Improvising in a time of war

May 24, 2013

A group of men share watermelon at a black market car dealership near Cilvegozu border crossing in Reyhanli, Turkey. Many of the cars have been cheaply bought in Germany and Bulgaria and sold for sometimes triple the price near the Turkey-Syria border. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Ratty sweatpants and plastic sandals don’t scream “entrepreneur.” But way down in dusty southern Turkey, two miles from the Syrian border, a couple of dozen men sitting in the shade in plastic chairs were most definitely innovators in a wartime economy.

About 100 used cars, most of them Mercedes and BMWs, were parked in the baking sun, while their owners sipped sweet tea, cracked pistachios and waited for buyers to arrive from Syria, where war is raging.

(Read: As Syrian war shuts down trade routes, Turkish business improvises)

The Syrian war had created a demand for cars, and the men on the car lot — mainly Syrians — had created a new business to meet that demand.

Guevara Moussa-Kantaro, 40, a Syrian who has lived for years in Germany, sat beneath a tree near a silver 2004 Mercedes sedan with blue cloth seats and a sunroof. He said he had just bought it for $6,400 in Bonn, spent three days driving it here, and put it up for sale for $11,500.

His pal, another Syrian living in Germany, made the drive with him in a second Mercedes, a black 2002 sedan. His friend bought it for about $4,000 and was selling it for three times that.

Now, like fishermen with hooks baited, they sat and waited for buyers in the 90-degree heat. Across the road, Syrian military guard posts were visible on the dusty hills just beyond a border marked by a small chain-link fence.

There is some whispering here that the origin of the cars for sale is somewhat shady. But Moussa-Kantaro and the other drivers said their business was entirely above-board, an  honest response to an opportunity spawned by war.

Moussa-Kantaro is a truck driver in Germany. He said he heard from other Syrians living there that there was easy cash to be made selling used cars on the Syrian border. The theory was, he said, that Syrians living amid wartime conditions were having trouble finding lots of basic necessities — including cars.

Well-to-do Syrians who had not fled the country still needed wheels, he said, and they wanted nice wheels — preferably with fine German engineering.

“They see it as an investment — prices will come back when the war ends,” said Moussa-Kantaro, who was still stubbly and bleary-eyed from the drive of more than 2,000 miles.

He said Turkish officials don’t bother to collect taxes on the sales at the border lots. He said that was perhaps out of compassion for the tough times Syrians are facing. Others suggest that maybe somebody’s been paid off. Whatever the reason, the lack of tax and any kind of official paperwork has kept prices low for buyers and business thriving for sellers.

It also helps business that Turkish border guards don’t let Turkish-registered cars pass into Syria these days. Several of the men hanging around the car lot said that the Turkish government doesn’t want Turks driving into Syria and getting caught up in the fighting, so they block Turkish cars.

But Moussa-Kantaro said cars with European plates are free to pass, which creates a market for his business. Almost every car on these lots is registered in Germany or Bulgaria.

No buyers showed up the first day that Moussa-Kantaro sat at the lot. Rubbing his tired eyes, he said he was sure they would come.

“They need so many things, and we need to make a profit,” Moussa-Kantaro said. “Eventually you come up with a way to get the things you need.”

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