Some names are hidden until further notice, to protect the identity of those involved.
On October 28th 2015 I was arrested in Turkey’s Hatay Province by the Jendarma. I was working there as the English language spokesman of the Salam (Peace) Organisation, a Syrian-run refugee organisation that rescues injured refugees, transports them over the border, provides free schooling for children, etc.
At the time I was carrying my camera equipment, passport, phone, etc. After noticing approaching soldiers before I did, those nearby bolted, leaving me suddenly facing three Gendarmerie (Jendarma) officers with M16 rifles.
I attempted to speak to them in Arabic. Assuming I was a Syrian, one instantly went about slapping my face and punching me, followed by driving me to a large group of rounded-up (and nervous) Syrian refugees, and clubbing me over the head with his rifle. When he saw my passport, he promptly stopped.
While the soldiers sat in the military vehicle and let some of us into the truck (myself included, given that they had realised I was too diplomatically sensitive to mistreat further), the rest of the refugees were left outside in a rainstorm for some four hours, forbidden from talking.
After being checked over in a Turkish border base and a local Jendarma headquarters (and an apology for the violent arrest from the commanding officer) I was taken to a detention centre; 1 kilometre away from Hatay International Airport.
The atmosphere was friendly enough; most of the arrestees (bar myself and a fellow Brit arrested for an expired visa) were Syrian refugees who had illegally entered the country. Turkey has an open-border policy when it comes to refugees, provided that they enter through the legitimate border crossings such as Bab al-Hawa.
Although this stance is admirable given the constant international pressure by opponents of the Syrian revolution (as well as allies of Assad) to close the border and cut off the revolution’s supply lines, it’s often highly inconvenient for refugees; a shell or an air strike is all it takes to close the border for days. Then they face the unsavoury choice of staying and braving the bombs, or risking getting shot as they try to cross.
Once we were inside, all initially seemed well. Inmates got their own food together, freely mixed, read, washed clothes, and so on. There were no prison uniforms, drills or cells. The food wasn’t too bad either.
But it didn’t take long for me to notice what was wrong.
Time and time again, I heard stories about those who had been picked up on the streets simply for looking Arab or generally foreign; since the pressure placed on Turkey from the outside world has intensified, the Jendarma has responded by arresting anyone they encounter who doesn’t fit the profile of a Syrian or a Turkistani refugee.
An inmate from Tunisia who came to do a humanitarian job had his documents stolen by the Jendarma during a search, and was subsequently arrested on a bus for not possessing the documents they had stolen (and looking an observant Muslim). Others were simply arrested for racist reasons; one Syrian was grabbed because he owned a nice car. The Jendarma assumed he had to be a criminal for owning it.
Standard procedure dictates that inmates can be kept for a maximum of six months, which can be extended by another six if necessary after that time period expires. That may seem all well and good (given the fact that deportees are commonly released within two weeks), but the procedure is abused to keep detainees in there indefinitely – the ones that have complicated cases. In other words, those who are too much bother to free.
The Tunisian is unable to return, because of immense stigma against Tunisians associated with Syria. Thousands of Tunisians have joined jihadist groups like Da’esh and al-Nusra, sparking a domestic outcry from worried parents and secularists that ultimately resulted in more stringent methods.
The unaccountable security forces established during Ben Ali’s reign were never really dismantled, and flagrant human rights abuses under the pretext of “anti-terrorism” have only increased.
Young Tunisian men suspected of intending to travel to Turkey, or returning from the region, are likely to be arrested on a whim and severely tortured or beaten into signing false confessions, followed by lengthy jail terms in dire conditions.
Since he can’t be sent home the local authorities simply leave him there; he will now be into a year of detention, simply because his case is too much like hard work.
This isn’t just an isolated case either. Sadik, a gregarious African refugee from Sudan (where the Bashir government has staged a genocidal counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur). Due to the fact that he could be tortured or killed (and also has no papers) he can’t be sent home. His detention is constantly renewed, simply because they can’t be bothered to deal with him properly.
Worse, he has languished in jail since 2010; he actually had time to become fluent in Turkish. Since the guards speak no Arabic or English, they appropriated him as a useful translator for the multilingual prison. They have no incentive to release him.
He seems to have involuntarily become the detention centre’s Morgan Freeman; known by everyone and being approached by everyone for assistance in any matter, big or small. I can’t help but feel saddened when I imagine all the employment opportunities he could enjoy outside of jail, especially given all the languages he knows.
It would be natural to assume at this stage that the wardens would be sending off the papers and asylum requests of the inmates who can’t return home, in the hope that they could be released and begin a new life in Turkey or Sudan; the latter (unusually for a dictatorial Arab regime) is even prepared to take would-be jihadis arrested en route.
But, as I was told multiple times, the wardens are deliberately refusing to send off asylum papers. Hatay is an opposition area; the locals (many of whom are Alawites, sympathetic to the Assad regime) can often be heard to call refugees terrorists and tell them they deserve their misery. If this is due to prejudice or laziness (or both) is anyone’s guess.
The fact that none of the inmates have money or lawyers (or a consulate to reach out to) has left them vulnerable to all manner of illegal ill treatment.
The Tunisian inmate (still incarcerated) has filed at least five separate requests for asylum, fearful of being wrongfully renditioned home as a “jihadi” and tortured or imprisoned. Whenever he asks what the answer is, they tell him that it was turned down. When he asks to see the evidence, the answer is simply: an evasive “No”. Because it ends up in the bin.
Theft seemed to be a problem too; multiple people said to the journalist from London that I befriended (himself working on a documentary) that their confiscated belongings downstairs had a tendency to be stolen by the supervisors; one man had even been dismissed for corruption prior to my arrival.
