Kasey Emama, a Palestinian-Syrian Journalist
Now you are within the territories held by ‘Jabahat-al-Nusra’ or ‘Al-Nusra Front’, where there is no advice given to those travelling through the villages and boroughs located within the countryside of the city of ‘Idlib’, North West of Syria. No precautions or ‘Plan B’. All you have to do is to maintain the ‘legitimate’ appearance of a common traveler in order to get across the Syria-Turkey borders illegally.
This is the sole way available now to leave the country which had regretfully been hardly torn apart by the conflict during the last eight years. You have to get across the very same borderlines which had previously witnessed the murder of dozens of innocent Syrians by the bullets of the Turkish border guards. Reaching the other bank has become ‘a matter of mere luck’, as confirmed by one of those whom we accompanied in the ‘deadly journey’.
Villages of the northern and western countryside adjacent to the Syrian-Turkish borderline are almost alike, with irregular greenery including dissimilar divergent houses located within the agricultural lands, the majority of which are grown with olive trees. Over there, one can easily see youth in military uniforms and a lot of weaponry. Words like ‘leader’, ‘checkpoint’, ’barricade’, ’headquarters’ can always be heard there in addition to other real or ironic names used by traffickers, brokers, and jobbers, the most prominent of which are ‘clientele, or ‘individuals, or ‘heads’, in their reference to those risking their lives to infiltrate into the Turkish lands.
Human trafficking across the borders has become a widespread trade there. It is run by trafficking networks that had been assisting hundreds of thousands of Syrians, in some way or other, to cross the borders with Turkey at intermittent times during the past eight years of the Syrian war. Some paid amounts ranging between $1000 and $1500 to get across the borderlines through different routes, some of which are relatively short and secure, while others are rather rough and tough, according to what those engaged in such trafficking trade in north Syria say.
On asking a man in his forties about his children’s hazardous journey across such risky fortified borderlines to get into the Turkish lands, he simply says that he has no other option. He will risk his and his children’s lives in such a dangerous border crossing ‘to escape from one heavenly fate to another’.
Impossibility of Life
Most of the people we talked to, whether those still living in Syria or those who managed to reach the Turkish lands, confirmed that their decision to move to Turkey, is because of “the impossibility of life in the north”
On asking many people across the borderlines about the reason behind their immigration, we most often receive similar answers like security fears, absence of job opportunities, dire economic conditions, nonexistence of education, or the hegemony of the thickly armed Islamic factions over all aspects of life. Others regard their departure from their cities and villages in the southern and mid parts of the country, as their complete exit from Syria, ruling out staying in its north, even if the latter is beyond the control of the Syrian regime.
Turkey finished construction of the barrier wall across its borders
with Syria in June 2018.
Its length is 711 km along the actual 911 km-existing borders
It is considered the third longest border barrier in the world.
It consists of two prefabricated parallel walls each
of which of a 4-meter height, a 3-meter width
and a 7-tonne weight.
Watchtowers are 8 meters high and equipped
with a sophisticated technological system.
The concrete wall has advanced armament systems that
can be remotely controlled.
To the Boundaries
Not far away from the borderlines of ‘Kherbet al-Gose’, a village located in the far north of Idlib countryside, Turkish watchtowers can be seen afar and show how difficult a crossing risk can be. And on approaching more and more, fortified barrier walls, barbed wires and trenches can appear crystal clear, and traffickers’ whispers to one another can be heard while exchanging news about the routes planned for smuggling their clients.
“I’ve really got mixed feelings of fear, anticipation, optimism and caution, in spite of the fact that I had previously escaped many battles, bombardment and blockade operations, not to mention the risk of dying of starvation and disease. “, Ahmad (27 years of age) , says while advancing towards the border wall accompanied by his wife and two children. He goes on saying, “I was lucky enough to survive a 7-year blockade imposed on the south of Damascus. And now I only have this risk to secure the least possible glimpse of hope for my kids.”
As for the border barrier, it consists of two prefabricated parallel walls, each of which is as high as (4) meters, and as wide as (3) meters, with a weight of (7) tons. The height of the watchtowers constructed along the borderlines amounts to (8) meters and they are provided with an advanced technological system, including highly – précised sophisticated surveillance systems and thermal cameras and radars, capable of monitoring land movements. Moreover, this concrete wall is equipped with highly developed weaponry systems that can be remotely operated.
