Children of Syrian Arab families who have resorted to the Kurdish areas for safety. Photo by Carl Drott
By Carl Drott
GIRKELEGE, Syrian Kurdistan – As Syria’s neighbors struggle to cope with the massive waves of refugees driven out by the civil war, the number of internally displaced people within Syria is even larger.
Instead of fleeing across borders, many more reugees have sought protection from radical Islamist groups in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria, which are run by the so-called People’s Defence Units (YPG).
The YPG militia has been a bulwark against the incursion of al-Qaeda groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah into the Kurdish regions. Not only for the Kurds, but for many Syriacs and also Arabs, the YPG has been the only protection agaimst Islamist attacks.
Faisal Alaian, 62, fled with his family when al-Nusrah fighters entered his village of Yusifiye on the day before Eid al-Fitr in the first week of August. Hurreiedly, they left with only the clothes they wore. In Cirkelege they were allwed to stay at a school.
Faisal says that most people from the almost exclusively Arab village of Yusifiye fled to Girkelege or other places controlled by the YPG. Only a handful of families that supported al-Nusrah remained in the village. Faisal has received word that his house was burned down after the village was captured.
“They said that I have relations with the YPG. They want my head now,” he fears.
In every war, accusations of “collaboraton” with the enemy have been used by people to settle scores, or lay claim to a neighbor’s property.
A group of men who left Yusifiye on the same day corroborate that almost everyone fled in haste without their belongings. Other sources confirm that al-Nusrah burned the houses of some suspected YPG supporters.
In Girkelege, locals gave Faisal and his family some furniture, blankets and food. Faisal shows an empty carton marked with the logos of the ‘Syrian Arab Red Crescent’ and the ‘World Food Programme.’ The YPG brought them this one food parcel, but after that they received no more support.
A large number of new tenement houses has been erected in Girkelege since the forces of the Damascus regime were pushed out last year. Kurds previously had difficulties getting building permits, but they no longer needed any. However, construction is far from over. Amenities still have not been installed and there are no doors or windows yet.
Thirty-five-year-old Amina – who gives a pseudonym-- is squatting in one of these half-built tenement houses together with her four daughters and two sons. They and five other displaced families have received permission from the owner to stay until further notice. Amina’s husband is still in their home village of Rmeilan al-Basha.
“We have not received help from anyone since we arrived here,” Amina says. “Our life is very hard. We cannot buy anything because the prices are so high.”
On the same day that Jabhat al-Nusrah captured Yusifiye from the south, the YPG entered the adjacent village of Rmeilan al-Basha from the north. They dug in on a hilltop that provided an ideal defensive position and asked the inhabitants to evacuate. All women and children left the village in anticipation of an imminent attack, but many of the men stayed behind to guard their houses.
“We would have left even if the YPG had not asked us to. We are very afraid of Jabhat al-Nusrah,” Amina says.
While the northernmost part of the al-Jazira plain is dominated by Kurds, the villages further south are mostly inhabited by Arabs. Whether they use carrots, sticks or both, all factions involved in this conflict want to win these villagers on their side. Local support is key to maintaining control over these areas in the long run.
Some villagers have decided to openly support or even join one of the belligerent factions, but it appears that most are unwilling to take the risk. No one can know for certain who will rule their village next week, let alone next year.