The War in the Middle East and the Breakdown of Humanitarianism in Turkey

We all know that the war in Syria has resulted in a massive influx of refugees into Turkey. According to unofficial figures, in the last 3 months there have been more than 1 million such refugees escaping the fighting in Syria. Because of attacks carried out by ISIS along our border, that number has increased and the majority of displaced people have moved to provinces along the border in the east of Turkey. It is unclear when the war in the Middle East will end and how much longer this outflow of refugees will continue. A look at the big picture shows that bringing an end to the war is a complicated matter, as there are regional and international determining factors, and the powers that be seem to prefer the maintenance of a deadlock. Turkey has been pulled into the war as well; in Turkish society, however, there has been a lack of strong voices calling for an end to the war and the prevention of new conflicts on the home front. Likewise, there has been a serious breakdown in humanitarianism as regards these refugees, especially in the west of Turkey. Non-Turkish and non-Muslim victims of the war have been taking refuge in Turkey, including Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Yazidis, and Assyrians. However, in the higher echelons of the government, these groups have been treated as being problematic or deemed to be “not sufficiently important,” and as a result the government has kept a distance from the region. Likewise, there has been little reporting in the news about this issue, limiting the conscientious prudence of ordinary citizens. Perhaps at multiple levels there has been uncertainty about whether or not it would be politically appropriate to bring the problem of refugees to the agenda and offer assistance, and as a result there has been hesitancy to take action. In civil society there is an odd lack of perspicacity and there has been a split in conscientious reactions to this unfolding of events, even though every week we hear about new influxes of refugees and attempts to create camps for them.

In the second week of October, I visited the district of Suruç in the province of Urfa with my friends Nilgün and Fırat. In recent times, that region has witnessed large influxes of refugees across the border. In Istanbul we have a small group that gets together with the aim of providing assistance during such difficult times, and instead of just sending aid we prefer to actually visit people so we can listen to them and hence better understand their real needs. As a victim of the Marmara earthquake, I know that most of the time when you are far from a given situation it is hard to guess just what might be needed, and suppositions can be incorrect. The contacts we had in Urfa facilitated our work there, and with them as our hosts, we made a two-day visit to Suruç.

Urfa and Suruç: Two Different Worlds

Before sharing my impressions of Suruç I would like to write about the differences between Urfa and Suruç. By car, the trip from central Urfa to Suruç takes only about 30 minutes but in Urfa, life goes on as usual. It’s as if there isn’t a refugee camp nearby which holds 50,000 people or there aren’t bombs exploding at the border crossing. This difference was even more striking when we returned to Urfa from Suruç. In Urfa, the only indicator of the dire situation was two imposing UN trucks, massive armored vehicles, parked in the center of the city. When we returned from Suruç, probably slightly crazed, we said, “Let’s steal those UN trucks and sell them. It would do more good than what the UN has done.” On the road in Suruç we saw one of those trucks but we were unable to obtain any information about assistance provided by the UN. In the hours after our return, the old mayor of Suruç was killed along with his son. When we got into a taxi in Urfa, we brought up the issue with the driver and his demeanor immediately changed. He said, “We’ve got nothing to do with them. It’s absolutely none of our business.” We fell silent. And when we were shopping in the bazaar, when we mentioned that we were visiting Suruç, the shop owners’ attitudes changed and they became distant. It was clear that some people there see the large number of refugees in and around Urfa as a problem.

