Afrin descends to basements
Turkish troops and its supporting militias are getting closer to the city.
A convoy of dozens of cars pulls through the streets of the crowded city. It is headed towards the village of Qestel located between the town of Afrin in the north-western Syria and the territories controlled by the Turkish army and its supporting militants. The convoy consists almost entirely of civilians, including activists and local politicians who came from all over the region called Rojava to demonstrate that Afrin is not alone.
Curious inhabitants watch the members of the convoy from the balconies, some of them raise two fingers in a sign of victory. Adults and children shout: “long live the resistance of Afrin!”. The prevailing mood is cheerful and full of hope, however, depression is also becoming more visible.
More and more defensive earthworks and deep trenches are being prepared in the city. It is visible that some of them have been heaped only recently. They appear on a regular basis which surprises the inhabitants of the city who often cover the distance between homes and their workplaces. A natural ally of the Kurdish militias are the mountains and hills, which are plenty in Afrin – in fact, the city happens to be partially located on one of the hills. Although no one says that outright, it is visible that the Kurdish fighters are getting ready for a siege as the forces taking part in the “Olive Branch” operation are about 5 kilometers from Afrin.
According to the data of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the clashes in the area have resulted in a death toll of at least 1050 people, including 201 civilians.
The enemy in the sky
Every day is the same. Growls of the engines are heard, airplane trails mark the sky – when the aircraft reaches the target, there is a loud explosion. Sometimes the bombs fall in the city and the shock wave shakes the buildings. The reconnaissance is done by drones, hovering about three hundred meters above the ground. Although they are visible with the naked eye, the Kurdish militias: People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) can’t do anything about them as these groups do not have anti-aircraft weapons. This is the main reason why they gradually lose more and more of their control over territories in Afrin. Currently, the Turkish army controls more than one-third of the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan said during his speech on Friday in Ankara that Afrin had been surrounded and that the Turkish troops can enter it at any time. Up until now, however, the exit roads from the city have not been cut off. Turkish army and its supporting militias are at least five kilometers away from the city.
Nazim is 50 and works in trade. He speaks very quietly and calmly. As many inhabitants, he complains that nobody helps the Kurds in their fight against Turkey. They also often ask me why nobody is interested in what is going on in Afrin.
“YPG has no aircrafts and without them it’s difficult to fight against Turkey. It is a strong country with a strong army. If they didn’t attack from the air, maybe we could stand a chance at stopping them”, says Nazim.
They do not have anti-aircraft weapons so the drone is hovering over the city. The Kurdish fighters occasionally manage to take down a helicopter of the Turkish army if it flies low above the ground.
Residents move to the basements
The city does not give off the atmosphere of panic but a serious concern is palpable. Especially that shots of artillery cannons and explosions can be heard very clearly. Until recently, Afrin was one of the quieter enclaves in the course of the war in Syria. The conflict has lasted for seven years, at least 400,000 people were killed in its aftermath and 11 million (half of the Syria’s population) had to flee their homes. From the north and the west, the region borders with Turkey. From the south and west – with militias supported by the Turkish army. Territories controlled by the forces of the Syrian government are located to the east of Afrin. Although the region is cut off from the rest of the territories controlled by the Kurds, the clashes were not happening here.
The streets were full of cars as people living in the neighboring war-stricken villages tried to escape to the city. Now, however, they are trying to get out of it.
Nazim himself lived in one of the surrounding villages, located right next to Afrin, but moved to the family living in the city.
“People scurried off from the countryside to the cities for fear of the bombing, only to now live in basements. The bombings are so heavy that you can’t sleep at night”, he says.
Nazim says that the residents began spending nights in the basements around two weeks ago. The more bombings occur, the more people are becoming convinced to this idea. A brief respite is given only at the times of adverse weather as the planes don’t start during windstorms or heavy rain.
Some residents declare that they will stay in the city regardless of what happens or even that they will fight militarily. There are also those who know that they are not able to endure this situation. The exit road from Afrin, however, is still gridlocked. Dozens of cars, some of them packed to the roofs, pull in the direction of the south-eastern part of the region where clashes don’t take place. Alternatively, some of them head for Aleppo which experienced a vast exodus after the heavy clashes in 2016. However, the people who are willing to leave Afrin are often forced to come back when they arrive at a checkpoint. The Kurdish militants don’t want the city to become deserted.
Clashes in the hills
The convoy arrives. A few houses are surrounded by picturesque nature – this area is full of olive trees that Afrin is famous for and green hills. This is the beginning of the “live shield” protest. The Kurds want to show that they are not afraid and if Turkey is going to bomb them, they are ready for it. After getting off the buses and out of the cars, they immediately start a picnic. Kurdish music is blaring from the speakers mounted on a car. Some people are dancing in a circle, others enjoy sitting on the grass and watching. In the hills located three to five kilometers from the protest, artillery shells are exploding regularly. The Kurds are trying to outshout the bangs and clouds of smoke – to show that the fight continues and that it is by no means lost.