Blood on the streets: Gaziantep living in fear

Blood on the streets: Gaziantep living in fear
In-depth: Mat Nashed explores Gazientep and finds people wary of IS reprisals and further attacks after the bombing of a wedding left 50 dead.
5 min read
13 September, 2016
Gaziantep has been the site of myriad attacks by suspected IS cells [AFP]
There was still splatters of blood on the concrete the morning after 50 people - men, women and children - were murdered at a Kurdish wedding in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.

The attack on August 20 was allegedly perpetrated by a suicide bomber from the Islamic State group. That night, paramedics and police removed the corpses and cleaned the street.  

"When the sun came out, I could smell death," said a man named Ahmad, a Syrian refugee who lives close to where the explosion took place.

"The smell reminded me of the day after Eid al-Adha [the celebration of sacrifice]. That's when the sheep that are sacrificed rot in the heat."

The attack in Duztepe, Gaziantep, was the latest in a string of plots targeting civilians in the country. But this time it prompted the Turkish army to invade the Syrian border town of Jarabulus four days later.

Their mission was clear: to push IS militants away from the Turkish border and deter PYD - the Syrian equivalent of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) - from carving out more territory.

IS controlled the area for two and a half years, during which the group reportedly established sleeper cells across Turkey and especially in Gaziantep. But while they were easily pushed out of Jarabulus in just a few hours, Gaziantep remains the easiest target if the group decides to take revenge, say analysts and residents here.
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Cutting ties

Sinan Ulgen, an expert on Turkish foreign policy and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels, said that though there was an obvious risk that IS could retaliate, Turkey's decision to enter Syria was ultimately a belated measure.

"Turkish policy makers have realised that they need to cut off the territorial link between them and IS," he told The New Arab by phone. "But obviously there is a risk for retaliation given that Turkey is a very visible target."
This city has changed. We don't know what kind of people live in our neighbourhood anymore.

Residents of Gaziantep agree. One woman who was sitting with her neighbours on her doorstep, said that she no longer lets her children play outside. Though fearing an imminent attack, she notes that Gaziantep was frequently targeted far before the Turkish military invaded Syria.

"This city has changed," she said, while taking a sip of tea from her glass cup. "We don't know what kind of people live in our neighbourhood anymore."

Gaziantep has been the site of myriad attacks by suspected IS cells in the area. Syrian media activists have been murdered in broad daylight while police officers and civilians have also been attacked with explosives.

The extremist group has further claimed responsibility for other major attacks in the country. On July 20, 2015, they killed 33 students who were protesting in Suruc. The students were planning to enter the Syrian town of Ayn Al Arab - Kobane in Kurdish - to help repair the war-torn city.

Three IS suicide bombers also killed 41 people in Istanbul at the entrance of Ataturk international airport last June.
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Some residents said that they thought IS was more reluctant to carry out attacks in Gaziantep, since it would provoke a witch hunt for sleeper cells in the city. But the latest attack on a Kurdish wedding has defeated that theory.

What to expect next?

Mahmud Togral, the representative in Gaziantep for the predominantly Kurdish political party HDP, told The New Arab that people in the city should expect more terrible things to come.

"IS is being very aggressive ever since they lost the Syrian city of Manbij to Kurdish militants," he said. 'The [wedding] bombing has exacerbated tensions between all sorts of people here in the city."

Manbij, a city in Aleppo province, was fully liberated by the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces on August 12. The victory alarmed the Turkish government, which fears that Kurdish militants in Syria are on the verge of carving out enough territory to establish a self-governing state.

Turkey has resumed its own war with the PKK after a fragile peace process broke down after the Suruc bombing.

"I don't think its Turkey's business to be in Syria. They shouldn't be there. They are just there right now to prevent the formation of Rojava [an area in which Syrian Kurds have claimed autonomy]," said Togral.

Ulgur predicted that Kurdish militants wouldn't retaliate on Turkish soil - unless they came into a direct confrontation with their army in Syria. So far, that's precisely what’s been happening over the past couple of weeks.

United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter even urged the Turkish army and Kurdish militants in Syria - both US allies in their fight against IS - to stop battling each other. That hasn't happened. Instead, Kurdish militants and Turkish security forces have continued to clash in Syria and southeast Turkey.

Gaziantep, meanwhile, has been spared another attack - for now. However, the consequences from the wedding massacre extend beyond the death toll. Even children are being treated as a threat to the city, since initial media reports - that the government later withdrew - stated that the suicide bomber was a young boy.

The primary school just up the street from where the wedding explosion took place even has a security guard inspecting every student at the entrance. Clasping his machine gun, the guard doesn't let a boy go by without pushing him against the gate and patting him down.

"We are afraid IS will take revenge on us at any time," said a Kurdish woman from the city, who didn't reveal her name. "There is a lot of fear. Everyone is carrying a sense of fear inside them."

Follow Mat Nashed on Twitter: @matnashed