Syrian fighting changes life in Turkish outpost

February 26, 2012, Sunday/ 15:41:00

For generations, the economy of this Turkish hamlet has thrived on items such as livestock and cigarettes that are smuggled across the border from Syria in an area of lax security.

But the popular uprising in Syria is changing that.

The fighting has led to the creation of four refugee camps for Syrians on the Turkish side of the border, and Syria has reinforced security along the border.

"These Syrian refugees have spoiled our life," said Arif, 34, a Hacıpaşa resident whose main business is smuggling. "Because of them, police and soldiers are everywhere now," said Arif, who declined to give his surname to avoid being identified by authorities for illicit trading.

Smugglers fear that Syrian troops will soon close the border area now that Turkey's government has condemned what it calls the atrocities being committed by Syria's military.

Syria also wouldn't want the area to become a transit point for smuggled weapons or a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army rebels.

In addition, the 566-mile (910-kilometer) frontier has long been the scene of border disputes between the two countries, including in the area where Hacipasa is based.

For now, the increased security has reduced the number of items being smuggled across the border and made the process more dangerous. But the illegal trading still includes cheap gasoline and cigarettes brought in from Syria and sold locally for a profit.

"They are not better, they are just cheaper," said Nihat Ünal, 43, brandishing a pack of cigarettes he said had been smuggled into Hacıpaşa from a hilly area of Syria right across the border from his backyard.

Turkey says it does not condone any illegal activity in its border areas, and will not allow insurgents to use its territory to stage attacks in neighboring countries.

But about 10,000 Syrians who have fled their government's crackdown on the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime now live in the refugee camps in Turkey.

For İzeddin Çelik, a 60-year-old resident of Hacıpaşa, the conflict has added new strains to an already difficult life.

Celik has long sold duvets and blankets at the Saturday bazaars in his hamlet, flanked by Syrian hills on one side and Turkish military outposts on the other. But the fighting in Syria has stopped its people from crossing the border and shopping in Hacıpaşa.

It also is preventing Çelik from traveling to Syria to visit his relatives there.

"You can hear gunfire and shelling in the morning," Çelik said. "And when people try to cross, the Syrian army shoots at them," he said, drawing lines in the dirt with his foot to illustrate the border area.

"They used to come over for Ramadan and we used to visit," Çelik said, referring to the Muslim month of fasting that ends with a feast of food and sweets for friends and relatives. "But now who wants to go where there is fighting going on? Who wants to buy anything?"

Mouhammed Moussa, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, said he believes the smugglers are right to assume that Syria's army will soon seal off the border to prevent the rebels from expanding their foothold.

In an interview outside one of the four refugee camps - which journalists cannot enter without special Turkish government permits - Moussa said he is not a rebel.

But he said he is in touch with "leaders of the revolution in Syria," and Moussa also identified a 24-year-old man standing beside him as a soldier who had defected from the Syrian army and fled to Turkey.

"If we had weapons, it would be much different," Moussa said.

Despite the widespread criticism Syria has faced for its deadly attacks on civilians, and Saudi Arabia's call for other countries to arm Syria's opposition groups, Moussa is skeptical that will happen.

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