1 Abo und 5 Abonnenten

Syrian Conflict Raises Walls for Brides Who Cross Border

NUSAYBIN - From the roof of the mud-brick compound where she lives with her husband of two years, his sons and his 22 grandchildren, Sahnaz Ete, 36, strained last week to make out her home town of Amuda in the distance.

"I miss my mother and father and all my relatives over there, and I'm worried about them," she said, speaking in Kurdish, as she peered from her perch in the Turkish village of Yukariyenikoy across the mined border into Syria, where Amuda was just discernible in a haze about five kilometers, or three miles, away.

"I'm in touch with them because I gave them a Turkish mobile phone line last year, before the border closed," she said. "So I know things are hard for them, because of the shortages, but I can't get to them because of the land mines."

Mined by the Turkish Army in the 1950s, when Turkey guarded the southeastern flank of NATO and Syria was aligned with the Soviet Union, the eastern stretch of the border between the two countries remains studded with more than 600,000 antipersonnel mines on a strip of land 700 kilometers long and up to 300 meters, or 330 yards, wide, marked by rusted barbed wire fences and strewn with wind-blown trash.

Still, until three months ago, when Syria closed the Nusaybin and Akcakale border gates linking the Kurdish regions of both countries, Mrs. Ete visited her family in Syria frequently, jumping into the car with her husband, a relatively well-off Kurdish farmer, for the 50 kilometer trip through the nearby Nusaybin border gate.

It was this ease of access that persuaded her to agree to the cross-border marriage, arranged through a Kurdish matchmaker from Turkey after visa restrictions between the two countries were lifted in September 2009, during a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus that is now history.

Mrs. Ete was one of thousands of Kurdish women from northeastern Syria brought across the border by Kurdish men in Turkey as wives, often second or third wives, in a two-year period when local border crossings were open, visa restrictions were lifted - and bride prices were lower among Kurds on the Syrian side than in Turkey's Kurdish region.

Now, the nearest border crossing is at Kilis, 450 kilometers to the west, near Aleppo. That makes the traveling distance to Amuda almost 1,000 kilometers each way - a trip that is fraught with expense and dangers. Mrs. Ete has undertaken it only once, to bury her deceased brother, and has vowed not to make it again, after passing through fighting on the road from Aleppo to Al Hasakah.

"It's a war zone over there," she said. "It's not our war and we're not going to join it, but as a minority we're in danger of being crushed between the two sides," she added, referring to the Kurds in Syria.

The short-lived thaw in relations between Syria and Turkey served to revive family ties and reunite clans in the Kurdish region that had been divided for decades by a border drawn up in 1923, adjusted in 1938, and made virtually impenetrable by land mines from 1956 onward.

Many of the Syrian Kurdish brides now in Turkey were given to reaffirm those ties after 2009, or came on the trust that comes, in these parts, of marrying a relative.

Now, thousands of them have, like Mrs. Ete, been cut off from their families and left frantic with worry on the Turkish side after Syria unilaterally closed the border crossings again on Dec. 8.

"They closed it without prior warning," the mayor of Nusaybin, Ayse Gokkan, said during an interview in her office last week. The move came as such a surprise, she said, that hundreds of day trippers were caught stranded on the Turkish side without the resources to get home via Kilis, after a visit to a doctor or a shopping errand in Turkey.

The closing has badly hit Nusaybin, which has an unemployment rate of 85 percent, according to Ms. Gokkan, and had been eking a little income out of a modest cross border trade.

Outside the border crossing - a humble affair consisting of a potholed country road, a few chicken wire gates and a couple of drooping flags - the merchant Mubarek Yilmaz kept his eyes glued on the deserted border post as if willing it to reopen.

"They said it might reopen after three months, and it's three months today," Mr. Yilmaz said, fingering his assortment of wares, which included cheap carpets, cartons of tea, and electronic scales.

But the gates remained closed.

In the nearby village of Duruca, east of Nusaybin and within sight of the border, Bedyaha Dag, 39, set down a hamper of the laundry generated by six stepchildren and a new baby to shade her eyes and look toward her hometown of Al Qamishli in Syria, its outskirts clearly visible four kilometers away.

"My family is frantic with worry because we have not heard from my brother in Damascus for two months," she said. "And I can't even visit them now that the border is closed."

Married to a 45-year-old disabled shepherd and with seven children to care for, Mrs. Dag cannot dream of making the long trip home through Kilis.

At least she was not alone with her worries, she added, as all 16 men in her husband's clan had supplied themselves with wives from Syria.

Exact figures for the number of Syrian women on the Turkish side of the border do not exist: Polygamy, though widely practiced in the Kurdish region on both sides of the border, is illegal in Turkey and many, if not most, of the women lack residence permits.

The number of legally registered first marriages to Syrian women in Nusaybin alone, with a population of 86,000, is 446, according to Ms. Gokkan, the mayor. But that number is far exceeded by unregistered second wives, she said.

In Batman, 100 kilometers to the north, more than 350 legal marriages to Syrian women have been registered since visa restrictions were lifted, according to officials there, and in Kiziltepe, 60 kilometers to the west, around 100 such women were legally married to locals last year alone.

But official figures account for only a tiny minority of imported brides, according to Gul Berki, a sociologist who led a study of Syrian and Iraqi wives last year for the municipality of Silopi, a town located in the triangle of the Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq.

Her study found that "90 to 95 percent of them are second wives, neither legally married nor registered," Ms. Berki said in an interview in Silopi last week.

Based on data from 130 foreign second wives in Silopi and in-depth interviews with 80 of them, Ms. Berki said, 84 percent of these unions were arranged by traditional matchmakers, bride prices were paid for 74 percent, 42 percent of the unions were between relatives, and 95 percent of the women were Kurdish speakers.

The main difference between Iraqi Kurdish brides and Syrian Kurdish brides, she said, was that the women from Iraq could return home if they were unhappy with the union, whereas Syrian Kurdish women were not taken back by their families.

"It's just a cultural difference," she said with a shrug.

With the Syrian border closed, the issue is moot now, anyway.

Sitting next to her husband's first, and official, wife in a handsomely carpeted first-floor apartment in downtown Silopi, Feriya Abu, 25, from Al Qamishli, Syria, looked down at her four-month-old son, Muhammed Bara, cradling him in her arms as he fed.

"My family has never seen my child," she said.

Miss Abu, her gold earrings dangling, said she had agreed to the union with the 46-year-old home-appliance dealer, even against her family's counsel, and that she was well treated by Meryem, 38, the first wife and mother of his first five children, who asked that her last name be withheld.

Still, Miss Abu said, she now regretted her decision, especially since the closing of the nearer border crossings had put her family an unaffordable 1,100-kilometer road trip away.

"I did not know it would be so hard," she said, looking down at the baby's fuzzy head. "It is so hard that I lie awake nights, just hoping to make it to the morning."

"If I could bring away my child, I would try to go home," she said.

But her son, as is the custom in polygamous marriages in these parts, is registered with the Turkish authorities as born to her husband's first wife, and not hers to take away with her.

So she will stay.

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