Caught by War: Life in Syrian Kurdistan
PublicationDec 17, 2019
By Amina Hussein
OCTOBER 8TH 2019, it’s 6 am and I am in Erbil in the Iraqi side of Kurdistan. I just came from Barcelona where I have been living since 2006 and where I’ve completed my degree in journalism. The sun is shining, casting its rays onto the windows of the prefabricated houses in Qostapa refugee camps.
I start getting ready, the car will be here any minute now. I am moved and enthusiastic to go back home, it’s only the second time in 14 years. I close my suitcase and say good bye to my cousin who has been living in this camp with her family for the last four years. It will take four hours to reach the border with Syrian Kurdistan, I look at the mountainous landscape, it’s dry and wild unlike the memory I carried of my first trip when it was spring and all things seemed abundant.
At 11 am, I arrive in Fishkhabur where the borders meet between the two Kurdistan. We crossed the Tigris river, then on to the paperwork. Two hours later, I load my suitcase into the truck that transports our luggage while people travel by bus. And getting by bus over the bridge towards Rojava lasts less than five minutes. It’s the same people, the same language and traditions.
But we are separated by a border drawn by politicians who seek to divide us. If it were not for all the hassle we go through when crossing from one side to the other, you would never know we are supposed to be different people.
My sister is waiting for me on the other side. She’s always been living here including during the last nine years of war, we embrace and kiss and cry. We have two more hours to go and it’s almost 4 pm when we make it home. The trip was exhausting, as we arrive are more kisses and welcomes and tears. When my sister goes to the kitchen, I take a moment to connect my smart phone to the internet.
Headline: “Turkey has started its military operation to claim the North and East of Syria.” This is not the first time that Ankara attacks here. In 2018, there had been a similar Turkey-led offensive. They took the town of Afrin, a mostly Syrian Kurdish town in the North. As a result, half a million-people fled.
This is the first time that I am that close to a war zone, down where the fights rage. The world is listening to us but it’s not doing anything. This is a live war broadcasted in television, we get massacred but the silence remains. You can’t help but think you will be the next victim, one more of these anonymous women and girls they call casualties.
I turn my attention to local media that is broadcasting from the most bombarded areas Serekaniye and Tel Abyad. I can see people fleeing from the bombs, jet fighters circle the sky as the reporter runs after witnesses. My sister puts the food on the table. Nobody eats, instead we’re looking at each other without saying a word. We don’t speak about fear. She says “don’t worry” and “we can’t break down in front of the children.” I nod, but I know that they understand everything. These children were born during the war and have known nothing else.
Suddenly, we hear close-by explosions, everything is shaking in the house, my nephews and niece start screaming and crying. We go out to see what was happened: three bombs one after the other. The night is long; hours stretch on forever but we still have light and the internet. Some relatives show up after escaping their own town. We don’t know how it’s going to end. Will we see the sun again? Will we live? Thousands of lives are at stake.
Days come and go, but nothing changes besides the offensives which become even more violent and destructive. The first victims are children, Sara and Muhammed aged 8 and 10 are siblings, they are playing in the street when the bomb hits, he dies and she loses a leg. Another family of 5, Christians, sees all its member wounded, except for the mother who dies on the spot.
The Turkish army along with the help of radical groups backed by Ankara such as Faileq al-Sharqiye or Ahrar al-Sham attack every village close to the Turkish border. People don’t know where to hide. Hospitals are overflowing. The mosque calls for blood donation, it’s chaos, it’s war. When the bombing stops in the morning, people take advantage to bury the dead.
My own village is 500 meters from the Turkish border, I travel there in an armored car, regular taxis won’t go there.
The town is empty; I walk through memories of my childhood. I remember the neighbors and how life took place in those plazas where I used to play with my girlfriends. Most houses are abandoned or destroyed.
My own house as it turns out is in rubbles which trigger an acute pain. During the Syrian war, these areas surrounding the Turkish border had remained intact except for Kobane wrecked by the so-called Islamic State. Now it’s our turn. I try to open a remaining door to my house but I can’t. it’s empty, it’s destroyed, it’s deserted.
My family fled in 2013. Now everyone lives in Germany. I close my eyes and let souvenirs take me back to a different time. The spot where my mom used to sit, how we ate together in the yard, kids chasing one another. I get back into my car. An airplane is hovering and it gives me shivers, are they after us? The driver is racing now as if advised of imminent danger. Fortunately, we make it back okay.
Over two weeks, 300,000 people have escaped their villages. They are living is school premises. They have absolutely nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They thought they were gone for a few hours or perhaps a few days. They had no idea that this would last for months, years or forever. In the North of Syria, more than 60 schools are packed with refugees. This in turn keeps 100,000 children out of school. Each classroom shelters three to four families. The only help available comes front local NGOs – the international ones withdrew from this area because it presents “maximum danger.”
People are direly disillusioned. They think the war killed them anyway, that their deaths are only being postponed by an agreement or the other. Indeed, everyone has packed small bags of food and clothing, in case…
We fled too. Bombs fell very close to our home so we slept in the streets for a few nights. When bombs drop, people go on automatic-pilot, they grab the children and run out. But what to do when the attacks are taking place everywhere? You run towards the unknown along with strangers. But at a time when everything seems cold and harsh, people are helping each other. They share food, blankets or water. We can feel the same pain; we understand what others are going through.
I start writing about the war. It’s painful to try and convey the emotions or to describe people’s expressions. I write about my nephew who can’t sleep. he embraces me and says “auntie I don’t want to die.” It kills me each time he says that so I play videos and songs on my mobile phone to distract him from the rumble of war. “What did you bring along?” asks a boy to another who had fled his home. He had nothing so the other boy went and brought him a toy and they start playing together.
During the following month, I live with bombs and fear, I hear children cry, I see people looking for a safe place to hide. I share everyone’s pain and look at mothers as they bury their children.
Words fall short of conveying what war is. It’s impossible to fathom that a few weeks prior this was a peaceful area. It hurts to realize how betrayed and disillusioned people fill as the international community remains mute.
Rojava paid a heavy price in its fight against the Islamic state. More than 12,000 young people died trying to free Syria from the terrorists threatening us all. It is the same people who today is fighting one of the biggest army in the world.
I find that the media is not explaining what’s happening here. The international press left after the first week of conflict. So it’s up to citizens and local press that post their genocide on social media and share images from the daily life of five million people caught between one hatred and the other.
I have come home indeed, I stand close to the innumerable anonymous, people who suffer the war aren’t those who trigger it. But don’t we know this already? An eye for an eye still makes the world go blind and in more than one way.