Some disperse media reports, stated that the doorsteps of that border wall had witnessed the murder and injury of dozens of Syrians attempting to enter the Turkish territories illegally, amidst a semi-complete reticence by the Turkish authorities. Neither was there any positive reaction from the local authorities in the north of Syria, whose main power includes either military factions loyal to Turkey, or other powers bearing no antagonism against it.
The experience undergone by Ahmad across the borders cannot be compared in any way by those of other Syrians. In spite of the danger he had experienced, however, he was not exposed to any gunfire. In the course of a telephone call with him, two days after our first meeting, he said, “Everything went on smoothly and I did not take more than six hours walking across agricultural lands across the borders.
The worst thing I felt sorry for was that I believed the smuggler who had said it was only a matter of half an hour’s walk. So I had no option but to throw away all the water stock I had after hours of tiring walking. I then realized that all smugglers are big liars. Then I began to blame myself for getting rid of my water, especially after my kids were insistently asking for some to quench their thirst. But that was a fleeting anxiety and it was over later on”.
Ahmed is now living with his family in Istanbul and is working in a Syrian restaurant in the Al-Fatah neighborhood in the city. He managed to rent a small house and is still looking for a smuggler that can assist him to reach Germany by land or by sea in a new rather dangerous risk.
A young woman named ‘Hayat’ went through that very same experience but its endings were quite different. She ran away with her small family from ‘Al-Ghotta’, east of the capital Damascus, to ‘Idlib’ north west of Syria. This woman was determined to enter Turkey where she can start a fresh life, after long years of siege, hunger, and despair, as described by her.
In the course of our talk with her, she tried hard to recall what had happened to her on the night which had changed her life upside down. It was a little after midnight on July 28, 2018, a few weeks after the compulsory immigration from ‘Al-Ghotta’, when ‘Hayat’ found herself with more than other fifteen Syrian civilians on the ‘Al-Darya-Darkoush’ road in ‘Idlib’ countryside, which is one of the checkpoints leading to Turkey.
Traffickers whisper to refugees saying, ‘don’t get dressed in white or raise your voices, or light a lighter or make any noise. Lower yourselves as much as possible. We are approaching the Turkish border wall. Hurry up and don’t slow down. The most important advice given by the traffickers was to give their babies a dose or two of sleeping drug enough to keep them asleep for long hours.
“That’s the only way traffickers can make sure babies’ cries won’t cry and warn Turkish soldiers of their stealth movements across the borders, and in the meantime prevent babies from being awakened by the cold weather or during running.”, as said to reporters by some Syrians.
Between the two walls forming the Turkish border barrier, the road is large enough to allow military patrol vehicles to move freely. Traffickers choose the right time for letting their refugees infiltrate across the borders – that is soon after the patrol’s departure or before their expected arrival. And to secure the success of the operation, traffickers set ladders against the first wall on the Syrian side of the cement barrier, and let women followed by men scale ladders until they can reach the space of land left between the two walls. That very same operation is repeated in ascending the second wall and then start running towards the Turkish deep territories to reach the closest village.
As per some traffickers and Turkish inhabitants, there is most often a sort of coordination with some Turkish citizens who receive groups of refugees in their houses for several hours until they can carry on their journeys to the Turkish cities.
‘Hayat’ had not actually seen the second wall, neither did she know about the first one. When her group was still observing silence as ordered by the traffickers, gunfire began. With four bullets, one in the chest, the second in the abdomen, and two others in the leg, her husband fell down. A few minutes later, his body was dragged on the ground and carried to a nearby local hospital where he gave his last breath.
The woman says that the border guards shot fire on her husband and that was intentional to kill him. On that very same night, three more civilians were injured by the guards’ direct shots.
‘Hayat’ buried her husband in ‘Kherbet al-Gose’ village, north of Idlib countryside and returned to Damascus with her kids.
With four bullets, one in the chest,
the second in the abdomen,
and the other two in the leg,
Sabah’s husband fell down helplessly on the ground,
A few minutes later his body was dragged and
Carried to a nearby local hospital where he passed away.
Less Than 20 Days
Before ‘Hayat’ came back home in Damascus, a youth named ‘Talib Edris’ had left the city of ‘Mahratt al-Nohman’ towards the Syria-Turkey frontiers. That happened after ‘Al-Nusra Front’ had taken reins in the city and the young man was wanted to serve with its militants just like hundreds of other civilian activists staying in regions, north of Syria.
