Syria Kurds mark grim Nowruz after fleeing Afrin

A Lebanese Kurdish boy is seen during a gathering to celebrate Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, in the capital Beirut on Wednesday. (AFP)
Updated 22 March 2018
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Syria Kurds mark grim Nowruz after fleeing Afrin

ZIYARA: With tears in her eyes, Rasheeda Ali said she would not celebrate the Kurdish New Year this week after she and her family were forced to flee under fire from Syria’s Afrin.
The annual Nowruz holiday which was being marked on Wednesday had always been a time for Syrian Kurdish families to gather together and mark new beginnings, but this year is different.
Tens of thousands have been left homeless after abandoning their homes and loved ones in the northwestern city of Afrin, now controlled by Turkish troops and allied fighters.
The fall of Afrin on Sunday was a major blow for Syria’s Kurds, who have proudly run autonomous local governments since 2013 — finally speaking Kurdish and marking customs long banned by the Damascus government.
With her hometown overrun, Nowruz this year is nothing but “tragedy and displacement,” Ali said, a mauve scarf wrapped around her hair and her eyes moist with tears.
“Death would have been easier than leaving our home,” said the 40-year-old Arabic language teacher, in an area outside Afrin that is jointly held by Kurds and the Syrian regime.
“I left my home — which looks like a palace — and now I live in this house with 50 other people,” she said, gesturing to the small room in a collective shelter in the Ziyara area.
Children huddled around her as she spoke. A mattress was propped up against a wall behind her and scant belongings were stacked on bare metal shelves.
Around 100,000 civilians streamed out of Afrin, using the only escape route available into government-held zones to the south and east, the UN says.
They hit the road on foot, in cars, on motorbikes and in pickup trucks, with what little belongings they could carry or cram into their vehicles.
Once in regime territory, they sought shelter in mosques, schools and buildings under construction.
Some have nowhere at all to go and have been sleeping in their vehicles, others are still on roadsides sleeping in the open.
For Syria’s Kurds, Nowruz symbolizes the deliverance of Kurdish people from a mythical tyrant — but that was hard to imagine now.
“I’ll never forget fleeing. Looking back and getting a last glimpse of Afrin, feeling helpless and torn,” said 38-year-old Rohan, also displaced.
“Away from Afrin, Nowruz means nothing. Afrin was our paradise,” she told AFP in the nearby Zahraa area.
In Ziyara, Mohammed Zaki, a middle-aged man, recounted how he and his family fled farmland on which they had lived for generations.
“We fled on foot carrying just the clothes we wore,” he said, now living with several other displaced families.
Women and children packed the room, as a small child slept bundled up in a donated blanket behind him.
“We have no money to buy food. We left everything and came here penniless,” Zaki said.
It may be Nowruz but “we wouldn’t dream of celebrating,” he said. “We just dream of ending this tragedy for our children.”
Afrin, an agricultural area famed for its olive trees, was part of territory in northern Syria where the Kurds have been setting up systems of self-rule.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) recaptured eastern areas of the territory from the Daesh group, with backing from a US-led coalition.
The Kurds have otherwise largely stayed out of Syria’s complex seven-year conflict, instead focusing on building their own institutions including in Afrin.
But Turkish-led forces on Jan. 20 launched a deadly assault on Afrin, dragging Kurds into conflict and capturing the city in a major setback for the dream of autonomy.
His boots and a bag of flat bread by his side, 82-year-old Khalil Tamer sat on a blanket atop a layer of straw — thin cushioning for the hard concrete floor underneath.
With his head hung low, he recounted how he and his family escaped fighting in the neighboring province of Aleppo to Afrin.
When Turkey began its assault on the YPG, whom it considers “terrorists,” Tamer and his family were forced to flee a second time.
“We walked out on foot for four days straight,” he said. But in the chaos, he was separated from some of his loved ones and will mark Nowruz without them.
Smoking a cigarette in a holder, he repeated his fate in disbelief.
“We lost the children. I lost them. I lost my children.”


Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

Updated 48 min 34 sec ago
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Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

  • There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country
ANKARA: While Moscow and Damascus urge the repatriation of Syrian refugees based on improving living conditions in the country, their call seems largely unheard by Syrians who think that the conditions on the ground are not yet encouraging enough for them to return.
Just in November 2018, some 10,232 Syrians have been caught by Turkish border troops crossing illegally into Turkey.
Experts underline that the repatriation process should be carried out voluntarily and with consideration for the socio-economic, political and security risks during the restoration process of the country. Otherwise, it may be premature.
The Syrian regime recently set up a coordination committee for the repatriation of displaced Syrian nationals to their original cities and towns.
Moscow also prepared a plan in July for coordinating the return of Syrian refugees to safe areas in their homelands. The plan was based on the establishment of working groups with Amman and Beirut, with the presence of US and Russian officials.
The reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan in mid-October has also encouraged Assad government to issue calls for the Syrian nationals to return home.
Following the seven-year-long civil war, about 5.6 million Syrians are believed to have fled abroad to neighboring countries, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, while some preferred to set off for a new life in Europe.
About 114,000 of them have been repatriated this year, according to data announced by Moscow.
The risk of facing maltreatment when they return to government-held areas also caused concern among Syrian refugee communities.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has announced that since October more than 700 returnees, mostly from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, have been arrested and 230 of them were detained in government-controlled parts of Syria.
Omar Kadkoy, a Syrian-origin researcher on refugee integration at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, thinks that conditions for repatriation aren’t ripe yet.
“Many Syrians link the return to political change, but status quo has the upper hand. Plus the risk of being drafted to military, the non-functioning economy, and the lack of safety despite all the recent developments create unappealing conditions for return,” he told Arab News.
To encourage the return of Syrians, Assad regime has recently offered an amnesty for army deserters who will allegedly not be punished but will still have to serve the mandatory two years of military service.
However, those who joined opposition groups against regime forces are exempted from the amnesty, sparking concerns that it aims to attract only Assad supporters home.
According to Kadkoy, who has been living in Ankara for four years, the tempo of life is faster and harder in Turkey, but better compared to where Syrians come from and Syrians are getting used to this complex environment.
“This means they’re settling down after seven years and building their future: Kids in schools and universities, parents filling different layers of the labor market, and flourishing businesses,” he noted.
Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey established 151 new companies in October mainly in the wholesale sector. Concentrating their activities in Istanbul, they invested about 34 million Turkish liras (about $6.3 million) and opened employment opportunities to many.
On the other hand, thousands of Turkish families reportedly began filing requests to adopt orphan Syrian children in Turkey. There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country.
According to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, there are three major factors preventing many Syrian refugees from feeling that it is safe for them to return home.
“First, the Assad government is continuing to seize and demolish homes in areas that had been held by anti-government forces, meaning that for many Syrian refugees there is no home to return to,” Roth told Arab News.
Second, Syrian prisons remain full of people vulnerable to torture and execution.
“Few will want to return home if they face a serious risk of detention,” Roth noted, adding that the Assad government has not accounted for the thousands who have “disappeared” in its prisons, many of whom have been killed or died due to horrible treatment.
Roth also said that there has been no accountability whatsoever for the Assad government’s deliberate strategy of bombing or besieging and starving civilian areas.
“Few will have any confidence that such atrocities will not resume if there has been no justice for the senior officials who directed them,” he added.
Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, thinks that although Syria and Russia are trying to send assurances to Syrian refugees to encourage them to return, in fact the policy of the Syrian regime is contrary to official statements.
“The country is still in the grip of security, arrests are present, and reserve recruitment exists. One of my friends is a refugee in Jordan. He visited Syria two weeks ago, and when he decided to return he was surprised that he was wanted for military service,” he told Arab News.