Displaced from Ghouta, Syrians seek refuge in emptied Afrin
Afrin (Syria) (AFP)
Displaced from her home in Syria's Eastern Ghouta, Umaima al-Sheikh and her family sought refuge in an abandoned house across the country in Afrin.
The traditionally Kurdish town had been emptied of its residents just weeks earlier, after a brutal Turkish-led offensive forced tens of thousands to flee.
"No one wants to live in a house that isn't theirs, or use other people's belongings," said Sheikh.
After staying briefly in rebel territory elsewhere in northern Syria, the 25-year-old moved to Afrin around a month ago with her husband Firas and two young children.
"We all want to be in our own homes, our own towns, but the situation forced us to settle in a house that isn't ours," Sheikh told AFP in a leafy park in the town.
"The homes we left behind are now being lived in by other people, too. This is the case for everyone in Syria, not just us," she said.
Since war broke out in 2011, half of Syria's population has been displaced, including more than five million outside the country and another six million internally.
Among them are rebels and civilians transferred en masse from one bombed opposition area to another under "reconciliation" agreements.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used such deals to retake territory, prompting charges he is reshuffling the country's demographics.
His April capture of Ghouta was sealed with the transfer of thousands of people to the rebel-held north, with many going on to Afrin.
The offensive by Turkish-backed rebels sparked a wave of accusations that Ankara was guilty of ethnic engineering, by resettling Syrian Arabs into Afrin after pushing out Syrian Kurds.
- Seeking safety -
As many as 35,000 people have taken refuge in the Afrin region, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Some live in a pair of refugee camps in a rural area, but many have moved into the town's empty and ruined homes.
Mehdi Haymur and his young son picked through the rubble and debris at the entrance of one bombed-out apartment for anything salvageable.
They lifted a mismatched pair of torn, dust-covered cushions from the smashed cinderblocks and headed inside.
"We left Ghouta and lost our homes, land, and work. We were forced to leave Ghouta, and we also came here in a forced way," said Haymur.
With help from rebel military police, he and his family have squatted in several Afrin homes but their owners have arrived and asked them to leave.
The owner of the abandoned block where he lives now has allowed them to stay temporarily, Haymur told AFP.
Ahmad al-Buri, 19, was displaced to Afrin from the outskirts of Ghouta's largest town of Douma.
"This is a Turkish zone, protected from Syrian regime bombardment. That's why I came here," said Buri.
Rebels also helped his family find an empty home in Afrin's Mahmudiyah district, and Buri has enlisted in the Turkish-backed police.
"If the owner of this house comes back and we have to leave, I don't know what we'll do. We'll have to find another home or go to a camp," he shrugged.
Those camps house an estimated 10,000 people, according to the United Nations' humanitarian coordination office (OCHA), which also confirmed the house-squatting.
"While some are paying rent, reports of internally displaced people residing in empty houses without obtaining the permission of their owners continue to emerge," it said.
- 'Strangers' -
Around 135,000 of Afrin's original residents stayed in the region as fighting continued, more than a third in the town itself, according to OCHA.
Othman Khalil, a 57-year-old metal worker, refused to leave his home on Villa Street during the fight.
"There are families from Ghouta that come to our neighbourhood. We talk to each other," he told AFP.
"They can come into Afrin but people originally from here cannot enter," said Khalil, whose friends escaped the town during clashes but have been unable to return.
A pair of Turkish-backed rebels guard one access route, checking the vehicles coming in and out.
OCHA has expressed increasing concern over "protracted displacement" from Afrin as security operations continue.
Syria's leading Kurdish Party, the People's Democratic Union (PYD), and the Observatory have both accused Ankara of seeking to change Afrin's ethnic makeup by resettling Arab families in Kurdish homes.
"There are strangers living in my nephew's house who won't leave," said Mahmoud Hassan, 58, a farmer in Afrin.
"People from Ghouta are good people, we can talk to them and there's peace between us," he told AFP.
"But this isn't your house, you came and lived in it, and if the owner comes back, you need to get out before he complains."
On Saturday, hundreds of Syrian Kurds demonstrated in the northeastern city of Qamishli in protest at Turkey's military presence in Afrin.
© 2018 AFP