The massive car bomb in the town of Reyhanli in Turkey was a bloody reminder of how the civil war in Syria is continuing to spill over its now porous borders. Although the attack cannot yet be attributed to any single group it is safe to assume that without the grinding civil war in Syria this would not have happened.  I recently conducted an internet-based interview with a humanitarian worker based in Reyhanli about the conditions faced by the Syrian refugees residing there.

Where, with whom and why are you working on the Syrian border?

I am currently based in Reyhanli in Turkey, which is situated about five minutes from the border with Syria.  I am working with a Syrian charity that is based in the UK but has an office here. The charity was set up by the diaspora community in the UK to facilitate the delivery of aid to the Syrians in need before many of the larger non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the international community became involved. As such, it has grown steadily and now works with many international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) as an implementor for programmes in Syria, as well as implementing projects of its own – these include food distribution, setting up wells, pumps and bakeries, health clinics, field hospitals and schools. They are one of those uniquely positioned charities as a result of their roots in the community being targeted but also with an international base. They have networks on the ground and can work in both government and opposition held areas which is pretty unique among the organisations here. A lot of the major NGOs are based here in Turkey, because of the easier working conditions here and the easier access to the border.

Turkish-Syrian border

Turkish-Syrian border (click to enlarge)


Can you describe the conditions for the Syrian refugees? In what way are these massive changes in their everyday civilian lives manifesting themselves?

The Syrian refugees are nowhere near as large a group as the internally displaced persons (IDPs). Those within Turkey are relatively well off in comparison to the millions displaced within Syria. Literally just across the border is the first major camp at Bab al Hawa, with around 9000 IDPs at last estimate. Although as there was an aerial bombing there last week which I think killed two and injured dozens which I believe caused an estimated mass displacement of about 2000 to other camps in the area. There are many, many IDP camps near the border, and new ones being set up all the time. INGOs are trying to provide for and manage these camps but there is a distinct lack of funds, and as registry within Turkey is a criteria for access to major funds like those of the EU, this causes all sorts of difficulties. NGOs are trying to work past some of the problems with logistics on the ground by working with local Turkish NGOs but the funding problems will persist until we are Turkish registered – also until the UN can facilitate a legal route to officially help in Syria, outside of government areas where they are already based.

The conditions in the camps are dire – backed up toilets, lack of water, lack of space, lack of food etc. Some are much better than others. BUT when I visited bab al Hawa just a week and a half ago I was told that they had 6 toilets for 2000 people and only two were working. Can you imagine? They have to shower in their tents and then clean them out. I mean, for Muslims, hygiene is a huge issue. Muslims wash and pray five times a day – it’s just beyond imagination. Many IDPs have left good homes, not just due to a lack of security, although this is very present, but because there was no food. They had run out of money and couldn’t purchase more and prices are high and the food deliveries they were expecting to receive from the international community did not arrive, so they thought it would be better to go to the camps. Whole families uprooted – one women I was told about left just a day after her baby was born, another I met with a baby just three months old. They have been in the camps now for a few months, with a distinct lack of supplies but they are so generous, they will offer you all they have, tea, water, to try to make YOU comfortable.

There is no work for the men, no schools for the children. these children have witnessed things no one should have to. I sat in a tent in Bab al Hawa and was shown a video of a little boy dancing to Arab music whilst his family, a large group of men, clapped around him. It was an amazingly happy scene. then they tell me that the house was bombed and they all died. I didn’t know what to do or say, or what reaction to show or not show. The boy was maybe four. These children need schools, and psychiatric trauma care. there are a few small schools set up here, including those helped by my organisation who are doing this, but we need more.

The housing for the refugees.

The housing for the refugees just across the Syrian border.


What have been the emotions and feelings expressed by the refugees you have come in contact with?

They are very strong people, they will smile with you even whilst telling you the worst stories. the ones I have talked to more do not show you real heartbreak, though they have experienced much. I work with young men here who have left their families behind in government held areas or even in opposition held areas where they are not safe. The ones in government held areas they haven’t seen for long time, six months or more. Yet, they don’t discuss their woes, or present them as such. I met people in the camps who came to us to complain about lack of medicine and stuff, but they did not cry at us, though they pleaded.