On the 5th of April, 2018, when he was in the borough of ‘Aqrabat’ of ‘Idlib’ northern countryside, ‘Taleb’ had a last meeting with his family and friends and then lost all contacts with them during the following five days. His family got worried about him but they thought he could have entered the Turkish lands, and like others, it was natural for him to lose contacts with his household after crossing the borders.
On Friday, 20th of April, a friend of ‘Taleb’ named ‘Abdel Qader Laheeb’ posted through his Facebook account about the disappearance of Taleb across the Syria-Turkey borders. On the very same day, he received a contact from the Civil Defense, informing him that they had found the body of a youth murdered with a shot in his head. An element from the Syrian Civil Defense sent him a photocopy of the young man’s identity card and it was regretfully for ‘Taleb’.
Taleb Edris was killed in cold blood on the 16th of April 2018 by the Turkish border guards. His medical report was supervised by ‘Faras Al-Gendy’, the incumbent Health Minister in the temporary Syrian government, who is now living in Idlib, and who declined to approach us or give any further information.
Abdel Qader narrated to us the story of his friend ‘Taleb’ and showed us all the photos and medical reports consolidating his tragic story, whereas his family refuses to talk about his murder. ‘Laheeb’ who had previously infiltrated into Turkey illegally, cannot believe so far the sad news of his friend’s death.
Waiting for Signal
Fifty days later, exactly on the 27th of May, another father called ‘Mohamed Da’oad ‘ (37 years of age) agreed with a local trafficker in Idlib to enter Turkey with his wife and three kids. He was transferred from the south of the capital Damascus, by the compulsory immigration coaches arranged for the displacement of civilians by virtue of the agreements concluded between the Russian forces in Syria and the armed opposition on the 11th of May 2018.
‘Da’oad’ came from the south of Damascus carrying his children’s clothing and some of his wife’s belongings, leaving a completely devastated family house and a name wanted by the Syrian regime on one hand and by the Islamic State Organization ‘ISIL’ and ‘Al-Nusra’ Front on the other. He was actually flat broke, and began to arrange for entering Turkey after he had lost all hope of being safe and secure in Idlib countryside. “I’ve contacted my siblings and acquaintances living in Europe and Turkey asking them for the money required to secure my safe departure from Syria”, he says.
A week later, he managed to collect $2400, the amount demanded by the human trafficker who set the 4th of June as the date for his travelling to Turkey.
Mohamed decided to carry his infant ‘Yasser (9 months) and hold the hand of his younger son (2 and a half years), asking his other older son Ahmed (4 years) to remain close to his mother. That was his modest plan to cross the borders which are entirely strange to him.
It was the early hours of Tuesday, 5th of June, when Da’oad together with his wife and two children, being dressed in light summer clothes, spent more than nine hours in the open air at very low temperatures. He said that the cold had gnawed his bone. He was forced to give his infant ‘Yasser’ more than three doses of a sleeping drug which was ineffective in keeping him asleep for long hours. He was then surrounded by dozens of Syrians who were also waiting for the trafficker’s signal to cross from underneath the border barrier through muddy waterways.
The traffickers divided the group, in a way that at first blush seemed incomprehensible for Da’oad, into two teams. But later on, he could realize that the division of the group was based on the amounts the trafficker collected from each one.
Those who paid less than $1000 were included within the first batch to cross the waterway. “They would practically act as bait. If they could be lucky enough to escape the bullets, he would give the green light for the remaining refugees to follow suit. But if, to their hard luck, they were killed, or injured or their attempt failed, the team which paid more would be safe and they would be prepared to make another endeavor any other day”, Da’oad illustrates.
“My mind seemed paralyzed’, he says. “I was deadly exhausted and worried about my kids who seemed to be worn out, hungry and cold. Before leaving the south of Damascus, I gave them a fatherly promise that all the hunger, cold, and tiredness will end once and forever. My wife had been suffering from post-natal hemorrhage for months and we had no option but to wait and see what the future holds for us. At last the trafficker said to us, “Now” and pointed to the waterway.
