Three months ago, the war in Syria reached the Turkish town of Reyhanli: Two car bombs killed more than 50 people, creating distrust toward the Syrian refugees. A visit to the doorstep of a war.
Fear came back with a bang: "After the attacks, we didn't dare set foot outside the door," Ahmed says. His hair carefully slicked back, the young Syrian is sitting on a mattress, surrounded by children. For more than a year, he and his family have been living in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. Here, in the southern Turkish province of Hatay, refugees from across the border had been welcome - until May 11, 2013.
That day, two car bombs detonated in the city center, causing the death of over 50 and injuring at least 140 people. The attack is said to be the most gruesome act of terrorism in Turkish history. In the immediate aftermath of the strike, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decreed a news embargo, but rumors and half-truths still spread like wildfire.
"Some blamed the Syrians for the attacks. They didn't want us here any more," Ahmed told DW. Turkish youth demonstrated against the refugees in their country, attacking cars with Syrian license plates.
"Many refugees were called names, or even threatened," confirms Erdem Vardar, a representative of the Turkish chapter of the Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association. As a result, many Syrians took flight, fearing the rumors and locals' hatred.
Trying to return to normal
Now, three months later, small town daily life has retuned to Reyhanli. Syrian women, completely veiled, frequent the supermarkets with their children. An old man sells watermelons from the back of his horse carriage. In the cafés, men drink their tea and play Tavla - the local version of backgammon.
At the site of the bombing, reminders of the attack are fading day by day. Construction workers are patching up the torn-up street with cobblestones. One badly damaged building has been torn down, and another one got repaired. Now, just a few scattered concrete tiles and soot traces around windows bear witness to the attack. Local NGO workers say that the government wanted to return back to normal as quickly as possible.
Immediately following the attacks, police arrested nine Turkish citizens - allegedly with ties to the Syrian regime in Damascus. Debate remains as to whether they actually carried out the bombings. But their arrests have brought a degree of calm to the area.
"Once again, people talk, and we get along with each other," Ahmed says. His youngest daughter is back to attending a school for Syrian refugees; soon her brother is set to join her. "However," Ahmed says, "the Turkish attitudes have changed."
Near Ahmed's residence, a group of Turkish women are sitting in the shade. They insist there are no problems with the Syrians, adding that the refugees' presence doesn't worry them most of the time. Only sometimes, at night - times when the war inside the neighboring country can be heard across the border.
A volatile mood
It's a war that has already lasted longer than what the region was prepared for: According to the UN Refugee Agency, now more than 440,000 Syrians have found refuge in Turkey - most of them outside of the designated camps. And every day, more arrive.
"At the beginning everyone here welcomed the Syrians. They hugged and opened their houses for them: Some rented out their apartments, others even gave them housing for free," says Mustafa Sakman, deputy mayor of Kirikhan, a small town northwest of Reyhanli. Many Syrians fled there after the bombings in Reyhanli. "But now we're about to reach the point where people don't have anything left to share - by now, there are simply too many refugees," Sakman says.
Kirikhan is home to around 70,000 people, but 25,000 refugees have come in addition. The influx has had negative consequences for the town: Trade with the Syrians isn't really an option, and now tourists are staying away. Demand for exports has dropped, and prices are deteriorating as a result.
Economic tensions are accompanied by religious differences: Many of the refugees are Sunni, but the Hatay province is mainly Alevist. Erdogan - a Sunnite - supports the accommodation of the Syrian refugees. So far, however, his AKP-led government has failed to persuade the majority of the Turkish population of the merits of its refugee policy.
The war in neighboring Syria causes considerable tension throughout the border region, with ample room for rumors. There is talk of Islamists that control the Turkish border checkpoints, of planned massacres among the locals and of Turks that collaborate with the Assad regime.
This is despite Hatay having a reputation of being among the more liberal regions in Turkey. Until 1938, it was part of Syria; up to this day, it's home to Sunnis and Alevis, but also Christians and Jews, Turks, Arabs, Syrians, Kurds, Armenians and other minorities. "The local mosaic of religious, linguistic and ethnic communities is, in many ways, a microcosm of Syria," writes the NGO International Crisis Group, in one of its reports.
Meanwhile, Erdem Vardar continues to keep an eye on the events unfolding in Hatay. He has a calm demeanor, and wild speculation is not his style. Still, he, too, is concerned: "So far, it's been quiet. But if things continue the way they go now, we don't know how people will react."