‘Accepted but unwanted’: refugees from Syria seek aid in Turkey

11 December 2014

‘Accepted but unwanted’: refugees from Syria seek aid in Turkey

Foto: SP

Party Secretary Hans van Heijningen and Member of Parliament Sadet Karabulut recently visited South-Eastern Turkey in order to see with their own eyes the situation of refugees there. Reporting on the visit, Van Heijningen says that ‘the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the flood of refugees which this has brought about have put the fragile peace process between Kurds and Turks under ever greater pressure.’

Turkey has now around a million Iraqi and Syrian refugees within its borders. War-related violence means that, in the last few months, hundreds of thousands of Kurds from these countries have crossed the border in an attempt to escape the ruthless violence of the fascists of the Islamic State. The refugees have managed to get away because Kurdish PKK and YPG guerrillas were able to open up escape routes for them. On the safe side of the border, in Turkey, they feel on the one hand that they’ve come home. Local Kurdish authorities and ordinary citizens have shown solidarity in shaaring houses, money and food with the refugees. On the other hand, however, they are coming home to a cold house. The Turkish government treats them as unwanted guests and as a security problem.

‘Citizens’ inspections’ in Kobani

With our MP Sadet Karabulut I stood with around eighty people – most of them men, but also whole families and even little toddlers – on a bald, rocky hill in the Turkish-Syrian border region, no more than a mile from the Syrian town of Kobani. People have driven here in cars here from the border town of Suruc. Although hazy, we see the plumes of smoke come up after loud rocket strikes by IS. A superficial observer might get the idea that this is a case of ‘disaster tourism’, but appearances can be deceptive. These are people who have been driven out of hearth and home and live with friends and family in Kobani, from where they conduct a life-and-death struggle with ISIS. The people here on the hill are responding to the call from the left Turkish and Kurdish party the HDP to subject as many places as possible at the border to ‘citizen’s inspections’. This is to prevent the Turkish army from giving support to ISIS, examples of which have been legion, according to the people with whom we speak. ISIS fighters receive secret military support from Turkey; wounded Kurdish fighters are stopped at the border, which has in nineteen cases resulted in their deaths; and the citizen’s inspections are sometimes met with brute force, beatings by Turkish paramilitaries. For form’s sake Turkey is a member of the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’, which is attacking ISIS from the air, but in practice the Kurds, who call the shots in 119 local authorities in the south-east of Turkey, are seen as the real enemy.

Colourful PKK propaganda

With our escorts we went to a couple more places around Kobani where citizens’ inspections are being carried out. We went into a tiny settlement of mud huts, a few sheep, and a cow tied to a tree. Plastic tents were being used by the citizen inspectors. The village was decked out with colourful PKK propaganda, slogans on walls, and portraits of the movement’s leaders and of heroes who have fallen in the struggle over Kobani. A group of six little girls sung and danced in a tent, the word ‘guerrilla’ audible in every line. We chat with a shuffling old man who says he’s 105. Family members of various ages, looking curious, came out of their huts. Everyone wanted to be on the photo. Next we went to a mosque on the hill where a few hundred day trippers and a smaller hard core of activists were following the battle over Kobani. Round the mosque tea was being offered and food shared out, which was being eaten from plastic trays in the yard next to the mosque. The big pan has just been emptied, but an older man who is sitting on his own signals to me that I can eat along with him, and divides his meal in two with a plastic fork. Foreigners are more than welcome here, because the world has to know that the Kurds are at the forefront of the fight against ISIS. ‘We are fighting for the whole civilised world, because the scum we’re fighting against have got in in for you, too’, a Kurdish boy who could speak English told me.

Caring for refugees: solidarity

The number of refugees is enormous. South-east Turkey alone is accommodating 200,000, by far the majority of whom have been housed by family, friends and people who are simply showing their solidarity. That the Kurds in Turkey are paying a high price for this was obvious. The population of Suruc, a dusty little border town with 45,000 inhabitants and some 55,000 in the villages around it, has doubled in the last two months. Water shortages have brought agriculture to a standstill, as a result of which farmers are seeing themselves forced to work as day labourers in places nearby. The local authority is totally broke as a result of having to meet the bill for the food prepared in the soup kitchens, as well as for the construction of sanitary facilities, electricity supply and heating. I bumped into a big Iranian, an electrician by trade, who told me that he ‘was sixteen, seventeen when Saddam Hussein used poison gas against our Iraqi bothers in Halabja, just next to us over the border. Now our brothers in Kobani are being massacred by ISIS. I could no longer watch the misery on TV, so I packed my things and promised my family that I’d be back in six months. Now I’m fitting electricity in all of the camps. It is terrible how our people are being driven out and humiliated.’

Return and rebuilding

Wandering around amongst the refugees’ tents I ran into Sadet, who was followed by a horde of small children and in conversation with a girl of fifteen who had her baby sister on her arm. She was sulking because she couldn’t go to fight alongside her father in against ISIS in Kobani. The story goes that the worst humiliation an ISIS fighter can meet is to be taken by a female fighter. Many refugees with whom we spoke were asking themselves not if they would be returning to their town, but when. Conscious of the fact that Kobani lay in the course of the tide of destruction, they were already asking us for help with reconstruction.

