AMMAN: The spring equinox celebration of Nowruz is usually marked by Kurdish communities with massive public feasts, ceremonial leaps over beds of flames and theatrical performances in town squares that recount epic tales of ancient mythology.
This year, though, as the Aleppo provincial city of Afrin marks one year under Turkish proxy control, a very different scene was on display—decorations and signs of the holiday were nowhere to be found, according to local residents. And while some went quietly about their daily business, an eerie silence hung over the streets outside.
Just days before widespread festivities were slated to begin, a series of public announcements circulated throughout Turkish-controlled areas of northwestern Syria, purportedly signed by representatives of the Afrin Local Council, appeared to forbid any public symbols of the Kurdish holiday.
Residents fear that it is the latest sign of hostility toward Kurdish symbols and cultural life from the Turkish occupying force that has already taken steps to curtail the language in schools and replace local Kurds with displaced Arab populations from elsewhere in Syria. Kurdish residents of Afrin tell Syria Direct about pervasive fear of violence from Turkish-backed rebel factions in the area, who operate on the payroll of Turkish authorities and have been accused of a litany of abuses against the local population.
“Nowruz for us is a day of joy, a day of freedom,” says Muhammad Dalbreen, a Kurdish civil society worker, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from local authorities. “We don’t want the factions to turn it into a day of sadness, killing and bloodshed.”
“The overwhelming majority of people will not come out to celebrate Nowruz [this year],” he adds.
According to local news reports, a Turkish-backed faction arrested a number of civilians in the village of Kafr Safra on the evening of March 20, as they tried to carry the traditional torch of Nowruz through the village center.
Similar incidents were reported in several other villages in the countryside near Afrin.
Syria Direct could not independently confirm the reports.
The ancient celebration of Nowruz, its roots steeped in legends of liberation from a tyrannical king some 2,500 years ago, has long struck a nerve with authorities in Syria and has faced historic campaigns of suppression in other states across the region.
For decades leading up to the 2011 Syrian uprising, Baathist officials in Damascus tried to stifle public manifestations of the holiday, which they viewed as rife with symbolism and invocations of Kurdish autonomy. State-led efforts to crush celebrations repeatedly sparked street clashes between Kurdish communities and security forces, as well as large scale massacres of Kurdish celebrants in 1986 and 2005.
With the exit of Syrian army units from Afrin in 2012, effectively ceding control to local Kurdish authorities and armed groups, Nowruz regained its traditional place as the largest—and most public—Kurdish holiday there.
It was destined to be short-lived, however. That brief window of Kurdish cultural autonomy came to an abrupt end in January of 2018.
In a major military operation—dubbed “Olive Branch”—targeting the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish armed group which shares ties with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkish authorities swept across northern Aleppo province.
The aim of the operation was to “establish security and stability along the Turkey-Syria border region and to protect Syrian civilians from the terrorist groups’ depredations,” according to a statement from the Turkish Presidency.
Months of clashes and bombardment ultimately displaced around 167,000 Syrians, according to UN estimates.
The wave of displacement has had seismic effects on local demographics, between fleeing Kurds and incoming populations, who have themselves fled conflict in other parts of Syria.
“You see the clear intent to replace the Kurdish population with [displaced] Arabs,” says Fabrice Balanche, an analyst from the Washington Institute.
“[Ankara’s plan] is to settle Arab refugees in Afrin… to reduce the weight of the Kurdish population and push Kurds out of this area.”
Akeed Hanan is among those who has been unable to return to his home.
A math professor in nearby Jandaris before the launch of Olive Branch, Hanan was forced to flee with his family to a displacement camp in Kafr Naya in rural Aleppo province.
In these squalid surroundings, unable at present to return to his house in Jandaris, he was able to celebrate Nowruz in a thin sliver of territory that—for now—lies beyond Turkish control.
“What the [Turkish-backed] factions are doing is a type of demographic change, altering Afrin’s Kurdish identity,” he tells Syria Direct.
“We have been celebrating Nowruz here in the camps,” he adds. “For us Kurds, the festival is part of who we are.”
This year marks the second in a row that Nowruz has been erased from public spaces under Turkish control and confined to private homes of Kurdish residents. Last year, the annual celebrations fell in the same week that Afrin itself was captured by Turkish forces and allied rebel groups.
Since the capture of Afrin and surrounding areas by Turkish-backed factions last year, authorities have moved to crack down on other Kurdish symbols—systematically removing statues of Kurdish figures and removing Kurdish language from schools. For some Kurdish residents, the change in status quo is a flashback to the one that existed for decades under the baathist regime.
Balanche describes the moves as amounting to a concerted campaign of “Arabization and Turkification” in the territory.
Turkey “doesn’t want to see any manifestation of Kurdish identity there,” he adds.
“They do not want any anti-Turkish demonstrations during Nowruz, and they do not want people to see the cultural importance of Nowruz there.”
After living through decades under hostile governing authorities, Hanan remains positive that these Kurdish cultural symbols and holidays cannot be erased or forgotten.
He also hopes that this will be his family’s last year of displacement, and that they will soon return home.
“We hope that all of this will just be a bad memory one day,” he says. "And that next year, we will celebrate Nowruz freely on our own land."