Afrin city on September 29. Photo by Malak Abo Obayda for Syria Direct.
AMMAN: Izzadine al-Homsi knew from the start that his new home in Turkish-occupied Afrin wouldn’t be anything more than temporary—just another stop in his ongoing displacement from Damascus towards Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
First of all, it wasn’t his.
Originally offered by a fighter from Turkish-backed rebel faction al-Jabha a-Shamiya not long after al-Homsi and his family arrived to the Kurdish-majority city in Aleppo province from East Ghouta, the house was effectively given to him for free—no contract, no rent, not even official oversight from the local authorities. Instead, there was just one condition.
“[The fighter] gave us five months to stay,” al-Homsi remembers.
Al-Homsi, his wife and daughter were among thousands of families that arrived to the Kurdish-majority northern Aleppo city of Afrin after being forcibly evacuated from the formerly besieged East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus earlier this year—one in a series of surrender and evacuation deals that have helped the Syrian government and its allies retake control of the majority of the country in recent months.
Upon their arrival to Afrin, newly displaced Syrians found Turkish-backed rebels distributing the spoils from Ankara’s Operation Olive Branch, which expelled the Kurdish-majority People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the area and displaced more than 137,000 people as well in the process. In its aftermath, rows of empty homes and shops were divvied out among rebel groups and newly displaced Syrians in the aftermath.
Al-Homsi’s five-month deadline passed earlier this month, and although the 30-year-old says the displaced owners of his home have yet to return, al-Jabha a-Shamiya fighters still came and demanded his exit.
Despite multiple pleas to remain in the house—a precious find in a region densely packed with displaced people who have little to spend on steep rents—the rebels were insistent, even offering a different home that al-Homsi said was in disrepair.
In the end, “They gave me 25,000 lira [around $50] and said, ‘Get out and look for a new home’,” al-Homsi tells Syria Direct from a displacement camp near Turkey’s border with Idlib province where he now lives, unable to find an alternative in Afrin.
Al-Homsi, like all other residents who spoke to Syria Direct for this report, requested that his real name be withheld for fear of reprisals from local rebel factions.
Accusations of Turkish-backed rebel groups in and around Afrin seizing homes and forcibly evicting their owners aren’t new. In the wake of Operation Olive Branch, rights group Amnesty International documented a litany of “serious human rights abuses against civilians” in Afrin, including arbitrary detention, forced disappearances and property confiscation.
The property seizures have often benefited one group of people at the expense of another—displacement feeding displacement.
But despite claims from rebel factions that the practice is being addressed, local officials and current residents say that rebel groups are now arbitrarily evicting displaced Syrians—including those they once helped shelter in housing expropriated during the campaign for Afrin—from properties in and around the city.
Turkish-backed local officials meanwhile say they have limited influence over rebel groups that are circumventing governing bodies in an attempt to monopolize control and reap the benefits from vacant properties in the area.
‘Who let you live in this home?’
In a move that upended years of relative calm in isolated Afrin, Turkey launched the Operation Olive Branch military campaign in January with the stated aim of “eliminating terrorists” in the area, which was then controlled by the Kurdish-majority People’s Protection Units (YPG). A three-month battle ensued, leaving hundreds of civilians dead, infrastructure destroyed and villages in ruins.
Since the operation came to a close in March, tens of thousands of displaced Afrin residents have started making the trip home after being pushed from their homes either by the recent fighting or when the YPG took control from the Syrian government in 2012.
According to local authorities, between 70,000 and 80,000 people previously displaced from Afrin have returned to the area since the end of Olive Branch in March—despite reports that some returnees are being denied re-entry to their homes or the city altogether.
Afrin city in August. Photo courtesy of Afrin Direct.
Yet many returnees arrived only to find their former homes occupied by civilians displaced from elsewhere in the country or, in some cases, rebel fighters.
Abu Muhammad al-Ghoutani, a 25-year-old from the East Ghouta town of Hamouriya who was displaced to the northwest in April, says he has voluntarily vacated three homes in Afrin city in the months since then, because the owners returned.
“I stay in a home, the owners come, and then I turn it over and leave,” he tells Syria Direct matter-of-factly.
Rebel commanders in Afrin insist that this is the process taking place. Displaced Syrians—including East Ghoutans as well as others from Homs, South Damascus and elsewhere—who have taken up residence in the northwestern region are only being forcibly evicted if the original owner returns, they say.
