At the edge of hell The mad world of the borderlands between ISIL and Turkey
In the towns along the Turkish-Syrian border, within a few hundred meters of territory controlled by the “Islamic State,” a peculiar way of life has taken shape. Mixed together there you’ll find former and future fighters for terrorist organizations from across Europe and Asia, thousands of Syrian and Kurdish refugees, international and humanitarian aid workers, and smugglers and merchants making good business out of this war. Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky traveled along the border to investigate, and became the first Russian journalist to visit territory held by the “Islamic State.”
The Juvenile Jihadist
Yusef is just ten, but knows how to shoot an RPG, a Kalashnikov, and a range of pistols. He first shot a man at age 8. In the coming weeks, Yusef will head to Syria to join the jihad against Russia. On a sunny day in late October 2015, Yusef sits in an empty parking lot in a small Turkish village four kilometers from the Syrian border.
He is dressed in a Champion sweatshirt, and he smiles broadly during our encounter.
There is nothing out of the ordinary for him about his upcoming journey; he has already taken part in the armed conflict. His family is from the Syrian coastal region near Latakia. In 2011, after the beginning of the civil war, his father Abu Yusuf joined the rebels fighting against state forces, later leading a detachment of the Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham, which has links with Al Qaeda. His unit carried out raids against government forces in the area of Latakia and Damascus.
Ahrar ash-Sham may be less well known than the “Islamic State,” but it can be just as brutal.
There are reports of the group having executed prisoners. It has been suggested they might be holding the captive Russian traveler Konstantin Zhuravlyov (about whom Meduza has reported). Like fighters for ISIL, members of Ahrar ash-Sham have been documenting their activities in Syria—in one of their videos a child barely old enough to walk is given a cane and taught to beat prisoners with it.
On some of their expeditions against pro-Assad troops, Abu Yusuf brought his children along. Ten-year-old Yusef did not train in a camp for future jihadists or study in a Wahhabi madrassa; his father taught him to fight against the “infidels.”
Child combatants are no rarity in Syria.
ISIL periodically publishes videos in which children take part in executions.
BBC journalists met with a 13-year-old teenager who planned to travel to Syria to behead the enemies of ISIL. "We must behead them as Allah said in the Koran," the boy said.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, child soldiers have been deployed by rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army and the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front.
A year and a half ago, Abu Yusuf evacuated his family from Syria across the border to the Turkish town Gazientep. In early October 2015, within a few days of the opening of Russia’s military involvement in Syria (which included airstrikes against Ahrar ash-Sham), practically all of the local Islamist groups declared jihad against Russia. Abu Yusuf answered that call—he plans to return to his native Latakia to fight against the Russians.
He also decided to take his son, Yusef, along. (As he explains this, Abu Yusuf gestures as if firing into the air, mimicking a plane falling from the sky.)
The rest of the family will head for one of the refugee camps in Turkey. The father discusses his upcoming trip into Syria with pleasure.
He scratches his belly, then his beard, says a few words in Arabic to his wife, who within a few minutes brings very sweet tea—a sign of the host’s friendliness to his guest. The jihadist asks me to sit next to him on the mattress. His son also takes a seat.
I ask the boy: why go on the jihad? Why not study in school, having already made it to Turkey? He gets up, goes over into the tent, returning with a mobile phone and inviting me to look through the photos. In the first picture, Yusef holds an RPG—clearly heavy for him. In the second, the boy wears a keffiyeh, aiming a machine gun at someone from behind the corner of a destroyed building. In the third, he and his father pose with Kalashnikovs near a dead soldier.
I lift my eyes from the telephone to look at Yusef. He's smiling again.
The road to the “Islamic State”
Above a grey two-story building waves the black flag of the “Islamic State,” a mere hundred meters away, across a pistachio grove. Immediately beyond the building lie the streets of the Syrian town Jarabulus.
A few months after the occupation, the city's bazaar reopened. To be sure, alcohol and cigarettes were no longer for sale, and the punishment for their use ranges from the fortunate (a few dozen lashes) to the less fortunate (beheading).
To the east of Jarabulus flows the Euphrates River, beyond which the territory is controlled by Syrian Kurds, who carry out periodic raids on Jarabulus. On October 25, 2015, Turkish border guards fired upon Kurds crossing the river in boats. The Kurds accused the Turkish side of supporting ISIL.
