Turkey

Kilis, This Turkish City Is A Syrian War Victim Many Times Over

Already swamped by refugees from across the Syrian border, Kilis is now also having to contend with constant rocket attacks.

An injured boy after a missile launched from Syria struck Kilis, Turkey.
An injured boy after a missile launched from Syria struck Kilis, Turkey.
Deniz Yucel

KILIS — You can't say they didn't try. "I had the idea to invite Angela Merkel," says the woman from the city hall's press office in Kilis, in southern Turkey. "I suggested that the mayor ask Mrs. Merkel to visit the job center for Syrian women. He thought it was a good idea and sent her an invitation."

Shortly before that a lawmaker with the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) suggested Kilis for the Nobel Peace Prize. Why all these big plans? Because in addition to its regular population of 93,400, as the town sign proclaims, Kilis also now hosts 127,000 Syrian refugees, many from nearby Aleppo, only 80 kilometers away.

"A female chancellor inaugurating a job center for women on International Women's Day — that was the idea," says the press officer, who prefers not be identified by name. "It may have been a bit too short-notice for March 8. But with the chancellor then coming to Turkey anyway, and not visiting Kilis, that was very disappointing."

Merkel ultimately decided to visit another camp, approximately 100 kilometers northwest of here. The reason was simple: Kilis is a dangerous place. Since the beginning of the year, Katyusha rocket launchers have killed 17 residents: 11 Turkish citizens and six refugees. And in the past few weeks, not a day goes by without a rocket hitting the city. The danger doesn't only come from above. In nearby Gaziantep, a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of the police station.

The mood in Kilis is tense. Many have left or sent their children to relatives. Schools are closed. And things now seem to be nearing a breaking point for the city that, by taking on more refugees than inhabitants, has been publicly hailed as a point of pride by Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

The press officer doesn't want to talk about the rockets, except to say that everybody, residents as well as city authorities, are exposed to the same danger. The subject is indeed a sensitive one, as evidenced by the controversy generated when the area's provisional governor, Süleyman Tapsiz, recommended that citizens never leave the house without ritual washing — meaning they could die at any moment. "There is gravity, and I'm not Superman," he said. "I can't keep the rockets from falling from the sky."

The chairman of the leading opposition party, the Republican People's Party takes serious issue with the statements. "It's an acknowledgement that the state is incapable of protecting its citizens," grumbles Abidin Uslu.

Come to stay?

Compounding the problem is uncertaintly about who exactly is firing the missles and why. Uslu sees four possibilities: the Islamic State (ISIS), the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Free Syrian Army (FSA), or perhaps people from the Turkish Secret Service.

Was it a mistake that Turkey took in that many refugees? "No," says Uslu. "But they could have been distributed more intelligently around the country. It's too much for Kilis. And here they all speak of "guests." But Turkey is for the Syrians what Germany is for the Turkish. Even if they have come here under completely different circumstances than the Turkish in Germany, they too have come to stay. And many are not aware of this here in Turkey."

Many of the AKP's other opponents, however, say that regardless of how the refugees are distributed, it was simply a mistake for Turkey to take on so many — 2.5 million. Some Kilis residents feel the same way. "I don't want these people. It's because of them that Kilis has become what it is today," says a bank officer. "We don't need a Nobel Peace Prize. We need peace."

Others agree with Uslu that there needs to be a more organized approach to the issue. "It would have been a good thing to establish a safety corridor in Syria," says a salesperson in a textile shop.

There are also fears there some of the newcomers may be Islamic extremists. "With so many refugees nobody can be sure that there aren't any terrorists among them," says a retired teacher.

For the most part, though, residents feel it was their "duty as Muslims" to help people in need, as a group of men gathered around a backgammon board explain. "Many here have relatives in Syria. We have spent a lot of time there," the eldest among them says. "Before, the smuggling business was booming. Until the 1980s, the Syrians had a better life than us. I drank my first Coke in Aleppo."

The man quickly moves on to another topic: the role being played in all of this by larger, foreign forces. He's most suspicious of the Germans. Another thinks the British are to blame. A third man points at the Jews. Their thinking echoes the arguments put forth in AKP propoganda, which constantly warns of anti-Turkish conspiracies.

This week, ISIS published a video it says shows one of its fighters firing missiles that destroy Turkish tanks. The Turkish military admits only that an artillery post was attacked and says nobody was killed. The next day, two more missiles hit Kilis. Thankfully, nobody was killed. Still, don't expect that Angela Merkel will visit Kilis anytime soon.

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