REYHANLI, TURKEY — Syrian refugees in Turkey say they fear a backlash after car bombings that killed 50 people and wounded many others over the weekend in a border town.
Turkey is home to some 400,000 refugees from the two-year civil war in Syria, and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders in the region supporting the uprising against Syria's Bashar al-Assad.
The bombings in the border town of Reyhanli have increased fears that Syria's civil war is dragging in neighboring states, despite renewed diplomatic moves to end it. Damascus has denied Turkish allegations it was involved in the blasts.
“We are putting our trust in God but our fear is that people will blame us for the bombings and will attack us. We have to protect ourselves,'' said 75-year-old Mohammad Nuh, one of thousands of Syrian refugees living in Reyhanli.
“We haven't been into the town center since Saturday. Only out to the local shop. Other Syrians here won't even leave the house,'' said Nuh, who left Aleppo two months ago.
His grandson, Amr Nuh, 21, said he was out buying mobile phone credits when the blasts took place, and was seized by locals because he was Syrian. They held him and called the police who kept him overnight for questioning.
Since the attacks, some locals have turned their ire on the influx of Syrians in the town. Many have expressed anger over the policies of Erdogan, blaming his support of Assad's opponents for bringing the war's impact across the border.
Spontaneous demonstrations by angry young men chanting anti-Erdogan slogans have broken out. Syrian refugees have largely vanished from the streets, staying indoors for their safety.
We Knew It World Happen
A retired tailor who gave his name as Mehmet, 75, said anger was focused not at genuine civilian refugees but at rebel fighters who had taken advantage of hospitality in Turkey and were operating in the area, making it a target.
“We knew this bombing would happen. Even a 5-year-old would have known this was going to happen. There are going to be more,'' said Mehmet, who said he was only a few hundred meters from one of the blasts when it happened.
“We do not know who most of these people are who come into our town. They leave at night and go fight over the border and then come back.''
Most of the local residents in this part of Turkey are ethnic Arabs and Sunni Muslims, like the majority of the Syrian refugees who have fled from the government of Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect.
“A Syrian family lives there,'' said Mehmet, pointing to an apartment. “It makes me sad: they are too scared even to come out now. I have nothing against these people. But the other people, we just don't know who they are.''
Turkey has accused a group with links to Syrian intelligence of carrying out the car bombings.
“This incident is definitely linked to the (Syrian) regime,'' Erdogan told reporters on Monday ahead of a trip to the United States. The bombings triggered a wave of anxiety, particularly along the 910 km border.
In Reyhanli, anger has been building for months as the Syrian war makes itself felt in the city. Turkish officials have urged people to keep calm.
NATO-member Turkey has fired back at Syrian government forces when mortars have landed on its soil, but despite its strong words has appeared reluctant to bring its considerable military might to bear directly in the conflict.
When Syrian refugees first entered Turkey in 2011, they were largely well received. But attitudes have soured.
“I blame the Turkish government for this mess. They should never have got involved in Syria ... Now we are suffering because of it,'' said 20-year-old student Hamdi.
Mustafa, a teacher, said “We don't want the Syrians here anymore. They can't stay here. Whether we even wanted them or not, they can't stay after this.''