A few days prior, Ankara had warned that any Russian aerial support for Syrian Kurds “will have serious consequences” (the Kurds themselves had already endorsed Russian actions in Syria and proposed opening a diplomatic mission in Moscow). “With Russian support, they are trying to seize the land between Jarabulus and Azaz, moving to the west of the Euphrates. We will never allow this,” said a Reuters source in Turkey.
The Kurds are trying to take Jarabulus to cut off the route of new recruits joining ISIL. The town is within a few hundred meters of the Turkish border, which is practically unmanned. The boundary between Syria and Turkey stretches out over more than 500 kilometers. Government forces control part of the Syrian territory along this border, and the Kurds control another part. ISIL holds about 100 kilometers, from Azaz to Jarabulus.
Along with the Turkish city of Karkamış, practically all foreign fighters joining the jihad on ISIL territory in recent years have passed through this area.
Getting into the self-proclaimed caliphate is not difficult. The majority of foreigners fly from Istanbul to Gaziantep (a route colloquially referred to as the “jihad express”), and find a taxi driver that can take them to a border town like Kilis or Karkamış (the going rate is around $50). Guides are usually waiting near the border.
The head of the main operations directorate of the Russian General Staff, Andrei Kartapolov, reported on October 16, 2015, that around 100 ISIL fighters cross the border zone from Syria into Turkey at Jarabulus-Karkamış daily, disguised among the refugees. My informant in Karkamış has it the other way around; the nightly crossings go not towards Turkey, but into Syria.
Karkamış, in Turkey, is not a big town. There used to be an official border checkpoint, and the main life of the place revolved around it, selling coffee and kebabs to those crossing. Now there are no open stores, and many of the residents have left. The border checkpoint looks abandoned. There is a tall fence alongside it, but off to the right about a hundred meters the fence ends and is replaced by barbed wire. Nearby there is a guard-tower with nobody in it. In several places, the barbed wire is cut, and within a five-minute walk of town it is simply dumped in a pile. Here even during the daytime it is possible to cross into jihadist-controlled territory unnoticed.
Along the border on the ISIL side walks an unarmed young man. He waves his hand, walks up to me and advises me against going further—the field is mined. “You can only go with a guide, they know the paths without mines,” says the man, introducing himself as Akhmed.
According to him, the mines were placed by ISIL fighters to prevent residents of their caliphate from escaping to Turkey. Every now and then somebody trying to run the border gets blown up. That was the fate of a family from Jarabulus in early October 2015; a father and son died on the spot, while the mother and another son were taken to a hospital on ISIL territory.
Akhmed is also from militant-controlled Jarabulus. He is 16, and fled the town with his father and mother days after the jihadists carried out mass executions.
They were lucky; the field had not yet been mined at the time. On the Turkish side in Karkamış, they took shelter with relatives.
Within a few days, he had heard that his older brother had been beheaded in Jarabulus.
In time, several hundred people crossed to ISIL-held Jarabulu from Karkamış, including two of Akhmed’s friends. They study in the local school, which is located very close to the Turkish border. In the courtyard, a few dozen children are playing with a ball. Seeing me, they yell, “Tourist!” “Syria, Syria!” and run their hands across their throats as if to slit them.
Akhmed’s mother left a few weeks ago for Albania. She is among thousands of migrants fleeing from Turkey to Germany. She recently wrote him to say she will soon receive the required documents, and that he will also be able to leave Karkamış. Akhmed dreams of getting as far away from ISIL as possible. He has no wish to fight them. “They are too strong, they cannot be beaten. Everybody is bombing them—it’s pointless.”
In recent years, Gaziantep has become a transit point for everybody even remotely connected to most complex war of the new millennium: fighters for terrorist organizations (ISIL, al-Nusra Front, and so on), their supporters, Syrian anti-government partisans, humanitarian organizations, smugglers, and refugees.
Gaziantep is in southern Turkey, about 60 kilometers from the border at the edge of the Syrian dessert. Even before the war, people understood Arabic here, and almost all the signs are in both languages. Gaziantep is tightly linked to the Syrian city of Aleppo. There is—or was—a good road between them. Many from Aleppo used the Gaziantep airport for travel. Both cities have a significant number of mixed families.
Centuries ago, this land was inhabited by Armenians. They fled during the genocide that accompanied the First World War, when the city was still named Antep. After Turkey’s defeat, the city was occupied by French troops. Soon it was won back by Turkish rebels, after which the prefix “Gazi” (meaning “brave”) was added, hence the present-day Gaziantep. Now its population is over a million—the eighth largest in Turkey. It is built up with identical apartment block buildings, plastered with satellite antennas.
