Kurds devastated after Turkish-backed Islamists take Afrin

The mood amongst Kurds turned grim when Turkish-backed Islamist rebels took Afrin on Sunday and looted the town. Many Kurds were especially upset after fighters destroyed the statue of Kawa, the Kurdish blacksmith who is a symbol for the Kurdish New Year celebrations known as Newroz that will take place on March 21.

“I’m devastated, heartbroken, that's the least I can say about this, I actually still can't comprehend this,” said Berfin, a woman from Afrin who had fled to Aleppo. “We have an emotional bond with our land and the people there, the old men and women, our olive trees, Maidanky lake ... it's unbearable,” she said.

A day before the city was captured, the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), took the decision to evacuate most people and move the local administration to the Shahba region, north of Aleppo. Rather then having Afrin surrounded, the town destroyed and hundreds of civilians killed, Kurdish fighters decided it was better to evacuate and withdraw.

Turkey launched its “Operation Olive Branch” on Jan. 20 to push YPG fighters out of the border city of Afrin. Turkey says the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the YPG, which controlled Afrin, are an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting inside Turkey for more than 30 years.

Consequently, Ankara, argued that having YPG fighters based on its borders was a national security threat to Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also vowed to go after other Kurdish-controlled cities in northern Syria, including Hasakah, Qamishli and Manbij.

According to the United Nations, at least 98,000 people were registered as were displaced from Afrin, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 200,000 were displaced to areas near the town.

“I’m not good. We are displaced, we are in the region of Shahba (northern Aleppo),” Mustafa Shan, an Afrin official told Ahval a day before Afrin fell.  

Nevertheless there are still civilians who stayed in Afrin and the surrounding villages. They include some Syrians who were displaced to Afrin from other towns by previous fighting between the Syrian government and rebels. “There are thousands of people in Afrin. Turkey is controlling them now,” Shan said.

“Civilians flee from all areas from the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish army and from the bombing,” he said. “The buildings are bombed and demolished and there are civilians fleeing from there to the area of ​​Shahba.”

“You saw on TV, that Turkish flags were raised in Afrin, and not the FSA flag. This is the occupation of Rojava,” he said, using the Kurdish term for northern Syria.

At a press conference in the areas still under control of the YPG, a few kilometres from Afrin, the local administration said they withdrew to save the civilians. “We will stay,” Hevi Mustafa, the co-chair of the Afrin canton told the Kurdish TV-station Ronahi on Sunday.

“Even if we sleep on the road, we will not lose hope and we will return to Afrin again,” she added. “We ask help from organisations to prepare camps and meet the needs of the people … We call on the Syrian people, this is a conspiracy to divide Syria and occupy it, we call on them to stand against this conspiracy,” she said.

Brusk Hasakah, the spokesperson of YPG in Afrin said they would never give up on Afrin. “They entered and raised their flag but they cannot break the will of the people and we will resist them until the end and we will not let the enemy rest at ease in our country and we will not accept this occupation,” he said.

“We will fight until the end, we will fight in Jindiris, Rajo, Bilbil, and from now on the fighting will be violent and fiercer,” he said. “Turkey says it entered Afrin, but from now the fighting will increase to defeat Turkey and its armed groups, this is our promise,” he said. “We sacrificed 700 martyrs and their blood we not go to waste.”

“The countries that used to say that the YPG and YPJ are our forces to fight terrorism are silent today and Russia helped Turkey commit massacres of our people,” he said. “We promise our people that the demography of Afrin will not be changed and the groups that entered the villages of Afrin, we will burn them. We will let the international community know that those who took the house of Kurds, we will shed their blood,” he concluded.

“We will not leave Afrin and defend it. There will be war in Afrin as long as if there is one YPG fighter left,” he added. On Sunday, the YPG said it had killed dozens of fighters with sabotage explosion in Afrin city and also published a video in Bilbil district where YPG fighters hit a target with a missile.

The YPG-supported Syrian Democratic Council (SDF) in a statement called on Kurds from Afrin to return to their villages and homes, fearing demographic changes if Turkey were to resettle refugees in Afrin.

"Fifty-five percent of Afrin is Arab, 35 percent are the Kurds who were later relocated," Erdoğan said at the start of the offensive. Kurds say Afrin is 90 percent Kurdish.

The Kurds in Afrin are even now fearful after Turkish-backed Islamist fighters burned Kurdish flags and asked civilians if they know how to pray. Many young Kurds from Afrin once believed in the ideals of the Syrian revolution that began in 2011, but now oppose the rebels, despising their Islamist ideals.

“They can loot and take whatever they want, but killing people is horrifying us because they have done that before and they'll keep doing it,” Berfin said. “It’s not revenge, it's the hate they have had towards us for a long time, and it grew bigger in these seven years.”

She said still some people want to return to their villages, including her father. “I'm so scared, and we tried so hard but couldn't persuade him, he just can't stand leaving the village because we don't know if we're ever going back,” she said, adding that women and girls would not return.

Zerdesht, 27, a Kurd from Afrin who moved to the Netherlands years ago, said his own displaced father wants to return, hoping the Turkish-backed rebels will accept him, since he supports a Kurdish rival to the YPG, the Kurdish National Council (KNC).

But Zerdesht said he did not trust the rebels. Many Afrin Kurds fear revenge from the Turkish-backed rebels and the Turkish army.

“I don’t think everyone will return, every house has a martyr of the YPG. It will be very difficult,” he said. “Of course, the people are afraid. Look, even FSA fighters admit that there are many lootings … They even looted their own areas in eastern Aleppo years ago.”

“And also Turkey mistreated its own people, tortured its own soldiers, and imprisoned its own people after the military coup. What will they do with people from Afrin? They see them all as the enemy,” he asked.