Syria’s Afrin now a half Arab town - Asia times

One year on after being seized by Turkish forces, northwestern Syrian town of Afrin, whose population was almost entirely Kurdish, is now roughly half Arab and has become a safe haven for tens of thousands of defeated rebels and their families, replacing about half the local population, the Asia Times reported on Thursday.

Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch last year, backed by Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, aimed to clear Afrin from People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group the Turkish government sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting inside Turkey since 1984.

A United Nations report published this month said that arbitrary arrests and looting had become widespread in Afrin and that the lack of effective complaint mechanisms and the presence of dozens of armed actors power-sharing at the sub-district level hard created confusion among civilians.

Many of Afrin’s former residents now live in the Shahba camp near Aleppo, while those stayed say they must contend with unrelenting threats of abduction and extortion, and are prohibited from selling their olive crop in Syria, according to the Asia Times.

“I now wear the hijab (veil), but I do it without conviction. Every day I go out of the house, I feel like I have a noose around my neck,” the Asia Times quoted one resident as saying. She gave only the pseudonym Lorain out of fear of reprisal, the Asia Times said.

Lorain, who is unemployed and hopes to find asylum abroad before her child hits school-age, said the original residents were now vastly outnumbered in the classroom by children of the “settlers”.

“Even in the schools there are many problems between the girls of the local residents and the settlers. For example, they say: ‘You Kurds are infidels. You wear jeans, you don’t veil. You don’t fear God.’ Recently there was even a case of a teacher beating one of the girls,” she said.

According to Afrin residents, the Turkish authorities reassured civilians that they would be free to return after the operation, but they are now still told to wait.

“The Turkish army forbade anyone to come until after a month and a half. Their explanation was that there were mines in the houses,” the Asia Time quoted Amina Mesto, an Aleppo University professor turned journalist, who now lives in exile.

Some residents eventually returned to find Afrin and its surrounding villages finding their hometown repopulated by Arab newcomers from across the country, as well as ethnic Turkmen, while other still barred from re-entering.

“If they want to go back, they get stopped by the Free Syrian Army at checkpoints. I have a cousin who’s tried five times and every time he gets turned back,” told Ferhad Jaffar, an Afrin native now living in exile in the Netherlands.

Some Afrin residents have petitioned Turkish authorities to restore their properties and prevent looting and kidnappings, whose ransom demands have run from the low thousands to as high as $40,000, the Asia Times said. But such petitions hardly give any results, as in the case of Adnan Mualla, a local doctor, whose house was burnt down by the new settler that occupied it, after the local authorities ordered him to leave.