Few tourists had visited the Turkish jewellery maker since Syria's civil war began. Ibrahim Ozacp’s shop in downtown Antakya had been empty for a very long time when I visited last month. “Tourists stopped coming when the war began on the other side,” he told me.
The only visitors now are from Syria. “But they don’t come to buy jewelleries.”
Ozacp’s pointed with his head towards a group of bearded men smoking and talking just across the street. “They are Syrians, they come to get supplies, food, cigarettes, uniforms and even arms … [Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] has allowed terrorists to come to Antakya,” he said, spitting on the floor after mentioning Erdoğan's name.
As the New York Times reported, “[Erdoğan] has effectively kept Turkey’s border with Syria open," allowing the rebels to come and go freely. The rebels have transformed the city of Antakya into a safe-haven; war materiel and supplies, including medicine and money, are siphoned from one side of the border to the other — to the battlefields of Syria.
In Antakya I met Erdogan Aydýn, an historian and author of Fatih ve Fetih (Conqueror and Conquest). “Since the 1939 assimilation of Antakya from Syria into the Turkish state, the streets of the city have been ethnically Arab and faithfully Alawi," he told NM. "Turks and Christians have lived in a peaceful environment."
Antakya, the capital of the Southern Turkish Hatay province, was the capital of Syria until the 7th century. The ancient Muslim, Jewish and Christian buildings of worship tell the story of a once-tolerant city.
Things have changed since the Syrian war began. Antakya’s Alawis — a branch of Shia Muslims — have maintained their support for Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. They form a third of the population of Hatay, and are under threat by the presence of anti-Assad rebels.
Sectarianism is on the rise in Antakya. Many criticise the Turkish government for its “open door policy” to anti-Assad opponents. Aydýn blames the ruling Turkish Justice and Development party (AKP) of creating “a serious militaristic and radical Islamist threating atmosphere in this once peaceful city.”
For the last two and a half years, he said, the AKP’s policy of open support to the anti-Assad fighters has put the city under pressure from Islamist fighters.
Ali Yeral, the leader of the Alawite Association in Atakya told NM that “tensions are high now here since he lent his support to the rebels and the city has become a source of terrorism”.
A bomb attack in May in the nearby town of Reyhanli killed 51 Turks. The attack was blamed on Bashar al-Assad Assad’s supporters whose action has been described as retaliation — and a warning — against the Turkish government for its anti-Assad position and open support for the rebels.
“I hate what Erdogan has done, now we are at war too,” said Ahmet, an Alawite living in Atakya. “He is risking our lives, our well-being, our families.”
I spoke to him on the banks of the river Asi, where he had come to drink tea with his family. “The river in ancient times was called Orontes,” he said. “Before the war, we used to stroll along till that bridge that would take us to Belediye Park.” He points towards the western side of the river that crosses the city. He used to come with his wife and children most evenings, but does it rarely now.
“You see those men there?” he asked me discreetly, pointing his eyes toward a group of bearded men drinking tea a few metres away. “They are Syrians, they come to rest and then go back to Syria. They are just bringing problems. They walk freely, nobody asks them anything, people are afraid of them, even the police.”
The police were surprisingly scarce in downtown Antakya. One lonely police car was parked since early in the day on Inünü Street — with no cops inside. “Police here and the army in soldiers on the border turn a blind eye," Ahmet said.
Fatima, a master’s student from Istanbul University and a “veteran” of last July’s protest in Taksim square, went “spotting Free Syrian Army” rebels on my request at the Uzun Çarşı market. “They are probably FSA, I’m not sure,” she said, pointing to four men nearby.
In contrast to the majority of refugees who can’t leave the camps set up by the Turkish government, FSA fighters are able to move freely. These four are young, perhaps in their 20s.
“Don’t, don’t they are very dangerous,” she warned after I suggested talking with them. “They could kill you on the spot,” using her right hand to pretend to slit her throat.
