Watching Turkey at Euro 2016 from war-torn border of Turkey and Syria
KILIS, Turkey -- The road toward the end of civilization was smooth and wide, brand-new, cutting through fields of row crops and olive trees. We passed a Kia, an armored personnel carrier and a small yellow taxi. Soon we pulled into Kilis around sundown on Friday night. The sky turned pink and gold over the ridgeline out the right window of our car. In two hours, Spain was playing Turkey in the Euros, and out here on the Turkish-Syrian border, which is less than five miles from Kilis, the streets were mostly empty. About 20 minutes remained in the daily Ramadan fast, then people could emerge from their homes to eat and -- more important for our fixer in the front passenger seat, a Syrian refugee named Mahmoud -- smoke cigarettes.
He and the driver talked football, some in English, some in Arabic.
"I support Real Madrid and Spain," Mahmoud said.
"I am for Barcelona," the driver said.
"Most Syrians support Real or Barcelona," Mahmoud explains. "We don't know why."
He goes back to Syria when he can. The last time he returned to Turkey, it cost him $1,000 for a medicine smuggler to bring him across the border.
"I also carried one bag of medicine," he said, smiling. "The war is big business."
Almost exactly at 8 p.m. local time, Mahmoud got out of the car and bought a pack of French cigarettes. He lit one and inhaled deeply. We had two hours to kill before kickoff.
"You want to see the border?" he asked.
On the radio, 94.4 played religious music for Ramadan, the perfect soundtrack for the stark surroundings. We rolled down the windows. The last roundabout had a towering pole with a car dealership-sized Turkish flag. On the left side of the road, we passed a go-kart track. On the right side, we passed a single white horse. At the border itself, vendors sold food out of little shacks, and a gated parking lot held the cars of people who needed to go back to Syria. Who knew if they'd ever return for them.
The driver turned around just shy of the heavy red gates.
Aleppo was 41 miles away.
It was eerie to be on the spot where the world was tearing itself apart. Beyond the checkpoint, it's as close as modern society can come to "Here be dragons." What started as a Syrian civil war five years ago has become a breeding ground for the worst of humanity. Whatever myths we believe about civilization get exposed quickly after crossing this invisible line on a map.
In the midst of a civil war, where Russian, French and American warplanes have dropped bombs and launched missiles, ISIS controls a shrinking expanse of land. From this base of operations, the Islamic militants both rape and kill in Syria and inspire terrorists around the world. Sometimes ISIS soldiers get close to the border and launch missiles into the center of Kilis, killing 17 people since January. One strike killed four Syrian children. Another killed a local shepherd and 10 of his sheep. It's been nearly two months since the last missile strike.
There is little but death and hopelessness across the red fence.
"Let's go," Mahmoud urged.
Not long after, five miles away, we walked down some steps and through a door, into a hidden but busy café. Families drank tea and coffee, and the men smoked apple tobacco from water pipes. Behind the register, on the wall, a large flat-screen television showed the Turkey-Spain pregame show.
A waiter brought over tiny glasses of scalding-hot tea.
A city at war looks a lot like a city at peace, in a way that's disorienting. Life must continue. Kids play on a swing set at a crowded park. Lines form at ATM kiosks. Cellphone stores are busy. In Kilis after sundown, families shopped for baklava. Young men played dominoes in the shade of big trees, while kids played air hockey and pop-a-shot at an outdoor arcade. In the covered café where we went to see the game, a steady rush of people arrived and left, nearly all of them Turkish.
Nobody watched the game.
The two most likely fans, young men smoking a water pipe, left as it began. The stereo played Middle Eastern music, and other than the Syrians with me, who were cheering for Spain, and the red-shirted waiters, who snuck looks between checking on customers, nobody cared. The Euros don't exist as a cultural phenomenon here. The cafe is a big courtyard, with a retractable canvas roof pulled tight overhead. On the wall, dozens of tubes for the water pipe hang on racks.
A group of Mahmoud's friends pulled up chairs and stools to visit, talking about the latest war rumors. In a war, only war news matters. (Well, mostly: Syrian soap operas are unbelievably popular in cities where refugees settle.) They're talking in Arabic so Mahmoud translates for me: The refugees say one group of fighters is funded by the Pentagon and another is funded by the CIA and, "a few months ago, they were fighting each other."
At our table, everyone shook their heads at the lunacy of it all, then we went back to the game. Spain scored, and other than a little whistle from our group, nobody in the place made any noise at all. Football isn't important in Kilis, like it is in Istanbul; the country really does sit atop two continents, with many different cultures and languages. In Kilis, the Syrians now outnumber the Turks, and the refugees mostly live in a separate, shadow world of Syrian shops and restaurants. Most don't learn a word of Turkish.
Two small doughnut-shaped coals burned red and white on top of our pipe. We all took turn inhaling thick clouds of tobacco smoke. It didn't take long before we all got comfortable, just six guys watching a game: four Syrian refugees, an American and a French photographer.
Mahmoud turned away from the screen and leaned across the table. His voice was quiet.
"Syrian people, as you see here, just want to live," he said. "We are not terrorists. We watch football, we support teams, we know all the player's names. We just want to live."
He leaned back and let smoke roll out his nostrils and mouth.
Spain scored again and nobody reacted at all. Nobody looked at the television. Rugs hung on the walls, and the women wore colorful scarves around their tightly wound buns. People checked their phones. The Syrians with me talked about Kim Kardashian's ass. Two of them took a selfie. Halftime arrived and Mahmoud wanted to head to a Syrian café across town, to see if maybe they'd be more into the football than the Turks.
Six of us piled into an Audi with a driver named Murad. Thousands of people packed the streets, shopping in stores and cafés, and in the sidewalk markets everywhere in town. Neon lights advertised kebab and sweet desserts. The smell of onions from street grills filled the air, and vendors sold corn on the cob. During Ramadan, the city will buzz until 1 a.m. We drive across town to the intersection where the road leads to the Syrian border, and we did not see one television anywhere -- or any sign that anyone in the throngs of people in the Kilis streets cared at all that Turkey was losing 2-0 at halftime. We all laughed about it and parked at the café.
The game wasn't on there, either.
A waiter rushed to find a ladder and turn on a projector.
The other people in café didn't look up at the game. They were all Syrians, on their phones using the free Wi-Fi or playing backgammon -- the sound of rolling dice the only noise other than the game.
The war has been going for five years, with no end in sight. These people might never go home again. Combatants from every part of the world, representing every ideology, continue to pour money and weapons into the country. Half the prewar population has fled or been killed. Across the street is the state hospital, where the wounded survivors of Syria come for treatment.
This cafe is a place to get away from all that death and anguish. A few men smoked water pipes. A rebel military leader stopped by, and the respect was palpable. He got into a white car that sped away on the road, the driver popping the clutch to get a little tire noise, from first into second then third. The game finally ended, and the television projector was turned off.
The place fell quiet again, except for the sound of dice.
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.