Life and death in no man’s land between Syria and Turkey

Neil Sammonds, Amnesty’s Syria Researcher, blogs from Kobani on the Turkey-Syria border

A dust cloud from the US air strike drifts across the border from Kobani and blurs our view from the overlooking Turkish hilltop. Most if not all of those watching – all Kurds, it seems, from both Syria and Turkey – agree that the damage caused to the city by air strikes is a price worth paying. Many believe the city’s defence, led by Syrian Kurdish fighters, would have collapsed without them.

“My home may get destroyed but if it forces out Da’esh”, as the armed group which calls itself the Islamic State (IS) is usually referred to locally, “then I am happy,” says one.

Fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) lead the city’s defence against the armed group widely loathed by Kurds.  

Residents of the scores of villages outside Kobani, and then the city itself, fled ahead of the rapid IS advance, well aware of the atrocities committed by the group against Iraqi Kurds in Sinjar and elsewhere. Some 200,000 fled into Turkey, two-thirds of them in just four days in September this year.

A tiny number of civilians stayed behind in the villages, some physically unable – and others unwilling – to leave. Contact with them has been lost. We are given the names of some believed to have been killed, while others say their relatives or friends were taken captive by IS.

When we visit one of the newly established refugee camps near the town of Suruç, in Turkey, a Syrian Kurdish woman says her father-in-law and his son have chosen to stay on in Tel Hajeb village “because it is their home”. For a month there has been no news of them.

On the hilltop, a tall young man says that the previous day he went to observe his village Zorava, 8km west of Kobani, from a safe distance on the Turkish side of the border. In the village, from which he and the rest of the population had fled, he could make out armed men he presumed to be IS fighters washing clothes and hanging them out to dry.  

Around 2,000 people have found themselves stranded in no man’s land between Syria and Turkey. We meet a dozen men stuck in a 25-metre by 100-metre strip between the border fences east of Kobani (between the village of Alanyurt in Turkey and the Syrian village of Kikan), not visible from the hilltop.

“There are 200 of us here. We have the clothes we are wearing, our vehicles, which we sleep in, and our sheep, which are dying,” says one older man.

All say that they were forced to leave their vehicles behind at the border. When we check this with one of Turkey’s border guards nearby, he shrugs. “These are our orders,” he says.

Looking a little to the north-west of Kobani, on the Turkish side, hundreds of vehicles glint in the afternoon sun. These have been impounded by the Turkish authorities and dozens of their owners and other drivers mill about, keeping an eye on them through a security fence. Several ask us to tell the Turkish authorities to release their vehicles.

“Let us register them, take them or sell them and leave this place. We feel like prisoners here,” says one.

The largest group stuck in no man’s land are behind the vehicle compound. Up to 2,000 displaced Syrians are surviving there in desperate conditions.

We pass through two Turkish army checkpoints to reach them but not the third and final one. While waiting for the green light that didn’t come, we speak with several Syrians who have been allowed out to get food and medicine.

“I went to get oranges and bread to bring to my family,” says a small, tired man with two plastic bags of food. “But the soldiers have kept me waiting here for five hours.”

Another tells us: “There’s no water, no bread, no doctors. We sleep in or under the cars and hide behind them when the fighting or shelling sounds close.”

A third says he was beaten up with two other men by Turkish police who accused them of being YPG members, which he denies. We recognize several men wearing Syrian Red Crescent uniforms who tell us they have just completed their daily distribution of 1,000 loaves of bread and some flour to those in no man’s land.

“A big fear are the landmines. Four people have been killed here and 17 have been injured,” they inform us.

Back on the hilltop, men – and it is only men here – comment on the sights and sounds of the fighting in front of us. “Kalashnikov”, “Doshka” – a heavy machine-gun, “mortar from Da’esh on YPG positions”, “street-fighting”, “Da’esh burning buildings to hide under the smoke”. At times they point upwards at glimmers of circling US aircraft.

As the sun once more drops to the horizon, we move away northwards from the hilltop as clashes continue in the city and hundreds of civilians prepare for another harsh night in no man’s land.