Life in Gaziantep follows its own course. The bazaar stalls are bursting with fresh fruits, dried fruits, and sweets; old men sit around with coffee all day at street cafes; children play in the squares. And yet the proximity of war is always palpable. It’s either UN vehicles going down the streets or military jeeps with machine guns on the rooftops. On one of the main streets, five shops in a row sell desert camouflage uniforms and night-vision equipment. At the market, it isn’t hard to find any variety of firearm. In other parts of the city, refugees unable to get into the better outfitted camps live right on the streets or in abandoned buildings.
Many local residents are convinced that Gaziantep could become the next Peshawar—the Pakistani city on the border with Afghanistan that was the transit point for Taliban militants and refugees in the 1980s and 1990s. For Europeans that come to Gaziantep trying to reach ISIL, everything is more or less familiar. They have Starbucks, shopping malls, supermarkets, and movie theaters showing Hollywood films.
Workers with American and European humanitarian organizations are instructed not to draw attention to themselves, not to wear clothing with sports teams' logos, not to go to Starbucks. These precautions are tied to the fact that there actually are many ISIL supporters in the city. The police arrest them periodically (50 since July 2015). At the beginning of October in Gaziantep, six ISIL partisans were arrested for making the currency of the “Islamic State”—the dinar—on a secret production line.
A local source told Meduza that you can find ISIL fighters getting medical treatment in hospitals in Gaziantep or other towns near the border. Meduza had reported information on this practice from militant Said Mazhaev; another Meduza informant, Leila Achishvili (a woman from the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia, home to dozens who have left for Syria) said that abandoned buildings around Gaziantep were being used as ISIL hospitals. “You may know that this person is with ISIL, but it isn’t simple to prove. You ask for his passport, and he shows you a British one. He says he came to Gaziantep as a tourist. How are you going to arrest him?” complained an anonymous policeman in a conversation with the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.
According to their sources, around 4,000 Gaziantep natives have joined ISIL. Turkey has on several occasions faced attacks from ISIL. Two terrorist attacks, one in Suruç (July) and another Ankara (October), have claimed the lives of more than 130 people. The bombing in Ankara was reportedly organized by militants who owned a teahouse in Adıyaman, a small Turkish city to the northeast of Gaziantep. And in early September 2015, two Turkish guards patrolling the border zone were fired upon by a group trying to cross illegally into Turkey. One guard was killed and the other was taken prisoner by ISIL. In Diyarbakir, on October 23, 2015, Turkish police were attacked during a morning raid on houses where fighters were reportedly hiding. Nine people died in the ensuing shootout—two policemen and seven ISIL militants.
Fighters operating in the borderlands even have their own hotels. Chechen fighters reportedly prefer staying at the Hotel Paris in Kilis (a town 50 kilometers to the south of Gaziantep)—a pale yellow, seven-story building. Staying the night there costs around 20 Turkish lira (about $7). The hotel refused to comment to Meduza regarding questions about its lodgers.
All day, taxis depart from the street adjacent to the hotel; they take people to the border and put them in touch with others who know how to cross it. There is no other work in this impoverished city of 30,000 people. Varvara Karaulova, the now-arrested Russian college student who nearly snuck into Syria, attempted to reach ISIL through the Kilis checkpoint. Meduza’s informant from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge crossed here in search of her sons, eventually meeting one of ISIL’s leaders, Omar al-Shishani (who is from her native region). Both of her sons were killed.
In March 2015, Gaziantep regional authorities announced that 59 Russian citizens had been detained trying to cross the border since 2011.
A neighborhood comprising a few blocks in the southern part of Gaziantep has earned the nickname “Turkish Aleppo.” Trading kiosks here are also home to refugees from Syria. They sell discs with music from back home and cheap telephones; there are even two hair salons. One of them has a sort of travel agency, promising to transport people from Gaziantep to Aleppo or Homs, which remain under the control of anti-Assad and Islamist groups (but not the “Islamic State”). A neighboring booth sells Syrian coffee—espresso with cardamom.
The falafel house Traditional Aleppine Restaurant operates just a few steps away. It is in a building with large windows. The inside is well-lit, the hall is decorated with red tables, and a television on the shelf plays Turkish music videos intermixed with newsreels on developments at the front.
