On October 9, 2019, Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring, which started with the heavy bombardment of several northeastern Syrian towns. Amina and Khedr recall fleeing their homes during this terrifying night. Four years later, stability has returned to the area but Amina, Khedr and Zahra, another resident of Washokani camp, are all unable to return.
This is the third episode of “The Hope to Return,” a podcast series by Syria Direct that follows the stories of three families displaced in 2019 by Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring.
Four years later, tens of thousands of Syrians are still stranded in displacement camps and makeshift shelters across the northeast, unable to return, their houses destroyed, looted or occupied, and their land sometimes confiscated. As the years stretch on, they are torn between the hope to return home and the need to build a new life in displacement.
“The Hope to Return” was produced by Lyse Mauvais with help from Solin Muhammad Amin and Syria Direct’s editorial team, including Mateo Nelson, Ammar Hamou and Natacha Danon. Illustrations are by Rami Khoury. The soundtrack is “Maldoc” by Little Rock. Instrumental transitions are performed by Kawa Kale from Yekpar, a group of Kurdish musicians displaced from Ras al-Ain.
This episode is narrated in English by Lyse Mauvais and in Arabic by Omar Nour, with dubbing in English by Natacha Danon (Amina al-Fares) and Isabel Morgan (Gulistan Awsu). Narration for the Arabic version of this series was translated from the original English by Fatima Ashour.
(INTRO AUDIO: FIVE VOICES SPEAKING IN ARABIC)
LYSE MAUVAIS: Tens of thousands of Syrians are stranded in displacement camps in northeastern Syria, and thousands more live in makeshift shelters and abandoned buildings. Their houses back home have been destroyed, looted, or occupied. Their future looks uncertain.
This podcast follows three families torn between the hope to return and the need to build a new life in displacement.
This is “The Hope to Return,” a podcast by Syria Direct.
Episode 3: Peace Spring
(CLIP OF BBC REPORT: “Good evening. The long-planned Turkish military operation in northeast Syria has been launched. Kurdish forces, which control the area, reported heavy airstrikes and the start of a ground offensive amidst widespread panic.”)
MAUVAIS: On the night of October 9, 2019, bombs crashed into Syrian towns and villages along the border with Turkey.
It was the start of “Operation Peace Spring,” launched by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian factions against the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other military groups led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the YPG.
Here is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaking on the Turkish public broadcaster, TRT, after the launch of the offensive.
(CLIP OF ERDOĞAN SPEAKING IN TURKISH)
MAUVAIS: In the speech, Erdoğan says the quickest solution to the problem in Syria is for all “terrorists” to drop their weapons and withdraw from areas bordering Turkey. At the time, his stated goal was to build a 32-km deep “security belt” along Turkey’s southern border, to be controlled by Syrian military groups allied with Ankara.
Reading between the lines, what Turkey really wanted to do was to roll back the influence of the YPG, which it considers a terrorist group, in northern Syria.
Between 2014 and 2018, the YPG and the SDF spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. They were instrumental not only in keeping IS out of many Kurdish-populated parts of northern Syria, but also in reconquering provinces like Raqqa and Deir e-Zor. But Erdoğan saw these groups as extensions of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, a separatist group present in Turkey and long considered a terrorist organization by Ankara.
For people on the ground, it began as a terrifying night.
(CLIP OF BBC REPORT: “In Syria, a new round of warfare. The town of Ras al-Ain under heavy bombardment.”)
BRAHIM AL-FARES: When the village was hit, we all huddled in a corner. It was hit maybe more than a hundred times that night. And we were inside. When it stopped, we left. We left, and we didn’t go back. We put a bed on the side of the road, next to the bridge. We set up the bed there and we all slept there together. We stayed there for a while.
MAUVAIS: The voice you’ve just heard is Brahim, the father of Amina who we met in the previous episode. When bombs started falling near their village of Derdara, the family crowded together in a corner. Brahim tells us, laughing, that the family had never sat so close together before that night. The explosions were terrifying. All that they had above their heads was a mud roof.
When the bombing slowed down, the family ran out of the house, to the dried-up bed of the nearby Khabour River. They spent the night there. When the sun rose, Brahim went back to the village to fetch the family’s most prized possession: A large metal bed that many Syrian families keep outside their houses, so they can sleep out in the breeze on hot summer nights.
