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Borders of Love, Borders of War

Posted on Jan 5, 2016

By Amie Williams

  Syrian refugees in Gaziantep, Turkey. (Amie Williams)

GAZIANTEP, Turkey, November 2015 — The day after the Turkish national elections restored the ruling party, AKP, to its former dominance, I traveled from Istanbul to Gaziantep by bus. It’s a crazy, 18-hour journey that traverses most of the country, from the northwest tip to the southeast. The buses were like small airplanes, sleek, white, equipped with small TV screens on the backs of seats, and serving tea and coffee every few hours. My traveling companion and translator, Gulnaz Can, was a young Turkish journalist from London. She didn’t tell her employer, an international aid organization, that she was traveling to southeast Turkey. She told me her bosses would never clear her to travel to this region, so close to the Syrian border and Islamic State-controlled territory.

While most of my fellow passengers slept, I stared out the window, unable to sleep. I had come here to research a screenplay I am writing on the route a young Tunisian woman took, one year earlier, to try to find her sister, who had married a jihadi husband, joined Islamic State (what Tunisians call ISIS) and is now living in Raqqa, Syria. But deep inside, what I really wanted to understand was how the recent military actions by Russia and the coalition forces in Syria were redefining and redrawing already complicated borders and allegiances.

I wanted to see for myself how life near the Syrian border was really lived, given all the uncertainty. Little did I know that less than a week later, Paris would be locked down due to terrorist attacks, Turkey would blow a Russian jet out of the sky, and this part of the world would erupt into an international war zone, the intensity of which has not been seen since the Iraq War. Gaziantep, where we were headed, is the closest big city to Raqqa, being less than 120 miles northwest of the de facto capital of Islamic State’s dreaded, self-declared caliphate.

Gaziantep is a bustling town of more than 2 million, awash in colorful contrasts. It’s famous for its sweet baklava, made with the slender pistachios grown in massive groves on the outskirts. The region is also host to the largest organized industrial zone in Turkey, with a huge textile industry that employs thousands, many of them refugees. Gaziantep is also the current command post for many of the Syrian opposition groups vying for their piece of an increasingly complex sliver of pie that is roughly the 100-kilometer (62-mile) contested border area between Syria and Turkey. [Click “NEXT PAGE” to continue reading the article.]

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