Tensions between the local community and the refugee population ran high following Saturday’s twin car bomb attacks which claimed 46 lives and injured over 100, in the nearby town of Reyhanli close to the Syrian border.
|Protesters shout slogans against Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan|
as they march during a demonstration against the Turkish government’s
foreign policy on Syria, in central Hatay on May 12th, 2013.
The Turkish government has attributed the atrocity to members of a Marxist, pro-Assad organisation with links to the Syrian regime’s intelligence service and nine people, all Turkish citizens, are custody.
On Sunday evening the incensed chants of a few hundred demonstrators gathered in downtown Ataturk Square pulsed through the provincial capital, angered by the recent violence and instability in the region and blaming the Turkish government’s open door policy for Syrians fleeing the conflict.
“Yesterday I didn’t speak Arabic at all,” explained al Hindi, who fled his home in Idlib last December, for fear he would identified as Syrian.
He said the majority of Turkish people have supported Syrian refugees coming to the country and some of their Turkish neighbours had defended them against the incited crowd, speaking of them as brothers.
The Hatay province is a religious and ethnically mixed region, with minorities of Kurds and Alawites. Over 400, 000 Syrian refugees have flooded into Turkey since the on-going conflict began in March 2011.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the attack would not lead to change in Turkey’s open policy for Syrian refugees. “Whoever takes refuge here is our guest,” he assured, but added that “nobody should expect Turkey to shoulder any terror or political risks.”
The Syrian border, kilometres away from the town of Reyhanli where the explosion took place and the busiest thoroughfare for humanitarian aid and weapons going to Syria, was closed on Sunday and Monday following the attacks.
In Reyhanli, the number of refugees almost equals that of the host population of 60,000.
“We were trying to help the injured, but they attacked us and prevented us from continuing to help”, said Kazeim Hijazy (26) who came to Reyhanli 10 months ago after fleeing the conflict in Aleppo. “Some of the local people, I know them well and they were my friends, but they started to use shameful words against Syrian people and try to attack the Syrian people there with knives.”
Two days after his father was killed in the attacks, the son of Zafer Al Shab, a 50 year old Syrian who ran a money exchange shop metres from where the second bomb detonated, waited for the border to open so he could return his father’s body to Syria.
While mourners of those killed in the explosions held prayers for the dead around the city, gathering in the streets littered with broken glass and scorched metal outside the crumbling edifices of houses, the Syrian friends and relatives of those who had died remained indoors, fearing retribution.
“The Reyhanli border is not a border, there is no security, no passport control,”, explained Haider, a local shopkeeper sitting in his living room, metres from the first bomb site. “The Syrians should be in the camp, not in the town, it is not safe here anymore.”
In the outskirts of the city, the sign outside the office of Watan, a Syrian NGO, was taped over with cardboard and down the street a burnt-out car with Syrian licence plates was cordoned off with police tape, a group of young men lined up against the wall beside it.
“In the morning we could hear the sound of another big protest against Syrians in the city centre”, said Mulham Al-Jundi, head of the organisation and a member of the Syrian council.
“Before these attacks the Turkish people were very helpful supporting the Syrian people”, says Omar Shami, head of the Reyhanli office for the charity Hand in Hand for Syria, which has been closed since the attacks due to tensions in the town.
“The bomb happened in an area considered safe and secure; we have bombings every day in Syria, but the Turkish people in Reyhanli have no experience of this”, he added.
He emphasised that the charity has received no direct threats and Syrians have not been forced to leave, but the support of the local people for Syrians in Reyhanli has taken a blow.