Sleman Alshallah, 40, gathered his wife and five children outside his home with what little they owned — cooking pots, blankets and a rug — in the small northern Syrian farming village of Am Alkef last week. “We are ready to leave at any hour,” said Alshallah.
It would be difficult to abandon his grandparents’ farm and only source of income, he said. He looked north, in the direction of Turkey and dull thuds of fighting, where a mile away was the last defense against the advancing Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA). The shelling often reaches his village, where bombs can land in an open field or someone’s home during the daily back-and-forth barrage.
“They will destroy everything here like in other villages,” he said of the TFSA. His was the last inhabited village before the frontline and the latest border of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Residents expected the village to fall, maybe within the week. After that, the town of Tal Tamr, where thousands more reside, would be in the TFSA’s crosshairs.
Heavy fighting has continued despite a cease-fire deal in northern Syria after Turkey vowed to clear SDF fighters from a 20-mile-deep “safe zone” between the border cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in October. A cease-fire was brokered by Russia with Turkey to end fighting in late October. But the war never stopped, according to sources on the ground.
According to the United Nations, more than 200,000 people have been displaced since the invasion last month. Only around 15,000 have made it to northern Iraq, while the rest search for clean water and shelter in Syria. Aid in many areas is nonexistent. Those displaced fear an approaching winter and the future of their autonomous region, which has enjoyed a brief period of peace since kicking out the Islamic State.
Turkey sees the largely Kurdish-led government and its fighters in northern Syria as a threat and aligned to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has fought against Turkish soldiers since the 1980s. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military sat at the border as fighters in northern Syria beat back IS in 2014. But this October, using an army of Syrian rebels trained in Turkey, Erdogan announced an operation to end his southern menace. He also said he would resettle at least a million Syrian refugees, now living in Turkey, into those areas conquered.
The sound of outgoing mortars from a nearby SDF position didn’t seem to cause concern for shoppers at the general store of Abdel Kareem, 38, in Tal Tamr. Kareem has worked in his small shop for 12 years. After IS left the area, he said the city began rebuilding. People returned and business resumed. “We shared happy days and sad days,” he said of the small population home to Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Kurds.
At the frontier of a shrinking autonomous northern Syria
Now residents are preparing for its fall, despite being outside of Turkey’s “safe zone.” In the distance, tire fires, lit by SDF, attempt to give cover from drones and jets. “Everyone is waiting to see whether they will leave their homes,” said Kareem, adding that while he plans to send his children away when the war arrives, he will remain: “I will be here until the end.“
Those that flee the fighting have few places to turn. Most don’t have the money to reach camps in northern Iraq. Instead, they head away from the front, looking for buildings and homes abandoned during past fighting with IS, to prepare for the approaching harsh winter.
Alshallah and his family found a new home around 15 miles west in a largely abandoned Christian village named Am Albaloa. Only a couple families remained from the original inhabitants, living amid a burned church and pockmarked homes.
No one could say how the first family found the village, but as refugees began heading south after the invasion — with the majority coming from Serekani and the surrounding area — the Christian families opened their doors to their Muslim countrymen. Now around 200 refugees are crammed four or five families to a house, with more arriving daily by foot or in the back of trucks.
Although they had found shelter, the recently displaced described a dire situation. The village is without clean water and electricity. Many houses don’t have windows or doors. They dread the coming winter. “The situation is zero,” said Hajamad Hassain, 66, from Serekani, describing living without food, warm clothes or water. His family has resorted to drinking from a dirty river nearby. “Even the animals can’t drink from that river,” he said.
The villagers said the water has made some sick. One quickly fetched his 10-month-old baby, displaying a skin rash on her face he thinks was caused by the dirty water.
Water and winter was also on 55-year-old Diak Mahmoud’s mind as he sat inside a public school now housing refugees in the city of Hasakah. His children only have summer clothes, while it gets colder by the week. Fighting has destroyed infrastructure and contaminated the water all the way to his new host city. Teachers now tasked with taking care of the arriving families ration bottled water.
The fate of the Kurds
“God made some American. But he made us Kurdish. Why does everyone attack Kurdish people? Why does no one help Kurdish people?” says Mahmoud. “If you were a Kurd, how would you feel?”
He stayed with his wife and six children in Serekani for four days after fighting started. But on the fourth night, as they sat down for dinner, muzzle flashes from the neighboring building lit up the street. They fled on foot that night with what they could carry, sleeping in an open field infested with spiders. Five days after making it to another village, the advancing TFSA caught up and they fled again.
Serekani was beautiful before the war, Mahmoud said. They felt safe under SDF protection, and there was plenty of food and water. He worked as a mechanic. Now he has word from a relative that his garage and home have been emptied. Everything was stolen by the TFSA, claimed Mahmoud. “Everyone left in Serekani is poor.“
His family expects to be asked to leave the relative warmth of the concrete school in the coming weeks for tents. He thinks he will return to Serekani one day. But he no longer trusts American or European leaders. “We just trust in [Syrian Democratic Forces] General Mazloum Abdi and Syria.”
Talaat Younes, an official with the Syrian Democratic Council, said one must only look to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin to see what areas now under TFSA control will face. The World Health Organization estimates that 167,000 people were displaced in Afrin after a Turkish-backed invasion last year.
“After the departure of Afrin’s population, the land and homes were given to strangers,” Younes said, describing reports of theft and acquisition of property by the TFSA. According to interviews with those who have fled the recent fighting, occupying TFSA soldiers have employed a similar strategy of widespread looting.
Another cost of the invasion has been a decrease in security within a region finally enjoying a period of peace. Last week three car bombs exploded in the region’s de facto capital of Qamishli, killing at least six and wounding dozens. Within half an hour of the explosions, tractors were scrapping the street of debris while investigators picked through mangled steel.
Now northern Syria’s newest refugees wait to see if they will share a similar fate to their countrymen in Afrin and, as a bitter winter approaches, if any countries with a stake in this sliver of land will act on their behalf.