Refugees from Syria’s Tal Abyad face uncertain future

Some residents have started returning home after Kurdish forces and their allies reclaimed the town from ISIL.

Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrian refugees wait for transportation after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad [Reuters]
Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrian refugees wait for transportation after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad [Reuters]

Akcakale, Turkey – War-weary and with uncertain futures, refugees from Syria’s Tal Abyad began returning home this week after Syrian Kurdish forces, backed by allied rebel groups and US-led air strikes, wrestled control of the border town back from fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

Some carried sacks containing their meagre possessions, while others arrived with nothing but their children. Many at the Turkish-Syrian border crossing expressed anxiety about the days to come.

“I don’t know what the situation will be like under the Kurds. Maybe they will stay and maybe ISIL will come back, but there is nothing for us here,” said Mustafa, a 43-year-old farmer waiting to cross back to Syria with his wife, their five children and his elderly mother. “I pray to God there will be no more air strikes and that our family can spend Ramadan in peace.”

Fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their Syrian rebel allies declared full control over Tal Abyad on Tuesday, following an advance that lasted less than a week and sparked an exodus of more than 23,000 refugees into Turkey.

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“It’s a significant blow for ISIL because it cuts off one of its main transit routes used to smuggle supplies, weapons and fighters,” said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “For the Kurds, it’s significant because it means they can consolidate their territory by connecting Kurdish enclaves in Kobane to the west and Hasakah to the east.”

Before war ravaged these parts of Syria, some 50,000 Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians lived in the town of Tal Abyad and the surrounding villages. The area was under the control of the Syrian government until 2012, when it was taken over by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Just over a year ago, ISIL fighters swept into Tal Abyad, driving out the FSA and hoisting their black flag. But the Kurds, who consider Tal Abyad to be part of Rojava, the western part of their long-coveted ethnic homeland, are now in control.

Years of instability and political uncertainty have taken their toll on Tal Abyad’s residents. Several of the refugees crossing back home refused to answer reporters’ questions, citing security concerns.

Whoever controls the town is in charge. I have learned long ago that political opinions are best kept private.

Returning Tal Abyad resident

“Whoever controls the town is in charge,” said a man who was heading back to Tal Abyad with his wife and two daughters. “I have learned long ago that political opinions are best kept private.”

About 400 Syrian refugees crossed back into Tal Abyad on Wednesday, according to witnesses and a Turkish border official who was not authorised to speak to journalists. But the majority remained in the dusty border town of Akcakale, where they were spread out in refugee camps or crowded into nearby apartment buildings.

“I wish to return to my house, but I spoke to some of our neighbours who returned and they told me that the YPG did not allow them to enter their homes,” said Hamadi Ahmad, a 50-year-old food vendor who fled to Akcakale four days ago with his wife, four daughters and five sons.

They were staying in an unfinished empty concrete building along with six other families from Tal Abyad. “The Kurds want this land for themselves and don’t care about our rights.”

RELATED: Hundreds cross into Turkey from Syria

More than a dozen Syrian rebel factions accused the YPG of a “sectarian and ethnic cleansing” campaign against Sunni Arab and Turkmen residents, in a joint statement issued on Monday. The claim was echoed by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, who on Monday said there were signs “pointing towards a kind of ethnic cleansing” by both Kurdish and rebel groups – a charge strongly denied by the Kurds.

Several refugees interviewed on Wednesday said the YPG forced them out of their homes.

“We left because of the air strikes – this was the main danger – but we were also told to leave by the Kurds,” said Ayman Suleiman, 30, who arrived in Turkey on Sunday. “Some homes were taken by the YPG.” 

 Syrian refugees cross the border into Turkey

YPG spokesperson Redur Xelil dismissed allegations of forced displacements of non-Kurdish civilians, promising safe passage for any families wishing to return.

“We assure them that we will insure security and their humanity needs. They can return to their villages and property when security comes back to the region,” Xelil said on his Facebook page

“There is no ethnic cleansing – that information is completely wrong,” Xelil told Al Jazeera, reached by telephone in Tal Abyad. “We are helping people who have returned from the Turkish border back to Tal Abyad to re-enter their homes.”

The YPG is the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey for more than three decades. Ankara fears the YPG advance in Syria could exacerbate separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish minority.

“I don’t think that Turkey is primarily concerned with the alleged or real atrocities by Kurdish fighters against Arabs; all sides have inflicted atrocities on civilian populations all along the border there,” Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis blog, told Al Jazeera. “What they’re worried about is having PKK as the dominant force on their southern border.”

RELATED: ISIL seizes territory from Syria rebels in Aleppo

Refugees said that most of Tal Abyad’s Kurdish residents fled the city following the ISIL takeover. Many have gone to Kobane, which also saw ISIL defeated by YPG fighters backed by Syrian rebel allies and US-led air strikes.

“The ethnic tensions are real,” said Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network. “Kurds have suffered at the hands of Arab governments, and during Kobane, Arab populations felt they were taken advantage of by the Kurds. There is a lot of mistrust on both sides right now that will be difficult to overcome.”

Until the security situation in Tal Abyad stabilises, many Syrian refugees said they will wait out the instability in Turkey.

“To me, there is no difference between the [Syrian] regime, ISIL or the Kurds,” said Abdul Nasser, a 30-year-old Tal Abyad resident who watched the returning stream of refugees from the Turkish side of the border. “We are tired of being ruled by others. We are tired of war.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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