Antakya is in the south of Turkey…30 miles from the Syria border. I flew here yesterday from Istanbul and Friday I will take a 3 hour bus to Adana north of here where I will stay with another Couchsurfing host.
The guy sitting next to me on the plane to Antakya was a Canadian working for the American Emergency Services Organization. He was going to Antakya for a meeting concerning the Syrian refugees at the border. Perhaps with the UN. Today I saw the proverbial white SUV with UN written in bright blue on the side. I asked him how many refugee camps there were along the border. He said “not camps.” Just solid people on both sides. This doesn’t bode well.
So I am ensconsed on the third floor of a little hotel with windows opening to the city center along the Orontes River about 14 miles from the Mediterranean coast. Click on the photos to enlarge.
Known as Antioch in ancient times, the city has historical significance for Christianity, as it was the place where the followers of Jesus Christ were called Christians for the first time. It had an important role as one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and Byzantium, and was a key location of the early years of Christianity, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the rise of Islam, and the Crusades because of it’s massive walls.
According to wikipedia, both Turkish and Arabic are still widely spoken in Antakya, although written Arabic is rarely used. A mixed community of faiths and denominations co-exist peacefully here. Although almost all the inhabitants are Muslim, a substantial proportion adhere to the Alevi and the Arab Nusayri traditions, in ‘Harbiye’ there is a place to honour the Nusayri saint Hızır. Numerous tombs of Muslim saints, both Sunni and Alevi, are located throughout the city. Several small Christian communities are active in the city, with the largest church being St. Peter and St. Paul on Hurriyet Caddesi. With its long history of spiritual and religious movements, Antakya is a place of pilgrimage for Christians. It also has a reputation in Turkey as a place for spells, fortune telling, miracles and spirits, the wiki writer says.
But I have to tell this story. In the breakfast room this morning I saw a guy who had a “California” sweat shirt. But he looked maybe Turkish. I felt silly asking this but I asked if he was from the U.S. Yes, he said, but I’m Syrian. He has been going to a large refugee camp 30 miles away on the border to volunteer. No toilets in this camp…one of three along the border inside Turkey. The UN is giving food but this guy says he went to several markets here in Atakya and he saw “with my very own eyes” sacks of grain with “UN” marked on them being sold on the black market.
His brother, a medical doctor has traveled from CA to this camp 3 times to volunteer with Doctor’s Without Borders. He spent 20,000 of his own money for milk for one week for the children and to build 12 toilets for men and 12 for women. He and his brother have collected money and clothes and blankets through a Syrian-American org. They sometimes don’t even have shoes or anything else because they fled so quickly.
His father is very sick in Syria. His sister is 6 months pregnant. He cannot reach them because it is so dangerous. He has been told by everyone he dare not go…even with a bullet proof vest and that he likely will be kidnapped by the opposition who hates Americans. Who is the opposition I asked. Various Al Queda groups, he said.
“Syria doesn’t care about the people. Turkey doesn’t care about the people” he said. Turkey has forbidden any more camps along the border and they won’t allow any pictures from visitors or the press. So now the camps are beginning to multiply along the border on the Syrian side. For every person who goes back 1000 will flee. So people aren’t seeing the misery. It’s just an impossible situation. And this is only one of the wars going on in the world.
I have to go back to the US to school he said. I am doing what I can.
My friend Dilek, however, says that Turkish TV reports have indicted massive problems in the camps…predictably so considering the environment. And the guy I talked to had a very hoarse voice. He said it was from yelling at a bunch of drunk Syrians the other night who were raising hell in the camps. It’s the women and children and old people he was concerned about the most. They are always the most affected victims.
Another Turkish friend wants to know, if the opposition is Al Queda…and Al Queda is our enemy…why is the U.S. supporting them against Asad. But things are never as they seem.
Update 2/28/2013: This morning in the breakfast room I met another Syrian. His brother works in the hotel, he says. I imagine the hotel is putting up these Syrians. He said he came here from Lebanon but cannot go to Syria. Two brothers in Syria are “kaput” in a bloodbath of 200 people. “Kaput?” Odd word to use? He showed me an interview on his iPhone he gave to Aljazeera. Then he showed me a photo of the head of Hesbollah. Said Hesbollah was behind the opposition. They are not good he says. He wanted to know why Obama wasn’t helping. I told him we never know what our government is doing or not doing.
Update 05/19/2013 Last weekend there were two car bombings in Reyhanli, near Antakya on the Syrian border, in which 50 people were killed. Nearly 20 people were arrested. The bombs were most likely planted by pro-Assad forces in retaliation for Turkish support of the Syrian rebels. Criticism of Prime Minister Erdegon’s response to the bombing, fearing Turkey is being dragged into the Syrian conflict, criticism of Turkey’s lack of intelligence and criticism of PM Erdogan’s relationship with the U.S. has sparked anti-government demonstrations this week in several cities across Turkey on a day that is supposed to be celebrating Ataturk’s tribute to children. My Turkish friends are posting slogans all over Facebook.