For nearly a year, the family slept on roadsides and in open fields. The bed became their home.
KHEDR KHABOUR: On the night we left our village, Turkey bombed the Alouk water station. I think it was Turkey, and the Free Syrian Army. We are not sure. They bombed the station, and Turkish planes were flying over the border. We were scared. Our friends there told us that we should go, get farther away from the fighting. We said okay, and we left our house and our village.
MAUVAIS: Khedr Khabour was also displaced that night. We met him in the last episode.
KHABOUR: I left with my kids at 10 o’clock at night. My youngest daughter, Nevin, started to cry on the way. We had two of our neighbors’ daughters with us. We were terrified.
MAUVAIS: Ras al-Ain was captured by the Turkish Armed Forces and factions of the Syrian National Army on October 20, 11 days after the attack began. Other border cities including Tel Abyad, Qamishli and Ain Issa were also bombed.
More than 200,000 people were displaced over the course of 2 weeks. Many of them fled towards areas controlled by the SDF.
On October 22, Russia brokered a deal with Erdoğan, handing over a significant portion of the border regions to Turkey. On October 27, 2019, the SDF announced it would withdraw from several positions along the Turkish border in accordance with the Russian-Turkish agreement in order to stop the bloodshed.
Sporadic clashes continued in the following weeks, but the operation officially ended. Within the next few months, most of those displaced were able to go home. But not everyone did. Between 44,000 and 60,000 displaced people stayed behind, unable to return.
Why were these thousands of people unable to return home after the fighting had stopped? Was it that they no longer wanted to go?
AMINA AL-FARES: We told ourselves we would go back. But we didn’t go back. We hoped to go back to our houses and our land. We had everything we needed to live there. We had land, we had sheep.
MAUVAIS: But Amina and her family didn’t go back. They had lost everything they had to the fighting. One of their two houses was severely damaged during the bombing, and their 60 sheep were killed, stolen or died of hunger.
Their village is now located on the frontline that separates the SDF and Turkish-backed groups. Every so often, from the top of a nearby hill, the family can see bombs fall in the area. They don’t know if their second house still stands, and they can’t go back to check.
AMINA AL-FARES: [SHOWING PICTURES OF HER FAMILY’S HOUSE] This is my house. This was the inner courtyard.
MAUVAIS: Amina scrolls through a few pictures she keeps of her old house. The images on her phone fill her with nostalgia for the life she has lost.
AMINA AL-FARES: Of course I remember how it used to be. Back then I was helping my family. We opened a small shop in the house. It was a source of income, and we lived on that. I didn’t want my father to leave the house to work. I wanted my mother to rest. I ran the shop, bringing clothes and selling them. We were doing fine.
Now that’s all gone, we don’t have any source of income. Back then we had sheep. If the sheep gave birth once in winter, we’d sell the lambs and the money would last us through the following year. We had land, we grew wheat on it. With the wheat, we made flour and bread. Of course there’s a huge difference. Where have these days gone?
MAUVAIS: Unlike Amina, Khedr’s house is not located in a conflict zone. His village, Lazqa, is now fully controlled by factions affiliated with the Syrian National Army. But that doesn’t mean Khedr can return.
As a member of the Yazidi community, he fears being persecuted, harassed and maybe jailed or executed if he tries to go back to his native village. The fear keeps him away.
MAUVAIS: From speaking to his neighbors and friends who stayed behind, Khedr learned that his house had been looted by military groups. Most of his belongings are gone, and if he tried to go back he wouldn’t be able to farm his land because his irrigation pipes and water pumps have been stolen.
KHABOUR: I have videos from my house. They didn’t leave a single tree standing. They even took the cinder blocks out of the walls and stole them. There’s no house left, no stuff inside. They took out the doors, the cupboards, the furniture. They took over our farmland. I have land there, they stole the water pumps and the irrigation pipes. They took everything. Where can we go? Only walls and a roof are left.
MAUVAIS: Many people who fled Ras al-Ain experienced the same issues as Khedr. Their houses were looted, their properties occupied without their consent and their fields and orchards were confiscated.