According to al-Jabha al-Shamiya commander Rafat Juneid, forcible evictions take place only “on one condition—if the original owner comes back…and finds a family living in his house.”
However, testimonies of current Afrin residents—including al-Ghoutani—suggest this is not always the case.
In late August, al-Ghoutani says fighters from FSA faction Ahrar a-Sharqiya showed up to the fourth Afrin house that he resided in, this one on the outskirts of Afrin city and rented directly from the owner—a retired schoolteacher who lived nearby.
“‘Who let you live in this home?’” he remembers one of the fighters asking. Al-Ghoutani promptly showed them a formal agreement with the owner that had already been validated by Afrin’s nascent governing body, the Turkish-backed Afrin Civil Council.
But the faction—one of a handful that have established control over individual pockets of territory within Afrin city and the outlying countryside, commonly referred to as “sectors”—refused to accept the document.
“They just ripped up the contract,” al-Ghoutani claims, remembering how one of the fighters told him, “‘We don’t answer to anyone. You need to vacate the house tomorrow’.”
A media worker affiliated with Ahrar a-Sharqiya, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press, told Syria Direct that faction commanders issued a decision “prohibiting fighters from expelling the displaced from their homes,” but acknowledged that some fighters have “violated the decision and acted on an individual basis.”
The Ahrar a-Sharqiya media worker added that if a local resident reported a violation, the faction would punish those responsible.
Even so, some residents say they fear repercussions from those same fighters if they go as far as challenging an eviction.
Marwan a-Shami, a native of the East Ghouta town of Arbin who was evacuated to the northwest in late March, says “there were no justifications at all” when rebel fighters asked him to leave his home in September.
And when former aid worker a-Shami refused to leave the house—which he rented directly from the landlord’s brother—he says fighters threatened him with armed force. He eventually relinquished the property altogether.
“If I [continued to] refuse, I could have been arrested or repeatedly harassed,” he says.
‘They’re the highest power’
According to Azad Othman, an elected member of the Afrin Civil Council, which has long struggled to keep Afrin’s patchwork of rebel factions from interfering in civil affairs, the recent evictions are not isolated incidents.
“We’re facing a real dilemma,” he says. “Even contracts that are validated by the council—formal rental contracts—aren’t being accepted, because they’re the highest power,” he says, referring to Turkish-backed rebel factions in Afrin.
Some rebel sources appear to justify confiscations with politics—taking what is supposedly rightfully theirs after ousting the YPG from the area.
“If the house belongs to a civilian or a displaced person, then no one has the right to expel them,” the Ahrar a-Sharqiya media worker told Syria Direct, adding that “if the owner [was] a PKK fighter” then rebel factions could claim the property as “spoils.” The PKK refers to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a leftist Kurdish political and paramilitary group that has waged a bloody insurgency in Turkey for decades and has ties to the YPG.
But several residents suggest that rebel factions may be more concerned with securing the economic benefits from Afrin’s housing market, one made possible through concentric waves of displacement.
The result is that civilians are being evicted by rebel fighters—“not so that [the fighters] can return the homes to their owners,” local council official Othman says, “but so the faction itself can rent it out.”
Adnan Saad a-Deen, another East Ghoutan displaced to Afrin earlier this year, tells Syria Direct that the practice of fighters renting out homes they captured isn’t new—and that the prices they offer are often among the best on the market.
“I was offered a home [via the factions] for the price of 50 dollars per month,” he says.
It was an unusually cheap option, but he declined because he felt taking someone else’s home was “unacceptable—whether in terms of law or religion.”
A-Deen was able to find another place to stay, but ultimately left for Turkey, in search of a more stable environment in which to settle.
He’s not the only one who has moved on as a result of the instability that followed the rebel takeover of Afrin.
“I tried to find a house that wouldn’t cause problems and a headache,” says Mahmoud Radwan, a journalist who recently arrived to Afrin after initially being displaced to neighboring rebel-held Idlib province. “[But] it’s rare to find a house whose owner is present and that isn’t being eyed by the factions as well.”
Radwan assessed his options—finding a house in Afrin wasn’t going to be easy. And when a widely anticipated pro-government offensive on neighboring Idlib offensive was postponed last month following an eleventh-hour agreement between Russia and Turkey, Radwan decided to head back to Idlib instead.
“People say the tension is supposed to be in Idlib,” he says. “But really, it’s in Afrin.”
This report is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.