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In Focus: For a Syrian Family, Illegal Border Crossing Proves Deadly

As soon as they got the green light from their smuggler, the family from Tal Rifaat, a town near the Turkey-Syria border, knew it was time to go.

Written by Isabel Hunter Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

 On a cold night earlier this month, a mother and father helped their only daughter, eight-year-old Alaa, through the fence that separates Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

On the dusty road leading to it, the small family listened closely to the instructions of the smuggler they paid a few dollars to help them across the border. The advice he gave mostly revolved around when they should cross, what road to take and how to navigate the agricultural road they would be taking.

As they crossed, Alaa’s family heard a Turkish border police vehicle drawing near. As instructed, they picked up their pace without turning to face the soldiers. They were advised by their smuggler not to run should anything go wrong, or else they would be shot.

Closely following the instructions they were given, the family did not panic when they heard the soldiers shout out again and again. They walked faster, but did not run. The dusty road taken by the family was not suitable for vehicles, and they heard the car’s engine go quiet. The Turkish guards called out at them again, and then a shot was heard. The bullet struck and killed Alaa.

Her death is one of many that have taken place during the perilous illegal crossing into Turkey. There are no official records of how many Syrians have died trying to cross, but there are rampant stories of similar incidents taking place. Due to a steady influx of refugees, the Turkish government has tightened its security, setting up several guard posts along the border and making the work of smugglers significantly harder.

An Ankara-based Turkish government official told Syria Deeply that “the incident is under investigation by the relevant prosecutor.”

Chaos on the Border

Both parents stopped in their tracks where their daughter had fallen. The father dropped everything he was carrying, while the mother stared in shock at the Turkish soldiers as they rushed to where the child was, still screaming unintelligible words.

The mother saw that her daughter was in danger. She was taken aback by the blood gushing out from her wound. The mother burst into tears, cursing at the Turkish soldiers.

The commander of the Turkish unit started screaming at Alaa’s mother and father. Some of the soldiers carried the eight-year-old to their car, while others got the family’s bags before they sped to the hospital.

All the way to Kilis hospital, the Turkish commander kept repeating harsh words to the Syrian family, who did not understand what he was saying. The little girl had slipped into a coma as her mother tried but failed to shake her daughter back into consciousness.

Alaa’s body went cold. Unable to do anything, the soldiers watched as the mother, sensing her child was close to dying, became hysterical and then fainted, falling on top of her daughter’s small body.

At that point, the Turkish soldiers tried their best to help the mother, while the commander tried to comfort the father and to explain to him what had happened. Earlier, he had thought that the commander was admonishing them; now he understood that he was trying to comfort him.

Back to Syria

At the hospital, after the mother was attended to, the father was informed via a translator that his daughter had died from a gunshot wound to the neck. He was asked to give his statement at the hospital’s police department.

The father gave them details of the incident as other police officers went through his luggage looking for arms or drugs. All they found were some clothes and some medicine.

The police informed the father that they would have to autopsy his daughter’s body. Despite his pleas, hospital staff insisted it was necessary procedure. They asked him to wait while they finished the paper work and deported him and his wife back to Syria.

Smuggling Industry Flourishes

Smugglers’ careers have flourished since the beginning of the war in Syria. They often do nothing more than make holes in border fences, which are sometimes 2.5 meters high, but they are necessary for many refugees as they know which holes are further away from the Turkish guard posts.

Some have deals with Turkish border guards who turn a blind eye in exchange for small sums of money or expensive packs of cigarettes, as Turkey imposes heavy taxes on tobacco products.

But the smuggler-border guard relationship is fickle and in constant flux as the military situation changes.

Dozens of people still gather every night, waiting for the right time to cross into Turkey at the same place where Alaa was killed last week.

So why was Alaa shot dead?

Abu al-Zein, a Syrian smuggler, says that the Turkish guards rarely open lethal fire, and that they only shoot if they believe the person crossing over has weapons or other illicit objects.

Others waiting for their turn to cross say that it depends on the sect of the soldier or officer manning the post. If he is Sunni, then he is quick to sympathize with the Syrians. But if he is Alawite, he will be strict with them, treating them harshly.

Isabel Hunter reported from Gaziantep, Turkey.

This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri. 

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