A Massacre in the Mud
With a one-and a half meter diameter, and a one-meter width, the cylindrical waterway whose mud reaches as high as 40 cm, seemed at first blush easy to cross. Da’oad entered first carrying Yasser and holding Mahmud’s hand. His wife followed him with her son Ahmad. The light gets dimmer and dimmer gradually along the waterway, whose length does not exceed 50 meters. Humidity increases and temperature decreases with every step forward. “We had to reach the end of the waterway, where there is an iron network that needs to be cut but nobody ever told or warn me that there might be a soldier there”, he said.
Da’oad managed to arrive at the end of the waterway. “I first could see the barrel and muzzle of a gun, and soon after I caught sight of the soldier who showed himself at the right moment as if he knew all the time that we were crossing the waterway. I was shocked to find myself completely face to face with him. As I was lowering myself inside the waterway, he was unexpectedly standing with his weapon directed towards me and our eyes met. My wife had not seen him yet and I shouted at the top of my voice asking her to ‘retreat’. On hearing my word, he shot the first bullet.” he said.
Da’oad turned around dragging his son behind him, and so did his wife. They all raced towards the exit. He felt a temperature in his shoulder, making him realize that he had been wounded. His eyes were following his two kids whereas his arm could no longer be able to carry his baby. So he fell helplessly onto his face, while hearing the sounds of the gunfire and the running footsteps and his wife’s and children’s calls. He finally lost all consciousness.
Da’oad regained consciousness at a medical point in the Syrian village of ‘Kherbet al-Gose’, while his son was lying close to him. As for his wife and his infant Ahmad, they were buried two kilometers away. He was telling the story in a quiet voice before his voice burst saying, “None of us escaped gunfire. Three bullets struck me in the shoulder and legs and a shot hit Mahmud’s shoulder. Seven bullets were scattered in the bodies of my wife and my son Ahmad. As for my suckling son, he was suffocated by the muddy water.” he said.
In accordance with some conflicting information collected from some of the Syrians who had succeeded to enter the Turkish territories, or are still attempting to enter from North Western part of Syria, and other information obtained by us from some individuals engaged with the structurally complicated human trafficking networks operating in Idlib countryside – as per the above collected information, our research has eventually led us to three points regarded as the most hazardous for the lives of the Syrians attempting to enter Turkey illegally.
The three points witnessing murder acts and direct gunfire at the Syrians are ‘Darkoush’ in the western countryside of ‘Idlib’, as well as ‘Kherbet al-Gose’ and ‘Al-Yamadheya’ in the northern countryside of Idlib.
In the course of the catastrophic years of war hitting Syria, tens of thousands of Syrians managed to flexibly cross the above three points. And as per some of the human traffickers smuggling immigrants, and as per the information collected from the inhabitants of that region, bullet attacks targeting immigrants by Turkish border guards are scarcely registered. However, the series of killings increased in number with the beginning of building the border wall by Ankara along a large part of its frontiers with Syria, particularly the area we put under the microscope within this investigation.
Over and Underneath the Border Barrier
Turkey completed constructing the concrete wall across its borders with Syria in June 2018. It is as long as 711 km, stretching along its 911 km- frontiers with Syria. It is actually the third longest wall in the world. Ankara said that the building of the wall aims first and foremost at tightening security and preventing illegal crossings and above all blocking the infiltration of extremist militants from Syria into its territories.
A video we managed to obtain shows how ladders are scaled by Syrian refugees to reach the top of the wall and then step onto the Turkish lands.
The Apparent Target
Did the border guards intentionally shoot fire at refugees and were those victims actually seen by the soldiers before shooting fire? This question was directed to those who managed to escape the guards’ gunfire.
On the 9th of July 2018, ‘Abu Nabeel’ as well as his wife and children were exposed to the border guards’ gunfire during their attempt to enter the Turkish territories illegally. That happened at Al-Deraheya point, situated at Darkoush, in Idlib countryside. To their good luck, nobody from the family was hurt then.
According to what Abu Nabeel said, the soldier aimed his gun directly at them. The Turkish soldier directed a spotlight towards our group which consisted of 30 civilians. He could precisely see the women and children amongst our group. The children’s crying mixed with the women’s screams on hearing the gunfire was enough evidence proving that the group consisted of peaceful civilians attempting to enter the Turkish territories and not fighters. However, the soldier went on shooting the group.