The actions of Isis go against religion and humanity

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When we were there, Suruç was calm. Our hosts took us to places along the border where they said it was safe and pointed out Kobané in the distance. There weren’t many people around. Some sat on stones and others peered toward Kobané with binoculars. While we were there, Isis bombed three border crossings. For a few days they had been bombing the crossings so that people couldn’t come over from Kobané. During the day, everything was calm but at night the inhabitants of Suruç patrolled the area to prevent Isis militants from crossing over. “Otherwise it will be really hard for us,” they said. “If we hadn’t been here, Kobané would have fallen long ago.” They said that there were many militants in Isis who had come from Europe. Apparently a French boxer had been caught a few days before. They explained with amusement that 5 youths had received quite a beating until they finally got him to give in. Near a field of corn overlooking Kobané, we met two women who had also come to watch what was happening in the city. “This isn’t a matter of war. Their attacking our honor,” they said. The corpses of 4 young women were brought over the night before. Isis militants had abused the bodies, and even cut off the head of one of the women. It was said that they take the beautiful young women as their wives, saying, “By the grace of Allah, I take you as my wife,” and the ones they consider to be ugly are sold. The 2 women heaped curses on the militants, saying, “It goes against religion and humanity,” and they wept. We met up with elderly people, and they asked why the youth who had joined the Gezi Park resistance hadn’t come to help them even though 45 people had already been killed in protests about the situation in Kobané, all of them youth like the Gezi protesters who died.

In Suruç alone there are 50,000 refugees, most of them women and children

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When we returned to Suruç from the border, we visited municipal officers to obtain information about the camps in the area. We found out that the majority of refugees crossing into Suruç from Kobané were Kurdish. Despite being divided by a border, the area is largely seen as being a single region because there are so many family connections. Almost every family has close relatives on the other side of the border. Thanks to this fact, some refugees have been able to take shelter with their relatives in surrounding provinces. At present, there are 50,000 refugees in the camps and outlying areas of Suruç that have been opened up to them. Generally, women who recently gave birth or have many children crossed the border, while the others stayed in Kobané to fight Isis. There is a large number of women and children in the camps, and the streets of Suruç are filled with children. The municipality has set up a tent camp with a capacity of 1,000. When we were there, they were getting ready to open another tent camp capable of housing 600-700 people. At the moment, however, no one seems to be homeless; they’ve all been settled in defunct wedding halls, empty shops, newly constructed buildings, and mosques, or they have moved in with relatives. There is another tent city that was set up by the state relief program, and it houses 4,500 people. We were told that it was generally democrats who sent aid, and they said that the Republican People’s Party sent two truckloads of supplies. They complained that the ruling government “says it will help out but doesn’t do anything.” We were also told that the Kurdistan Regional Government sent 230 tents and 600 blankets. At present there are 5,000-6,000 Kobané residents who are camped out in a field on the border that is surrounded by mines; they hope that when the situation calms down they will be able to return to their homes.

The Armenians who fled Kobané because of the war first went to Aleppo, but when they realized that it wasn’t safe to stay there, they moved on to Lebanon and Jordan. The Assyrians who fled across the border moved in with family members in Mardin, Viranşehir and Midyat. We were told that members of Isis used to be sent directly to hospitals and held there. They also said that one of the major problems now is that Turkey no longer allows the wounded to cross the border for treatment in Turkish hospitals, and we were told that a few days before, 10-12 people died due to blood loss.

Preventative medicine should be implemented, and the most pressing need is food

Later we went to the state-run hospital in Suruç. We asked the doctors there if they were in need of medicine. The doctors are carrying out two kinds of work: Treating patients at the hospital and providing outpatient care at the places where the refugees are staying. They said there was no shortage of medicine and that they were able to procure the medicines they need. However, they stated that there is a pressing need for preventative medicine and that the most crucial issue in that regard is food. They said that they are able to treat simple illnesses, and that even a lack of shoes isn’t life-threatening, but death through starvation is a concern. Problems about protecting children had been slightly alleviated thanks to the assistance sent by Kurdish doctors from Berlin. Currently, however, there aren’t enough soup kitchens; the capacity of the existing soup kitchens is 15,000 meals, but as I noted above, food needs to be provided to people who have set up camps and those who have taken shelter with family members. We were told that the biggest problem is feeding those 50,000 refugees and establishing a proper system so that they receive the nourishment they need.

