Humanitarian Crisis

Caught in the Crossfire in Kilis

Turkey-Syria Border-Reuters
Looking across the Turkey-Syria border.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The war in Syria is forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee, and many refugees are hoping to join the asylum-seekers who have already made their way to Europe.

  • Facts


    • A bombing that killed 28 people in the Turkish capital of Ankara led the country’s prime minister to cancel plans to attend Thursday’s E.U. summit on the refugee crisis.
    • German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under growing pressure at home and abroad over her handling of the refugee issue.
    • An average of 2,063 refugees have entered Germany daily since January 1.
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Fouad lay on the ground and looked around. His left leg was twisted in front of him, the right one was a meter away.

He raised his head and saw seven men with whom he’d been kneeling in the mosque just moments before. They lay motionless in their own blood. Fouad could still move, though he felt no pain. His legs didn’t belong to him any longer. The fighter-bomber took them.

That was 10 days before he told the story from a field hospital run by Malteser International and the Blue Crescent in the south-central Turkish town of Kilis, near the Syrian border.

“I can’t believe that the world isn’t doing anything against these crimes,” the 24-year-old said, his large eyes alert and black hair astray as he pulled a blanket over his lap.

“Their bombs break into many parts, like millions of nails. ”

Abu Ahmed, Syrian refugee

Fuoad fled some time ago to Turkey, where he began studying electro-technology, but he went to visit friends near the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo that day. They had just finished praying when the bombers appeared in the sky.

“They were Russian planes,” he said. “They’re much faster than Syrian bombers.”

While Kilis has become a large refuge from the abyss of the Syrian war, the surrounding 60 kilometers is teeming with those who have unleashed hell on the region over the last four years.

The jihadists of the so-called Islamic State aren’t far away, nor is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, or the rebels who are battling his dictatorship. Meanwhile, the Russians are dropping bombs in support of Mr. Assad. Firing from the border are Turks who want to topple him too.

Today, more refugees than local inhabitants live in Kilis. There are more than 100,000 refugees on the Syrian side, and their numbers grow daily. In Kilis, there is no doubt about who is driving Syrians from their homes, and it’s here that the consequences for Europe become undeniable. Germany, which has taken in the most refugees in Europe, is hoping fervently for a ceasefire, a hope shared by Syrian civilians and Turkey.

The hospital where Fouad was treated is located in the middle of a new district in Kilis. This Syrian section has barracks, makeshift structures and many Syrian stores selling food and telephone cards. Other dealers offer places to sleep. Living space is a precious commodity here.

People live in dilapidated apartments, sheds in back courtyards and unused stores. The air is filled with smoke from wood fires. People stand on the streets to escape the overcrowded accommodations.

Abu Ahmed invited us in to his ground-floor room for a glass of tea. He had covered the damp concrete floor with old rugs, where he sat with his family. His wife was clothed in black and wore a veil. His daughter and sons wore sweaters provided by a refugee assistance program.

They come from Horeitan, to the north of Aleppo, after losing everything ten days before. They were happy to escape with their lives. During the night, what Abu Ahmed assumed to be Russian fighter planes bombed a nearby building that housed opposition fighters.

Abu Ahmed’s family was warned and left their house at one in the morning. Then came a second wave of bombers aiming at residential areas. Abu Ahmed saw them when he turned back to retrieve the family’s valuables. He didn’t succeed. His house is no longer standing.

Many Syrians now streaming to the border are refugees because of decisions made by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But how does Abu Ahmed know the bombers weren’t Syrian planes?

“They are loud and slow,” he said. “These were quick as lightning – and quieter.”

The Assad regime drops crudely made “barrel bombs,” but the Russians have more sophisticated weapons.

“Their bombs break into many parts, like millions of nails,” Abu Ahmed said. “Sections of iron fly through the air and catch on fire – then everything around you goes up into the air, and the entire district burns down.”

Such cluster bombs have been outlawed by more than 100 countries, but Russia isn’t among them.

What Abu Ahmed described echoes the reports of other refugees here, including Fouad. It also corresponds to reports of attacks on several hospitals that international organizations have also blamed on Russia.

Meanwhile, attacks by Turkey also threaten the civilian population. While the refugees told their stories, the ground in Kilis shook as muted booms reverberated through the air. It was Turkish artillery firing from the border at advancing Kurdish militia.

Turks against Kurds: This is Turkey’s special front, and one that is making it hard for NATO to pursue a united policy in this war. The shells, which Turkish politicians say are supposed to protect the refugees, pass right over the tent encampments.

