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Syria’s Qamishli a window onto Turkish-Kurdish conflict across border

For months, residents of a northern Syrian city have watched helplessly as their neighbors and fellow Kurds battle Turkish forces across the border.

QAMISHLI, Syria — On the top floor of an unfinished concrete building in the northern Syrian city of Qamishli last week, a group of journalists milled around a video camera trained a few hundred meters away across the Turkish border to the city of Nusaybin. With the steady dull thuds of shelling in the background, the reporters, who were camped out to document the bombing in Nusaybin, smoked, drank tea, talked quietly around the recording equipment and ducked out to the balcony to snap photographs as a laptop showed a live feed of the action.

On the screen was construction equipment, beginning what they guessed was an extension of a separation wall between the two cities by Turkey. After one particularly loud explosion, the camera zoomed out past a foreground of destroyed residential buildings to catch a fast-rising white plume of smoke.

While state-imposed curfews have made it difficult to document the fighting in Turkey's southeast between Kurdish militants inspired by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Turkish state forces, residents and local journalists in Qamishli have witnessed over two months of siege on neighborhoods in their sister city of Nusaybin. Amid the relative calm in a standoff between the dominant People's Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian regime forces, Qamishli residents have had a unique window into the wider conflict in Turkey.

The group No More Silence, which was formed in April by local Syrian journalists, has been recording from its location in Qamishli in 12-hour shifts, occasionally facing bullets and harassment from the Turkish side while receiving updates from Kurdish sources inside of Nusaybin.

No More Silence member Abdulselam Mohamad told Al-Monitor the group's goal is to “break the silence of the world toward Bakur, southeastern Turkey in general and Nusaybin especially because it is considered the twin city of Qamishli.” He added, “All the people in Qamishli have relatives in Nusaybin. Everyone talks to each other and conveys the news.”

The exact number of casualities is impossible to know, Mohamad guessed it is in the hundreds. The living situation has become dire for those trapped, with residents left without electricity and some resorting to drinking rainwater. He explained that entire blocks of homes have been destroyed and those who try to leave the besieged neighborhoods are targeted by Turkish snipers.

Across the street from the organization's makeshift outpost, farmers have watched the fighting from their fields, where they were menaced by Turkish border forces.

“All the time our children ask us about the sounds, about what is happening there. We tell them not to fear. We say they are fireworks from Turkey and not clashes,” said Eymed Ibrahim, a farmer who has lived in this community on the Nusaybin border for more than 30 years.

The sprawling Kurdish-majority cities of Qamishli and Nusaybin share long historic ties. Before the clashes, Ibrahim said he was on friendly terms with the Turkish border forces. But now farmers are afraid to get too near the border for fear of being shot. According to No More Silence, farmers have claimed Turkish forces have shot livestock and threatened residents.

“We can't sleep. Sometimes at midnight, we wake up because of the sounds. Our life has become hell,” said Ibrahim, standing beside children playing in a tractor bed. They seemed unperturbed by the continuous sounds of shelling.

“We are not afraid because we have a strong force here, but we fear their shells that fall on us and their bullets,” he said.

Two have died and at least 14 have been injured since early April by bullets and shells, according to No More Silence and media reports.

“Our hearts break when we hear [the bombs] because it is also our city, our relatives living there. Also, not because it is a Kurdish city, but because humans are living there,” said a woman sitting with others drinking tea outside of her house.

“The people who defend [Nusaybin] are defending their lives. We want our people to take revenge because Turkey has destroyed everything. We will stay here in front of [the Turkish army] to tease them. Our sitting here is resistance,” she said.

Those Al-Monitor spoke to in the community say a wall is being constructed by Turkey on their land to separate the residents.

“Erdogan opposed how Israel built the wall. Now he builds this wall himself. He has two faces. They cannot destroy and break our will. It is a means of siege around Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan]. Where is the democracy of Europe? They see with their own eyes how many cities here are destroyed, but they do not speak,” said Abdel Bari, another local resident.

On May 26, the Civil Defense Units announced a withdrawal from Nusaybin. They claimed it was to prevent the kind of civilian casualties seen in Cizre earlier this year. Even so, explosions can still regularly be heard from Nusaybin.

A solidarity protest formed down the street among the farming community a day after the announced withdrawal. Large speakers blasted Kurdish revolutionary songs toward Turkey. Around 40 people holding the flags of the YPG and Rojava and depictions of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan chanted, “Long live the resistance in Bakur!” A group of children chanted into a microphone, “Who is a gangster? Erdogan is a gangster!”

In the distance, storm winds blew a cloud of gray smoke from a blast over a Nusaybin neighborhood.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication

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