After the Paris attacks last month, an emergency accord between Turkey and the European Union has sealed a border that was once so porous. It has real-life effects on desperate refugees, and entire towns.
ANTAKYA — It's midnight, and the bus stop in Antakya, capital of Turkey's southwestern Hatay province is dark, with the exception of a single cafe brightened by neon lights. A few voices break through the nighttime quiet near the Syrian border, as the bus depot's night workers gather around a thermos of hot tea.
"Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of Syrians were sleeping here, even on the asphalt, waiting to board buses to Izmir or Istanbul," one driver says. "But now, the authorities have deployed police officers in the forest, along the pathways favored by travelers. The Turkish government is closing the border."
Another driver speaks up: "The Paris attacks changed everything. Syrians don't get through anymore."
The 900-kilometer-long border between Syria and Turkey, long known for being so porous, is becoming increasingly difficult to cross. Even before Turkey made an agreement with the European Union on Nov. 29 to stem the tide of refugees, the Turkish government had already made pledges with its diplomatic counterparts. The country has implemented more systematic patrolling of illegal routes after the March closure of Bab Al-Salam, north of Aleppo, and Bab Al-Hawa, north of Idlib. Both had previously been key transit points open to Syrians.
The Syrian Khirbet-al-Joz route has emerged recently as a major focal point of travel restrictions, familiar to anyone who has fled bombings and misery in Syria. When the attacks in the Turkish cities of Suruç (33 killed in July) and Ankara (102 killed in October) forced the army to seal off the eastern part of Turkey's border with Syria — which faces areas under ISIS control — the narrow Khirbet-al-Joz stretch became a last resort for Syrians.
Too hard to pass
People gather here from as far away as Raqqa, the fiefdom occupied by ISIS jihadists, which is 400 kilometers away. The Russian military's airstrikes have drawn even more people to the route.
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Antakya, Turkey — Photo: Maarten Sepp
According to the United Nations, 20,000 Syrians have arrived in refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border over the past few weeks alone, and many of them intend to sneak into Turkey as soon as possible. But citing an estimate from the Turkish Red Cross, over the course of three days just 120 Syrians managed to slip past border security guards, press agency Anadolu reported last week.
Oum Ismaïl is among those lucky few. The 55-year-old matriarch, her face lined and her hands calloused, walked for seven hours through the forest before a Turkish taxi driver picked her up. This nighttime journey cost her 600 Turkish lira, or about $205, a small fortune for Ismaïl, a rural resident of the Idlib region. "In our group, there was a woman with a one-and-a-half-year-old child, and she fell three times along the way," she says. "We were so exhausted that no one could help her. Thankfully she was able to get up each time."
Three of her nephews, who left at the same time she did, were less fortunate. They were stopped by the Turkish police, and spent 24 hours in a fenced-in camp, without food, before being sent back to Syria. It was only on their second attempt, the following day, that they were able to get through.
"I've made this trip five different times," says Ismaïl, who since her first entry into Turkey in 2013 has gone home regularly to look after her olive trees. "But this will be my last trip. It's gotten too hard, and the Russian bombs scare me too much."
Mahmoud Bitar, another Syrian in Antakya, is equally familiar with all the obstacles. He's dealt with it numerous times delivering medical aid to Aleppo or Idlib, and remembers various travel companions, weak from the journey, opting to abandon their bags in a ravine so they could keep going.
Been through hell
A recent Human Rights Watch report describes women removing their veils to create makeshift ropes, which their husbands use to hoist them along breakneck inclines. The organization also highlighted the frequency of arrests, gunshots and violent beatings by the Turkish border patrol, all in violation of international law. In these tense situations, panic often leads groups of people to split up.
"In Syria, I've been through hell," Bitar says. "But that endless walk, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, is the worst of anything I've experienced."
At the Antakya bus station, two young Syrians emerge from the darkness. They want to get to the hospital in the Turkish city of Adana, about 200 kilometers to the west, to secure a kidney donation for a member of an armed Syrian group wounded in battle.
Khaled, 30, will be the donor, and his 28-year-old cousin Zakarya will accompany him. The two men, who have made this journey before, can tell the border is closing, but hardened by five years of war, they are indifferent to this change.
"Those who are determined will always be able to get across," says a stony-faced Khaled. "And if necessary, we'll fight for it."