When I foiled an attempt to steal my phone in the Jendarma base (prior to my transfer) I got an additional violent slap across the head. I had thought that physical abuse wasn’t the norm; from what I heard and experienced, it certainly seems all too common for the border forces to commit it.
I was initially in disbelief; could they really be refusing to file applications for vulnerable refugees from various countries? I soon got an answer. My parents managed to get in contact with me. They were in touch with the British consulate about my case. I asked why there was an increasingly long delay in my case; I had filed an official form in the centre requesting that my consulate be notified quite some time ago.
The response was that the centre hadn’t even sent anything to the consulate. Days after my admission. They still hadn’t filed them by the time I left in November. I was lucky to be a British citizen; the people still in there have no safety nets, and so can easily be illegally kept indefinitely, their papers trashed.
All that changed after the AK party’s election in November. In many areas there was jubilation and amnesties for prisoners. In Hatay, this translated into dismay and rage on the part of anti-government individuals. In the detention centre, it translated into a mad scramble to get rid of the inmates.
They had been ominous rumbles for a while. If we won’t go, they’ll make us go. That went for westerners as well as attempted refugees, even though it’s illegal to forcibly rendition someone out of Turkey.
After the election the threats stepped up; the journalist I befriended was refused access to lawyers and told that he had to go (even though his lawyer told him he could stay), by force if necessary. There were vulnerable people from all over the region; from Iraqi Sunnis to Gulf Arabs. But they had all heard empty threats.
What happened next was a new and terrible milestone for everyone. Guards in riot gear burst into the corridor one night, heading for the Iraqi detainees; terrified of being sent back to be killed by Shiite militias.
Men and young boys were dragged out by force, beaten with metal clubs and forced into awaiting vans that drove them instantly to the airport. Downstairs, the female prisoners and their children could be heard screaming in terror as they were struck and dragged off. A terrified 14-year old boy named Osama was so terrified of being sent back to the militias that he struggled for half an hour and tried to commit suicide with a dull shaving razor.
Tear gas and blows were deployed against him; after smashing him against the wall and subduing him, he was stuck on a stretcher and instantly put on the bus to the airport, without treatment. We haven’t heard from any of them since.
The Iraqis could only deal with so much; one was even threatened with execution under the pretence that he tried to escape. A prison break ensued the next day, with six inmates breaking through the bars, climbing down four storeys and scaling the fence (via the trees) in despair. Several guards were dismissed, the trees felled, the governor summoned, and angry searches ensued.
While all this was happening I was told many stories about the border regions; some of the Alawites in the border guard posts will deliberately beat and shoot refugees vindictively. Some soldiers will rob refugees, others are more compassionate. The levels of abuse at the border is alarmingly high; I was lucky to get away with bruises and dizziness. A little girl was once purposefully shot and killed as she crossed with her father.
The commander, after all, did tell me quite frankly that: “We are allowed to shoot people in the military zone.” The “military zone” meaning the area close to the border. It was said that if someone is so severely beaten that it could cause the guards problems, they simply push them back onto the Syrian side and leave them.
I later had definite proof. On December 2nd, Deiaa Dughmoch, a journalist for ANA Press, was shot at and arrested by the Jendarma after crossing back into Turkey from Syria.
He had spent several weeks in the country, trying to shed light on Russian air strikes on civilians (under the facade of fighting Da’esh) and Free Syrian Army members, as well as the movements of Da’esh.
He tried to speak to them in English, Turkish and Arabic, showing a residency permit. We both ended up learning the hard way that speaking to them in Arabic or other languages makes the situation worse; an officer attacked him with a tazer, beat him with his rifle (breaking his ribs), and flung him back into Syria, bleeding heavily and without any treatment.
On December 2nd Danish journalist Nagieb Khaja was also attacked and severely injured by the border police. Kurdish-Syrian journalist Sirwan Berko was also roughed up after trying to get back to Syria (cases of brutality along the border with PKK-controlled areas of Syria are apparently far from rare).
The abuses have even spread as far as Istanbul and beyond, with Syrian journalist Adnan Haddad being attacked in public view by (apparently shameless) airport police when he presented himself at their border gates.
Iraqi Journalist Mohammad Rasool, has been in the Turkish prison system for months after being forcibly disappeared for attempting to cover events in Diyarbakir, where the Turkish military is conducting controversial anti-terror operations against PKK rebels with alleged disregard for civilians.
From personal experience and the testimony of others, it seems as if the authorities in Ankara aren’t consulted about events in opposition areas like Hatay; the forced renditions, mistreatment of prisoners and beatings of journalists and workers are a local initiative. The responsibility seems to lie with corrupt officials and sectarian/criminal border guards. To say nothing of a minority of Turks hostile to Syrian refugees.
But what cannot be denied is that the authorities often seem to have a disregard for the well being of journalists that don’t toe the line the state prefers them to; even if it isn’t at the level of active repression, it still resembles passive complicity.
Lawyers linked to the AK party descended on the detention facility in anger when they heard of some of the actions of the guards and wardens; they threatened to take legal action if anything bad happened to my friend from London. When he sent photographs to them showing that he had been bloodied up, they came down from Ankara to investigate. I left shortly before their arrival. I was finally sent back to the UK (with cautious politeness from the Jendarma) on November 9th, after two weeks.
Turkey has done a great deal for the Syrian people as the world has abandoned them. The government would do well to urge their security forces to refrain from assaulting journalists and those trying to share the stories of Syrian suffering with the world, and set an example for a region with an awful human rights record.