In the same context ‘Ahmad R.’ confirms that the gunfire he was exposed to at Al-Yamdheya point, aimed at causing my injury, and not for just frightening us away from the borderlines. He says that the soldier could clearly see him and those in his company during our attempt to cross the borders on April 7, 2018. No deadly injuries were reported on that night. Ahmad had made over twenty attempts to cross the borders before he finally managed to reach Istanbul successfully in August of this year.
Another endeavor was repeated on September 9, 2018, when a Turkish border guard fired at a group of Syrian refugees at one of the trafficking points of ‘Darkoush’. The soldier injured a trafficker, a child, and a Syrian youth and despite the fact that he could see the group and the women and children accompanying it, yet he kept on opening fire at them for over five minutes. This is confirmed by one of the rescued Syrians who had seen the wounded falling one after another a few meters away from him.
Abu Anas (assumed name) is a Syrian citizen living close to Syria-Turkey frontiers, in the village of ‘Shamareen’, which is affiliated with the city of ‘Ahzar’ in Halab countryside. He says that he had seen, in the course of the past year, dozens of cases where Syrians were exposed to hard-hitting beating by the Turkish border guards after being arrested during their attempt to enter the Turkish territories.
Abu Anas describes the beating as rather ‘hurtful’. “Some soldiers directed the grips of their guns onto their victims, while others intended to kick the refugees lying on the ground. I had always been watching Syrians with bleeds after being hardly beaten.” he says.
Early in 2018, Abu Anas found the corpses of two Syrians. He believes they had been killed by the border guards during their attempt to enter the Turkish lands. Later on, many stories about finding bodies of Syrians were repeatedly told. They were being shot dead by live ammunition nearby the borderlines..
Solely Towards Syria
“What actually make soldiers fire at some refugees, whereas other dozens cross the borderlines daily without being attacked?” This question is asked by ‘Ghethe’ (alias), who lives in ‘Darkoush’ and who is involved in smuggling civilians between the two countries, and he answers it by himself.
‘Gheth’, to whom we talked as clients, says that some of the Turkish soldiers have a negative attitude towards the Syrians and that is why they fire at any Syrian group approaching their borders. “It is all a matter of luck for those attempting to cross the borders”. He points out that the sectarian and ethnic differences in Syria have actually spread to the southern regions of Turkey, which have familial and sectarian bonds with them. That what makes some soldiers act according to such negative attitudes towards refugees.
The young trafficker continues saying that the Turkish soldiers do not fire guns at the refugees within the Turkish borders. “Fire is only directed towards Syria, referring that the border guards are actually not accountable for their shooting towards Syria”.
‘Abu Nabeel’, our eyewitness whom we had previously met nearby the borders confirms what ‘Gheth’ had earlier said. “The Turkish elements within the border guards have a free hand to do whatever they want so long as this happens on the Syrian territories”. He also makes a reference to the national and sectarian causes behind making some elements resort to violence, more than others, in dealing with the refugees across the borderlines.
Abu Nabeel says. “Some elements from amongst the Turkish army adopt a supportive attitude towards the Syrian regime and that very same approach is adopted by the majority of the Turkish Alawites. They open fire on the spot with premeditated intention to crop lives, and they insult refugees tying to get across the borders, and call them dirty names in Arabic.
Meanwhile, some elements belonging to the ‘national Turks’ act in the very same way, due to the fact that they bear hatred towards Arabs in general, and feel reluctant to establish any relation with them”.
The situation is more and more complicated in some regions north east of Syria, which enjoy a Kurdish-dominated autonomy. Such regions have been registering for long years now the highest number of those killed by the bullets of the Turkish border guards. The inhabitants of these regions who are originally Kurdish Syrians say that the Turkish border guards treat them very badly only because they are Kurdish and that is why they do not hesitate for a moment to shoot whoever dares to get across their borders.
On the dawn of Friday, the 13th of April, 2018, two persons lost their lives and another was seriously injured at the hands of the Turkish border guards known as the ‘Jandarma’, during their attempt to get across the Turkish borders illegally from Ras al-Ein region of Al-Heska Governorate, north east of Syria.
On that tragic day, ‘Abdel Kareem Farhan Ayef Alkhalifa’ (18 years), Hameed Al-Alsahlan (21 years), and Zayed Al-Meghres (22 years), who were blood-related and who belong to Al-Terwazeya village which is affiliated with Mabroka Borough, in Ras-al-Ein countryside (western of Sree Kanya) – they tried to get across the borders from ‘Tal Kalkh’ point, specifically from Abu al-Soon Village, west of Ras al-Ein. However, their attempt ended in failure and led to the death of two from them.
