Under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes and supported by allied rebel groups, Kurdish fighters seized the border city of Tal Abyad from the Islamic State (ISIS) last month. Many Syrians who have returned to the area have accused the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia fighting the Islamic State across the country, of systematically expelling Arab Syrians from their homes.
Locals and Syrian groups, such as the Syrian National Council and a coalition of armed rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, have charged the YPG with ethnic cleansing while carrying out forced deportations from Tal Abyad and the surrounding area.
Turkey’s opening of the border initially filled many Syrian refugees with hope that they could return to their lives in Tal Abyad. Anwar al-Qataf, who fled Syria a year ago after being arrested by ISIS, says more than 3,000 people returned to Tal Abyad on the first day that Turkey opened the border, June 22. “The next day, 1,800 people went back,” he told Syria Deeply.
“Many Syrians [in Turkey] are sleeping in gardens or on the streets, while some are living with their relatives elsewhere in Turkey,” he said. Along with other activists, al-Qataf works with displaced Syrians arriving in Turkey and those attempting to go back home. They gather mattresses, food and financial donations for new arrivals in Turkey; for those returning to Syria, they provide water and food while they wait to cross the Turkish border gate back to their town of Tal Abyad.
Yet, in a statement released last month, the Syrian National Council claimed that the YPG had confiscated vehicles, livestock and crops, in addition to ransacking homes following the takeover of Arab and Turkmen villages. In some areas, they were accused of leaving behind derogatory anti-Arab slogans.
Fifteen rebel groups also fighting ISIS have lashed out against the Kurdish group, accusing them of “criminal acts” and of kicking families out of their homes and villages, as reported by the Telegraph. The Kurds, however, have denied the claims and say they merely evacuated civilians from active battle areas.
The nearby town of Hammam al-Turkman – home to some 10,000 inhabitants – witnessed mass fleeing following the YPG takeover, locals say. “They threatened people through the loudspeakers of the mosques,” Anwar, a local resident, told Syria Deeply. “They said if [locals] didn’t leave their villages, they would give their coordinates to the international anti-ISIS coalition to bomb them on the pretext that ISIS militants are holed up [in the area].”
Anwar claims that the threats resulted in many residents fleeing to Raqqa, despite that city being under the control of ISIS.
Abdallah, a 30-year-old social media activist from Tal Abyad, says the YPG forcibly rounded up villagers – including women and children – in al-Zenbaq and informed them that they had an hour to leave. Home to an estimated 350 people, al-Zenbaq saw many of its residents seek refuge elsewhere.
A father of two, 28-year-old Abed al-Rahman, and his family were displaced to Turkey when Kurdish forces showed up. After spending several days in Turkey, he decided to go home to Tal Abyad. “I was [one of] of the first ones to come back after the borders opened,” he told Syria Deeply, explaining that the family went to Turkey only to avoid the bombing.
Although there is no electricity in Tal Abyad, al-Rahman prefers to live in his family home. “When I came back, I saw YPG checkpoints,” he recalled. “They arrested three of my relatives randomly.
“But I still want to stay home as long as there aren’t more bombings,” he said, explaining that Kurdish fighters subject locals to humiliating searches and questions at checkpoints, while some are arrested arbitrarily.
Much like al-Rahman, 33-year-old Ahmed, who works as a farmer, took his family to Turkey when the fighting intensified in Tal Abyad. They returned home earlier this week. “It’s very expensive to live in Turkey,” he told Syria Deeply, explaining that he paid more than twice as much as he did in Syria for living costs such as rent and food.
His cousin was recently detained for two days after being arrested at a YPG checkpoint while going out to fetch bread, he says. “They wanted to make sure he’s not a fighter [from an Islamist group],” he commented. “Since that incident, I don’t leave my house that much.”
Meanwhile, nearly two million Syrian refugees in Turkey are still waiting to return to their homeland, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Many of those from parts of Syria now under Kurdish control are cautiously waiting to see what will happen next before making the trek back.
Back in Tal Abyad, Ahmed described locals as being very frightened of Kurdish fighters. “When it gets dark you don’t see anyone outside. Everyone is afraid of being arrested by the YPG,” Ahmed added, further claiming that Kurdish fighters had “been arresting people inside schools.”