Akçakale: the town that feels Syria's pain most
Turkey's southeastern province of Hatay, near the border with Syria, has felt the fallout from the bloodshed in its neighboring country more than any other place in the region, having opened its doors to refugees and sometimes even an unwanted mortar shell.
Akçakale, a small town of 27,000, is the most vulnerable district as it is practically on the border. At least 5,000 people have left Akçakale since the start of the war and moved to Urfa. A local who shows us around tells us: “Because machine gun bullets hit school buildings, schools have been closed. All the teachers went to Urfa, some resigned.”
As we talk, a loud explosion rattles our eardrums. A mortar bomb must have fallen nearby. We can hear the sounds of tank fire two kilometers ahead, on the other side of the border. As we near the border, the sounds of the war are louder. Announcements from the mosque's speakers tell everyone to stay home. Akçakale residents, most of whom have relatives on the other side, however, get closer to the border, waiting there with fearful eyes to find out if anyone they love on the other side has been hurt. The police near the border cordon off the area and try to drive the worried crowd away, but to no avail.
Locals say more than half the town has relatives in Rakka, Syria. Fifteen percent of the town's men have married women from Rakka. Bilal Bolat, the owner of the Uğur Hotel, where we are staying, says his wife is from there. She hasn't heard a word from her relatives for over a year as phone lines in Syria have been down. “My wife is not doing well. We can't reach her family. Nobody comes here because snipers shoot down people trying to cross the border. Only people from towns under the control of the opposition can come here. We try to get word of them through those people, but nobody knows.”
The clashes on the other side have hit local retailers worst. Nil Café, a popular hangout in the town where people used to have to wait in line to get in, is empty. İbrahim Halil Ergün, the owner, says: “Well, the people have a point. You hear the bombs. How can you say for sure they're not going to fall here? We are also as scared as anybody else in town.” As we speak, the screams of a couple of Syrian refugee children playing in a nearby park are audible, “It can fall here, come on, Aunt, let's run.”
During our visit, we also meet the Aziz family, a 15-person household that fled Rakka. Yelda Aziz asks us not to take a picture. “They will kill us when we go back if they see a picture,” says Yelda, who is only 6, pointing to the camera.
The family's oldest son, Ahmet, says he was detained by regime forces after joining a protest against the government at his university's campus. He was tortured in custody. “Morning, noon and night, they pulled out my nails, they gave me electric shocks.”
Another Syrian, Hasan, to whom we talked in Akçakale, says the regime is now forcibly recruiting all men over 30 in the city of Rakka into the military, as the number of defections has been too high. “Those who resist are killed in the middle of the street,” he says.
At night, shots and explosions continue to be heard sporadically. It is impossible to sleep here. Ambulances on the border carrying the injured are visible from the hotel. Who knows how many lives are being cut short in the conflict that is taking place right in front of our eyes.
Four people were injured because of a mortar shell that made a three-meter hole in the ground when it fell on this side of the border three days ago, says Ali Dost, an Akçakale resident. He says, however, he is happy that nobody was hurt. Dost and other residents here urge the government to take precautions to prevent any loss of life that might be caused by the fighting in Syria.
Turkish units, which were deployed shortly after the mortar shell, are already visible near the border.