The third one ‘Abdel Kareem Farhan’ who had escaped death described what had happened saying, “No sooner had we ascended a ladder to the top of the wall and crossed the borders, than the Jandarma elements hurried targeting the muzzle of their guns towards us. They were 20 elements or more. They start beating us violently with clubs and the barrel ends of their weapons. One of them was holding a type of sticks tougher than the anvil to beat us as hard as he can until I lost all consciousness and fell to the ground. It seems that I had been senseless for minutes, but I managed to run away towards the wall and cross it to the Syrian side of the borders. I remained motionless on the ground until dawn time. When I finally opened my eyes to find myself surrounded by some people who carried me to the nearest hospital and told me that my two companions were still detained by the Turkish Jandarma but later on I came to know of their decease”.
Dhaher Al-Sahlan (40 years), the elder brother of the deceased ‘Hameed (21 years) said that his brother had recently married and attempted to get across the borders to Turkey to seek a job there. As for his cousin ‘Zayed Al-Meghers’, he is a father of two children and was expecting a third baby from his wife who is pregnant in her fourth month. He explains what had happened to them saying, “My brother got across the frontiers with his two mates, and scarcely had they exceeded the border wall, when they were arrested by the Jandarma elements who had tortured them viciously before throwing their two bodies onto the Syrian side of the borders. We found Zayed’s body on Saturday 14th April after long hours of search nearby the borderlines and on Sunday we found my brother’s corpse.”
On the other hand, some information obtained from one of the trafficking networks operating in the countryside of western Idlib, reveals to us that Syrian traffickers managed to approach some Turkish border officers. They make secret deals with them, according to which they define the exact day and hour of their movements across the borders to smuggle Syrian refugees illegally from Syria to Turkey, in return of some amounts of hush money given as bribes to them.
Having told a Syrian youth trafficker living in the village of ‘Kherbet al- Gose, about our intention to transfer a Syrian family to Turkey at any cost, he pointed out that the safest way is ‘the military line’, which is carried out through coordination between Syrian traffickers and their counterparts in Turkey, in cooperation with a Turkish officer.
According to what is told by the trafficker, who is scarcely in his twenties, the traffickers in Turkey coordinate with Turkish border officers, to let batches of refugees safely cross the border lines on agreed upon dates and hours during their working shifts at the border points.
The trafficker says, ‘Soldiers will turn a blind eye and won’t open fire at them. As for the military patrol, it will stop doing its task for an hour at most until the family passes unnoticed. But you have to know that such preparations are very expensive.” According to the trafficker, the cost of transferring a 3-member family can reach as high as $ 6,000, and the journey takes the easiest and shortest routes leading to the borders.
We could not meet any of the refugees crossing that so-called military line, but the assurances made by that trafficker and others, refer to the existence of various intermingled relations between the Syrian traffickers and Turkish officers, who began by exchanging fire and ended in entire coordination between them, all for their own very narrow personal interests.
Nighttime Hard Beating
‘Nagwa D’ is still persuading her kids that the Turkish word ‘Gel’ does not mean ‘danger’ neither is it related to soldiers only, but it means ‘come’, and it was the first word heard by both her and her kids who had been arrested together with all her family soon after crossing the borders.
In mid June, 2018, ‘Nagwa’ was led with the other refugees to a Turkish military headquarters close to the borders. The building consists of several rooms and a large yard where the detained refugees were forced to stay overnight. ‘It was actually a white sleepless night”, the woman says and adds, “Soldiers were used to come every half an hour or hour, to beat the men cruelly and ceaselessly with clubs and guns”.
‘Nagwa’ hugged her kids closely to prevent them from seeing their dad being beaten hard by the border guards before giving him a moment break and then continue their pounding. “The soldiers were talking among themselves in Turkish, and all those who were beaten that night or those watching them could understand nothing of what was being said. The soldiers burst out laughing and then suddenly got infuriated, Nagwa said.
After what she described as the beating party, Nagwa returned with her husband and kids to the Syrian side of the borders, where border guards were used to force out daily dozens of Syrians into their country after being arrested and detained for hours or days for entering Turkey illegally.
