One of the strangest things we saw upon entering the northern Syrian city of Afrin was the crowded marketplace. Just 18 kilometres away in the town of Bulbul there was a fierce fight going on between local military who control security here and the Turkish army. Yet here, in the centre of town, the market place was as crowded as any in the Iraqi Kurdish cities of Erbil or Sulaymaniyah.
We will not leave the city. Afrin will not fall,” the olive oil seller said defiantly
It had taken several days to get here. Afrin is a district in the Aleppo province of Syria but much of it has been under the control of Syrian Kurdish forces since 2012. To the Kurdish locals in this area, it is known as the Afrin canton and borders on areas of Syria controlled by the government and on Turkey. Up until recently Afrin was one of the safest parts of Syria during the long-running civil war here. Now, under attack from all sides – by Turkish troops from the Turkish border, by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces from Jarablus and under siege by the Syrian government – it has become one of the more dangerous.
The distance between Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan inside Iraq, and Afrin is around 750 kilometres. It’s extremely difficult to get there at the moment. But we were able to travel with a delegation of Iraqi Kurdish politicians who wanted to visit Afrin and after obtaining a permit on the Iraqi Kurdish borders we crossed to the Syrian side with no problems. The road is under the control of many different forces but we continued on quite normally until we got to the Syrian city of Qamishli.
There we had to stay a night, in order to obtain a further permit from the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, who control this area. We also had to change our car and our clothes, even our security detail, so that we did not arouse suspicions. It was almost like being in disguise. Nobody should know that we are actually Iraqis.
We then drove through Aleppo province. Here some of the neighbourhoods are now controlled by the Syrian military, others are still under the command of the SDF. Some parts of town house offices belonging to the Iranian government. In the areas under Iranian control, there are slogans such as: Death To America and Israel.
Beyond Aleppo, we passed through 36 consecutive Syrian army checkpoints, before we got to the area controlled by the SDF, that is commonly known as the de-facto, semi-autonomous region of Rojava. During this journey, we had to change our clothes, our car and our guards again - and more than once. We were actually in disguise at one stage.
Then once we got to the outskirts of Afrin, we had to stay in the basement of a bombed out building for several hours, before we were issued permits to enter the city itself. We finally arrived in Afrin on February 10.
A Syrian army checkpoint.
We travelled with several Iraqi Kurdish politicians going to look at the city too, as part of an official delegation from the Iraqi Kurdish parliament.
“We haven’t yet entered the city, so it is hard to say what the situation is,” Shirko Hama Amin, an MP from the Iraqi Kurdish party, the Change movement, told us. “But we are sure that Afrin won’t fall, because its people won’t leave. That is why it is important that international organizations and the international community help them. Getting here,” the politician continued, “is like being in a long, feverish dream.”
Once we arrived in the centre of town, we were surprised. It was bustling. “Afrin will not fall,” Sharfan Hassoun, a local who owns a store selling olive oil, told NIQASH. “Yes, there is buying and selling, and the markets are stable,” he said. “But it’s true that there is fighting and that there are battles on the borders, with a member of NATO attacking us. Comrades are fighting back though, and we are defending the city. We will not leave the city. Afrin will not fall,” he said defiantly.
There is a decrease in grocery and other items in the city due to the informal siege of Afrin on the Syrian government side. The people of the city are apparently waiting for their leaders to do a deal with the Syrian government, in order to allow food and medical supplies in.
The SDF have tried to distance themselves from the PKK, a controversial group that has been fighting for Kurdish independence and rights in Turkey for years, in an ongoing conflict that has seen tens of thousands of both Turkish and Kurdish deaths. In fact, the PKK is categorised as a terrorist organisation by some Western nations. Nonetheless here in Afrin, just looking at the murals, it’s clear that there is a connection.
“We are so determined that Afrin will not fall,” says Nazi Mesto, a 19-year-old woman at the market. “We will all defend it,” she said, noting that while soldiers are on the borders fighting, the people of the city are doing their part by sending them food and other supplies.
In fact, some locals almost seem to be relishing the chance to engage with the enemy. Another of the strangest things we saw was people going out onto the roofs of buildings in Afrin and cheering when Turkish fighter jets flew overhead, instead of hiding in shelters. We speculated that this might be due to their willingness to act as human shields or that it was a way to boost morale here.
Then again, even in funeral processions, some locals seemed to be celebrating. This was because the person had died defending the Kurdish homeland, they told us.
As yet, it seems the Turkish planes have not targeted the more densely populated parts of Afrin. Many of the buildings around here are undamaged. The only really significant destruction we saw was in Ain Dara, south-east of the city, which had been badly damaged by air strikes.
One does see the impact of the fighting in other ways. Every day, cars arrive in Afrin carrying the dead and wounded, who are taken to a temporary cemetery and the hospital respectively. Every two days special services are held to farewell the dead in the cemetery. The temporary graveyard is named after Avista Khabur, a female fighter who blew herself up to stop the advance of a Turkish tank.
A picture and a video of the funeral of 18 fighters from the People's and Women's Protection Units
On February 13, we were close to Afrin hospital when four rockets fell. We were told that one civilian had been killed and four others wounded by the air strike. Afrin hospital gave out statistics for the number of dead and wounded civilians. They say that 111 men, 17 women and 26 children have been killed and that 305 men, 63 women and 45 children have been wounded since the fighting began. The hospital won’t give out numbers for military casualties though, for security reasons. The head of the hospital, Khalil Sabri, told NIQASH that the informal siege on Afrin has stopped medical supplies from getting through. “We are asking international organisations to help us with this,” he said.
A young patient in Afrin's hospital.
Despite the major trial it had been to get to Afrin, in general, our movement inside the city was fairly normal. Civilians and foreigners were not allowed to go anywhere near Afrin’s borders though; the council’s Mustafa told us that there had been a lot of fighting there but that the SDF had prevented the Turkish advance.
“We are fighting with passion,” says Brusk Hasakeh, a spokesperson for the military arm of the SDF, the so-called Popular, or People’s Protection Units. “Turkey has started to attack us with sophisticated NATO weapons, but we will not let Afrin fall.”
Shortly after meeting with Hasakeh, we left Afrin to return to comparative safety in Iraq, currently one of the more peaceful countries in the Middle East.