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Where there is war, there is often a border town. It's a place where refugees seek shelter, where rebel fighters regroup, gun runners ply their trade and reporters try to follow it all. In the Syrian conflict, that town has been Antakya, Turkey. But as the violence drags on, Antakya's status is changing, as NPR's Kelly McEvers found on a trip there.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Long before the Syrian uprising, Antakya was a storied place. Once known as Antioch, the city was home to Greeks, some of the earliest Christians, Jews, Armenians. It once was a major stop on the Silk Road. Now, it's a Turkish city steeped in modern intrigue, a place where any number of aid workers, spooks, reporters, rehash the day in loud crowded bars like this one.
For many months, Turkish authorities tolerated Antakya's status as a hub for the Syrian rebellion, even encouraged it. Turkey built refugee camps for tens of thousands of Syrians, including one for officers who defect from the Syrian army to join the rebel cause. But that support is starting to fade.
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MCEVERS: At a recent protest, Turkish citizens living in Antakya called for the Syrian rebels to be expelled. At the same time, Turkish authorities began knocking on doors of Syrians who rent apartments in Antakya, telling them they only have a few days to get out of town. And for now, the refugee camps aren't taking new arrivals. That means desperate Syrians trying to get into Turkey are stuck in limbo.
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MCEVERS: We just crossed the border into Syria from Turkey. And what we're looking at here, it's an olive grove. So you've got kind of orderly rows of olive trees. Underneath each tree, basically, is a family and they've built their own tents out of carpets.
Em Abdo(ph) is one of 3,000 people living in the olive grove.
EM ABDO: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: She says she left her town not far from here when the shelling seemed like it would never stop. For now, she says she feels safer under this tree. The branches provide shade. Blankets make walls. The kids surrounding us - there's probably about 10 kids around us - they have sores on their faces, they're covered in flies. And Em Abdo says she has no idea when the family might be able to leave.
The olive trees where Em Abdo lives are situated just at the Turkish/Syrian border. Drive a few miles deeper into Syria and you get to the town of Atme. Abu Ali has it better than the refugees.
He's a gunrunner and fixer for Syrian rebel commanders. In other words, he has cash.
ABU ALI: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: He says Turkish authorities told him to leave Antakya. So he decided to come back into Syria, rent a house here in Atme, and bring his wives and children.
Just a few months ago, Atme was a sleepy town, a way station for people coming and going into and out of Syria. Now it's the place to be. People here say the town has grown from 5,000 to 40,000 people. Where there once was a single falafel stand, there's now a thriving market.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: The leaders of the rebel fighters, known as the Free Syrian Army, recently announced in this video they're leaving the officers camp in Turkey and coming back into Syria, too. That may or may not be true but the message was symbolic: It's time to regroup on the inside.
MAHIB: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Our guide, a doctor named Mahib(ph), explains that Atme has been immune to the violence that's been unleashed on the rebel strongholds, because it's far from any Syrian army base and it's surrounded on three sides by Turkey. People here believe Turkey quietly enforces an unofficial no-fly zone over Atme.
Dr. Mahib says the town hopes to build hospitals next. Right now, the nearest hospital is about 10 miles away. Dr. Mahib takes us there.
It's clear the unofficial safe zone doesn't reach this far. In the past few weeks, some 70 wounded people - rebel fighters and civilians - were treated here after being attacked from a nearby army base. The head doctor comes to tell us a Syrian army jet has just fired a rocket at a house not far from the hospital. We rush to the lobby where medics wait for casualties.
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MCEVERS: OK, that's some shooting. The jet has come in low to strafe people gathered just outside the hospital. We're all going down in the basement. One man was shot in the knees. OK, here comes a wounded guy. He's in here. He's limping. He's covered with blood.
Back in Atme, we asked Dr. Mahib whether this new safe zone inside Syria is a good idea and how long it will remain safe. We say it's God's will, he says; only God knows how long it will last.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
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