Just a year ago this café was the meeting place for fighters in the Free Syrian Army. Now they don’t come here: the FSA is all but destroyed. Some grew tired of fighting, others fled as refugees, a third segment joined on to various Islamist groupings.
The height of the café’s popularity came in 2013, when it held many meetings.
Now the restaurant is reminiscent of Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca. Refugees come here to talk about their past life in Syria, to eat familiar food, to plan their future departure, and to discuss how and where best to obtain documents along the way.
Abu Yasin, a refugee from Aleppo, opened the café in November 2012. He brought his wife and daughter along, and his son—a soldier in the Free Syrian Army—was supposed to come a little later, but he died in battle. A few months after the move, Abu Yasin opened the café, hanging a picture of his dead son on the wall. He hired only Syrian refugees, always in need of work.
Over the span of a few years, he became one of the few who managed to save some money and not get stuck in the borderlands. He sold his café to another Syrian for $12,000 and took his family to Saudi Arabia. The new owners of the establishment are from Palmyra. In place of the photo of Abu Yasin’s late son, they have hung a faded picture of the famous Palmyra theater. (ISIL captured the Palmyra in May 2015. Over a few months, they blew up ancient monuments like the Temple of Bel and triumphal arch, hosting mass executions on the theater’s stage.) Now the kitchen is staffed exclusively with refugees from that region of Syria.
Basir, one of the cooks, chops cucumbers masterfully, switches to the tomatoes, and pulls Syrian falafels—donut-shaped with a hole in the middle—from the boiling oil. He receives very little pay for his work, but he sets aside what he can for the trip to Europe. He does not want to stay in Turkey. “Little money here; a lot of money there,” he explains, even though he understands that accruing a few thousand Euros here is a long shot, and he’ll likely have to stay for quite a while.
I ask him about the destruction of the monuments in Palmyra. He shakes his head. “Syria is an ancient country. Now she’s fallen asleep, but the destruction of monuments doesn’t destroy her,” says Basir. After a minute, he starts recounting the beauty and ancient history of Palmyra, how many tourists came there from all over the world—from Italy, Germany, and Great Britain. Now Palmyra still draws foreigners, but militants instead of tourists.
For most of the Syrian refugees, moving to Turkey was their only way out of the war. Some use the country as a transit point on their way to European countries. Others are trying to blend into Turkish society by looking for work and settling in cities anywhere from Gaziantep to Istanbul. Still others are waiting for the end of the war, living in camps spread across the whole country.
By October 2015, some two million Syrian refugees were in Turkey, which has spent more than $6 billion hosting them.
EU leaders at a October 16, 2015, summit in Brussels promised to send Turkey $3 billion to outfit centers for migrants.
One such center was built back in 2012 in Kilis near the checkpoint on the Turkey-Syria border. Many call it the “ideal camp.”
From the outside, it looks like a prison. The camp is surrounded by a fence with barbed wire. The entrances are watched by guards with automatic weapons, checking to see if those coming to the camp have the requisite special badge. When you reach them, they inspect your personal items. On the grounds, there are none of the typical tents you’d expect in such camps. People live in shipping containers, like the cabins migrants occupy at Moscow construction sites. There are more than 2,000 of these containers in Kilis, earning the camp the nickname “Container City.” Each one has a shower and a television. In some spots within the camp, you can get free Wi-Fi. Around 15,000 people live here. In addition, there is a school, a kindergarten, sports facilities, a mosque, and a supermarket. And each refugee receives $30 monthly. Actress and director Angelina Jolie came here in 2012 as a UN goodwill ambassador. “Syrians," she said, "are known for their kindness to those in need. Now is our time to help them.”
This “model” camp is often promoted by Turkish politicians and UN representatives.
Refugees who do not make it in here end up in typical tent camps, of which there are dozens in the border area. 500 Syrian refugees live in one not far from Kilis. It is less comfortable, but there is also more freedom.
Early in the morning one day in October, four boys, ages six or seven, leave the camp and set out toward Kilis on foot. Each is carrying a roomy, empty bag. Their route is well established: making the rounds of the dumpsters and landfills in town. Everything comes in handy: empty plastic bottles (to store water), markers (to draw), food (there's never enough).
Within just a few minutes, they've already had success: they find a box still containing some cookies. All four of them climb into one of the dumpsters, located across from a local café, but it turns out to be empty. They move on to the next street, where they are greeted by a friend, another boy about their age. He does not join them on their expedition because he has work: scraping off burnt trays used to roast Turkish sweets in a small trading stall.
