Into the Borderlands: Between Baklava and ISIS

’Suruç, Suruç, I went to Suruç the other day’, I told the couple that happened to pick me up on the way from Göbekli Tepe to Urfa. Göbekli Tepe is the newly discovered archeological site and possibly the oldest temple on our planet, dating back to an ancient Neolithic civilization of 9,000-10,000 BC. Suruç, on the other hand, is small border town southwest of Urfa, whose population has increased drastically in the past month due to ongoing fighting in the Syrian border town of Kobane and subsequently, large amount of refugees crossing into Turkey every day.

A large army helicopter is roaring in the sky above Göbekli Tepe, heading towards the border.

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The driver and his wife start nodding excitedly: ‘Yes, yes, Suruç!’ They then stop on the side of the road to show me selfies with their three daughters and one son and the smoke of Kobane in the background. Here in Kurdistan, everybody has a very strong opinion on Kobane topic and very strong desire to take selfies wherever you go.

The smokes of Kobane
The smokes of Kobane

I get back to Urfa and go to eat some baklava.

One can meet all sorts of people here, in the southeast of Turkey. People that hate Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who always ends up caught into crossfire between West and the Middle East and is completely unable to make a rational decision. People that hate the American president Barack Obama who pokes his nose into all sorts of foreign affairs. People that hate the dictator Bashar Assad whose unpopularity provoked the ongoing civil war in Syria in the first place. People that hate the masked ninjas of ISIS for misrepresenting Islam to the wide world. People that are just bored out of their minds and want to get a gun and go fighting somebody. Finally, people that have nothing to do with this shit but end up living in refugee camps and raising their children stateless and homeless.

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You hear statements like this: ‘I’d love to see ISIS behead Obama on big screen.’ And then stories of this kind: ‘My relative is still in Syria fighting Assad. We do not give a shit about ISIS – Assad is our biggest enemy and America and Russia are the cause of all this war’. And the next day you’ll meet someone who ideologically supports the Islamic State with all their heart.

Upon arrival to Suruç, two guys that I travelled with were trying to drive as close as possible to the very Syrian border. However, at the armed checkpoint about 5km from the final frontier we were stopped and turned back. ‘No problem, I know a backdoor way!’ said the more knowledgeable nutter of my companions. Like all rational people, when not allowed to drive close to the war zone, we simply got off the road and drove through the dried mud tracks around the checkpoint. The place where official border previously lied is now a junkyard. Multiple refugee families who drove from Syria to Turkey were forced to abandon their cars here and walk or hitchhike the rest of the way to Suruç. Trucks, minivans, pickups and motorbikes are scattered on the border wasteland like a crowd of illegal Transformers waiting for their immigration papers.

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Abandoned cars at the border

‘Do you have your passport?’ my Kurdish travel companion asked. ‘We will go across the border, I will talk to the soldiers’.

Now here I could actually write how bravely and decisively I followed him marching into the ashes of Syria, but the truth is, I almost peed myself of fear. I would have, honestly, but after all I am a focking lady and do not pee in public.

There was a small group of men with sacks and backpacks trying to talk the soldiers into letting them into Syria in order to bring supplies to their comrades in Kobane. And there was I, a goddamn no-one, just hanging around and taking pictures.

Army vehicles just routinely patrolling the area
Army vehicles just routinely patrolling the area

Luckily, the Turkish soldiers were absolutely sure we all must get the hell out of there.

A few minutes later, a taxi driver brings us up on the hill that accumulates all international and local reporters as it opens a fascinating view over the smoking panorama of Kobane. He said that the US airstrikes are not doing too well and have no decent coordination with the ground Kurdish soldiers, which resulted in the death of several fighters during the past few days in the explosions. Dozens of people are gathered by the border, at checkpoints, and on both hills, contemplating the battle through binoculars or cameras like a low-res 3D movie. Far in the distance we could hear the whizzing of planes, screeching of vehicles and occasional sirens. Pretty much like in any big city next to an international airport, except Kobane is/was just a small town caught into the explosive diarrhea of Middle-Eastern and Western politics.