KHABOUR: Recently, they started to fell our trees. They cut them by the roots and took them out. These trees, which are a breath of fresh air for people, for children. A tree is like the spirit of a child.
MAUVAIS: The same issues have been reported in Afrin, another Syrian region that used to host a large Kurdish population and was seized by Turkish-backed groups in 2018 during Operation Olive Branch.
In the aftermath of these military operations, many human rights violations were reported in areas taken over by Turkish-backed groups. These violations often targeted Kurds and Yazidis.
KHABOUR: They even destroyed our cemeteries. My mother is buried there. They broke her tomb and her name plate with her birth date on it and the day she died. They opened up the tombs. It was very difficult. What I liked the most was to visit the graves of my relatives and my mother. Now it’s impossible. We can’t go there.
MAUVAIS: These abuses have created a climate of fear for ethnic minorities from these areas, who don’t feel they can return. According to recent humanitarian assessments, virtually all of the Kurds and Yazidis who lived in Ras al-Ain before Operation Peace Spring did not return after the fighting ended. The same goes for the members of other minority groups, like Armenian Christians.
But within Arab communities, many people also suffered from these abuses.
Back in Washokani camp, we meet Zahra, whose house was also looted by armed factions.
ZAHRA: Since the day we left, we haven’t had any news of our house. We left in a hurry, as soon as the bombing started. Afterwards, some people went back to collect their belongings, or crossed through our village on their way. They said the village was damaged. They took everything. Everything and anything that could be sold, they took it. They didn’t leave anything behind.
MAUVAIS: Zahra lives a few blocks away from Khedr, in a tent she shares with her husband and seven children. She also doesn’t feel safe going back home. The first time she tried, she was told she would have to pay money to the faction now in control of her village.
ZAHRA: If someone wanted to go back inside their house to get something, they had to pay the factions that control the area in order to get in. That’s why we didn’t go. We couldn’t afford to pay money just to get our stuff back. It was easier to buy things here. They were mostly letting women into the area, not men. I didn’t even think about it.
MAUVAIS: Zahra and Khedr both cling to the hope of returning to their homes in Ras al-Ain. But as time passes, it gets increasingly difficult to follow up with the situation back home. Invisible frontiers have been erected across Syria, and people living on different sides of the conflict struggle to talk to each other.
Khedr’s neighbors, who used to give him news about his home, recently stopped speaking to him out of fear they would be targeted too.
KHABOUR: We were in touch with them for a while, but they started to get scared. They didn’t want to be caught talking to us. Recently we’ve started getting news from the area through Facebook groups. People post anonymously, to avoid getting in trouble. They posted photos and videos showing the trees were cut. We don’t know who posts this news honestly, but at least we have photos. All the trees are gone.
MAUVAIS: The longer this situation lasts, the harder it becomes for people like Khedr, Zahra and Amina to return home.
Over the nearly four years since Operation Peace Spring, Turkish-backed groups have encouraged displaced Syrians from other parts of the country to resettle in the new territories under their control. Ankara is also pushing Syrian refugees in Turkey to move there.
To make room for these newcomers, Turkish-backed factions have confiscated homes left empty by their displaced owners. They have also seized agricultural lands to develop new housing projects. Sometimes, the factions allow local farmers to farm the fields of absent landowners, taking a share of the harvest.
Illegal property seizures are among the main obstacles preventing thousands of people from returning to their homes in the Peace Spring areas. Countering them is essential. Otherwise, displaced people risk losing their homes forever.
Across Syria and outside the country, lawyers and community-based organizations have been trying to help people protect their rights over their property. This is complex legal work. It requires saving and authenticating property deeds and raising the awareness of displaced people about their rights.
In the next episode, we will hear from some of those who are doing this work, and hear how displaced people like Khedr, Amina and Zahra can preserve their rights to the land and houses they left in 2019.
This podcast series was written and produced by me, Lyse Mauvais, with help from Solin Muhammed Amin and Syria Direct’s editorial team.
Instrumental music for the soundtrack is performed by Kawa Kale of Yekpar Group, a group of musicians from Ras al Ain now displaced to Qamishli in northeast Syria.
You can find the following episodes on our website, syriadirect.org, and on all main podcasting platforms.