Saturday, 13 October 2012

Christy Wilcox guest post: Akçakale fears safety as Tal Abyad battle continues from the Turkey/Syria border

A woman and four children were killed while standing
outside their home when the Syrian army firing at rebels
over projected and struck the neighboring village.
Christy Wilcox is a freelance reporter, based on the border between Turkey and Syria. Watch out for her Hangouts On Air LIVE at YouTube on the refugee developments and tensions between these two neighbouring countries.

Akçakale, Turkey — In a two-story building just off the main street in Akçakale, a small Turkish village, two brothers sit side by side in their real estate office. Ismail and Abit Kartel have run a successful real estate business for ten years, but all of that changed after the Syrian revolution began 19 months ago.

“We lost all of our business,” said Ismail, the youngest of two.

Christy Wilcox
Like many others who live in the village, they have relatives in Syria so talk of airstrikes and shelling isn’t an unfamiliar discussion. For months they have been fearful of their family’s safety, now the same fear is spilling into their own lives in Turkey. Shelling and shrapnel from Tal Abyad, the neighboring Syrian village, come flailing into the town. A week ago a woman and her four children were killed from an artillery strike while they stood outside. The house sits just a few blocks from the border crossing. Ismail said he rushed out to help the family but his older brother Abit said he didn’t go for fear of another strike.

“Anxiety grips the people,” Abit Kartel said.

The only thing that separates the village of Akcakale from Tal Abyad is a simple barbwire fence that stretches down the countryside. Just beyond the fence there’s an overgrown pasture that extends less than a quarter of a mile into Tal Abyad. A small roadway connects the two villages from the border crossing where people can easily come and go but with the ongoing fighting it’s not that simple anymore.

Originally, when the fighting broke out the Turkish government placed mounds of gravel on the outskirts of town. The gravel is strategically placed from one end of the town to the other, just yards from the border crossing. Locals climb on top of the newly placed barriers and gaze into Tal Abyad as strikes happen. From the top of these man-made mountains it is easy to see the plumes of smoke fill the sky, and the over pressure from some bombs are felt from the same place. One resident in Akcakale said when the fight broke out between the rebels and the Syrian army no less than 35 strikes happened daily.

It prompted the Turkish military to send anti-aircraft tanks and now Turkish forces flank the borders that are rebel-run. In the village the tanks remain sheltered behind the mass piles of gravel. Most community members say they are coping better since the military arrived.

View Turkey / Syria Border Resource in a larger map

 Even in their anguish the Kartel’s said they give the Syrian refugees who cross the border food and water. Turkish soldiers look away as families slip under the fence to return to Syria. But the citizens of Tal Abyad don’t have much to go home to since the rebels seized the border crossing; most have fled the village so it feels like a ghost town.

Rebels scatter throughout Tal Abyad, but they gather for hours at the city center to stand in the bread line. They wait for hours for a small portion of bread wrapped in plastic. When they aren’t eating or sleeping they spend time mapping new ways to liberate other towns from the Syrian government. Some rest in the Syrian government’s immigration building just past the border gate while others go to Turkey to seek refuge. Tension run high between the two groups because the rebels also took the judicial building and army checkpoints, as well as hostages.

The intensity continues as fighting between the rebels and the Syrian army has died down in recent days but the people of Akcakale are concerned about the rebels at the border. Strikes meant to destroy rebel command posts consistently hit the Turkish village.

Kartel says rebel presence at the border could cause a war between the two countries. This past week as many as seven strikes aimed at rebels on the border have landed in southern Turkey. The Syrian government says it will not allow the violence to escalate between the two countries although it seems unlikely Syria’s President Bashar al Assad will stop fighting with the rebels.

For the past six days Turkey and Syria have exchanged artillery fire daily. But even as the military presence grows and the intensity of the fight simmers, the brothers say they continue to lose sleep at night.

While yesterday Ismail rushed to help after another strike hit the outside of a building close to the border, Abit concern is more than just that, he has three children. The local school just reopen after several weeks of closure. Although there were no casualties in this incident, several people were injured.

In preparation for a possible regional conflict, several high-ranking Turkish officials, including the chief of general staff, General Necdet Ozel, have arrived to inspect the troops and border area. NATO has indicated it will back up Turkey against an attack from Syria. Still some locals say they are frustrated by the lack of support from the international community.

Amid the chaos the people in Akcakale show determination as they live their normal lives. Some days the main street of Akçakale still flourishes with customers and people gather to drink tea and play games in the gardens. Even the Kartel brothers open their doors daily hoping they’ll find new business.

“We just want peace,” Ismail said.

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