Watching the smokes of Kobane
Watching the smokes of Kobane

I wanted to see the refugee camps. Essentially, places like this are quite interesting to visit if you want to pull you head out of the ground and see the life of others, as far from yours as it can possibly be. A refugee camp in Turkey is pretty much like an average normal village in East Africa: sand, unstable shelters, lots of children running around and women slaving out in the kitchen the entire day. Some of the camps are maintained by the government, but most of them depend only on the charity of local mayors, regular citizens and occasional international NGOs. Suruç camp does not have a school, hosts about 200 tents with 3-4 families inside each one of them. No one has even a slightest idea of what will happen to these people in any foreseeable future. I see mostly old people, young mothers, and children. Children do not give a damn. They play as if there were no bombs, no killed relatives and no insecurity about the future. That day, they also have a small concert and something to laugh about.

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‘So what do you think about ISIS?’ was the third question after ‘Where are you from?’ (Antarctica) and ‘Are you married?’ (Twice) I was asked at a tea house in the Cultural centre of Harran that day. Harran is a historical town to the south from Urfa, home to the world’s oldest university, remarkable beehive houses and an ancient fortress that once opened the Silk route to Aleppo, Baghdad, and everywhere else. The Cultural centre showcases old mud houses shaped like giant eggs that were built as common shelters by the Arab inhabitants of Harran. Most of the people here speak Arabic and feel more related to Syria than Turkey or Kurdistan. ‘Never met anyone from ISIS,’ I reply carefully. ‘All I can see is what’s shown on TV’. ‘We like ISIS,’ the young man smiles proudly and stares at me awaiting reaction. He is probably in his late twenties and spends all his days looking over the museum and drinking tea. But he likes ISIS because they resemble the badass guys from action movies. ‘Say hello to Kobane next time you go there,’ he grins as I stand up and leave.

Egg-shaped houses are still pretty cool
Egg-shaped houses are still pretty cool

A local teacher that drove me around Harran on his motorbike takes me to visit his cousin’s cotton field. ‘I hire seasonal workers from the refugee camp in Akçakale [at the Syrian border], mostly women. In Harran nobody wants to work in the field, but these ladies really jump at the chance to get out of the camp for a few weeks and earn some money,’ he explains to me. I am pretty sure he ridiculously underpays them, but on the other hand, what else are they to do? ‘Want to work in the field yourself?’ he jokes. I agree and grab a sack to collect some cotton balls. They are fluffy and come off the plants easily. The sun is going down, Syrian women are laughing their asses off at the stupid yabanci who decided to work alongside them just for fun.

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‘I decided to join the PYD [Kurdish troops] to fight in Kobane,’ I hear that very evening, from the person who had travelled with me to Suruç. ‘Come with me! I know people who can get us across the border.’

The last drop of sanity I had left in me by the end of the day is gone.

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Turkish Kurdistan these days is like an egg in the microwave. You know it will explode very soon, and you are trying very hard to protect yourself from the gooey splashes.

People in this region have no means of communication. And do not get me wrong: phone operators work perfectly here, and internet is way faster than on a rainy day in Kenya. People here do not even want to listen to themselves or each other. It is in the society like this the troubles are always blamed on politicians, public figures and military leaders. We might blame it on the languages: Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic are all spoken here with equal passion, and none of the participating parties wants to transcend the linguistic barrier and simply talk to the others.

And by the way, southeast of Turkey has the best baklava in the country. It is sweet, fresh, cheap and omnipresent. You should come and visit.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Olga says:

    Dear, dear Elanor! You are the bravest little girl I’ve ever known! Your post is a professional, highly informative and, needless to say, – fascinating read! Gorgeous pictures! You have to be a hotpoint reporter at least for BBC. Lots of hugs))). Narmo’s mom.

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