Mirroring life across the Jarablus-Karkamis border

Two towns on the Turkish-Syrian border were separated by war, but a military operation helped reconnect their bonds. TRT World takes a look at the ties between Jarablus and Karkamis — one struggling with war, the other banking on a war economy.

Photo by: Rahul Radhakrishnan
Photo by: Rahul Radhakrishnan

Children grab loaves of bread that fell off the aid truck delivering food to Jarablus, Syria. August, 2016.

Updated Sep 1, 2016

Jarablus, SYRIA and Karkamis, TURKEY - It was the shriek of excited children that broke the silence in the main square of the Syrian town of Jarablus.

The children, followed by women and men, rushed to the vehicle which was there to deliver the day’s food rations. Food which was once taken for granted became a high-value, high-risk commodity under the two-year DAESH rule only recently interrupted through military intervention.

The road leading to the Jarablus square is flanked by rubble — once buildings full of life —  another reminder of an occupation characterised by destruction and oppression.

Against the grey and dirt brown hues of the town centre, the vivid red and white of a Turkish Red Crescent aid truck stood out not only for its contents, but also in stark contrast to the devastating scene of Syria’s ongoing war.

Children in Jarablus, Syria were among the first to rush toward the aid truck coming from Turkey. August, 2016. [Rahul Radhakrishnan for TRT World]

It was several days after Turkey’s military backed the FSA in retaking Jarablus —  less than three kilometres from the border with Turkey —  from DAESH. But signs of the horror people faced were still visible.

There were no shops to buy food from, no carts selling vegetables. Empty houses stood alone, tagged with DAESH insignias, physical proof the trauma had yet to fade from the town.

FSA fighters, some no older than 25, held the crowd of hungry civilians back to maintain some order in food distribution.

The aid from Turkey relieved the community from a hunger they have known far too often and for far too long, a resident told TRT World.

“We were desperate. There was no food. Nothing. It was very difficult for us.” he said describing life under DAESH rule.

Women and children were the first in line, but some, fearing they would not receive their share, did not want to wait. A group of young boys crawled under the truck, hoping to catch rogue baguettes that fell amid the frenzy. 

The determined crowd of hundreds proved overwhelming even for the FSA fighters. In a bid to control the crowd, a fighter fired a warning shot into the air.

But not everyone could run away.

In the distance, a little boy pushed his friend in a wheelchair. Knowing they would never reach the front of the line in time, they stood patiently near the town’s main roundabout in the hopes that an older boy would collect their food for them. 

Some of the younger children waited on the side for their turn to collect their meals from the Turkish Red Cresent in Jarablus, Syria. August, 2016. [Rahul Radhakrishnan for TRT World]

The crowded roundabout the two boys stood at was the same site where the terrorist group carried out their routine executions.

One man recounts those gruesome memories: “They killed them here in this open space, it was slaughter. They would behead them with big axes.” He silently drew his hand across his neck, describing what he had witnessed.

The children around him too made the same gesture, knowing exactly what he was referring to.

“There were pools of blood everywhere,” the man added.

As conflict continues to fracture Syria, even a free Jarablus needs time to recover.

The scars of life under DAESH still crisscross Jarablus, fresh and raw, transforming into faint lesions as they crept over the border into Karkamis — a reminder of once conjoined towns.

Until just a few years ago, the residents of the Turkish town of Karkamis saw no border with Jarablus. Businessmen would travel between the two towns; men and women tied the knot across the border and children would grow up playing on blurred lines.

For generations, residents of Karkamis, in Turkey, and Jarablus, northern Syria, paid little mind to the border separating the two towns. But in recent years, the ongoing conflict in Syria has separated families and devastated economies of both towns. August 2016. [Ali Latifi for TRT World]

“It wasn’t real to us; we were always going there and they were always coming here,” a Karkamis resident told TRT World.

The fluidity of movement also meant when Syria was rocked by bloody incursions, the tremors were felt in Karkamis — always a small reflection of the bigger picture.

Inhabitants of the small town —  once 10,000 strong — have been slowly returning after an initial evacuation around the time the Turkish military operation kicked off in Syria.

Unlike Jarablus, which DAESH controlled, Karkamis did not have to wash blood off the town square but conflict, as it often tends to, would spill into the Turkish town in the form of stray bullets or mortar shells.

Unlike Jarablus, returning residents could be seen letting go of initial fears as they returned to their daily routines.

A restaurant on the main road, nearly abandoned earlier in the week, could be seen serving patrons. Store owners served customers with their newly-replenished stock.

In a small cafe near the town centre, a group of two dozen men once again held court. The older men played dominoes in their khakis and checkered shirts as the younger men drank tea and shared mobile phone photos in long shorts and bright t-shirts.

This cafe, in Karkamis, is slowly beginning to come to life once again as families return to the town after being evacuated ahead of Turkey's launch of operation Euphrates Shield, meant to drive DAESH out of Jarablus. August, 2016. [Ali Latifi for TRT World]

“Each day, more people are coming back” said Khalil, a 57-year-old Iraqi who has lived in Karkamis for nearly three decades.

The Turkish military and the FSA “have delivered us from six years of hell,” said another man as he slapped his playing cards on the table.

The sounds of howitzers, machine guns and explosions still echoed in the background, but the men remained occupied with their dominoes and cups of tea. Even the two gaunt kittens express little concern at the sounds of a military operation that has not yet fully dissipated.

The residents know they — unlike their neighbours in Jarablus — are lucky to have homes and businesses to return to.

No one understands this better than Abdullah. His family is from Jarablus but he has lived in Karkamis for 58 years.

With the border now open, Abdullah said he hopes to see his familial home for the first time in four years. “It’s still standing, I don’t know how, but it is.”

Abdullah personifies what the Syrian conflict has wrought upon both towns. A forced separation.

“Life will never go back to normal until the Syrian war is resolved. Until the war is over, Turkish citizens won’t be able to go back [to Jarablus],” said a truck driver, who requested anonymity.

The sudden divide also had a profound impact on Karkamis’ economy.

“Before the war, no one from either town was unemployed; everyone had a job, but the war severed our lifeline.”

The economy bounced back initially when people who were once their neighbours and friends arrived as refugees.

To accommodate the tens of thousands of Syrians pouring into Karkamis daily, tent cities and refugee camps began to pop up around the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep.

When it was time to man those encampments, it was the residents of Karkamis — the people who knew their Syrian neighbours best —  who took up the task. Once the dust settled on the movement, Karkamis saw another slowdown.

But, with DAESH now cleared from the area, there is hope the brotherhood between the two towns can lead to economic opportunities for the long-suffering communities.

The Turkish Red Crescent has delivered thousands of meals to the people of Jarablus. August, 2016. [Rahul Radhakrishnan for TRT World]

Nearly all the men gathered at the cafe said once Jarablus was fully-secured they would be among the first to work on reconstructing the town.

Abdullah, who still has family in Jarablus, is confident the bond holds strong across the border. “Nothing, not DAESH, not the PKK, not even a concrete border wall can kill the love between the two towns,” he said.

Abdullah’s sentiment was met with resounding approval from almost all of the patrons, young and old who proclaimed in near perfect unison: “These two towns will not be broken.”

Their words hung heavy in the air as, just two kilometres down the road, the Red Crescent aid convoy prepared to return to Turkey from Syria with a promise of another square meal the next day.

Ali M Latifi and Talha Emre Iren reported from Karkamis in Turkey, and Rahul Radhakrishnan reported from Jarablus in Syria. TRT World is the first international news network to receive exclusive access to the newly-liberated town.