For his work, he makes five lira (less than $2) per day. Having exchanged a few words with him, the group moves on. They meet another friend, who walks the streets silently offering passersby wafers for purchase. They take him with them as they head to the computer club. Leaving their trash bags at the entrance, they go in. There, like some sort of inspectors, the kids go from computer to computer observing how local kids play Counter-Strike and Need for Speed. Then they search the club’s trash and head back home.
In addition to civilians, former fighters from various Syrian rebel groups end up among the refugees. But not everyone escapes the grip of the war. Even after getting to Turkey, some continue the fight against those who forced them from Syria.
Maen Watfe and Yusef Helali grew up in Aleppo in neighboring houses, went to the same school, but rarely associated with each other.
Watfe took an active part in the protests that began in 2011, even helping out as an organizer and ending up in jail. He served six months first in Aleppo, then in Damascus, getting out with the help of connections. Free by the end of 2011, he left for Turkey.
Helali also took part in the protests, and helped to open an underground hospital once the unrest became a real war (since taking wounded rebels to official hospitals was as good as taking them straight to prison). Soon one of Helali’s friends and fellow opposition activists was kidnapped and killed. He understood it was time to leave.
At the time, in late 2011, there were no tens of thousands of refugees crossing the border into Turkish Gaziantep. Watfe and Helali found each other quickly. For a couple years, they set up in the city, found work, relocated their families. Each time they met, they discussed how to help their friends back in Syria.
In 2013, Helali, who had been shooting video for commercials his whole life, proposed making a documentary film about Aleppo. The cameramen would be his acquaintances who stayed behind in the city. Under the title "Beroea’s Doves" (in reference to Aleppo’s ancient Greek name), they have been distributing the film on DVD. One of the movie’s heroes, standing on ruins, says, “How can you call this the most dangerous city in the world, when it is the most wonderful in the world?” The documentary follows the life of the city against the backdrop of war. In one scene, boys playing football on a field surrounded by destroyed houses imagine themselves to be international football stars.
After the documentary came out, Watfe and Helali rented a small studio in Gaziantep and started a comedy channel on YouTube. Starting with sketches about Assad, they went on to produce jokes about the “Islamic State.”
In one of the clips, a bearded man in glasses is sitting on the floor next to a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad. “My life sucks,” he says to a genie sitting nearby. “I support Assad. I kill hundreds of thousands of people, but I have a problem. I want to kill Syrians without any remorse.”
The genie claps his hands. The man suddenly appears in the black garb of an ISIL fighter.
“What happened?” asks the man.
“Now you can kill in the name of religion,” says the genie, hanging a picture of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over the portrait of Assad and handing him dynamite. “Here is a Valentine’s Day present for you.”
In another clip, they spoof the video game Super Mario Bros. A young man runs down the street and jumps up, a mushroom falls on his head, and he suddenly appears in a black cloak, wielding a knife. He becomes a jihadist, overcoming all obstacles and saving the princess (another militant) in the end.
All of the clips use formatting and montage that mimic that of Al-Hayat, ISIL's propaganda department. The creators buy toy machine guns, knives, and stuffed teddybears for the recording of the show in children's stores.
The anti-ISIL directors got the attention of jihadists quite quickly. They receive threats on social media, and ISIL followers have visited them twice at their studio. Watfe and Helali are now in hiding. Yusef Helali met with me in a city in Turkey. He is little older than 25, has a beard, and types incessantly on his smartphone.
“There really isn’t anything to laugh about here. Our country is destroyed, they’re blowing it all apart, many of our friends have died or become ISIL militants, and we ourselves had to leave and go into hiding,” he says. “But we have to fight on. We are not soldiers, so it isn’t on the battlefield. ISIL has its propaganda department, filming everything there as if it’s Hollywood, and thanks to this many are heading to Syria. So we are battling them on the only field we can—in the media. The whole world is already horrified by ISIL, so we want people to be laughing at them.”
Soon enough, he says, a new edition with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Bashar Asad will obviously have to feature Vladimir Putin. “Maybe on a plane,” Helali adds.
For now another move awaits them; he is convinced that fighters have figured out where their studio is located. They do not want to relocate to Europe. Helali simply doesn’t see the point: “What for? ISIL followers are all over, even there.”
The following are considered illegal terrorist organizations in Russia: Al Qaeda (banned in 2003), the “Islamic State” (2014), and al-Nusra Front (2014)