AMMAN: When Fand Juma returned to his native city of Afrin in late April after two months of exile, he chose his steps carefully.
The 36-year-old father of four had fled his hometown for the nearby, opposition-held city of Azaz with his family in February, just before Turkish-backed rebel factions routed the Kurdish forces that had controlled Afrin and its surroundings since 2012.
In early April, Juma chose to return to his home city—now controlled by rebels—alone. It was too risky, he says, to bring his family with him. Leaflets posted on walls by Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces cautioned Juma and thousands of other returning residents that retreating Kurdish forces had placed mines and explosive devices along roadways, in homes and in buildings.
One month after his return, Juma tells Syria Direct that he hears explosions “every day” in Afrin. “We [residents] can’t move around in the city because of the mines.”
A Syrian man walks through rubble in Afrin city on May 5. Photo by AFP/Nazeer al-Khatib.
When pro-Turkish forces captured Afrin city earlier this year, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia and its allies vowed to mount an insurgency that would become “a constant nightmare” for occupying rebel forces.
The YPG’s war had entered a “new phase,” read a statement posted online in March, “a switch from direct confrontation to guerrilla tactics.”
Now, two months after the fall of Afrin, those residing in the city are living in fear of stumbling upon hidden explosives, civilians and rebel officials tell Syria Direct. Meanwhile, opposition and Turkish demining teams are scrambling to locate and disarm what some officials estimate to be thousands of explosives hidden in and around the city.
A representative from the Afrin Civil Council—a temporary governing body in Afrin formed in March by a Turkey-based Syrian-Kurdish political group opposed to the YPG—told Syria Direct this month that approximately 250 civilians have been killed by explosive devices since pro-Turkish factions captured the city.
Syria Direct reached out to several YPG and Kurdish spokespeople in recent weeks, but did not not receive any official comment by the time of publication.
One YPG commander, who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to give statements to the press, told Syria Direct that the YPG did not plant mines “within cities or residential areas.”
Both YPG forces and pro-Turkish rebels have waged a vitriolic media and propaganda war against one another in recent months, each side accusing the other of falsifying information and misleading the public.
This dynamic, combined with the absence of apolitical civil authorities inside Afrin, means that Syria Direct could not independently verify claims of casualty numbers or the number of mines planted in the city.
Nonetheless, a half-dozen residents—both local Kurds and new Arab arrivals to the city—tell Syria Direct that explosives pose a constant threat that limits their movements in the city and prevents them from living normally.
“We’re back in our city now,” says Juma, “but we’re frightened.”
‘Not quick or simple’
Afrin, an overwhelmingly Kurdish-majority city nestled in the mountains of northwest Syria, was before this year largely untouched by the violence of the country’s seven-year war.
Then, in January, Turkey launched its Operation Olive Branch against Afrin in coordination with some 25,000 FSA-affiliated rebel fighters. The operation’s stated goal was to eliminate “terrorists” along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Prior to the operation, Afrin was largely governed by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the YPG. Ankara considers the PYD to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an armed insurgency inside Turkey for decades.
The YPG, battered and beaten on all fronts after weeks of fighting, fled Afrin city before rebel forces captured it on March 18.
But before they left, Kurdish forces planted tens of thousands of mines, contends Maisara Abu Abdallah, the official in charge of demining operations for FSA faction al-Failaq al-Awwal.
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Residents in Afrin city on May 5. Photo by Getty Images/Nazeer al-Khatib.
The FSA, with help from a Turkish-run demining squad, has spent weeks going neighborhood to neighborhood, street to street and building to building in Afrin searching for explosives, Abu Abdullah says. The FSA teams are limited in both manpower and materiel, often working without helmets and other protective gear, he adds.
“We receive many calls from civilians to visit their houses and remove mines,” says Abu Abdullah. “It’s very hard—disarming mines is not quick or simple.”
Abu Abdullah says that mines have been recovered in a wide range of locations, including civilian homes, residential buildings and hidden around crops and farmland.
“The biggest hindrance to our work is the lack of tools and equipment,” he says. Additionally, demining teams are stretched thin, trying to clear high-traffic districts of Afrin while also combing farmlands in the city’s surrounding villages.
Two months after capturing Afrin, FSA and Turkish demining squads have largely cleared main roads and residential neighborhoods, Abu Abdallah says, but he estimates that they have only removed as little as half of the explosives in the city and its surrounding countryside.
For its part, the YPG has not released official statements confirming or denying the presence of mines in the Afrin region.
One YPG statement, published on the group’s official website on May 4, said that Kurdish forces had carried out several successful attacks on pro-Ankara forces within Afrin, killing several Olive Branch soldiers and opposition officials—including the former head of the Free East Ghouta Police, Jamal al-Zaghloul. The police force was primarily tasked with maintaining civil order and handling criminal offenses in rebel-held East Ghouta, according to pro-opposition media outlets.
Al-Zaghloul, along with other residents of the formerly rebel-controlled suburbs east of Damascus, relocated to Afrin city in April after an evacuation deal between opposition forces and the Syrian government saw East Ghouta cleared of rebel fighters, their families and those who did not wish to return to government control.
Pro-Ankara FSA factions have resettled dozens of displaced families from East Ghouta into Afrin homes that were left unattended when their owners fled the city earlier this year, Syria Direct reported in early May.
Al-Zaghloul was killed by a landmine in the village of al-Basouta, just south of Afrin city, on May 3, pro-opposition media outlet Enab Baladi reported at the time. His wife was also killed in the explosion.
The YPG accused al-Zaghloul of forcing a strict interpretation of Islam on al-Basouta residents, and “placing FSA terrorists . . . in the abandoned homes of Afrin people,” the statement read.
“Anyone in cooperation with the invasion forces is our target.”