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July 22, 2012, Sunday

Looking at Syria from Hatay-Reyhanlı

For a week I have been spending time in Hatay-Reyhanlı. Reyhanlı is a Turkish town that is home to the Cilvegözü border gate, Turkey’s most important gateway to the Middle East along the Syrian border.

Despite its fertile lands, locals now rely mostly on other means to make a living as agriculture has become less popular. Smuggling and the revenues generated out of activities at the Cilvegözü and Bab al-Hawa border gates on the Syrian side are the main sources of income for people in Reyhanlı.

Intense clashes were observed in Syria on July 18 and 19. At around 12 p.m. on July 19, Syrian rebels seized the Bab al-Hawa border gate. Around the same time, reports indicated that the rebels had also taken control of the Carablus border gate along the Turkish-Syrian border and the Abu Kamal border gate along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Syrian customs officers and military servicemen fled to the Turkish side of the border in an attempt to save their lives. Because no customs officers stayed on the Syrian side, trucks passed through the gate without proper certification and verification. Mechanics from Turkey went to Bab al-Hawa to fix the tires of Turkish trucks hit during the clashes.

I was invited to a dinner in a village along the Syrian border on July 19. Two rebels involved in the occupation of the Bab al-Hawa border gate were also at the dinner. One of them was a teacher and the other a college student at Baghdad University. The teacher had an iPad. They were both calm and polite. They did not speak unless they were spoken to. Their responses were brief and clear. They did not brag while speaking. They noted that they had been fighting against the Shebbihas, a militia group supported by the Damascus administration, rather than the army along the border and in Idlib. They said that 70 rebels had died in those clashes in July and while they did not have any information on the casualties of their opponents they had destroyed 14 tanks and heavy weaponry. I asked them about the things they needed most. Responding calmly, they said they needed arms, and food for fast-breaking dinners. While responding, they did not show any sign of complaining or making a strong request.

People living in the Kavalcık and Kefer Ade villages in Reyhanlı and the people in Idlib are related. They are members of the Hadar tribe. The relatives of the Arab tribes in Reyhanlı (Hadidi, Baggara, Naim, Hassan and Cess) live in the south of Aleppo and Hama.

The streets of Reyhanlı are full of Syrian civilians and uniformed Syrian troops. It is not clear who moved to Turkey to save their lives from army brutality and who came to the town to stay away from the violence of the rebels. In the end, Turkey is a safe haven for both. Reyhanlı people are now familiar with the uniformed Syrian soldiers. Nobody cares. An outsider may think that Turkey and Syria have merged or Reyhanlı has been occupied by the Syrian army. The number of Syrians has increased dramatically in Reyhanlı over the last couple of months, with the number of Syrian families in the town at around 1,500.

Generally, middle class families rent houses in Reyhanlı. They are mostly merchants, doctors, engineers, military servicemen or musicians. Both supporters and opponents of the Assad regime move to the town. Some stay in Turkey permanently, whereas others drop their family there and go back to Syria. It is almost impossible to find a house to rent in the town. Rates have increased from TL 100-200 to TL 300. Food prices have also gone up. However, the price of meat has declined because livestock are being smuggled through the border gate. The Reyhanlı State Hospital is full of Syrian patients. Ambulances carry sick and wounded people from the border every day. The daily rate of pay for labor in Reyhanlı is TL 16 before noon and TL 26 after noon. Monthly pay for labor is around TL 500. The participation of Syrians in the workforce has not caused any further decline of this rate.

Both people and goods move from Syria to Reyhanlı’s border villages, including Harran, Sansarin and Bornivaz. The Syrian parts of these villages are under the control of the rebels. You can see their tents with the naked eye. It has been reported that there is a hospital where French doctors work in the Syrian town of Atma that is known as the stronghold of the rebels.

People in Reyhanlı live their daily lives intertwined with Syria.

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