Syrians return to liberated Jarabulus to rebuild their lives

Published October 22nd, 2016 - 10:53 GMT
Syrian refugees walk on their way back to the Syrian city of Jarabulus on September 7, 2016. (AFP/File)
Syrian refugees walk on their way back to the Syrian city of Jarabulus on September 7, 2016. (AFP/File)

Freeing Syrian territory from Islamic State [Daesh] might have been the easy part. Now, Turkey must build something sustainable on the land it controls in the north of Syria, its troubled neighbour.

Many of the Syrians heading back to Jarabulus - a town the Turkish army and Syrian rebels took from Daesh in August - were living in make-shift camps for displaced people or struggling to make ends meet as refugees in Turkey. They are weak, beaten by conflict.

"I worked in construction in Istanbul, but I was not making any money. Life in Turkey is hard. I think life will be easier back in Syria," says 22-year-old Firas. He studied mathematics at college before the war forced him to become a refugee.

He and his friends were queuing on the Turkish side of a border crossing in Karkamis, ready to make the one-way trip. Those who cross forfeit their right to come back to Turkey - a risky move, given the instability of the nascent free city.

On the opposite side sits Jarabulus. Three years of Islamic State rule has all but ruined the impoverished, dusty town. Residents say jobs are few and far between and people rely on handouts for survival.

In the two months since Turkey took control, Jarabulus has yet to receive the economic jolt it needs to become a viable heart of what Turkey hopes will be a sustainable safe zone in the north of Syria.

For now, Turkey supplies the food, water and electricity. Schools are starting to open, but children sit at empty desks due to the lack of books and other supplies.

Classes are attended by young girls - unthinkable under Islamic State's harsh religious code.

Some of the children bear the psychological scars of war and displacement. One child, his face twisted in confusion, struggles to answer a basic question.

"Where am I from? I don't know where I am from," says 6-year-old Ahmed.

Despite the hardship, thousands of Syrians have returned to the town since August, most of them from other parts of Syria. Some say they came simply because there is access to humanitarian aid.

Fatma Firas moved to Jarabulus with her six children about a month ago from a Syrian city to the south. Her husband was killed by Islamic State for resistence to its vicious rule.

"They took my husband from the house. I never heard from him again," she says. She now lives in a dilapidated ruin in Jarablus. She has no furniture and few items of clothing.

"At least I get food and water," she says. It is uncertain what will happen if the house's original owner returns and demands his land back.

The head of the local council, Mohammed Habash, says Islamic State fighters partially dismantled the town's main bakery before fleeing the impending Turkish army.

He has been waiting for weeks for replacement parts in order to get the facility up and running again. "We need bread. It is really urgent," he says.

His council is not elected but was appointed by the largest Arab tribes in the area. Originally, Jarabulus was home to a melange of Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds.

Habash admits that the Turkish policy of bringing in displaced Syrians from around the country is changing the town's demographics. The original inhabits now make up only a fraction of the population and their percentage will continue to dwindle as newcomers arrive.

"Jarabulus is changing. It will never be the same. People are coming from many areas. We welcome this, we have to help our brothers, but we need more assistance. We have just come from war," he says, before runshing off to the local make-shift hospital to meet constituents.

Besides the civilians, the town is flooded with militants, the Turkish-backed rebels who moved in as Islamic State fled. Less visible, but still present, is the Turkish military, the backbone of the operation.

Many of the rebels are ethnic Turkmen who are particularly keen to move on to fight the main Syrian Kurdish militia. Some secular Arab fighters want to continue the battle against Islamic State.

Others hope to refocus on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the man the 2011 uprising sought to remove from power.

They aspire to break the siege of eastern Aleppo, a key rebel stronghold that is being battered by Russian and Syrian government airstrikes just 60 kilometres away.

What most of the fighters have in common is that they are not from Jarabulus. Many express their desire to return to frontline as soon as possible. Policing traffic in an sleepy village is not for them.

By Shabtai Gold

© 2022 dpa GmbH

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