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Ghaith al-Ahmad

Kurds lead campaign to displace Arabs in Tal Abyad

Fighting and ethnic cleansing has created a massive exodus from the Tal Abyad region [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 July, 2015

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Video: Reports are emerging that Kurdish forces are displacing Arabs in the Tal Abyad region in the wake of the Islamic State group's retreat.

Kurdish armed groups are reportedly forcing the Arab inhabitants of the Tal Abyad region to leave their homes after taking control of the region earlier this week.

Mohammad Abbas left his village after he received threats by phone and online from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) after Islamic State group fighters fled.

His village, al-Salib, is in the Tal Abyad region, near the Turkish-Syrian border, and has a population of about 2,000.

Al-Salib is one of nearly 630 villages in the Tal Abyad region. Most are Arab, but a few are Kurdish and Turkmen. According to Abbas, a number of villages, including al-Salib, Bandar Khan, Ahmadiyah, and others, have been completely deserted by their inhabitants following the YPG threats.

Many villagers belong to the Saramida clan. After June 15, they sought shelter with their relatives from the same clan across the border in Turkey.

Village leaders tried to negotiate with the YPG but to no avail. They were told the people of the village were collaborating with the IS.


Abbas said someone had tried to return to the village a few days ago, but YPG forces stopped him.

The YPG fighters are understood to have cited a variety of reasons for preventing the Arab and Turkmen population from returning to the villages, claiming at times that they had pledged allegiance to the IS, and at others that the entire region belonged originally to the Kurds.

They say the Syrian regime cleansed the area from Kurds decades ago, and gave the land to Arabs to alter its demographic configuration.

"If the Syrian regime had brought the Arabs to the villages in Syria, then who brought us to our villages on the Turkish side?" asked Khalil al-Hamdi, an elder from the Samarida clan now living in Turkey.

Hamdi said the clan had inhabited the area for hundreds of years, long before borders were drawn between Turkey and Syria.

The majority of villagers left in the direction of Raqqa after the YPG capture of their areas, while the remainder went to Turkey.

Exodus

According to Turkish estimates, 23,000 Syrians from Tal Abyad have crossed the border.

Ahmad al-Haj Saleh, an activist documenting violations in the area, said the fighting began in early June. Until 13 June, he said, the joint forces were treating the civilians well, even offering them food for free.

Haj Saleh said on 13 June, however, the YPG forced the people of the Arab village of Zahla, 12km south of Tal Abyad, to leave their homes.


On July 15, the same happened in the Arab village of Qara Sharaf, in the Raqqa countryside.

The activist said villages had been looted. Following repeated incidents against Arab villages, a female officer from the YPG apologised to the locals and asked them to return to their villages, according to Haj Saleh.

But on 23 June, the YPG reportedly told the people of the village of Hammam al-Turkman to leave, giving them an ultimatum with a 24-hour deadline. If they failed to comply, they were told coalition airstrikes on the village would follow.

According to the testimonies of several people who reached the Turkish side on the same night, along with 200 civilians including a large number of women and children, a car bomb was detonated on the morning of 22 June in the village outside a YPG position.

That afternoon, YPG officers told the locals through mosque loudspeakers that they needed to evacuate the village or risk coalition airstrikes.

Village leaders tried to negotiate with the YPG but to no avail. They were reportedly told by the YPG that the people of the village had been collaborating with IS.

On the same day, the YPG forces withdrew from the village, triggering concerns among the locals over airstrikes. The locals decided to pack up and leave to neighbouring villages in Turkey.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed’s
team tried to reach the city of Tal Abyad on 22 June, but the YPG would not let it enter the area.

"There are seven villages that belong to the [Kurdish] Kardo clan, but the Syrian regime transferred them to the Arabs in 1958 under the Agricultural Reform Act," a YPG officer who asked not to be named told al-Araby.

"The law transferred a large proportion of Kurdish lands to Arabs to alter the demographic configuration of the area.

"There are many lands in Raqqa, Aleppo and Hasaka that belong to Kurdish families, all of which will be reclaimed.

Activists affiliated to the Syrian opposition had fled when IS captured their villages, fearing revenge from the radical group.


"The Free Syrian Army and other factions including the Nusra Front and IS emptied many Kurdish villages, but we will work on returning all displaced Kurds to their homes."

Khaled al-Nasser, a judge, said the Agricultural Reform Act affected both Arab and Kurdish landowners, whose lands were transferred to farmers from the same area or farmers brought in from other areas.

The policy had not targeted Kurdish landowners, he said.

Fear and intimidation

Most of the 30 families who spoke to al-Araby near the Turkish border suggested the main reason for leaving their villages was fear of the YPG.

There had been threats made, including on social media, in which pictures of "wanted" locals were posted by unofficial pages affiliated to the Kurdish factions, accusing locals of links to the IS and/or harming Kurds.

This is in addition to their concerns over continued clashes and airstrikes.

There were also fears of booby traps left behind by the IS before their retreat.

Some witnesses also said YPG forces arrested some locals, some of whom remain in detention.

According to most of the testimonies, a limited number of villagers were supportive of the IS group, while the majority were just trying to keep their heads down and get by under IS control.

Activists affiliated to the Syrian opposition fled when IS captured their villages, fearing revenge from the radical group.

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has since formed a fact-finding committee to investigate the events in Tal Abyad and surrounding villages. The committee comprises members of the SNC, delegates from the interim Syrian Ministry of Justice and human rights groups, including Kurdish organisations.

However, the YPG did not allow the committee members to enter the city. The YPG is demanding an apology for the SNC describing the group as "terrorists" in return for letting the SNC enter.

The committee was formed after accusations surfaced that the YPG were ethnically cleansing Arab and Turkmen villages after expelling IS. A UN commission will also investigate the humanitarian crisis in Tal Abyad, and is set to begin its work in August.

In the meantime, IS has issued an ultimatum to all Kurds in the city of Raqqa to leave within 72 hours.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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