Nobody is Capable of Documentation
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) states that (421) Syrian civilians had been killed since 2011 by the bullets shot by the Turkish border guards known as ‘Jandarma’, including (75) children under 18 years of age, and (38) women over (18) years.
Meanwhile, the SOHR monitored the injury of hundreds by the Jandarma who intentionally open fire at the Syrian citizens fleeing the ongoing military operations in their region, in search of other safer places where they can find a secure haven’.
The SOHR possesses, according to what its officials say, the names of the Syrians killed at the hands of the Turkish border guards, supported by photos, videos and dates of each and every killing case. They have “information that can be submitted as evidence for any court of justice’, documenting what described by them as an everlasting war crimes being committed for years now.
We tried hard to procure the data mentioned by the SOHR, but their incumbent director, Ramy Abdel Rahman, told us that everything was posted on their internet website. On referring to their website, we found nothing about dates or names of those killed or injured. The SOHR published nothing but some reports about the rise in the murder cases and their numbers during different periods of time.
On the other hand, as Zayed Al-Saleh, the director of the Syrian Civil Defense put it, “the organization has no data whatsoever about the border victims, that’s because the organization’s elements are not working on the borderlines and accordingly we have no information of what’s happening there.”
And in spite of Al-Saleh’s above statement, in the course of our talk with Ahmad Yazggy, the director of the Civil Defense Directorate in Idlib, he confirmed that as from early 2108 to the 10th of December of the same year, six cases of murder by the bullets of the Turkish border guards were recorded.
‘Yazggy’ says, “We lifted six corpses of Syrians killed by the border guards’ shots across the frontiers, whereas the Civil Defense offered first aid to eight Syrian cases, who had been injured by gunfire during their attempt to enter Turkey”.
However, ‘Yazggy’ hasn’t got lists documenting the abovementioned victims’ names and the figures given by him represent solely the cases detected by the Syrian Civil Defense. Meanwhile, common people and the smugglers involved in smuggling operations keep on offering first aid for those wounded on the borders, whereas the military factions transfer the corpses of victims dying across the borderlines.
In the same context, an administrative worker in one of the medical points in Idlib countryside, who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity, described the process of documentation as ‘serious and complicated’. He pointed out that since the deteriorating security status imposed on all the hospitals operating outside the authority of the Syrian regime, different working procedures were taken and on the other hand most of the medical points are either supported or financed by the Turkish government or obtain their working licenses from the Turkish side.
Our source says, “At present, the work procedures in any medical point within Idlib countryside make all first aid workers and physicians entirely unable to inquire about the conditions surrounding the cases of gunfire injuries they keep on receiving daily from the different regions, including the borderlines and that what makes the process of registration or documentation a rather difficult task for anybody to do.”
And as per the same source, administrators, doctors and nurses avoid asking about causes of any injury accident. “We are living in a hot spot suffering from conflicts among different military factions, and at times elements and families fight for various reasons. Weapons can also be carried to hospitals by those accompanying their patients. Under such unfavorable conditions and in the absence of any unified security authority in this region, nobody cares to ask about any causes, and you might put yourself at risk if you ever dare to do so.”
The Law is Crystal Clear
Caution signs are put everywhere across the Turkish border wall, warning against any approach or attempt to get across the borders. ‘Ghazwan Koronful’ a Syrian legalist living in the city of ‘Ghazi Entab’, north of Turkey, points out that the signs warning against approaching a military zone make the Turkish judge take the side of the army and accordingly reject any claim submitted to the court in this regard.
Nevertheless, a Turkish female lawyer, Cansu anılan, who is specialized in legal consultations, assures that in spite of the emergency state which is still taking effect in the country since the coup d’état of 2016, and despite all the causes which forced Ankara to construct the border wall, yet concerning the Syrian frontiers, the Turkish law permits the entry of the refugees fleeing war in search of a safe haven, and this is crystal clear.
“In asmuch as Syria is in a state of war according to law, Syrians are entitled to enter the country illegally, and the border guards have no right whatsoever to fire at civilians, or against those entering Syria without raising any arms against the Turkish elements. No one is allowed to fire at those coming from Syria.” Cansu Anılan elaborates.