The problem is many NGOs come to the camps to make assessments  take pictures with their media people etc and then the refugees don’t see any change to their situation so they get angry and frustrated – they do not like people taking photos anymore, and they will question you as to why you are there. There were others whom had settled into what I would call a “refugee” or “IDP” camp mentality where they expected others to do for them – there was one man who complained for like an hour about the refuse dumped throughout the camp, yet he and all the fit young men were sitting around all day doing nothing. they did not think to change their situation for themselves, organise and clean up – or ask for our help in giving them supplies to do this, but rather asked why we were NOT doing it etc. This saddened me greatly because it shows that they are settling into a mentality of dependence, this would not be how they acted at home.

The view of the camps from the surrounding hills.

The view of the camps from the surrounding hills.


How do the Turkish feel about hosting such a large population of refugees?

I think I mentioned some of the tension, but the  prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been really good in trying to defuse them and encourage brotherhood and caretaker feelings in the population, and pride in the help they give. This region in Turkey has historically very strong ties to Syria (in fact it used to be a part of it) and many speak Arabic as well as Turkish here. However, Turks are very nationalistic and do not take kindly to anyone slighting their country. They have great pride, as long as this pride is called on in helping he Syrians I think all will be good. But there are tensions, as well you would expect. Just taking a walk through town you see more Syrians than Turks I think.

Following the car bombing in the town this humanitarian worker also reported that there had been some revenge attacks from the local Turkish population on NGO and Syrian cars.  The Times of Oman has run with this story, quoting angry Turkish residents of Reyhanli;

The Syrian refugees “just have to go” yelled Ahmet Keskin, a 36-year old carpenter who said he was “not the least surprised” by the bombings.

“None of this would have happened if they were not here. We gave them shelter and protection, this should not be the price,” he said, echoing the prevailing sense of shock in the town of 60,000 now swollen by at least 25,000 Syrian refugees.

An example of the reaction to the Reyhanli bombing.

An example of the reaction to the Reyhanli bombing.


As long as the conflict continues in Syria, the numbers of refugees will increase, both within Syria and those fleeing to neighboring countries. Over 1 million Syrians are now living as  external refugees and over 4 million are internally displaced within Syria.  It is not beyond the realms of reasoning that over half of the population (out of a total of 22.5 million) could become internal or external refugees if this civil/proxy war continues to escalate.

As there is no acceptable political or military solution even on the horizon, far more must be done to provide for these people.  Neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and The United Arab Emirates have promised much but delivered little, which quite frankly seems politically motivated given their huge budgets afforded to them by their oil-wealth and their willingness to further weaponise the conflict by arming and training the rebels.  The UN has been consistently calling for more to be done in providing humanitarian relief to the Syrians.  As related in the interview and the photos, the conditions are pretty appalling even in some of the more established and UN funded camps but most of all in the IDP camps just across the border in Syria.

It is completely contemptible that the world is still unable to effectively co-ordinate a well-rounded response diplomatic approach to this humanitarian crisis despite a long history of similar experiences over the last century since World War Two, when the modern-age of the humanitarian sector is considered to have started.  This is not because of the lack of experience itself, many humanitarian agencies are ready to provide all round care for the Syrians.  It is the politics of the conflict itself which prevents this.  The Syrian regime is distrustful of any outside interference in the conflict, and rightly so from their position, even in regards to a humanitarian-based intervention which it sees as cover for deeper agendas. Coupled with that the fact that the Syrian Air Force has bombed Palestinian refugee camps and the government forces are targeting specific ethnic and religious groups of Syrian civilians through appalling war crimes.  On the other side of the conflict, the disparate groups of rebels including Al-Qaeda linked extremists, nominally under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), refuse to even contemplate talks with the Assad regime and are themselves under international attack for reported war crimes and a general lack of care for the civilians they purport to be liberating.  These forces are not acting independently within Syria, as I mentioned above the rebels are being armed and trained by neighbouring Gulf countries with the added input of western powers.  The Assad regime is reliant on Russian and Chinese diplomatic support and is receiving direct aid from Hezbollah fighters and from the Iranian regime.

These powers are playing a double, triple, quadruple game in Syria.  Their leaders call for a peaceful solution whilst demanding each side disarms independently of each other regardless of the situation.  At the same time they continue to provide the weaponry and political support for the fighting to continue until one of the myriad sides emerges victorious. They call the situation dire in terms of humanitarian needs, yet do not provide enough aid to provide for the victims.  The hypocrisy and playing of geo-political games at the expense of human life is painful to watch and reminds us how little we have traveled since the end of World War Two.

Jonathan Woodrow Martin


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