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Syrian refugees targeted in Turkish town

Bulent Kilic/ AFP - Getty Images

A man stands in a damaged building on May 12, 2013 on a street hit by a car bomb explosion which went off on May 11 in Reyhanli in Hatay, just a few miles from the main border crossing into Syria.

REYHANLI, Turkey – Muafaq Nasan rushed towards the bloody and broken bodies to take the wounded to the hospital right after the huge blast, but a crowd stopped him.

“The people began to scream, ‘Syrians must be expelled, they are responsible,'” the 37-year-old Syrian said. 

The Turkish mob turned on Syrian women and children standing nearby and beat them too, Nasan said.

“It is difficult to be exposed to humiliation by people I thought were like my parents and my brothers,” the father-of-two said.

Now he hardly leaves the apartment he shares with his family, and watches from the window as mourners pray for those who died in the bombings.

“I had felt safe here,” Nasan said.

Bulent Kilic/ AFP - Getty Images

A Syrian refugee drives a car with mattresses and suitcases tied on the top of the vehicle at Cilvegozu border gate to go back to Syria on May 14, 2014 after car bombings in Reyhanli, Turkey.

Nasan is one of an estimated 25,000 Syrians living in Reyhanli, a Turkish town of around 90,000 near the border with Syria. Syrian refugees’ attempts to flee the conflict that has already killed around 80,000 and displaced millions suffered a huge blow on May 11 when two car bombs killed 51 people and injured close to 150 in Reyhanli.

Turkey has said it thinks Syrian intelligence was behind the attacks, a claim the government of Bashar Assad denies. On Wednesday, the Turkish government said it was closing the crossing to Syria close to Reyhanli for security reasons. It also announced that it was building 1.5-mile twin security walls at the crossing at the frontier.

Authorities have also deployed security throughout Reyhanli to help stem the violence.  Nevertheless, members of the town's population who had previously welcomed the Syrian refugees – some of whom opened barber shops, restaurants and Internet cafes – have now turned against the newcomers. Gangs hunt cars with Syrian license plates and attack those inside, refugees say.

“Uncle Musa” avoids leaving the apartment he shares with his 10 children. (Many refugees asked that they be identified by one name only in order to protect family still in Syria.)

“In Syria, we were afraid to go out of the house for fear that the regime could maybe beat or arrest or even kill us,” he said, sitting on the ground with his family. “And now I have the same feeling here.  From the first moment of the explosion, people hit men here, women and even children.”

Ammar Cheikhommar/ NBC News

Muafaq Nasan, he is one of an estimated 25,000 Syrians living in Reyhanli, a Turkish town of around 90,000 near the border with Syria.

He gestured around him. 

“When I see these children and they are prisoners in my own house, and they cannot get out, this breaks my heart,” Musa said. “Children do not bear the guilt of what happened.”

According to Musa and others, thousands of refugees have fled Reyhanli and gone back to Syria.

There are Turks who believe that the only way to keep the violence away is to run all the rest of the Syrians out of town. One is Ayhan Cuneydi Oglu, whose restaurant was damaged in one of the bombings.

He says he is still scared, and very angry about the violence visited on him and his customers, three of whom remain in the hospital. A fourth, a relative, died in the attack.

While there are a lot of “respected and honorable” Syrians, the solution is to expel them all, the 30-year-old said.

“The only solution is to keep all of them far from here without distinction,” Oglu said.  “Men, women and kids.”

Not all of the Turkish residents of Reyhanli feel this way. 

Ahmad Khakje, who prays at a small shrine built in honor of his brother and a son, both of whom died in the blasts, became visibly angry when it was suggested that Syrians should be expelled.

“They are our brothers,” he exclaimed.  “The aim of this explosion is to force them out of here [but] I don’t want them to go, they have no one to stand with them.”

Against this background of fury and grief, Nasan, the Syrian who tried unsuccessfully to help victims of the May 11 bombings, considers his options: taking his wife and two children back to the vicious war raging in Syria, or staying to face the stubborn hostility and anger in Turkey.

“I’m afraid for my family to return to Syria, but I don’t think the situation will get any better here,” he said.  “I prefer to be beaten or killed in my own country instead.”