Reyhanli: medical base for Syrian mujahedeen in Turkey

Tensions are growing between locals and Syrian refugees in the city of Reyhanli in southern Turkey, while some claim that al-Qaeda members are present in the town.

al-monitor An injured Syrian man puts on his new prosthetic limb in Reyhanli, a border town in Hatay province, southern Turkey, Jan. 18, 2014. Photo by Getty Images/Ozan Kose/AFP.

Topics covered

turkey’s syria policy, turkey-syrian border, turkey, syrian refugees in turkey, syrian refugees, syria, reyhanli, al-qaeda

Feb 2, 2014

Life has not been the same for the people of Reyhanli after the car bomb attacks on May 11, 2013, that killed 53 people. They are afraid to talk about it.

The people of Reyhanli are sure al-Qaeda and its extensions are still in their town. How do they recognize al-Qaeda militants? They don’t wear pants, never smoke and in general don’t have beards. Yes, we saw people fitting this description. In particular, student hostels at Yenisehir are now the base for "fighters."

It is very easy to cross to Syria from here. Everybody knows the secret of a civilian ambulance with license plate number 65 constantly ferrying wounded from the border, or that the man known as Abu Yahya arranges for transport across the border.

What is surprising is the abundance of "hospitals" where fighters are treated. Three hospitals set up by Syrians — one made up of containers at the entrance of the town and two "private" hospitals in converted apartments in the town center — provide medical care. You often see young people in the streets walking with crutches or missing a part of their body.

They want a new Islamic state

Opposition fighters wounded in the civil war are first treated at the local public hospital. Those requiring longer treatment and those with missing limbs are referred to the prosthesis center set up by Syrians. For continuing treatment and care they are sent to “care centers,” also set up by Syrians. There are scores of such centers, but none are officially registered.

One of the “care centers” was opened in place of an old Internet cafe under an apartment bloc. Three young men sitting in front of it have all lost legs. One says because of an explosion; others cite land mines.

These 16- and 17-year-old youngsters say they belong to Ahrar al-Sham, a brigade that is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Celal, who has lost his leg, said, “We have to give up fighting and come here for treatment. We wanted to set up a new state in Syria.”

Asked what kind of a state, he said, “A state of Islam, rights and law.”

70 prosthetic legs in one month

We visited the “prosthetics center” in an old warehouse outside the town. Ten people work in this center, which has been operating for eight months. A young man who had to cut short his education in medical engineering is fitting prosthetics. M.Y., the expert at the center, said he fits 70 prosthetic legs each month. M.Y. says the workers are all volunteers. He said, "30,000 Syrians lost their legs in the war. Although I am not fully trained for it, I am doing my best to serve here.”

We see instruments used for rehabilitation in the center. But when M.Y. calls his supervisor, he doesn’t give us permission to take photographs.

While the fighters are trying to find treatment in Reyhanli, local people don’t feel secure. One civil servant said, “Everybody is afraid. Aleppo is only 40 kilometers [25 miles] from here. People inform on each other. We have more Syrians than local people now."

Complaints about Syrian neighbors

The flow of Syrian refugees has radically altered the balance in Hatay. There is antipathy toward Syrians who were initially welcomed and given help. A relief official said, “As the number of refugees has increased, tolerance in Hatay has suffered. People complain that the refugees are changing the local culture and taking jobs away from local people, even if the Syrians really want to go back to their homes. They are here because they have no choice.”

If Hatay had not been traditionally a town of tolerance and civility, there would have been many more serious problems, as there are in Istanbul and Izmir, where Syrian antipathy is widespread.

The major grievance of the people of Hatay is the unbelievable rise of sectarianism. They say, “Before, nobody ever identified himself as Alawites, Sunni or Christian. Now this is the first question we hear from outsiders coming here.”

Neighborhood relations are not friendly. While talking to Syrians living in Ilkevler Housing in Antakya, a man came up to us and said, “Look, how can one live here? Look at the filth. Eighty Syrian families live here. Every day, they receive two truckloads of smuggled fuel to sell later.”

Mr. Nizamettin, who lives in the same housing complex, says that 100 flats are empty. He says the neighborhood is very dirty but his Syrian neighbors don’t care. He added, "These are people from rural areas. They are not real Syrians. We give them furniture, and then they sell it. They don’t even thank you. We don’t enjoy our lives here. We pity them but we also want to live like human beings.”

Cheap labor

Syrians who are looking for jobs prefer to go to Adana and Mersin. There, a woman working as a housemaid makes 10 Turkish lira a day [$5]. A lawyer, doctor or judge working in carrot fields makes 15 Turkish lira [$7.50], while the normal wage is 30 Turkish lira [$15]. Women easily find jobs in cotton and olive picking, but that upsets their family relations.

About 60,000 people used to live in Reyhanli. The population is now 150,000. Most of the refugees are poor civilians. It is hard to find someone speaking Turkish in the streets.

Of course there is exploitation of the refugees. All tenements are rented. A chicken coop fetches 200 Turksih lira [$100]. Houses rent for 500-1,500 Turkish lira [$250-$750] a month.

There is a true construction boom in Reyhanli. Mostly Syrians work in construction. But a relief worker warns that local people have begun to react.

Must cooperate

The International Strategic Research Agency has published two reports on Syrian refugees. Sema Karaca, who was a co-author of a Brookings report on “Turkey and Syrian Refugees: The Limits of Hospitality,” answered our questions:

Milliyet What are your observations on refugees?

Karaca:  There is a serious discrepancy in facilities offered to refugees. This inequality has assumed irreversible dimensions. Those outside the camps have to take care of themselves. Camps offer impressive service. But there is criticism of keeping the camps off-limits to international controls.

Milliyet What is the disadvantage of avoiding controls?

Karaca:  Turkey deserves praise for the load it is carrying all by itself.  But keeping the camps off-limits generates questions about what is happening inside them. When you add the media reports of “giving combat training to opposition” in the camps, the picture one gets is not pleasant. Also, there is a serious weakness of border security. It is possible for any armed or unarmed person to cross the border by avoiding official crossings.

Milliyet What are the socioeconomic effects of the crisis on Turkey?

Karaca:  People who escaped from Syria with their savings and who, for a while, lived on their own means have now exhausted their savings. They cannot legally work in Turkey. Those who work illegally don’t get what they deserve for their labor. The Syrians, including children, are a source of cheap labor. There is exploitation of labor.

Milliyet:  What can be done?

Karaca:  It is too late to reverse the initial mistakes such as minimizing illegal border crossings and registering all those crossings. Troubles we are having now are the fruits of those initial mistakes. People who are not registered don’t have access to basic assistance services. They have been away from their land for three years and they need to work like a normal being, establish human relations and rebuild their lives. They need to take care of themselves and their families, but neither the international community nor Turkey has the resources to do this indefinitely.

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