rebel cause.

That support, however, is starting to fade.

At a recent protest, Turkish citizens living in Antakya called for the rebels to be expelled. At the same time, Turkish authorities began knocking on doors of Syrians who rent apartments in Antakya, telling them they have only a few days to get out of town.

The refugee camps have also stopped taking new arrivals, meaning desperate Syrians trying to get into Turkey are stuck in limbo.

Refugees In Waiting

Just across the border into Syria from Turkey, groups of families have taken up shelter in an olive grove. Underneath rows of olive trees, families have built their own tents out of carpets; they're just living out under the sun, and on the dusty, rocky ground.

Em Abdo is one of 3,000 people living there. She says she left her nearby town when the shelling seemed like it would never stop. For now, she says she feels safer under the trees.

In the grove, the branches provide shade and blankets make walls. Many of the children have sores on their faces and are covered in flies. Abdo says she has no idea when the family might be able to leave.

The olive trees Em Abdo lives among sit along the Turkish-Syrian border. Drive a few miles into Syria, and you get to the town of Atme.

Abu Ali has it better than the refugees. He is a gunrunner and fixer for Syrian rebel commanders. In other words, he has cash. He says Turkish authorities knocked on his door in Antakya one day and told him to leave. So he decided to come back into Syria, rent a house here in Atme, and bring his wives and children.

Just a few months ago, Atme was a sleepy town and a way station for people traveling in and out of Syria. Now, it's the place to be. People in Atme say the town has grown from 5,000 to 40,000 people. Where there once was a single falafel stand there is now a thriving market.

The leaders of the rebel fighters, who go by the name the Free Syrian Army, posted a video recently announcing they, too, were leaving Turkey, moving out of the officers' camp and coming back to Syria. That may or may not be true, but the message was symbolic: It's time to regroup on the inside.

Another change in Atme has been new training camps for rebel fighters and foreign men, clearly not Syrians, walking around dressed in fatigues, carrying guns.

Because it is far from any Syrian army base and surrounded on three sides by Turkey, Atme has been immune to the violence visited on just about every other place in Syria that's known to house rebels. People in Atme believe Turkey quietly protects the town from attacks by Syrian helicopters and jets — an unofficial no-fly zone.

Houses are being built by Syrians who can afford it, and public buildings overflow with Syrians who can't. Several of the town's schools host refugees, and they hope to turn the buildings into hospitals. Right now, the nearest hospital is about 10 miles away.

No Safe Zone

At the hospital, it's clear the unofficial safe zone doesn't reach this far. In the past few weeks, the facility has treated some 70 people — rebel fighters and civilians wounded after attacks from a nearby army base.

The head doctor says a Syrian army jet has just fired a rocket at a house not far from the hospital. Everyone rushes to the lobby, where medics wait for casualties.

The jet comes in low to strafe people gathered just outside the hospital. Heading down to the basement, doctors bring in a wounded man covered with blood. He was shot in the knees.

Days later, a Syrian helicopter bombs another town near Atme, very close to the Turkish border. Thirty people are killed.

Back in Atme, it's unclear whether this new safe zone inside Syria is a good idea — and how long it will remain safe — especially now that it's such a hub for refugees and rebels.

"We say it's God," says a doctor who also serves as a guide for journalists. "Only God knows how long it will last."

NPR's Deborah Amos contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Where there is war, there is often a border town. It's a place where refugees seek shelter, where rebel fighters regroup, gun runners ply their trade and reporters try to follow it all. In the Syrian conflict, that town has been Antakya, Turkey. But as the violence drags on, Antakya's status is changing, as NPR's Kelly McEvers found on a trip there.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Long before the Syrian uprising, Antakya was a storied place. Once known as Antioch, the city was home to Greeks, some of the earliest Christians, Jews, Armenians. It once was a major stop on the Silk Road. Now, it's a Turkish city steeped in modern intrigue, a place where any number of aid workers, spooks, reporters, rehash the day in loud crowded bars like this one.

For many months, Turkish authorities tolerated Antakya's status as a hub for the Syrian rebellion, even encouraged it. Turkey built refugee camps for tens of thousands of Syrians, including one for officers who defect from the Syrian army to join the rebel cause. But that support is starting to fade.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING AND CLAPPING)

MCEVERS: At a recent protest, Turkish citizens living in Antakya called for the Syrian rebels to be expelled. At the same time, Turkish authorities began knocking on doors of Syrians who rent apartments in Antakya, telling them they only have a few days to get out of town. And for now, the refugee camps aren't taking new arrivals. That means desperate Syrians trying to get into Turkey are stuck in limbo.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE)

MCEVERS: We just crossed the border into Syria from Turkey. And what we're looking at here, it's an olive grove. So you've got kind of orderly rows of olive trees. Underneath each tree, basically, is a family and they've built their own tents out of carpets.

Em Abdo(ph) is one of 3,000 people living in the olive grove.

EM ABDO: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: She says she left her town not far from here when the shelling seemed like it would never stop. For now, she says she feels safer under this tree. The branches provide shade. Blankets make walls. The kids surrounding us - there's probably about 10 kids around us - they have sores on their faces, they're covered in flies. And Em Abdo says she has no idea when the family might be able to leave.

The olive trees where Em Abdo lives are situated just at the Turkish/Syrian border. Drive a few miles deeper into Syria and you get to the town of Atme. Abu Ali has it better than the refugees.

He's a gunrunner and fixer for Syrian rebel commanders. In other words, he has cash.

ABU ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: He says Turkish authorities told him to leave Antakya. So he decided to come back into Syria, rent a house here in Atme, and bring his wives and children.

Just a few months ago, Atme was a sleepy town, a way station for people coming and going into and out of Syria. Now it's the place to be. People here say the town has grown from 5,000 to 40,000 people. Where there once was a single falafel stand, there's now a thriving market.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The leaders of the rebel fighters, known as the Free Syrian Army, recently announced in this video they're leaving the officers camp in Turkey and coming back into Syria, too. That may or may not be true but the message was symbolic: It's time to regroup on the inside.

MAHIB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Our guide, a doctor named Mahib(ph), explains that Atme has been immune to the violence that's been unleashed on the rebel strongholds, because it's far from any Syrian army base and it's surrounded on three sides by Turkey. People here believe Turkey quietly enforces an unofficial no-fly zone over Atme.

Dr. Mahib says the town hopes to build hospitals next. Right now, the nearest hospital is about 10 miles away. Dr. Mahib takes us there.

It's clear the unofficial safe zone doesn't reach this far. In the past few weeks, some 70 wounded people - rebel fighters and civilians - were treated here after being attacked from a nearby army base. The head doctor comes to tell us a Syrian army jet has just fired a rocket at a house not far from the hospital. We rush to the lobby where medics wait for casualties.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MCEVERS: OK, that's some shooting. The jet has come in low to strafe people gathered just outside the hospital. We're all going down in the basement. One man was shot in the knees. OK, here comes a wounded guy. He's in here. He's limping. He's covered with blood.

Back in Atme, we asked Dr. Mahib whether this new safe zone inside Syria is a good idea and how long it will remain safe. We say it's God's will, he says; only God knows how long it will last.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.