International observers in Kilis say these are useless bombardments. At a distance of 15 kilometers, the Turks can do little against superior Russian forces and pro-Assad forces. But if Aleppo and the north of the country fall to this coalition soon, will there at least then be calm? Can the refugees then return home, as Moscow has claimed?

This seems doubtful when one hears Buschra’s story. She comes from the same village as Abu Ahmed and fled to Kilis more than two years ago. A psychologist trained in Aleppo, the 27-year-old works at the Malteser hospital and the adjoining social center, helping refugees to reinvent themselves in overcrowded Kilis.

Many suspect that they have lost their homeland forever. Buschra also helps children who have been orphaned, and now she is worried about their relatives caught in Aleppo.

Buschra has wanted to return there several times. But her sister warned her urgently not to do so. They telephone regularly and exchange text messages. The city is essentially divided between Shiite pro-Assad militia and the Sunni opposition.

Her sister tells Buschra that the inhabitants of the opposition areas are in great danger. And those who have fled are said to be wanted by Mr. Assad’s intelligence service. It doesn’t matter whether they belonged to the opposition or not. Their place of residence decides their fate.

“We are all considered to be traitors who want to overthrow the regime,” Buschra said. Her sister fears that if Aleppo is re-conquered, there will be mass executions and that every refugee wanting to return will be a target. That corresponds to warnings from Syrian human rights activists and international organizations.

If that were to happen, then the retaking of Aleppo and the northern suburbs would not be the restoration of order by a legitimate government, as is claimed on Russian television. It would be an ethnic cleansing. Shiite pro-Assad militia in – Sunnis out. Mass expulsions are also on the agenda in other regions.

Things are getting tighter for the Sunnis in this tiny strip of land between Aleppo and Kilis. The Turkish aid organization IHH, which provides many Syrian cities with food, medicine and blankets, says that in the tiny town of Asas south of Kilis there are already around 40,000 refugees.

In addition, 80,000 people are camped out in tents along the Turkish border. Turkey is not allowing them in, and is instead calling for a protected zone in northern Syria.

A few Syrians still make it to Kilis, though, just like Fouad and Abu Ahmed. They are either gravely wounded and carried out by aid workers, or they pay a smuggler to take them over the border.

In Kilis, some then go to offices where they receive places to sleep, car documents and travel information for Europe. Sitting in one of these offices was Jaro, who was quite conspicuous, having arrived just four days prior.

The 26-year-old didn’t look like a “normal” refugee. He was wearing fashionable, tight, black designer clothes and black shoes with white, decorated soles. His full beard was freshly trimmed, and he didn’t have a moustache, the sign of radical Islamists.

Jaro invited us to a cup of tea. We hesitated for a moment. Kilis is said to contain IS agents hunting for foreign journalists to kidnap and demand ransom for their return. But IS wouldn’t be lurking in this office open onto the street and certainly under surveillance by the Turkish intelligence service, so we sat down.

Jaro comes from a northern suburb of Aleppo and was conscripted into the Syrian army at the start of the war in 2011. After a few months, he deserted and went over to the opposition, as he tells it. Which group? Jaro hesitated, then said quietly: “Al-Nusra.” This is the branch of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda in Syria, which is fighting simultaneously against the regime and IS in Syria.

Jaro sought to justify himself: “I fought for Al-Nusra because I wanted to escape the regime.”

He told of an odyssey lasting several years and passing through the scenes of major battles in Syria. What is the difference between the jihadists of Al-Nusra and those of IS?

“We have principles and freedom,” Jaro said.

He said that IS forces everyone under Islam, while Al-Nusra only makes suggestions and doesn’t compel anyone. There is freedom to leave. It recommends that women wear the veil and men refrain from smoking.

“That’s why instead of four packs, I only smoke one pack per day,” Jaro said.

But if everything is so free with Al-Nusra, why didn’t he stay? His home village near Kilis was in danger, he said. Jaro switched to one of the small opposition groups supported by Turkey. He fought against Shiite mercenaries, against the Kurdish militia south of Kilis.

“But the fight doesn’t make sense any more,” he said. Bombs fall from the sky, enemies come from all sides. “Everything is falling apart.”

So Jaro, who forced more than a few people to flee, became a refugee too. He brought money from the battles he fought – that much is obvious. This is important, because he has only an eighth grade education. His family is also in Kilis, but he didn’t want to stay here.

“In this remote place, you have no chance, no life, no work,” he said. He has heard from friends that life in Germany is “sweet and comfortable.”

Two years ago, Jaro submitted an asylum application to the German consulate in Istanbul. Now he wants to try again.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit newspaper. To contact the author:

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