x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Conflict in Syria bleeds to Turkish border town

Syrian tourists used to visit Antakya in Hatay province by the bus load, but the uprising has halted trade and severed families in a region where people are often as fluent in Arabic as they are in Turkish.

ANTAKYA, TURKEY // Looking across the empty chairs in his restaurant, Metin Tansal recalled when visitors from Syria packed his tables.

"They used to come by the bus loads," Mr Tansal said about tourists visiting Antakya, capital of the Turkish province of Hatay on the Syrian border.

Now, "everything is over," he said. "Numbers of Syrians in my restaurant are down to one per cent of what they used to be."

The conflict in Syria, which has killed more than 8,000 people since March last year, has triggered a stream of refugees into Turkey. But it has also stopped the flow of visitors, halted trade and severed families in a region of Turkey that belonged to Syria until 1939 and where people are often as fluent in Arabic as they are in Turkish.

The halting of tourists into Hatay has hit Antakya's economy hard.

Tour buses, using a border crossing less than an hour away to the east, unloaded shoppers and visitors from Aleppo and Damascus. The trips were made easier by the lifting of visa requirements between the two countries in 2009.

Syrians filled Antakya's hotels and restaurants and bought clothes and kitchen items in the bazaar in the old town, just around the corner from Mr Tansal's restaurant.

Meanwhile, Turkish visitors went in the other direction, exploring the neighbouring country. "I took a tour around Syria myself," Mr Tansal said this week. "It was easier for us to go to Aleppo than to go to Istanbul," he said. "They left money here. We left money there.

"Everybody here wants the fighting to stop and get back to the good old days," Mr Tansal said.

Tourism is not the only industry that has been affected. On the main street leading out of Antakya towards the border and Hatay airport, rows of trucks stood idle.

Hatay has been the base for a big part of Turkey's overland export to the Middle East and the home of 10,000 commercial trucks, Turkey's second biggest commercial transport fleet after Istanbul. But the violence in Syria has slowed down trade, especially after several Turkish truck drivers were killed in Syria after being caught in the crossfire of the conflict there or being attacked by armed groups. The last one was killed only a few days ago. The government in Ankara has warned against all non-essential travel through Syria, although most border gates remain open.

Ahmet, a Turk from Antakya, went back and forth across the border for 10 years, importing and exporting goods like cigarettes and tea. Ahmet, who met and married his Syrian wife Ayse during a business trip to Syria, did not want his nor his wife's real names to be published out of fear for the safety of family members who remain in Syria.

Ahmet said the last time he went to Syria, about two weeks ago, he was shocked at what he saw and glad to make it back to Turkey. "People are hungry, there is no water, no electricity, no bread. Streets are deserted after dark. Whole villages have been flattened" by the fighting, he said. "Every day, a hundred people are dying. I haven't seen anything like that all my life."

Ahmet and Ayse said Ayse's mother was stuck in Damascus with Ayse's two brothers, but Ayse's two sisters made it into Turkey in time. One sister lives with Ahmet and Ayse in a flat in Antakya, the other sister is in a Turkish refugee camp with her husband. "We haven't had any news from some of our relatives" in Syria, Ayse said. She said she could not get through to her mother on the telephone.

In Antakya's bazaar, Ethem Selcuk, the owner of a spice shop, also said he was concerned about his relatives in Syria. He said he did not have any news from members of his extended family in Aleppo and the province of Idlib, which has seen fierce fighting between government troops and rebels in recent weeks.

"Some of them came to Turkey and stayed in one of the refugee camps for a while," Mr Selcuk said. "But then they went back", as the fighting subsided a little. "We don't get any news from them. Even when at times we did manage to get through on the telephone, they couldn't speak freely because they were afraid that someone was listening in," he said. "In recent months, we haven't been able to talk to them at all."

Mr Selcuk said many families in the region found themselves divided when Hatay joined Turkey in 1939 after a referendum.

"There were relatives on this side and relatives on that side," he said with a shrug.

During the Cold War, the border between the Nato member Turkey and the Soviet ally Syria became impenetrable, but relations improved markedly after 2000. The start of the government clampdown in Syria last year put an end to the rapprochement.

Mr Selcuk said he was also worried the conflict in Syria, a country with a Sunni Muslim majority ruled by an Alawite elite, could destroy a culture of tolerance between members of different religions in the region.

"Look," he said, pointing to the clerks in his shop, "here's an Alawite, there's an Arab, the other one is a Kurd. My neighbour in the shop next door is a Christian. When I got to the mosque on Friday, he guards my cash register. This is what we're about here. This is our beauty."

tseibert@thenational.ae