KILIS, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish shopkeeper Mehmet Baykal knew he had less than 10 seconds to dive under his desk when he heard another rocket being fired from Islamic State-held territory across the border in Syria.
Once a safe haven for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, this tiny Turkish border town has now become a frontline in its war. So frequent is the rocket fire across what is in effect also NATO’s front line that residents know instinctively how long they have to take cover.
“It feels like a powerful earthquake. The ground shakes with pressure and then it is dust everywhere,” Baykal, 45, who has lived all his life in Kilis, said as he stood on its main shopping street, several of its stores shuttered.
“Kilis never knew what terror was. We opened our homes to those who fled war. But now the war is at our doorstep.”
The town has been hit by rockets from a patch of Syria controlled by Islamic State more than 70 times since January, killing 21 people including children, in what security officials say has gone from accidental spillover to deliberate targeting.
Some houses have been reduced to rubble. Others, their rooms exposed to the open air where walls have collapsed, are still inhabited. Streets are largely deserted and schools are on an informal break as families refuse to send their children.
“I say goodbye to my wife every night before I go to bed, in case I don’t make it to the morning,” said Resul Sezer, whose five-year old granddaughter was killed two weeks ago when a rocket struck the house she was standing outside.
“The talk in the tea house every day is where the rocket might fall today,” he said. “We want the state to do something.”
Turkey, a NATO member, EU aspirant and part of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, has stepped up retaliatory fire into northern Syria in recent weeks. But security sources say it is difficult to hit the militants, sometimes firing from the back of vehicles, with the heavy artillery stationed on the border.
Coalition air strikes have increasingly targeted militant positions close to the Turkish border and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month that U.S. mobile rocket launchers would soon arrive. But so far there has been no concrete sign of the assistance arriving.
In Kilis, frustration with President Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AK Party is starting to boil over. Police used tear gas to disperse dozens of residents protesting last month after a rocket attack killed one person and wounded 26.
“Where is the state?” said Omer Ciloglu, an AKP supporter and party member, standing in what was left of his third-floor apartment after the building was hit by a rocket.
“Nobody from the state called me. Nobody told me ‘do not leave your hometown, we are with you’. Instead they say do not gather, do not protest,” he said.
Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu say Turkey is taking every necessary measure to secure its border, a promise echoed by Kilis mayor Hasan Kara.
“This is hardly Turkey’s problem alone,” Kara told Reuters in his office in Kilis. “Unless this bog of terrorism is dried up...this problem will continue to hit Kilis but it will also strike other capitals in Europe too,” he said.
Turkey has long pushed for creation of a safe zone in northern Syria but the idea has found little support from Western allies. The United States and Turkey have for months been discussing a military plan to drive Islamic State from the border but there has been little concrete sign of progress.
Earlier in Syria’s war, Turkey, eager to see President Bashar al-Assad toppled, faced criticism from Western allies for failing to prevent foreign fighters crossing its border and joining what would become Islamic State. But, as well as the threat to its border, Turkey has been hit by a spate of suicide bombings blamed on the militant group this year.
Erdogan said last week Turkey was making necessary preparations to clear the area across the border from Kilis and that it would not refrain from taking steps on its own if it was unable to get the support it wants from allies.
Lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) have warned of ‘serious security lapses and breaches of the border’ in Kilis and the surrounding area, calling for the town to be declared part of a ‘terror zone’.
“For the first time, the war is spilling over to Turkey with Kilis coming under attack,” said CHP MP Ozturk Yilmaz, who was abducted by Islamic State with other officials when he was Turkey’s Consul General in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014.
“If this continues, we could see Gaziantep, Urfa or other cities going through this with Turkey’s national security seriously at stake.”
Hundreds of Syrians are thought to be among the tens of thousands of people who have fled Kilis over the past few months.
“We already lived through this once and now it’s happening again,” said Mohammed, a 23-year old refugee from Aleppo who is planning to leave to join relatives in the central Turkish city of Konya, far from the border.
Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton