More than 120,000 Syrian refugees are now in Turkey, straining the nation’s hospitality. The Turkish government cannot build refugee camps fast enough, and so tens of thousands of Syrians are backed up on the Syrian side of the border, where families have been camping under the stingy shade of olive trees, without tents, in the dirt with their sad pots and pans.
In recent weeks, the Turkish government has made illegal crossings from Syria much more difficult. In the past, Turkish soldiers might turn a blind eye, especially for refugees, and a few dollars. They are now aggressively enforcing the country’s borders. Government officials say they are worried the frontier with Syria has become too porous, too wild — an open turnstile of hashish, stolen cars, weapons, cash and militant jihadis.
In a small farming village a few miles away on the Turkish side of the border, near the city of Reyhanli, the rooftop terrace of a local smuggler’s house at sunset begins to resemble a crowded transit lounge, filled with army deserters and money couriers, the haggard clients smoking cigarettes and waiting their turn to hear that the border guards have passed, and that it is okay to make a run for it.
“Before the Turkish soldiers showed pity, but no more,” said a Syrian teacher who was waiting to cross into Syria to pick up a wounded fighter and bring him back to a rebel convalescence hospital in Turkey.
As the teacher and other clients waited, the smuggler, a Mr. Big in the area, answered dozens of rings on his cellular phone, from his eyes and ears along the fence line. He made $20 or $30 from anyone he could get across.
Later, as the teacher sprinted toward the barbed wire frontier, he was quickly surrounded and stopped by Turkish soldiers, who smacked his traveling companion hard in the chest.
“Look! They’ve been caught!” said an old man with a cane sitting on the terrace, who was watching the game of cat and mouse as an evening’s entertainment.
The next morning, a middle-class Syrian man who had to return home to get his family ventured across. He and his guides were driven a few miles down the fence line, to a muddy olive grove, where he slipped and slid into the muck of irrigation canals and began to panic.
Farmers in the field were whistling and yelling — the soldiers are here, they are there — and finally the client was asked for an extra $15 to bribe a Turkish soldier to pass. Whether money went to the farmers or the solider is uncertain. But after the man passed under the fence, the soldier fired off a round into the air.