AFP — Tens of thousands of Syrians who fled their country’s civil war to Turkey are returning home temporarily to Syria to celebrate a major Muslim holiday, Turkish officials said Monday.
Almost three million Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey since the conflict broke out in 2011, the vast majority living in big cities rather than in camps.
But a relative stability has descended on some areas in northwest Syria following a Turkish military operation against jihadists and a ceasefire backed by Ankara and Moscow earlier this year.
The authorities in Turkey’s southern province of Kilis bordering Syria have put in place a special system whereby Syrians can go home for the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha in Arabic, Kurban Bayrami in Turkish) and return to Turkey afterwards.
After uploading details on a special Internet site and registering, they can leave Turkish territory through the Oncupinar border gate until Wednesday and then must return by October 15.
Long lines of Syrian families, laden with baggage, were queueing Monday to cross through Oncupinar in time for the start of the holidays, an AFP photographer said.
A local Turkish official, who asked not to be named, said 40,360 Syrians had crossed over so far with around 4,000 people now crossing every day.
Some used umbrellas to protect from the merciless afternoon sun while young children slept in the shade on rugs as the formalities were carried out.
The crossings have been allowed since August 15, according to the Kilis governorate. Turkey will celebrate the Feast of the Sacrifice on Friday.
The Syrians were returning to towns including Al-Bab and Jarabulus, which were cleared of Islamic State (IS) group extremists in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield cross-border operation which wrapped up earlier this year.
Turkish state media reports have indicated that life in the towns is gradually returning to normal with schools reopening and municipal services resuming.
Turkey had previously allowed Syrians to return home temporarily earlier this year for the Eid al-Fitr festival that follows the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
The Feast of the Sacrifice is a festival celebrated throughout the Islamic world marking the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son to God, who then sent a sheep to kill instead.