Rinas turns on his phone and plays us a short video: a waterfall, a stream, the warm green of trees and shrubs. “This is what I had near my house, it’s Afrin.” He smiles as he shows us the place he left three years ago, fleeing together with 300,000 other people from the Kurdish canton in the northwest of Syria during the months of the brutal Turkish offensive.
The Turkish high command had named it Operation “Olive Branch.” The aftermath of that offensive is hundreds of thousands of people still displaced, distributed throughout Rojava, and an advanced plan of demographic engineering.
Fatma is 70 years old, she is Rinas’s mother. She came to Qamishlo to visit her son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. She still lives near Shabha, the only area that welcomed the displaced people during the bombings, with great difficulty. They were people without shelter, helped by communities between Aleppo and Afrin, with the Damascus government closing the road to southern Syria and the Autonomous Administration trying to scrape together a welcome while resisting the Turks.
“There are 7,500 people in the Shabha camps,” the Rojava Information Center explains, “and 115,000 in the villages in the area. Tens of thousands are in the Turkish neighborhoods of Aleppo. An unknown number have fled to Europe and Iraq.“
Fatma still lives there, outside Shabha, where she opened a fruit and vegetable store: “We, the displaced people, set up the camp there. The Administration brought us food, the Red Crescent brought us medicine. Even Russia offered us help, but we refused it: they allowed Turkey to attack us.”
In Afrin, they had a restaurant (“It was renowned, people came all the way from Aleppo”) and a plot of land. Their big house is now occupied by the families of pro-Turkish militiamen, the Islamist units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
“At first they used it as an intelligence base. They used it to interrogate the people from Afrin who remained and were suspected of ties to the YPG. Now, the wives of three militiamen live there: by chance, we found on Facebook photos of them smoking hookahs in the living room and wearing our clothes.” This is how Siam, Fatma’s daughter-in-law, recounts what has become of their home, giving concrete meaning to the theoretical concept of demographic transformation of the Afrin canton.
She gave birth to her daughter Rojat as the bombs fell on January 29, 2018, nine days after the start of “Olive Branch”: “We had been living in the basement for days. I started going into labor, and we managed to get to the hospital. They gave me the C-section and sent me away, as it was dangerous: they also treated the fighters of the YPG and YPJ at that hospital, it was among the targets of the Turks.”
Last weekend, a missile attack hit the hospital of al-Shifa in Afrin. Nineteen died, and the maternity wards and emergency rooms were destroyed. The back-and-forth of accusations started immediately, with Turkey blaming the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella of Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, Syrian and Assyrian fighting units) and the SDF denying any involvement.
Around Afrin, the battle has never ended: Turkish flags are waving in the city, Turkish is being studied at school and the official currency is the Turkish lira. Arab and Turkmen families have been moved to the canton, while historical residents are prevented from returning. Arrests, rapes and disappearances continue with macabre regularity.
It is a social engineering operation: in a recent meeting, 25 local civil society organizations calculated that only 20% of the original population—Kurds and Yazidis, Christians and Muslims—still live in Afrin, and the rest are settlers. The military occupation is maintained in different ways: by preventing return, occupying houses, destroying fields and olive groves and harassing those who have managed to stay.
Fatma and Siam tell us of kidnappings and ransom demands by the FSA: millions of Syrian liras (tens of thousands of euros) to get back a relative, or just a tractor to continue working the remaining land. “Many families are charged rent by the Islamists for their own lands and houses, a sort of tax to avoid being expropriated.”
A year and a half after the occupation of Afrin, Turkey broadened its aim: on October 9, 2019, after the unofficial U.S. green light for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Rojava, Ankara launched a new offensive. It ended just over a week later, with 500 dead (of whom at least a third were civilians), 300,000 displaced and the creation of the so-called “safe zone,” an euphemistic term for the permanent occupation of a corridor of land on the border (about a hundred kilometers long) and the towns and countryside of Serekaniye and Ain Issa.
At the time, the SDF withdrew, accepting the crippling ceasefire negotiated by then-President Trump, to avoid a worse bloodbath. “The sky has not been friendly to us like it was against ISIS,” a Syrian Christian fighter had told us a few days before the withdrawal. “Against Turkish fighter jets, the AK-47s are of little use.”
The Turks and Islamists are still there, imposing their own model for Afrin. The displaced are elsewhere. There are 14,714 Serekaniye residents living in the Washokani refugee camp on the outskirts of Hasakah. It is a desert area, with sand, tents and self-administration: “This is a little Serekaniye,” says Stera Rashek, manager of the camp and herself displaced. Because here, in Washokani, the 2,373 families who live there have recreated on a small scale the system of self-administration of the rest of Rojava, which they had experienced for years in their city.
“We opened the camp on October 24, 2019. Right after the Turkish attack, we had found shelter in about fifty schools, so the administration decided to open the camp and the schools had to be returned to the children.”
There are now schools in Washokani as well, manned by displaced teachers. The ones who work in the clinic are displaced doctors and nurses. It’s the same on the suq, a 200-meter street filled with small stores and bakeries: the merchants and bakers of Serekaniye opened them up.
“We have the co-mayors, the Asaysh (Rojava’s internal defense forces), the council, the People’s Assembly, 106 municipalities and neighborhood assemblies. By ‘neighborhood’ we mean 20 tents. And then, the committees, as in the rest of democratic confederalism: for youth, school, environment, health. They discuss the problems to be tackled and present proposals to the council: whatever we can solve on our own, we solve,” continues Rashek.
As the person in charge, she is the public face, the one who meets with the institutions of the Administration established about ten years ago with the project of democratic confederalism, based on the theoretical framework of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The Administration finances the camp, nothing comes from outside: there are local organizations involved in small projects, but there is no sign of money from the rest of the world.
“We don’t have a kitchen, we still live in 64-square-foot tents, we have no fans and the generators are not enough for the air conditioners,” adds Alaa, one of the coordinators of the camp. “And the heat in the tents is unbearable. Regarding medicine, we can only provide first aid. And half of the children don’t study regularly, there are not enough classes.”
“We’re not doing badly here,” Fawza tells us, in his tent which has served as kitchen and bedroom for five people for a year and a half. “But we want to go back home, to Serekaniye.”