Yezidis seem a broken people

The mood amongst the refugees in Suruc is, however, totally different from that which prevails amongst the Yezidi refugees whom we had visited two days earlier. The Yezidis, a traditional Kurdish people which in the course of history have already been subjected to genocidal attacks on seventy-four occasions, seem broken. The only question now is whether they can overcome the effects of the violence and humiliation to which they have been subjected on Mount Sinjar. Despite the gratitude and appreciation they expressed for the Kurdish guerrillas, they want only one thing, and that is to get away – away from the suffering of the Middle East to western Europe. Those who have rescued them tell them that the best for them would be to go back to Iraq, but the rapes and kidnappings, and the sale of their young women in Mosul and other places mean that they have lost all hope.

'The central government has failed us’

Diyarbakir is the social and political centre of the Kurdish autonomous region in south-eastern Turkey. For fifteen years the place has been run by left-wing Kurds. Politics has been forced into the very capillaries of the society. The Kurd-backed local authorities now stand on the verge of financial disaster, because they have used all their money for the construction of infrastructure for the reception of refugees. The refugee camps around the town, which count on average four-to-six thousand inhabitants, are run by volunteers. Fethi Suvari, deputy mayor of Diyarbakir, told us that civilians from the town had contributed between two and three times as much money as had the local authority itself. Organisations of doctors, engineers, architects, town planners and teachers, together with thousands of other professionals giving their time as volunteers, are active round the clock providing the refugees with food, housing, medicines, health care, education, cultural activities and security. The volunteers encourage the refugees to organise things themselves and together with them get the work done, as a result of which the camps, though it’s hard to believe, run like clockwork. There is a shortage of everything, but people work really hard and don’t complain. What’s in short supply precisely? Medicines, school books – in Arabic, which makes things more complicated - bed clothes, baby food, and a great deal more. As things stand the highest priority is to prepare the camps for winter, which is really cold in these parts. There’s a need for heaters, ovens and winter clothes. ‘Oh, we’ll be dealing with that,’ said the deputy mayor, ‘although I must admit that we’re on the brink of bankruptcy and for the last two months we’ve had no resources for the repair of roads, to run decent buses, provide refuse collection to everyone, keep the water supply up to scratch, you name it. And the worst of it is that the central government has completely failed us, and what’s more the governor asks us calmly whether “you had to bring so many Yezidis here”. A scandalous attitude but that’s the reality here. Up to now we’re still managing it wonderfully well, but we’re in danger of slowly sinking through the ice.’

Refugees are the victims of polarisation

Through the intervention of the Dutch embassy we were also able to visit Aydin Altac, the local and regional leader of the ruling AK Party. He had had it up to here with all these Kurdish administrators who ‘think that through street violence they can impose their will on the people of the town. The left misuses the refugee problematic and thinks the laws and rules that we have in our country can be ignored.’ To my question as to whether it wasn’t too sad for words that the refugees had become the victims of political polarisation, he answered in the affirmative. ‘We could do a great deal more for the refugees if our political opponents there didn’t put obstacles in our way,’ he said. ‘But if patients who present themselves at the reception desk of the hospital refuse to allow their names to be registered, there’s nothing more to be said.’ The AK Party doesn’t leave its hostility at words. Because of their deploying security forces and street fighters from the Muslim fundamentalist HUDA party against Kurdish demonstrators protesting at the closure of the Turkish-Syrian border, in the first half of October forty-one people were killed.

‘Traumatised but not stupid’

Cenjiz Gunay, head of the Chamber of Physicians, who with 250 volunteer doctors working in shifts is giving aid to the refugees in and around Diyarbakir, explodes with rage when we ask him for his reaction to the allegation that left-wing Kurds are politicising aid to the refugees and thereby putting them in danger. ‘This sort of AK Party leader lacks any sort of feeling of common humanity,’ he says. ‘How do you come up with the idea of demanding that Yezidi refugees identify themselves at the hospital’s reception? These people are certainly traumatised, but they’re not stupid. As if they don’t know that the Turkish authorities are hand-in-glove with ISIS.’

‘Support the peace process’

The Dutch embassy again interceded to arrange a visit to Murad Akincilar, director of DISA, a politically independent research institute in Diyarbakır. A Turk who studied in London, he has long been married to a Kurdish woman and has lived for years in Diyarbakır. Akincilar blames the Turkish government for politicising aid to the refugees. ‘Until March of next year, when elections will be held, there is a chance of restarting peace talks,’ he told us. ‘PKK leader Öcalan did what he could from his prison cell to put an end to street violence and he was successful in that. But should Kobani fall, or the Turkish state provoke renewed large-scale violence in the streets, then I’ll be extremely worried. I see here a “no future” generation growing up, who as a result of the lack of any prospects threaten to opt for vengeance and violence.’ His voice breaks. ‘No, really, I take most seriously the chance that in the coming months the wrong side will gain the upper hand. That would be terrifying. Support the peace process and support the refugees, that is what we’re asking from the international community’

This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, in the SP monthly magazine Tribune.

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