Kurds try to sneak across Turkey-Syria border to fight in Kobani | News | DW | 25.10.2014
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Kurds try to sneak across Turkey-Syria border to fight in Kobani

For weeks, the battle has raged around the Syrian town of Kobani. A few kilometers away, in the Turkish city of Suruc, thousands feel like helpless observers.

Erdal crouches in front of a teahouse and stares at his cell phone. He has a black baseball cap pulled over his face, the sun blinds his tired eyes. The young Kurd has hardly slept in days. Every night he tries to secretly sneak across the border to Syria. Every night he has failed.

He arrived here a couple of days ago he tells me, from Van, a city in eastern Turkey 600 kilometers (370 miles) away. That he now sits around, stranded in Suruc, Turkey, was never the plan. He'd actually wanted to travel further, to Kobani, where the war against the "Islamic State" (IS) terror militia has raged for weeks. Kurdish fighters are defending the city on the ground, while the coalition led by the United States bombards IS targets from the air.

Erdal is in his early thirties. Despite only knowing Kobani through the media, he wants to go there to fight alongside his Kurdish "brothers" in Syria, he says.

"I'm here with three friends. Many people from my city have already left to fight the war against the Islamists," says Erdal, sipping a glass of tea.

I ask him if he even knows how to handle weapons. But of course, he answers, he learned in a training camp in the mountains run by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

For three decades, this forbidden Kurdish organization has fought for an independent state. There has been a cease-fire between the PKK and the Turkish government for a year and half, but since the fighting in Kobani began, the peace process has been teetering on the brink of collapse.

A refugee camp in a dry, desert setting.

A refugee camp in the Turkish border city of Suruc

Turkey's Kurds take up fight

The fact that Erdal has not reached Kobani is due to the Turkish army. All along the border there are soldiers patrolling, tanks waiting. They are not only responsible for protecting Turkey from a Syrian spillover, but must also stop fighters like Erdal. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers the PKK and IS to both be "terror organizations." And yet dozens of young Kurds are said to have crossed the border into Syria, although there are no exact numbers.

Though Erdal wants to head toward the fighting, most people want to get out of Syria. More than 1.6 million have fled to Turkey since the civil war began, with 180,000 stranded here in Suruc. The population of this small city has doubled in a matter of weeks.

Refugees who have money live in rented apartments with family or with friends. Thousands however must live in the camps that city management erected: gray plastic tents, less than ten square meters (107 square feet), for six or more people. The only power source is a gas station on the other side of the street.

"The authorities are helping us as much as they can, but life here is very difficult", says Zerga, a strongly-built woman sitting next to a tent and washing clothes in a wash pan. "It's cold at night, and we freeze," she says. "What shall we do when winter comes?"

Turkey has already spent $4 billion (3.16 billion euros) to help refugees.

A woman and a boy in a refugee camp, sharing a large bottle of water.

The refugees are without electricity and often without running water

Turkey's unclear role

Even though President Erdogan has allowed the Peshmerga - Kurdish security forces from northern Iraq - transit through Turkey en route to northern Syria, the Turkish government continues to reject direct military assistance for Kobani.

Many Kurds feel the government has failed them. One of them is Muhammed, a refugee from Kobani. "If Turkey had intervened, IS would long have been defeated by now," he says, rolling a straw between his thumb and forefinger.

Muhammed sits on a dusty hill outside of Suruc. He comes here often, he says - every day, in fact. From up top there is a good view of Kobani. Again and again one hears shots and explosions as white clouds of smoke climb to the sky.

When US fighter jets hit a target, the earth shakes on this side of the border, too.

Muhammed has been in Suruc for a month. As Islamists invaded his city, he brought himself, his wife, and his five children here to safety. And although he has found refuge here in Turkey, he considers the government in Ankara his enemy.

"They are supporting IS, with weapons, with money," says Muhammed as he pulls out his cell phone and shows me a photo. It shows a man in a Turkish army uniform. Across from him: heavily armed, bearded IS fighters - laughing.

Who took this photo? I ask. Muhammed shrugs. He doesn't know. Like so many other reports out of the Turkey-Syria border region, this claim is nearly impossible to verify.

Kurdish men sitting together.

Muhammed, left, sits on a hill in Suruc, from which he can see Kobani

A city of rubble and ashes

Muhammed takes a pair of binoculars and stares intensely into the distance. Finally he finds his house - or what's left of it. He hands me the binoculars: I should see for myself, he says. I look and see ruins, rubble, ashes. I can also see flags on the roofs of houses: yellow for the Kurds and black for the Islamists. Some change position from day to day - a sign that the embittered battle of Kobani is being fought for every street, and for every house.

He hates sitting here and observing from a distance as his home, his old life, is blown into pieces. "It hurts, and I can barely stand it, but I simply must look over there every day. I want to know what is happening in my city."

What will happen if Kobani falls? I ask him. "Then no one will live in peace anymore," says Muhammed. "Wherever there is one Kurd, there will be war."

Turkish Kurds are also seething. The anger over the apparent inaction of Erdogan's government can be clearly felt in Suruc. A truck with some 40 young men from the loading platforms blusters into the city center. "Leave your work where it is and come with us," the men shout. "We must bury our martyrs." And also: "Freedom for Öcalan," a reference to the leader of the PKK, who has been imprisoned for years.

The truck stops in front of the hospital in Suruc. Here, some of the Kurdish fighters injured in Kobani are being treated. Many do not survive. Even today, three men are meant to be laid to rest. The bodies will not, as is the custom here, be buried in a linen cloth, but rather in coffins in a "Martyr's cemetery" of their own in Suruc. The people here hope that someday, when IS is finally beaten back, the dead can finally return to their home.

I ask Erdal - isn't he scared to end up the "Martyr's cemetery" as a young Kurd from Van.

No, he says with certainty. "We are fighting for a good thing, for our people." This evening, when it gets dark, he will leave Suruc and try once more to get over the border - to the front, in Kobani.

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