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Syrian refugee children in Akcakale, Turkey, October 17, 2019. While Turkey's border towns have been paying a deadly price for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Syria incursion, so far, there has been little increase in ethnic tension. Image Credit: NYT

Nusaybin, Turkey - Smears of fresh black asphalt covered the blood stains from a deadly mortar strike on a quiet neighbourhood in Nusaybin, Turkey, just two blocks from the Syrian border.

Turks, Kurds and Syrians were all cut down in the same attack, one of dozens that have hit the border towns in Turkey’s southeast in the last 10 days.

After the first two mortar strikes on Nusaybin last week, shopkeepers and others rushed to the scene. That was when the third mortar hit, killing at least eight, including two Syrian refugees, and wounding 35.

“The people who died were mostly the people who came to help,” said Adem Dilges Aktog, 44, a Kurdish shopkeeper squatting amid the broken glass of his wife’s clothing store. “They all had shops here.”

Border towns like Nusaybin are paying a heavy price since the Turkish military began its incursion into northern Syria and Kurdish militants retaliated with rocket and mortar fire.

But so far, there has been little increase in ethnic tension, as communities have mourned together and refused to blame each other, even when they back different sides in the conflict.

“No one is discussing against Kurds or Syrians,” said Ozgur Becet, 34, a Turkish long-haul truck driver. “The fight we are having is with the US because they are giving them weapons,” he said, referring to US support for the Kurdish militia in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces. “If no one was supporting them with weapons, then there would not be a problem in the first place.”

Turkish officials have kept a strong grip on the communities along the border, attending funerals while laying the blame for the casualties on the United States for supporting what Ankara calls a terrorist organisation. Ottoman-era martial music played repeatedly on loud speakers in the border towns, and the mosques recited prayers for the Turkish army.

But despite the government’s insistence that it is fighting terrorism to protect Turks, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign against the Kurdish militia in Syria has hurt communities at home, with already 20 dead and 80 wounded in Turkey.

It has also reopened old wounds and anxieties in southeast Turkey’s deeply traumatized population. Syrians are reliving the horrors of war. For the Kurds, many of whom distrust the intentions of the central government in Ankara, it is only reinforcing long-standing disaffection.

Young people gathered at the scene of the mortar strike in Nusaybin were even questioning whether the mortars had been fired on the town by Turkish forces, although the trajectory indicated they had been launched from Syria.

Those sceptical of the official account noted that throughout the course of Syria’s long civil war, the Syrian Kurdish group had never so much as thrown a single stone across the border, contradicting the government’s talk of a terrorist threat.

While these deadly mortar attacks are new, Turkey’s southeast is no stranger to conflict.

The majority-Kurdish population has lived through decades of violence as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has waged a separatist insurgency in Turkey. Thousands have been killed in Turkish military campaigns against the PKK, and tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced since the 1980s.

The entire region is heavily policed today, and most Kurds interviewed refused to give their names, saying they risked detention. Those who did talk made sure to do so out of view of closed circuit police cameras, which monitor the main streets and intersections of many towns.

In private conversations, Turkey’s Kurds described onerous constraints in their lives and described their dread that Turkey’s latest military operation in Syria was going to bring more oppression for Kurds on both sides of the border.

One of the reasons is that many Kurdish families in the southeast have sons who ran away to join the US-backed Kurdish militia in Syria to help fight Daesh - and may now be fighting against the Turkish army.

In Suruc, a majority-Kurdish town 280km west of Nusaybin, a street vendor estimated that half the town’s Kurdish population had a relative who had gone to join the Kurdish militia in Syria.

While Kurds predominate in the region, a mix of ethnic groups lives among them - Turks and Arabs, along with tiny minorities of Assyrians, Circassians, Armenians and Jews with their own histories of persecution. They have been joined in recent years by 1 million Syrians, mostly Sunni Arabs but also Syrian Kurds from across the border, fleeing the war.

The influx of refugees was hard for everyone, but they were met with broad acceptance since people understood their plight and many had family or business ties, with trade between the two countries flourishing in the years before the war.

“We did trade with the Syrians for years,” said Ebrahim Sahin, 32, a computer repairman in Nusaybin. “We cannot blame them. No one leaves their country willingly.”

The Syrian refugees brought wages down because they worked for less, said Ayse Bayrak, who is from a Turkish Arab tribe that farms close to the Syrian border. Her sister-in-law is Syrian, and she said most people made accommodations to welcome the newcomers, though it was easier when they moved on.

“The first two years they were all crowded on our shoulders, and we shared electricity and jobs,” Bayrak, 36, said. “Then they moved to the big cities, and we could breathe better.”

Even before the Turkish incursion, the war sometimes came too close in the eight years of fighting, as when Russian and Syrian government forces battled opposition groups in Syrian border towns.

“Six or seven years ago, Russian jets were pounding with barrel bombs here,” said Mousa Sahman, 70, whose raw meat kebab shop in Ceylanpinar, 80 miles west of Nusaybin, is one block from the border wall that separates the Turkish town from the Syrian town of Ras Al Ain. “For the past seven years it has not ended. It might last another seven years.”

Starting in 2009, the Kurds in Turkey enjoyed a period of respite and hope as Erdogan pursued peace talks with the PKK. But when those negotiations fell apart, fierce fighting broke out in 2015 in several cities in the southeast, including Nusaybin, as the PKK battled Turkish security forces inside the city’s neighbourhoods.

Some homes in a neighbourhood of Nusaybin still bear the shrapnel scars from that conflict.

“They have not healed from that and now this,” said Sahin, the computer repairman, of his neighbours in Nusaybin. “They lost their children, their spouses. Some have left. Those who did not do not have the means.”

For those just trying to make a living in one of Turkey’s most underdeveloped regions, there is little hope their situation will improve any time soon. Many pleaded for the United States to intervene to end the war.

“There is not a single factory here,” Sahin said. “No one invests here.”

For some Syrians, the Turkish operation initially brought hope they would be able to return to their homes free of the Kurdish militia, which they complained conscripted fighters and taxed farmers heavily.

But within days, as the Turkish operation halted, and amid reports of Syrian government troops moving in to areas, that hope wavered.

“We need to go back, but we don’t know if this war is for our benefit,” said Khanim Khalil, a grandmother and refugee living in Akcakale, Turkey, whose Syrian village was among those taken by Turkish-backed forces. “We are too afraid of the regime, if it comes back.”

For other Syrians, yet another military operation, following so many years of conflict, is just too much, and they predicted that migrations to Europe would spike again.

“It’s very hard,” said Khoshan Yousuf, 36, a Syrian trader. “That’s why the Syrians want to go to Europe. They are fed up.”