KILIS, Turkey — Near the busy Turkish border town of Kilis on a recent day, trucks carrying cement bags lined the road, with tired-looking drivers leaning out their windows, smoking cigarettes, as they waited for the queue to move.
Near the iron gates marking the border point with Syria, a small group of people lingered in the midday sun.
“They are waiting to go back” explained Abdul, a man from the Syrian town of Raqqa, now held by the Islamic State. He and other refugees spoke on condition that their last names not be used.
“For you, it seems strange. But for them, they can bear this. They think it’s better to go home,” he says, gesturing at the women and children huddled in the midday heat.
As Europe becomes increasingly difficult to enter, some Syrian refugees are giving up on the dream of a peaceful life in Europe and are returning back to their war-ravaged home.
On this afternoon, Mohammed, a 13-year-old from a village near the northern town of Azaz, stood out in the crowd. He is tall for his age. But his legs are withered and a bulky hoodie can’t hide his emaciated body.
Mohammed leaned against the iron rail, struggling to carry the small plastic bag, holding his meager possessions.
“He’s injured,” Abdul explained, as Mohammed pulled up his jumper to expose a wound in his side, covered by a white bandage. He paused before turning around to reveal a line of stitches up his abdomen and the colostomy bag.
Next to Mohammed, Ahmed, a young boy whose face has been ravaged by shrapnel, squinted in the harsh sunlight. His father asked us to document what had happened and take his picture. The boy is another victim of the airstrikes that has decimated northern Syria.
Suddenly, there was movement and the gate to Syria started to open. One by one, the group slowly moved towards the crossing — going back into a country where, after five years, a bloody war is still raging.
More than 470,000 people are believed to have died in the conflict, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research.
Many of people in Kilis going back to Syria have spent months in Turkey before abandoning their dream of living in Europe.
Authorities in the small town of Kilis have tried to integrate the Syrian refugees but it’s not been easy. Earlier this month, a terror attack there killed a middle-aged woman and a four-year-old boy.
David Adams from the Dublin-based international refugee NGO, GOAL, said that, despite the influx of refugees, Kilis has coped remarkably well but that a more enduring solutions has to be found.
“Within the space of only a few years, local demographics have been turned completely on their head,” he said. “Less than five years ago, Kilis town was almost exclusively populated by Turkish people. Now, there are 127,000 Syrians and 90,000 Turks living there. Despite this, the reaction of the local community has been very accommodating.”
Still, he said, more needs to be done “so people can go home and live in peace.”
But an end to the war seems distant even though Russian withdrawal from the region has provided some hope.
The Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR) estimates that more than six millions people are internally displaced in Syria with another three million refugees currently living in Turkey.
Efforts to curtail the amount of refugees reaching Europe — it is estimated that one million people have reached the EU since January 2015 — have been criticized by rights groups who warn of “rapid-fire mass expulsions.”
Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee program, recently issued a statement condemning the deal. “A fundamental contradiction lies at the heart of the EU-Turkey deal taking shape. The parties failed to say how individual needs for international protection would be fairly assessed during the rapid-fire mass expulsions they agreed would take place.”
Among the refugees, hope for peace appears to have all but died. Many who expected the war to be over by now have become resigned to idea of life in exile or returning to the war-torn nation.
Mohammed, for one, sees no other option but to leave Europe.
Almost too frail to stand, he hobbles forward, slowly headed toward an uncertain future.