By Bülent Kiliç
KARKAMIS CROSSING, Turkey/Syria border—In the five years that I’ve spent covering the Syrian war, this was the first time that I have seen substantial crowds of refugees returning to Syria. I’ve shot thousands of people escaping into Turkey from war-torn Syria, be it through holes cut in barbed wire or by waiting patiently for the border gates to open. And over the past five years you’ve had trickles returning here and there. But never in such numbers.
Some 350 alone crossed the day I was there, on Wednesday, heading back to the border town of Jarabulus, some two weeks after pro-Ankara fighters recaptured it from Islamic State jihadists. Most of them fled to Turkey two years ago, when the jihadists first overran the town. You would expect that people returning to their homes after two years would be happy. But the mood wasn’t joyful. I would describe it more as anxious. Resigned, worried and anxious.
You can understand why—these people were not going back to the homes they left behind. Lots of things have changed on the ground in the last two years. They prefer to go home instead of staying in tents in Turkey. Conditions are very hard for them here. They prefer their poor life there to the refugee camps.
But they don’t know what they’ll find, whether they’ll even have a home to go back to. Or how they will survive.
I, for one, was very glad to see them. I’ve spent two weeks on the border, on and off, playing cat and mouse with the Turkish authorities as I worked to photograph the troops that Ankara had sent into its neighbor, for the first time since war in Syria broke out.
When Ankara sent troops in, it was a long time coming. I think Turkey has been planning to do this for a long time and it finally did it because it wants to change the situation on the ground in Syria. We journalists of course rushed to the border. But a situation like that is tightly controlled by the authorities. They don’t want us there. So it’s a constant battle to get photos.
We were constantly hiding—on roofs, behind cars, in bushes—trying to get our pictures. You obviously try to get as close as you can. You hide your camera and you try to sneakily take pictures. And the police are chasing you non-stop.
So it was exhausting—we were constantly just running around hiding from them. Plus I don’t really like this type of work, where you’re taking pictures of tanks. I like to tell stories through people, through their faces. It makes it much more powerful and interesting.
Of course I tried to get as close as I could and succeeded a few times. And it is part of the story. But it’s not my favorite thing to do.
Public opinion is split on this operation along the border. There are some people who are proud of the army. Turkish soldiers are clearing the area, they say. But many people are wary. Syria is a country like no other, things are always changing there, it’s like walking on shifting sands. Everything can change in two hours or two days. Once you step inside, it’s not so easy to come back.
There are people who are not happy that the Turkish army is there. The situation is so complicated. Many people don’t really trust the opposition groups in Syria. They can change their allegiances so quickly. And there are people who feel that Turkey has to find a way to manage the situation in Syria without sending troops.
The situation is complicated, you’re fighting in a really arid region—many of our soldiers have never fought in such a climate. And you’re fighting with people who have been there a long time. There are bound to be high casualties. Especially if they go into a place like Raqa, the Islamic State stronghold. And the situation is just so uncertain.
I was very glad to be able to shoot the refugees returning because after two weeks of chasing tanks, it was nice to be able to shoot a story the way it’s meant to be done—through people and emotions.
But those who are returning, they don’t know what will happen. Fighting may erupt again in Jarabulus and they’ll flee again. I’ve seen it before—the trickles that have returned before to a place like Kobane, and then you see them flee to Turkey again. The situation in Syria is just so fuzzy, so uncertain, that you just never know.
I am waiting for the day when thousands of people go back to their homes. I’m waiting to go with them to Syria to find out what has happened to their towns and cities over these last four, five years. I hope that yesterday was a kind of demo, a dress rehearsal and I can’t wait to see the real thing.
I have been covering this war for five years and Wednesday marked something different. Something is changing. I hope it’s a permanent change and for the better. But this is the Middle East, this is Syria and you really don’t know what’s going to happen.