As Nasir Hackasim ran home to rescue his family when Syrian soldiers gunned his kebab restaurant, he remembered some childhood advice: find safety in water.
So the 58-year-old took his wife and nine sons and set off from the town of A’zaz through a small river to cross the border into Turkey and escape Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces hunting him for refusing to spy on his patrons, the rebels. He ended up at a camp now housing 13,600 refugees.
“My father often said there would be no landmines in the water, walk in the water,” said Hackasim. “So, we walked through a creek into Turkey in daylight. Someone else had already destroyed the barbed wire.”
Turkey so far opened its doors to more than 210,000 refugees, about 40 percent of the total being processed in Syria’s neighbors, including families of rebels and supporters. As the country becomes a haven, Turkey is saddled with a drop in trade and the cost of housing them as fears escalate that Syria may launch a punitive missile attack.
The country spent 482 million liras ($270 million) on refugees since fighting broke out in March 2011, Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek told parliament this week. Exports to Syria fell 70 percent in the first nine months, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported on Dec. 12, citing Simsek.
“Turkey has the capacity to cope with the unexpected financial burden,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Ankara, said yesterday. “However, the crisis is poisoning its relations with its neighbors. Turkey’s strong opposition to Assad jeopardizes its relations with Russia, Iran and Iraq.”
Hackasim, an ethnic Turkmen with a gray-and-pepper beard and a brown checkered head cover, has been under Turkish protection since his escape from Syrian government soldiers nine months ago, he said.
“It was Sunday, about 20 of them came and raked everywhere with automatic weapons, knocking over the refrigerator and tables,” Hackasim said in a Dec. 7 interview between drags on endless cigarettes. “I fled through the back door.”
Before the start of the conflict 21 months ago, Turkey and Syria’s relationship was so close that Assad and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vacationed together with their families in 2008. Tension rose when Turkey began calling on Assad to stop massacring his own people and step down.
The downing of a Turkish reconnaissance jet by Syrian forces in June and the deaths of five Turks by an errant mortar round from Syria in October escalated it further.
The civil war has killed about 44,000 people, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The opposition made gains against Assad’s forces and controls mainly Sunni Muslim areas stretching from the northeastern outskirts of Damascus to areas in the southwest. The Free Syrian Army seized a highway between the capital and Aleppo yesterday, severing the supply route between the nation’s two biggest cities, according to opposition activist websites.
Turkey is moving reinforcements and deploying weapons from its NATO allies along the 900-kilometer (560-mile) frontier. The U.S. and Germany agreed on Dec. 14 to send two Patriot anti-missile batteries and some 400 soldiers to Turkey. Components for the equipment started arriving yesterday. The missiles will be deployed in Turkey by Feb. 1, Anatolia said today.
Russia and Iran opposed deployment on grounds that it could fuel tension in the region. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu responded yesterday by saying the time has come for Iran to send a “clear message” to Syria to stop the war.
“Turkey is aware that its backing of rebels comes with risks and it is preparing for a possible attack by Syria,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a military analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. “Although the risk of an attack from Syria is minimal, military planners can’t ignore it.”
Hackasim set up a new makeshift kebab shop next to the Oncupinar camp about 500 meters from Turkish guns pointing at Syria. He was adamant he would continue his livelihood.
The second-hand refrigerator Hackasim uses has a sticker with a French inscription that reads “For a Free Syria” and a flag of the revolution with its green, white and black horizontal stripes and red stars across the middle. Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul smile from a poster on the wall.
Not all Syrians are as lucky.
“Our world has come to a standstill,” said former storeowner Muhammed Kenno, as Hackasim interpreted his words from Arabic into Turkish, refusing to accept money for coffee from the 48-year-old. “I had to abandon my supermarket in A’zaz. Now we are miserable,” Kenno said.
Another Syrian, Ali Ismail, was able to pay 4 liras ($2.25) for a kebab wrap for breakfast. He said he was spending the last of the $5,000 he raised by selling his Suzuki car in August before he escaped across to Turkey.
About 139,000 refugees are living in Turkish refugee camps, the Disaster Management Authority said yesterday. More than 70,000 other Syrians have rented houses and some 25,000 others were waiting to cross into Turkey, the government said.
The United Nations refugee agency today urged the international community to donate $1 billion to support Syrians fleeing to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. The appeal is based on planning estimates that as many as 1 million Syrian refugees will need help during the first half of 2013, the UNHCR said in a statement.
While Hackasim has electric heaters at his prefabricated housing unit, hundreds of Syrians are shivering under blankets in makeshift tents near the town of Atmah in Syria, according to the Anatolia agency on Dec. 12.
Three coffee machines, one broken, are lined up on a table next to a cabinet with cokes, bottled water and ayran, a local yoghurt drink. White smoke rises from a coal barbecue. Onions, tomatoes and parsley sit on a giant wooden chopping board as well as plastic bowls of spices, including cumin, sumac and chili pepper. Skewers of mince kebab are in a deep freezer.
“For me, the war was over when they told me that I can open a restaurant here,” Hackasim said. “But then, who would voluntarily abandon his homeland?”