+972 blogger detained in Turkey while reporting on Syria

This post has been updated. Roee was released at around 4 a.m. local time. 

I am writing this from a Turkish police center in Ceylanpinar. Located in eastern Turkey along the border with Syria, it is in Urfa province and it’s population is mostly ethnic Kurdish.

My television crew and I were filming along the border about the Kurdish divide and Turkish fears in Ankara about a power vacuum in northern Syria.

Two secret police spotted us filming from a rooftop the Syrian town – in full Kurdish control, meaning no Syrian troops or rebel fighters in sight.

It is unclear to me if we will be just detained and then let go, or actually arrested. (I would imagine the latter would be preposterous because we didn’t really do anything, and also because today the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting in Istanbul and meeting with the country’s top leaders. It would be rather untimely to have Turkish police arrest an American journalist trying to cover from Turkish soil the conflict in neighboring Syria. Especially just as Washington pledges $5.5 million in “non-lethal aide” to help the rebels win their war against Syrian President Bashar Assad, a cause which aligns with Turkish interests.)

I guess it can’t be all that bad, since the police are letting me write this post on my iPhone while they try to figure out why I also have an Israeli passport.  And while my detention is annoying, if for no other reason than losing valuable filming daylight, it does highlight Turkish edginess in this part of the country. Ankara fears that Kurds in eastern Turkey may be emboldened by chaos in northern Syria, political autonomy for Kurds in northern Iraq, and anti-Turkey sentiment – backed by Tehran, in northwest Iran. These are all ethnically Kurdish areas which separatists envision as a future, united state.

In recent weeks, Turkish troops killed more than one hundred Kurdish fighters in eastern Turkey, who they argued are being armed and backed by Kurdish terrorists across the border in Iraq. No doubt the offensive was also meant to send a message to Kurds in northern Syria to think twice before exciting their brethren across the border.

Oh, time to go back in to the Police Chief’s office. Wish me luck.

8:18 p.m.:

Still in the Ceylanpinar police station. They just let me turn on my phone, and they are a little more relaxed. They brought in food–to break the Ramadan fast—and they are sharing. An English translator has arrived and they are waiting to take my statement.

I’m not really sure why they are questioning us so much. We have been filming near various border spots for days, include Yayladagi in Hatay Province, Bab el Hama crossing near Reyhanli, and this morning at the Kilis crossing. Perhaps those police and troops are more used to seeing foreign journalists show up.

The English-speaking cop said the interrogation is 95 percent procedure because of the Syrian and Kurdish sensitivity. But early on, I heard the word “Israeli” mentioned dozens of times (in Turkish conversation, which I could not understand). No doubt my dual identity has confused them. It appears they’ll let us go soon. They are checking every piece of our electronic gear. I think they suspect we are doing a piece about the Turkish military, and they–obviously–don’t like that as they are on high alert.

Editor’s note: Just after 11 p.m. local time, Roee notified us that he was being transferred to Urfa, the provincial capital where foreign citizens are processed, some two hours away from the police station where he was held. He was told that everything would be fine. We will update in the morning when we know more. 

Editor’s note #2: Roee was released at around 4 a.m. 

10:42 a.m.:

We were finally released at about 3:45 a.m. after a detention of nearly 12 hours. After we were driven to the police station in Urfa, I, the only foreigner, was interrogated again for nearly two hours. Every item in my luggage was searched, and even the files on my USB sticks were opened. (I hope they like episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

I was relieved to be out, and did not feel like I was in any harm at any time, despite the inconvenience of it all. I was asked to sign a number of a Turkish documents, including one which said, I’m told, that I was filming in a sensitive area which is unlawful and if I am caught doing so again, I understand that I will be deported and barred from entering Turkey ever again.

My dual nationality, I’m convinced, set them off. Around here, this is a big problem with the Kurdish population. The town we were filming, Ras al Ayn, is almost entirely Kurdish. So is the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar just across the border where we were standing. The Turkish government is nervous that Kurdish separatists, namely the PKK, will begin using the northern Syrian area to launch attacks against Turkey, similar to what’s being done in the automous Kurdish province in northern Iraq. And it’s pretty much an open secret here — whether true or not — that the Israelis are arming and training the PKK. One of the Turkish officers, who looked at my passport, asked, “Yehud?” He later asked me, in broken English, “Eh, you, eh, soldier?”

But the point is, I’m out and I’m fine, and leaving Turkey today (as was the plan all along).

Being in the police custody the whole day, ironically, gave me exclusive firsthand information for some timely news. At the camp housing Syrian refugees in Ceylanpinar, a fight broke out late in the evening. According to the English-speaking officer, who responded to my questions after I saw two buses of armed SWAT cops leave the facility, it all began when a boy at the camp stole a canopy from a Red Crescent canopy. A Syrian man reportedly slapped him. The boy went back to his father, who returned with a larger group of men to confront the man. A confrontation began in which, again according to the officer, three people were killed and sixteen were injured.

Again, ironically, by Turkish law, if you are arrested, before you can be released you must be examined by a Turkish doctor who can confirm if you’ve suffered physical damage during your detention. As a result, we had to go to the local hospital in Ceylanpinar where where some of the injured Syrians from the camp were coming in. I saw at least three young men with their heads bandaged. One had a gash on his forehead, with the bleeding held back by the bandage. A Turkish man, who had been waiting with his child, got angry that Syrians were being treated. He began yelling and was escorted out. According to my translator, he shouted, “They should go back to Syria.”

Tensions in the camps, many of them overcrowded and without air conditioning, are very high. The officer told me the violence often erupts, but never to the point of death. In this case, the altercation, I was told, involved a knife. Just one day earlier, at the camp in Yayladagi in Hatay Province, a Syrian man who was wanting to go but being blocked by camp officials, reportedly grabbed the gun of an officer. Witnesses told us they heard three or four shots fired, and that the man was injured, though it’s not entirely clear why.

Some of Syria’s sectarian issues have also followed the refugees to Turkey. In Hatay Province, with an ethnic Arab Alawite majority, many people support Assad. Refugees who are now arriving — mostly Sunni Muslims — are being taken elsewhere so as not to upset the province’s delicate status quo with the Central Government in Ankara.