To elaborate, he Turkish lawyer said, “In the meantime, the Turkish law gives any Syrian family having victims killed by the Turkish border guards, the right to be compensated from any damage caused”. That very same fact is actually confirmed by ‘Koronful’ who sees that any Syrian citizen is entitled to resort to a court of justice in compliance with the Turkish law, and any Syrian family who has any of its members killed by the Turkish Jandarma is in fact entitled to raise a claim against the Turkish army.
Meanwhile, Alaa Al-Tahan, a lawyer staying in Istanbul, states that no case of this nature has ever been raised before the Turkish courts, “People are rather intimidated, since the condition of the Syrian refugees in Syria is in fact still unclear and ever-changing. In the meantime, Turkey is not one of the signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention”, he said.
Did Turkey Kill Militants?
Turkey constructed the border wall ‘to protect itself from the infiltration of any extremist militant into its territories, and to prevent smuggling operations between the two countries’. This sentence was written in almost all the official news texts released by Anadolu News Agency as regards the building of the barrier wall.
Through our precise research, we actually failed to find any news item released by any authenticated Turkish source in Arabic or English, reporting that the border guards blocked any infiltration attempt by militants or armed fighters from Idlib countryside to the Turkish territories. Our research covered the very same period during which witnesses spoke to us, that is from the beginning of the year 2018 until December of the same year.
Our research was actually of no avail. We found no news about any confrontation or killing or arrest of armed infiltrators moving from Syria towards the Turkish territories in the region we covered in this investigation.
The stories published by the Turkish information media talk exclusively about the killing of ‘terrorists’ attempting to infiltrate from areas dominated by the Kurdish forces, north east Syria. The details released include the weaponry possessed by those elements. Such news items are released by the Turkish information media almost every week.
In the meantime, Anadolu News Agency transmits news stating that the Turkish soldiers are lifting corpses of illegal Syrian refugees killed during their attempts to enter the country, adding that investigations on the issue are still underway, with no reference to the possibility of their being liquidated by the border guards’ bullets. The last of such news was published on February 20, 2019 and stated that the Turkish police had found three corpses in a location nearby the Syrian borders, specifically in ‘Rehany District, which is affiliated to southern Hattie State.
After getting across the borders, refugees have to rely on other smugglers to secure their safe transfer from the Turkish cities and villages, across the borders, deep into the Turkish territories, away from the army barriers and checkpoints which seem to be widespread along the international roads connecting the southern Turkish states. Having done so, the Syrian refugee becomes relatively secure, but without any official documents proving his status as a refugee. Many Turkish states are in fact reluctant to register Syrians or grant them temporary protection to be on equal footing with more than 3,000,000 other Syrian refugees now staying in Turkey.
‘Mohamed S.’ (32 years) is still unable to protect the ceiling of the small room he had rented in Eenyurt neighborhood, protect it from the rainwater. He lives in this room which costs him 750 Turkish Lira ($ 150) a month, with his wife and three children and works 12 hours daily, collecting a monthly salary amounting to 1300 Turkish Liras.
Mohamed who is coming from ‘Derha’, south of Syria, and whose family managed to escape the gunfire of the Turkish soldiers says, “I don’t really know that the situation will be that bad in Turkey. I’ve paid thousands of dollars to find myself without any legal documents. My wife and kids cannot go outdoors and I’m afraid lest I would be stopped by any of security patrols and be asked about my identity card.”
Like thousands of other refugees who were coercively displaced from their homes to the north of Syria and then moved from there to Turkey, ‘Mohamed’ lives under rather difficult economic conditions. His kids cannot go to school, nether can they receive any medical treatment in any Turkish hospital. He is still trying to seek a way to issue a temporary stay permit after the Turkish authorities had ceased to issue them in a number of big Turkish cities and towns, namely; Ankara, Istanbul, Gaziantep, Antalya, and others. The only way to get them is through brokers in small cities at a cost amounting at least to 1,000 Turkish Lira per person.
“Nevertheless, we are still leading such a rather hard life here after having survived several hazards. Perhaps one day we might be lucky to follow our relatives in Europe”, he says to us with a smile drawn on his face and when you ask him about the story of his journey across the Syria-Turkey borders, you are politely advised to lower your voice lest his kids would hear its tragic details. “It’s a foregone experience and we don’t really want to recall or have it repeated.” he says.
This investigation was accomplished with the support
Of The Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism ‘NIRIJ’,
Under the supervision of Kammy Almelhem.