AKINCI, Turkey — For two people walking into a Turkish minefield, they looked awfully assured.
The pair strode in from Syria on a recent afternoon, following a faint track across the grassy plain. They slipped into Turkey through a fence near a vacant military watchtower and vanished into an olive grove.
Such hazardous crossings are a smuggler’s tradition at the border, where Turkish plans to clear a vast belt of landmines have been clouded by Syria’s civil war. Last week, Turkey asked NATO allies to deploy Patriot missiles as a defence against any aerial attacks from Syria after shells and bullets spilled across the border, killing and injuring some Turks.
Starting in the 1950s, Turkish forces planted more than 600,000 US-made “toe poppers” — mines designed to maim, not kill — and other landmines along much of its 900-kilometre border with Syria, which runs from the Mediterranean Sea to Iraq. The aim was to stop smugglers whose cheap black-market goods undercut the Turkish economy and later to thwart Kurdish rebels from infiltrating Turkey’s southeast.
However, the mines also killed and maimed civilians, took arable land from Turkish farmers and are now considered by many as a crude method of policing.
Turkey says it plans to clear anti-personnel mines on the Syria border by 2016, missing a March 2014 deadline required by the international Mine Ban Treaty. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a Geneva-based group that won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, has criticised Turkey for its slow progress.
The European Union has committed €40 million ($52 million) to demining and surveillance equipment near Turkey’s borders with Iran and Armenia on the basis that Turkey could eventually become the EU’s most eastern border. Turkey, adjacent to the Middle East and Central Asia, has long been a drug trafficking route and a transit point for migrants who enter Europe illegally.
Since last year, nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey, mostly through border posts or areas known to be free of mines. A Syrian man and two children were reported killed in August, however, by an explosive in an area of Mardin province that had been mined by the Turkish military. Syrian forces last year were also suspected of laying some mines, possibly to punish refugees seen as sympathetic to the rebels.
A Turkish smuggler in the border village of Akinci, south of the city of Gaziantep, said he has charged Syrian refugees up to 25 Turkish lira ($14) each to lead them through Turkish minefields. He has also acted as a lookout, monitoring shifts of Turkish military sentries and telling another smuggler who escorts Syrian clients, usually before dawn.
“I don’t know where they are going. I don’t care,” said the gaunt man, who would not give his name and claimed he was desperate for cash. “I know it’s risky for me, but I have to do it.”
According to lore, villagers used to enter the Akinci Mosque, which lies beside a minefield, for prayers and then sneak out the back into Syria for business.
On foot, mule or motorcycle, smugglers traditionally brought in items from Syria, including tea, gasoline, cigarettes, electronics and livestock, to sell for a profit in Turkey. The Syrian war has disrupted but not extinguished the trade among communities that were abruptly divided when the border was drawn in the last century.
Some smugglers try their luck at border posts, which became easier to cross when visa requirements were removed in 2009 after the warming of ties between Turkey and Syrian President Bashar Assad, now an enemy because of his attacks on the Syrian opposition. A few weeks ago, a Syrian man was detained while trying to enter Turkey with gold bars in his waistband.
Approved traffic moves the other way, as Turkey and other nations that oppose Assad send logistical and humanitarian aid to Syrian rebels and civilians. While Turkey says it is not arming the insurgency, Syrian rebels have told the Associated Press they receive some weapons and ammunition from the Turkish side with only sporadic interference from border patrols. According to rebels, these weapons are bought with funding from rich Syrians or sympathetic Gulf Arabs.
Fences are down and cars can cross in some parts adjoining Syria’s Idlib province, an opposition stronghold.
The first mines on the Syrian border were planted after smugglers killed two customs agents in 1956. Turkey laid more mines in the 1980s and 1990s, at the height of its war with the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which was backed by Syria. Turkey is again worried about possible infiltration by Kurdish rebels who are cheered by an autonomy grab by their ethnic brethren in Syria.
The Turkish defence ministry told the AP it started evaluating bids from demining companies in July and would sign contracts once the assessment is complete.
“Developments in Syria to this day have not affected our plans or work,” the ministry said. NATO said it is assisting with “technical preparations” for the mine clearance.
Cenk Sidar, managing director of Sidar Global Advisors, a Washington-based consultancy, said he believed that Turkey would sign contracts but wait until the Syrian civil war is resolved.
“According to plans, the government will build electronic border surveillance systems simultaneously with the demining. Even this seems too risky at this point,” Sidar wrote in an e-mail. “It may take a few years, and some qualified/selected firms may change their pricing or conditions due to the increasing instability.”
Between 2010 and 2011, a Turkish firm, Nokta, and a partner from Azerbaijan cleared more than 1,200 mines around an archaeological site, Karkemish, on the Syrian border. They found anti-tank mines and M14 mines known as “toe poppers”. It was hard to work with metal detectors because the soil also contained remnants of coins and other ancient fragments; some mines had to be dug out by hand rather than detonated to avoid damaging cultural treasures.
There is no reliable data for casualties from mines laid by the Turkish military, whose fight with the PKK has claimed tens of thousands of lives. The rebels, who regularly target security forces with mines and roadside bombs, took up arms in 1984 in the name of Kurdish rights; Turkey and the West label them terrorists.
Residents around Akinci recalled a villager who lost a limb to a mine several years ago while cutting trees for military sentries. Halil Kaya, 64, said he had heard of several dozen people over the decades who were killed or injured by mines. A deep furrow runs down Kaya’s right forearm from a Turkish military bullet in his days as a smuggler.
Mehmet Dagdeviren, 49, said the Turkish military had softened and now might only fire warning shots at smugglers. He interrupted the chat to take a phone call, then rushed to a car and drove away.
A delivery from Syria needed collection.