Kobanê and the breakdown of humanitarianism in Turkey

  • November 14, 2014

Conflict & Combat

With winter approaching fast, the Syrian refugees from Kobanê living in camps in southern Turkey are faced with numerous hardships on a daily basis.

The war in Syria has resulted in a massive influx of refugees into Turkey. According to official figures, already more than one million Syrians have sought refuge across the border. The unpredictable nature of the conflict in Syria and the lack of a common strategy of the international community to end the war in the short term makes that the outflow of refugees most likely won’t come to a halt any time soon.

Most of the refugees are being housed in tent camps close to the border in the south of Turkey, but tens of thousands of others have made their way to cities like Istanbul and Izmir where in many cases they have received a cold and heartless welcome. In the Turkish media the plight of the refugees remains very much underreported — perhaps due to a lack of political will from the government to take a clear stance on the issue, or due to the fact that many of the refugees stem from ethnic groups that have a problematic history in Turkey already.

In the second week of October, we visited the district of Suruç in the province of Urfa in southern Turkey. Recently, this region has witnessed large influxes of refugees as a result of the siege of Kobani by the Islamic State (ISIS), which forced more than 160,000 across the border into Turkey.

In Istanbul we have a small group that gets together with the aim of providing assistance during times of crises, and rather than just sending aid we prefer to actually visit people so we can listen to them and better understand their real needs. As a victim of the Izmit earthquake in 1999, 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.

Against Religion and Humanity

When we were in Suruç, everything was calm. Our hosts took us to places along the border where they told us it was safe and pointed out Kobanê in the distance. There weren’t many people around; a few sat on the rocks and peered toward Kobani with binoculars.

While we were there, ISIS launched several attacks at the Mursitpinar border crossing with Turkey, which is in effect the key to control over the city. For a few days they had been bombing the crossing so that the Syrian refugees were stuck and couldn’t come over from Kobanê.

During the day, everything was calm but at night the inhabitants of Suruç and people that came from all over Turkey to show their solidarity 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, Kobanê would have fallen long ago.”

They said that there were many militants with ISIS who had come from Europe. Apparently a French boxer had been caught a few days before. They explained with amusement that five youths had received quite a beating until they finally got him to give in.

Near a cornfield overlooking Kobanê, we met two women who had also come to watch what was happening in the city. “This isn’t a matter of war. They are attacking our honor,” they said. The bodies of four martyred 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 is 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 two women heaped curses on the militants, saying “It goes against religion and humanity,” as they wept.

Tent Camps in Suruç

When we returned to Suruç from the border, we visited the municipal office to gather information about the camps in the area. We confirmed that the majority of refugees crossing into Suruç from Kobanê were Kurdish.

Despite being divided by the Turkish-Syrian border, the area is largely seen as being a single region due to the kinship bonds that unite families on both sides of the frontier. Almost every family has close relatives on the other side of the border. Because of this, 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 Kobanê 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 have 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 socially engaged individuals and organizations that sent aid, and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) reportedly sent two truckloads of supplies. People 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 from Iraq.

At present there are 5.000-6.000 Kobanê 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.

Fifty-Thousand Mouths to Feed

Later we went to the state-run hospital in Suruç to ask 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, the doctors also stated that there is a pressing need for preventative medicine and that the most crucial issue in that regard is food. They are able to treat simple illnesses, and 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.

Need for Baby Formula

We went to a depot with a doctor from the hospital and obtained information from the person in charge there. Local supplies 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, it still would not be enough to last two 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 for 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.

Pressure on Local Infrastructure

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 occasionally soars to 180.000 due to refugees that come and go, the system is on the brink of collapse. Local aid workers 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 does not 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.

Before going back to 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 awareness.

In Suruç a mood of calm prevails, and people go about mourning their losses and talking about tragic events, still somehow managing to lace 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.

Winter Is Coming

As regards the 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 the process, refugees must be treated equally regardless of their religious, ethnic or community background. 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 elderly who are hungry and literally out in the cold. At the same time, there are a million more refugees whose presence will have an enormous impact on the Turkish economy.

Many refugees who have moved to western Turkey are now left to fend for themselves, often working irregular and underpaid jobs while faced with the hostile dispositions of the local people. Those who are staying in the camps have mostly left everything behind when they fled their homes, and are now completely dependent on aid and charity. The situation requires a strong response from both the local and national government, as well as the international community, to make sure these people will receive the help they need.

Aysan Sonmez

Ayşan Sönmez is an artist and activist from Istanbul working with the Bogazici Performing Arts Ensemble.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/suruc-refugee-camps-turkey/

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