Fear quiets 2 cities on Turkey-Syria border
AKÇAKALE / TEL ABYAD
Syrian rebels with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) ascend stairs in a highly damaged building in Tel Abyad district while on the other side of the border with Turkey, the Turkish soldiers stand next to a tank amid a high running tensions between the two nations. DAILY NEWS photos, Selahattin SÖNMEZTurkish border town Akçakale, where a mortar from Syria hit a house and killed five civilians on Oct. 3, is now calm and quiet and residents expect to return to their daily routine soon, although they fear a possible increase in conflicts around their town.
The conflict between Syrian rebels and Syrian government forces intensified near the Turkish border after rebels captured the border gate last month.
Nevertheless, when a mortar shell from Syria killed five people, residents here in Akçakale expressed their fury at the Turkish government authorities. A group of people held a march to protest just hours after the incident on Oct. 3, but they were dispersed with pepper spray. On Oct. 4, people also protested high ranking officials including Labor Minister Faruk Çelik at the funeral ceremony of the victims.
When strolling around, life seems to be flowing normally in the center of Akçakale, which is a couple of hundreds of meters away from the Syrian border. When asked how they consider the situation, some residents blame the al-Assad administration for the shelling and express their support for Turkey’s retaliation.
A 36 year-old Akçakale resident, who called the Syrian rebels his “brothers,” told the Hürriyet Daily News: “Enough is enough. Al-Assad has killed civilians not only in Syria but also in Turkey with the latest incident. Turkey is doing what has to be done. He [al-Assad] calls them [rebels] terrorists, but what have they done to be called this? All they do is to say ‘La ilahe illallah’ [Allah is the only god].”
[HH] Fear of escalation
Nevertheless, several people called for restraint while also urging the government to ensure their security.
“We have no life security here. We want our government to provide our security, we don’t want further conflicts here,” a shop owner who asked to remain anonymous expressed their fear about a possible escalation in violence around the town.
“The government must guarantee our life security. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, we want to sleep calmly. But we want no war. War would cause the deaths of more people,” a resident of Arab origin, who has lived in Akçakale since he was born, said.
Schools have been closed in Akçakale for a week, since the first mortar was dropped on a house and wounded several people last week. It’s not clear when education will restart, but children in the streets seem to be happy and have more free time to play with friends.
[HH] No proof of abandonment
Some reports have claimed that Akçakale residents have been leaving the town, but the Daily News has observed no concrete proof for these reports.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy chair Sezgin Tanrıkulu previously urged the authorities to evacuate the area close to the border. However, in response, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said the evacuation of Akçakale was out of question, stressing that the government was taking the necessary precautions.
Those in the town who spoke to the Daily News also opposed the evacuation option, saying that they were not even considering leaving their hometown and instead wanted to live in Akçakale in peace.
Meanwhile, military mobilization has increased around Akçakale, but Turkey’s retaliation firing at Syrian targets ceased early on Oct. 4. Turkish tanks can be seen settled, with their barrels directed at Syria, and the shelling could resume if necessary, officials have said.
Seized Syrian border town still like ghost-town
Tell Abyad, the Syrian border town that was captured by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) last month, has hosted guided press tours but is otherwise still like a ghost-town.
Tell Abyad is just across from the Turkish border town of Akçakale, where a mortar shell from the Syrian side fell on a house Oct. 3, killing five and wounding eight. The border gate at Akçakale is closed due to the continuing violence in Syria, but crossing the border for civilians, including journalists, is not difficult: It is only as hard as walking about 500 meters after slipping under the torn border fence.
The Syrian police station building in the border area now hosts Syrian rebels, although the building is half destroyed due to the bombardment. FSA members who check IDs at the Syrian border gate offer journalists guided tours around Tell Abyad, the scene of heated conflict between the Syrian army and FSA members before the FSA captured the town. The Syrian government buildings that have been seized by the rebels now fly FSA flags, and every moving car is checked by the rebels at certain points.
Abu Khalil, a FSA commander responsible for downtown Tell Abyad, expressed his appreciation to the Turkish government for its humanitarian aid. “We get food and medicine but no arms and weapons,” he told a group of Turkish reporters in Tell Abyad.
Almost all of the town’s shops are closed, and few people are seen walking in the streets. Those residents who have remained in the town cross the border into Turkey to meet their daily needs. The majority of the houses seem to be abandoned, although FSA members told journalists that people have begun to return.
A school building in Tell Abyad has been converted into the FSA’s press center, although some of the classrooms also serve as dormitories for the rebels, including a 14-year-old boy who is called “young mujahid” by his elders.
Watching Al-Arabia on the LCD TV hanging on the wall in the “press center,” they have no problem uploading videos to sites like YouTube. Torn posters of Bashar al-Assad are lying on the ground in some of the classrooms, as they do in every government building seized by the rebels.