Saturday 20 January 2018

Death by rocket at the border

More than 124,000 Syrians have take the ‘death trip’ this year in a bid for safety, writes Shona Murray

Behind the wire: Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrians wait behind the border fences near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. Photo: Kadir Celikcan/Reuters
Behind the wire: Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrians wait behind the border fences near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. Photo: Kadir Celikcan/Reuters

Shona Murray

‘Even here in Kilis, there are bombing noises — it’s more trauma for us; that’s why we left Syria,” says 17-year-old Rama, from Aleppo.

The unmistakeable sound of artillery from the Turkish army firing into Isil-held areas in North Aleppo reverberates loudly around the town. On Tuesday, around eight rockets fired from Syria killed a 55-year-old woman and a four-year-old boy in two separate incidents. The Turkish army says they came from Al-Bab, an area in North Aleppo controlled by the so-called Islamic State.

The Turkish military responded by sending rounds of artillery-fire back in to Al-Bab on Tuesday and throughout the day on Wednesday.

It is events and times like this — which are occurring more frequently at the Turkey-Syria border — that are still prompting Syrians to take the so-called “death-trip” to Europe, on unseaworthy boats and rubber dinghies across the Aegean Sea to Greece.  Last year, over one million Syrians crossed this way; this year, it’s around 124,000 and rising.

No amount of EU law will stop already, traumatised survivors of war in their bid to reach safety, many say.

Next week, Rama and her mother and three brothers are taking a boat to Greece; hoping to find solace and a future in Germany. Their father — a civil engineer — has been living there for nearly a year and the family, which once lived a charmed existence in Syria, say they want more from life than living off food stamps and donations.

Her mother, Reem, was a pharmacist, and her older brother, Ali (18), speaks four languages. “This is not our war; now is the time for me to study and hopefully make my own profession — but it will never happen if we stay here,” he says.

According to the UNHCR, over 55pc of those travelling are women and children. Last year, 70pc were men — many of whom were beating the track for their families to follow.

That’s the case for Doha Ama, a 39-year-old woman from Northern Aleppo. In a few weeks’ time, she says she’ll take her three children (aged between eight months and 14 years) across the sea to meet her husband in Frankfurt. They’ve had no luck securing a reunification visa from the German embassy or the UN, and she says she can’t cope any longer without support from her husband and a regular income.

“If the embassy don’t respond soon, I’ll leave in a couple of weeks; what else can I do,” she says.

She is well aware of the new policies the EU and Turkish government is seeking to implement in the coming weeks. Under the proposal, all refugees or “irregular migrants” trying to reach Europe without applying for asylum in Turkey first will be returned.

For every one returned, a different Syrian in Turkey will be resettled in Europe. Those intercepted by Turkish, Greek or Nato patrols will also be penalised for their efforts and have their asylum application put to the “bottom of the list”, according to Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission.

Asked about entrusting her life and the lives of her children to the notoriously callous network of smugglers operating in Turkey’s port city of Izmir, she replies: “I hope God will save us — I’m frightened, but nobody is working here, and we have no money.”

Meanwhile, around 60,000 refugees remain stranded at the border between Syria and Turkey; desperate to be allowed in.

Fatima, from Al-Bab, arrived in Turkey two months ago after paying smugglers to help her family, including her three children — her infant son has Down syndrome — as well as her sister’s family, escape Isil-territory. She is still traumatised by what they witnessed under “Daesh rule” [Arab term for Isil], she says.

“Even going to the market, we had to see people crucified and look at heads on the street, as well as tortured bodies.”

On the regime’s side, indiscriminate shelling from the Russian military in civilian areas has greatly exacerbated the violence in Syria, which is entering its fifth year of conflict this week. Russia’s intervention has propped up a fatigued and desolate Syrian army and changed the dynamic of the conflict, which had otherwise been stalemated.

“People need to look at how profoundly evil the Russian intervention is,” says Conor Elliot, Goal’s director of programmes, which supports Syrians with humanitarian aid inside Syria, and refugees coming to Turkey. “Look at the use of double-tapping. It’s immoral and wrong and deeply sickening,” says Elliot.

Double-tapping is an illegal military strategy borrowed from terrorist groups, where a group re-engages an area a second time a short while after an initial air strike, in order to deliberately kill first responders and civilians.

Turkey already hosts over two million refugees, and some of its towns are now populated by more or as many Syrians than the local Turkish population.

The town of Kilis, with a population of 127,000 Syrians and 90,000 Turks, is exemplary in its treatment of the refugee population. It is now being put forward as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mayor of Kilis, Husan Kara, says the major pressure on resources is “no problem” for the town.

“We were collecting 35,000 tonnes of garbage daily, now it’s over 100,000. But we welcome them.”

Sunday Independent

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