From a hilltop about half a mile from the besieged Kurdish-Syrian city of Kobani, the sounds of heavy weapons can be heard echoing from inside what was once a prosperous border town of about 250,000 people.
Most of those people are now scattered among Turkish towns just a few miles from their homes, preparing for their first winter as refugees, while a Kurdish militia and a small contingent of Syrian Arab rebels try to keep a toehold in the city, most of which is now controlled by the Islamic State. Turkish armored units watch from the border but don’t interfere in the bloody stalemate.
Turkey already has absorbed nearly a million refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, which has raged since 2011. But the Kobani flight was certainly among the fastest, with perhaps as many as 200,000 fleeing in a few short days in September as the Islamic State swept through Kobani’s outlying villages in a push to take the city. The militant Islamists only stalled after the United States began a bombing campaign.
The battle also perhaps was the most politically fraught for Turkey because the refugees were Kurds, an ethnic group that historically has had a tense political and cultural relationship with the Turks. For the past 30 years, Kurdish militants have fought the Turkish military over Kurdish demands for greater autonomy and the right to use their own language in schools and business.
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Advocates say that’s colored how Turkey is viewing the new refugees, who authorities fear may be sympathetic to the Kurdistan Workers Party, the insurgent group known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK. The PKK has played an active role in training and supporting the Kurdish militias fighting inside Kobani.
Barazani Haman, a spokesman for a Kurdish aid group called the Support Coordination Operations Room for Kobani, said Turkish authorities have placed tight controls on aid flowing to the refugees and are limiting access to the new refugee camps being established near the border.
“Because of their fear of the PKK, Turkey has special programs for the Kurdish refugees that bypass the normal procedures,” Haman said in an interview in Sanliurfa, the Turkish city about 30 miles from the border. “All refugee groups wishing to deliver aid and help must coordinate through the Turkish Red Crescent and not the United Nations.”
Turkish authorities stopped a McClatchy reporter from visiting three newly established Kurdish refugee camps in the area, despite permission having been granted by Kurdish aid groups and residents of the camps. In one camp outside Sanliurfa, an official who gave his name only as Mehmet said the reporter would first need to register as a journalist with the local municipality and police before he would be allowed to enter. As he blocked the journalist, Kurdish camp residents protested that the journalist should be allowed to enter.
Residents of the camps who came outside to be interviewed said that for the most the part the camps were adequate and winterized. But they were concerned that complete control over the facilities was maintained by Turkish authorities.
“The Syrian (Arab) refugees have more freedom to organize and maintain their affairs and rent apartments anywhere in Turkey,” said Hasan, a refugee who said he was an auto mechanic before he fled his village just outside of Kobani in mid-September. “They think we are PKK and will cause trouble in Turkey, but all the PKK fighters are fighting (inside Syria). We’re just normal people.”
Haman, the spokesman for the Support Coordination Operations Room, said the camps in Sanliurfa appeared to offer electricity, food, shelter and sanitation, and that many refugees had found homes with families along the border. But he said Kurdish refugees were much more tightly controlled than Syrian Arabs, who, he said, “can come and go around Turkey as they please.”
A Syrian Arab refugee who’d fled Syria’s Latakia province said he shared that impression. A member of Syria’s nonviolent opposition, he said he’d fled his hometown when the learned he was about to be arrested for organizing opposition to President Bashar Assad.
The refugee, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Zaher, so Syrian authorities wouldn’t know where he was living and he wouldn’t antagonize his Turkish hosts, said that he’d been allowed to rent an apartment in Gaziantep, another city in southern Turkey, and that he believed he would be allowed to travel to Istanbul to live there “if I had the money.”
“The Turks have been very good to us, but my Kurdish friends, they’re treated with much more suspicion,” Zaher said.
“There are some camps that do not have electricity right now, though, and we cannot determine if it’s a case where the Turks are intentionally slowing the process to keep the camps from being permanent or if it is just bureaucratic,” said Haman. “To be fair, the Turks have treated people OK so far, but there’s a fear that this insistence on control is going to become a problem later.”
Haman said that a last batch of 2,000 refugees from Kobani had been refused at the border and were living in their cars and homemade tents just over the border – in plain view of the Turkish authorities who have refused to let them cross.
“It is very difficult to get them food and supplies because the Turks do not allow our aid over the border to help them,” he said. “And the Islamic State has attacked them a few times and the Turkish military does nothing to protect them from their side of the border. In addition, we find it nearly impossible to bring food aid to the civilians still inside Kobani.”
By some estimates, between 3,000 and 5,000 civilians remain inside the city.
“The Turkish government is not flexible on crossing the border with weapons or food if you’re a Kurd,” he said. “But if you are Free Syrian Army or even ISIS, that never seems to be a problem as long as you are fighting the Syrian regime.”
Part of the issue, according to all of the Kurds interviewed, was the education system, where Turkish authorities are deeply suspicious of the use and teaching of the Kurdish language within Turkey – which by some accounts is 20 percent ethnic Kurdish. Officials fear the teaching and use of Kurdish will become a step toward the broadly popular idea among Kurds of an independent homeland.
That same concern has been a point of contention in Diyarbakir, the capital of the Kurdish zone in Turkey, where Turkish officials are fuming over plans by local officials to build a Kurdish-language school for ethnic Yazidi refugees from Iraq who settled there after the Islamic State overran their homes near the Sinjar Mountains during the summer.
The tensions will no doubt continue. One 9-year-old refugee playing with other boys outside a camp on the outskirts of Suruc said he’d been attending school in the camp for four or five hours a day. The refugee, who identified himself as Ahmed, said proudly that among the topic he was studying was “the Arabic alphabet.” Then he laughed and added, “And Kurdish, of course.”