CEYLANPINAR – Instantly, spoons stop stirring in teacups and conversations freeze mid-sentence. A mortar has just been heard a few hundred meters from the main street of Ceylanpinar, a small Turkish town on the border with Syria. Through the window, everybody can see a cloud of black smoke rising up from Ras al-Ayn, the Syrian town that lies just across the nearby railway tracks.
"It's become too dangerous. Sometimes, bullets and mortars are hitting our houses. The al-Nusra fighters fire blindly," scowled Kurdish farmer Mehmet Demir.
He was speaking about the al Nusra Front, a Syrian Islamist rebel group with ties to al Qaeda that is fighting the Damascus regime. And here, we find out, al-Nusra is also coming up against another armed group: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the rebel group that has fought its own decades-long battle with Ankara, until a negotiated ceasefire was signed earlier this year.
Some 70% of Ceylanpinar's inhabitants are Kurdish, the other 30% Arabs. For more than a year, the town has been living in the face of flare-ups of violence between Kurdish militants loyal to jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and jihadists from al-Nusra.
Four Turkish civilians have been killed since July, hit by stray bullets or shells that had missed their targets. "They put old train wagons in front of the official buildings to protect them but that's about all they can do," says Demir, a sympathiser of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the legal Kurdish party affiliated with the long outlawed PKK.
"Do you see that house?" Demir asks, pointing to a big modern construction with walls painted in deep green. "Two shells fell on the terrace. But thankfully, they didn't explode."
Sükrü Kahraman was less lucky. This 42-year-old farmer was killed in August when a rocket struck near his farm while he was tending his cattle. Two of his sons were injured. Mehmet, 20, had an arm wounded by shrapnel. "I can't go in the fields anymore to pick up the vegetables, so they rot," he said, his voice trembling.
The window behind him was also hit by a stray bullet. "Our children can't even walk to school alone. But where else can we go? We live thanks to what we grow here," said Fehmi Karaman, Sükrü nephew.
No way out
Still, despite the danger, the school year started on Sept. 16 in three of the the town's four schools. The last one, located just opposite the border control, near the abandoned train station, remained closed.
Across the porous border in Ras al-Ayn, the fights have increased in intensity since the summer. Although it briefly controlled by the jihadists from al-Nusra, the town is now in the hands of the People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed division of the Syrian branch of the PKK and Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has reinforced its stronghold along the Turkish border.
The Islamist fighters have taken refuge in the neighboring village of Tall Half. From there, they fire on their enemies' positions. Kurdish sources claim that some 1,000 jihadists were killed, including a noted leader, emir Anas Al-Midfi. Civilians have, for the most part, left the town.
"But the door to Turkey has remained closed since the PYD has taken control of the frontier post," lamented Ismail Aslan, the mayor of Ceylanpinar. To cross over to Turkey, where these people's parents and friends are, they have no choice but to rely on smugglers.
Behind Ceylanpinar's customs building, protected by tanks, Kurdish rebels have hung their flag on the roof of an old pasta factory. Their presence worries the Turkish authorities, who fear a scenario where the Kurdish take control of territories on the border. Turkish officials met with PYD's leader Saleh Muslim in Ankara and announced on Sept. 17 that they would send humanitarian aid to Ayn al-Arab, another Kurdish enclave under siege in Syria, hoping this would bring down tensions.
Still, some locals in Ceylanpinar accuse Turkey of supporting the jihadists from al-Nusra. They are said to be coming and going freely across the border, using the vast territory of the TIGEM — the country's largest state farm — along the Syrian border where a camp with 15,000 refugees has been set up.
"I could only go there once. That was a year ago," says Mayor Aslan, denouncing the lack of transparency from the Turkish government.
Kurds refer to a photograph that was taken of a Turkish state official arm-in-arm with Islamist rebels. Ankara denies giving any support whatsoever to jihadist groups, saying it was impossible to control the entire 800-kilometer border with Syria.
On Sept. 16, three injured Kurds were brought to Ceylanpinar. "The militaries refused to let them through. After three hours, they were allowed in, but they couldn't enter the hospitals," said Nezir Atilla who helped transport the wounded. One man died of his injuries.
Idris Baluken, president of the parliamentary group of the Peace and Democracy Party, had to intervene in order for the other two to receive medical care. "We can't just stand there with our arms crossed," says an official from the Peace and Democracy Party who had come to see the wounded. "Turkey is forcing us to take part in this war."