Shiler Sido will never forget where she was when NATO’s second-largest army attacked her hometown.
“I was at home, doing my regular routine, when all of a sudden, a massive explosion happened. The Turkish warplanes had attacked a nearby village called Tirinde, just three kilometers away from the city centre. The attacks caused the burning of tens of vehicles, trucks that were working in a stone quarry. Black smoke covered the whole city. The attack was massive.”
Sido, a human rights activist, is from Afrin, a small, historically Kurdish-majority region in northwestern Syria known for its bountiful olive groves and historic sites spanning thousands of years of civilization.
As Syria plunged into civil war in 2011, Afrin was spared the violence that engulfed the rest of the country. Its people are proud of their sense of coexistence and tolerance: Sido, who has both Kurdish and Armenian heritage, recalls spending time with friends of many ethnic and religious backgrounds and being free to work as a woman.
The Kurdish-led local administration in Afrin, which declared autonomy in 2014, reflected those values: it passed laws protecting women’s rights and religious freedom, took in IDPs fleeing war and extremism elsewhere, and strove to build democracy even holding elections in late 2017.
“[After 2011, Afrin had] turned into a bustling city full with life and movement…it became a city very similar to Aleppo. Kurdish industrialists who used to work in Aleppo returned to Afrin and opened factories and workshops, and university graduates and academics also returned to it,” says economist Çeleng Omer.
Omer was a lecturer at Afrin University, which was founded in 2015 to meet the region’s growing need for educated professionals. “Initially, the university consisted of 3 faculties and a number of institutes, and in the following year, 3 other faculties were added,” he explains.
Sido had been an educator as well, teaching English in local schools. “I had a center for teaching languages…I was able to establish a full independent life, a life full of projects, along with many other independent women in our city. We always worked to make our city a better place.”
But in January 2018, everything changed.
“At first, we didn’t believe that it would happen,” Sido tells me. Turkey had been threatening Afrin for months before the invasion began. But Russian forces had guaranteed Afrin’s security, and Syrian Kurds, she says, were used to Turkish threats and war propaganda.
“You know, we were shocked by the massive attack, especially when we heard that the Russians had withdrawn from Afrin, paving the way for the Turkish army to invade a peaceful city.”
Omer and his colleagues were preparing mid-term exams for their students when the war began.
“Because of the intensity of the bombardment and the indiscriminate targeting of public facilities, we were unable to complete the exams. Of course, university students were unable to complete their studies—some of whom had one year left to graduate. The entire educational process stopped,” he says.
No Afrin resident wanted to flee. Support for the fierce resistance put up by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) was high, and many people feared that, if they left, they might never return.
“Afrin’s people decided to defend their city no matter what, until the last breath,” Sido explains. “But the attacks were unprecedented.”
Civilians fled the villages along Afrin’s borders first, pouring into Afrin city in large numbers and huddling in basements to hide from Turkish airstrikes and the extremist Syrian National Army militiamen used as ground forces. Every day, they mourned YPG and YPJ martyrs who had fallen on the frontlines and innocent men, women and children murdered in indiscriminate attacks. The bombing destroyed civilian infrastructure, shutting off the city’s water supply. In the final days of the invasion, Turkey even targeted Afrin’s main hospital.
Turkish officials never admitted to a single crime. To this day, they maintain that they only targeted terrorists in Afrin—a falsehood that disgusts Afrin residents.
“I want to make it clear that Erdogan’s allegation, that he was targeting only military bases, is a big lie, and was a big lie, and is still a big lie,” Sido says. “Children, women, elderly people were killed without mercy.”
Sido and Omer saw their city for the last time four years ago this week. Like many Afrinis, they left only when they had no other choice. Sido had remained in Afrin for fifty-six days of the fifty-eight-day war. Omer stayed for fifty-four.
“During the first days after the occupation, it was very painful. I was among hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced people in the al-Shahba area, north of Aleppo. People were unaware of where they [could] go? The Syrian regime did not allow them to go to Aleppo,” Omer explains.
Sido was displaced to Shahba too, where she lives today. “We had no choice but to flee our homes, lest we fall captive into the hands of these pro-Turkey Islamist thugs,” she says. The sadness is clear in her voice when she describes how her family joined thousands of others on the one open road out of Afrin, never to return.