Landmines maim Syrians fleeing war

Decades-old minefield injuring and killing those flooding across the Turkish border in search of safety.

Make a run for it across the Turkey-Syria border and there’s a chance you’ll be blown up.

According to Turkish government figures, there are more than 600,000 mines buried along the 900km border. They were laid decades ago to prevent illegal crossings.

Turkey signed the landmine ban treaty in 2003, but it was slow to start demining and marking and fencing-off mined areas.

Then the war in Syria started and everything was put on hold.

So, in November, when 13-year-old Fadil Mustafa and his family fled their village as ISIL fighters advanced on Kobane, they didn’t know they were running into a minefield.

“Someone told us to cross under the border wire”, Fadil tells me.

It was, his parents say, a race against time: fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group were perhaps less than a couple of kilometres away.

“As we crossed,” Fadil continues, “a mine exploded under my brother and me. My brother was killed. I lost my legs.”

Bandaged stumps

Fadil speaks softly, without emotion. He has two bandaged stumps where his legs used to be.

He is propped against a wall in a rented room he shares with his family and other refugees in Suruc.

The population of this border town has doubled in just two months.

About 180,000 Syrians live here now, 80 percent of them children.

Fadil, like most teenage boys, wants to be out playing with his friends. Instead he watches from a wheelchair.

His life before the mine explosion was already mapped out.

With his brother he would have taken over the small family farm from his father. That is now impossible.

Open doors

Turkey has opened its door to Syrians fleeing the civil war. There are almost two million living in Turkey.

The government recently enacted legislation that gives Syrians access to free health-care, education and other services – a record the governor of Sanliurfa is proud of.

His province borders Syria and the town of Kobane.

“The main problem is accommodating people,” Izzettin Kucuk tells me. “It’s a very big responsibility.

“We’ve treated more than 1,300 people from Kobane, and, we’re sending two truckloads of humanitarian aid to Kobane every day.”

Sanliurfa’s proximity to Syria makes it one of the towns that has been used as a transit point by foreign fighters wanting to join ISIL.

Cracking down

The US and European countries have said Turkey has turned a blind eye to the problem, but Kucuk says he has been cracking down.

“We’ve arrested at least a 180 people who wanted to cross the border to join ISIL,” he says.

“They were English, French, Tunisian, Chechen. We deported all of them. There was a Swede who wanted to join the Kurds. We deported him too.

“The Western media is only interested in ISIL, but we also have to deal with fighters from the Kurdish PKK.”

Turkey has been accused of being ambivalent about the fate of Kobane because its population is ethnic Kurd.

It is Kurds who have been defending Kobane, with the help of Arab fighters from the Free Syrian Army, air strikes from the US-led coalition and, now, Iraqi Peshmerga.

Turkey has been fighting a 30-year-long conflict with the Kurds.

It doesn’t want to see an autonomous Kurdish area evolve across the border out of the ruins of Syria, as that might give Kurds in Turkey similar ideas.

Kobane’s fallout

I showed the governor our video of Fadil. He was shocked.

The minefield should have been converted to agricultural use, Kucuk said, but it wasn’t possible because of the fighting.

When ISIL first moved towards the majority-Kurdish border town of Kobane in September, tens of thousands of people ran for Turkey in just a few days.

“I was down at the border,” Kucuk said. “If I had only opened one corridor to let people through, we would have had hundreds of casualties. So I ordered the fences to be cut open at 12 different places.”

There were chaotic scenes at the border as panicked Syrians flooded across.

A report from Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group, says at least three people have been killed and nine others injured and maimed since mid-September while fleeing Syria and running straight into the minefields.

There have been others since, including Fadil and his brother.

Kucuk has promised to make sure that Fadil is fitted with prosthetic legs. But first his stumps must heal fully before he begins years of painful and slow rehabilitation.