A few metres away three boys were playing with a worn out soccer ball. “Give me a pass,” I yelled at them. While juggling the ball I shout “Messie”, the surname of Leo Messie, the Argentine football star who seems to be known by just about everyone, everywhere.
“Messie number one,” replied one of the kids. The bearded fighters are smiling now. Whether or not they are members of al-Nusra, as Fatima said, they are rebels on a war break. Two of them have stained bandages on arms and hands.
“People good here. Good food, good tea,” said Ali, one of the group. He is a handsome man with sad eyes. In a mixture of English, Arabic and French, he explained that they are “tourists”. I asked him about his wounds. “I got them playing football,” he says, smiling, while the other three men rise in silence. “We are leaving now,” he said in French.
“You speak good French,” I tell him. “Many people in Lebanon speak French,” he said. Ali and his armed comrades then left to enjoy the last day of their “holidays”, before returning to the Syrian battlefields.
Antakya — the biblical Antioch, the cradle of Christianity — is struggling financially. The tourist and the transport industries that join both Turkey and Syria are on their knees. In normal times Antakya receives more than 200,000 tourists. Last year this dropped to 50,000 and this year the numbers have plummeted once again.
“Most tourists used to come from Aleppo, now, you know, Aleppo is gone,” said the waiter of the flashy tearoom in Antakya's town centre.
But on the other hand, banks seem to be cashing in, due to wealthy Syrian refugees who have brought their swollen wallets with them. Some media sources have mentioned that wealthy Syrians have deposited millions in Turkish banks.
Real state agents in Antakya are doing well too. Professional Syrian refugees are becoming their best clients, Fatima told me. “Some of the areas are now called Syrian neighbourhoods," she said.
The high demand for tenements in Antakya from Syrians fleeing their country has caused rent prices to skyrocket. Rental prices have risen from the normal 300-600 Turkish Liras up to around 1000 (AU$500). Those trading with goods needed by fighters on the other side, such as food, diesel, cigarettes, drinks, clothing and medicine, are doing well too. Smuggling goods across the border is practically stress-free.
However, the border city itself is far from relaxed. Syrian refugees have flooded onto this side of the border and have created tension with the locals. More than half of the 45,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey have tried to settle in border towns and cities. And in some towns, such as Reyhanli, Syrian refugees are more numerous than the locals.
If there is a place where tension is boiling, it’s in the public health system. Wounded rebel fighters are crossing the border to seek medical help in Antakya’s hospitals. According to a story in the local media, 12,000 Syrian patients have sought medical assistance in the Antakya State Hospital. The hospital is overstretched and the locals are not happy. Fatima said that “there are not enough doctors” and locals have to go and see private doctors.
Many Syrian doctors have also crossed the border joining the refugees but according to Turkish law they are not allowed to practice here. What the authorities have allowed is Syrian refugees to set up their own medical centres in border towns.
One of them is in downtown Antakya. A three story building — easily recognisable due to the Syrian opposition flag painted on its facade — the medical centre is funded by the Syrian humanitarian organisation Orient. I was told that it has more than 100 patients waiting to be discharged.
I spoke with one man who had received massive head injuries. “I was in Aleppo,” he said. “A bullet just hit the side of my head.” He will be heading back as soon as he is discharged. The centre has saved many lives, said one of the nurses.
The medical centre has an uncertain future; the Turkish authorities have been trying to displace Syrians in Antakya into interior camps, 20 kilometres beyond the city. The medical centre, with its entire medical staff, will have to move.
Well-off Syrian refugees who have been renting in Antakya will also have to move. Officials feared that if the number of Syrians began to grow and concentrate in Antakya, the city could become home to confrontations between Syrians and local Turkish Alawis.
For locals on the border, the conflict has already spilled into Turkey. For Umit Ozdag, Chairman of the think tank 21st Century Turkey Institute, it no longer even exists.
“It looks like the Afghan–Pakistani border,” he told the newspaper SES Türkiye. This sentiment shared by the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who warned that Antakya might become the Peshawar of Turkey.
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