Help is needed at the depots and for the distribution of food

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We went to a depot with a doctor from the hospital and obtained information from the person in charge there. The supplies there are being used to meet the needs of the refugees in the districts of Siverek, Bozova, Halfeti and Birecik. The large depot was filled with supplies but when there are 50,000 people in need, that wouldn’t be enough to last 2 days. At the depot, we noted that there was a problem with the distribution of aid, as was seen after the earthquake in Van. Because aid is being sent randomly, much labor goes into separating the contents of the packages. Even if aid is sent in a single box, the contents should be indicated on the outside. We were told that people shouldn’t send old second-hand clothes, as they end up getting thrown away. Volunteers are needed for sorting out the aid at the depots and for its distribution. Aid cards have been given to the refugees, but the local population is unable to obtain assistance even when they too face financial difficulties. Depending on the type of card, aid is sent to refugees’ homes or settlements. Currently, as is always the case, the most pressing need is baby formula. The majority of refugees are women and children, and there is a need for all types of baby formula and milk, but it should not be sent in tins. For a few days now they have been out of such goods, and the refugees are going through hard times.

The infrastructure of Suruç was not made to handle 180,000 people, and there is a lack of water, electricity and plumbing systems

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We went to the Rojava tent city, which has 300 tents. Suruç’s infrastructure for water, electricity and sewage was designed to handle the town’s original population of 50,000, but now that the population has soared to 180,000, the system is on the brink of collapse. When we were there, they were trying to create cesspools for the tent city, which still did not have electricity or running water. It was unclear when those services would start, and for the time being, children are bringing water in buckets. The municipality is doing the best it can but it doesn’t have enough resources and it has largely been left to its own devices. There is hope for aid from the municipality of Diyarbakır, but it is experiencing its own issues regarding resources, as refugees from Sinjar have settled there and the municipality is having trouble meeting their needs. Because Suruç is situated on a flat plain, even the lightest of rains cause the tents to flood. A businessman from Lebanon is having platforms installed to solve this problem, in addition to plumbing systems for the tents. As of now, 40 of the 300 tents have platforms.

The inhabitants of the tent city said that they are sorely lacking baby formula.

Before going to back Urfa we asked for recommendations concerning the needs of the refugees and the issues they are facing at the camps. The types of aid needed include medicine, clothing and food, in addition to workshops and activities that will provide psychological treatment for the traumas of war. Undoubtedly people do suffer from long-term traumas, but sometimes from a distance turbulent feelings and urgent needs can be wrongly ascribed just to the disaster. To be honest, after returning from Suruç I thought that the problems facing the refugees in the west of the country are more traumatic in the sense that there is a lack of conscientiousness. In Suruç a mood of calm prevails, and people go about mourning their losses and talking about tragic events, lacing their narratives with humor. Also, just about everyone is working because there is so much that needs to be done, and they are setting up tents, distributing food and settling newcomers. And they need help, because there aren’t enough resources and there isn’t enough manpower.

A definitive solution to the problem: We must oppose the war

Right now the USA and countries in Europe are watching on as this disaster unfolds. It would appear that after its experiences in Iraq, the USA is content with playing the game of “civilization” from a safe distance, while European countries are happy to use Isis as a pretext to go after fundamentalist Islamists at home. Turkey’s policies concerning the Middle East appear to have gone bust; nonetheless, the Turkish government is proceeding down a risky path, clutching to a discourse that threatens to provoke more conflicts in the country. And unfortunately, more bodies have started arriving.

Above all else, we should demand that the war be brought to a halt. As regards these problems created by the war, we should call on official institutions and NGOs in Turkey to take responsibility and request that international aid associations assist those who are fleeing the fighting. In that process, refugees must be treated equally regardless of their religious backgrounds and social communities. Individual assistance is very important but it is quite clear that such aid will not bring about permanent solutions.

It is uncertain when the war will come to an end, but the main issue at hand is the chaos that is increasing the burdens not just of the refugees but also of the local population in the region, making life more and more difficult. As winter draws near, there are thousands of people, women, children and the elderly, who are hungry and literally out in the cold. At the same time, there are a million more people who will have an impact on the Turkish economy. We know that many refugees who moved to the west of the country are working for subcontractors for a mere pittance and that many others are being employed by criminal organizations. And in Istanbul, an issue of concern has been the high number of Syrian beggars on the streets.

Aysan Sonmez is an artist/activist from Istanbul working for Bogazici Performing Arts Ensemble.