The residents of villages lying along a critical Syrian border were once forced to flee their homes due to terror wreaked by ISIS, but for those that made the decision to return, they now face a new enemy: the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
For years, Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian Christian villages housed families living side-by-side amicably in the town of Tal Tamr, in western al-Hasakah Governorate, northeastern Syria. Now they live in fear of Turkish militias which hunker down not far away.
Since the 2019 invasion by Turkey, Syrian rebel forces, backed by Turkish airstrikes and artillery have continued to push on against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) capturing villages on the outskirts of Tal Tamr and threatening the town itself.
Residents of the surrounding villages are leaving in masses as the fighting draws closer.
Those that have chosen to stay tell of homes demolished by airstrikes, of killing and stabbings.
In a new 11-part series, Al Arabiya goes into camps and villages in Syria and Iraq where journalist Rola al-Khatib sits down with former ISIS members and their families, former members of the Syrian government forces and residents in the two countries to tell their stories in the latest “Face to Face” interview.
In the third episode, ‘Face-to-Face: Turkey in Syria,’ Al Arabiya spoke to residents of Tal Tamr, many of whom survive with no, or limited, running water and electricity.
One resident describes how her house was attacked by shells during an airstrike carried out by the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army. For months, her and her family have lived in fear – not only of air attacks, but brutality on the ground.
“(It is) the Free Syrian Army, who else would want to harm us, attack us? The bombing hit us,” she told Al Arabiya.
Showing the remains of her house, the woman demonstrated how she lives in just two rooms unscathed in the attack with her daughter and her grandchildren. He home – like many others - lacks furniture, and even doors and windows. There is frequent shelling and airstrikes on the villages around Tal Tamr.
Another spoke to Al Arabiya on the 32-kilometer line that separates the villages from the Turkish enemy.
Another resident, only giving her first name – Mariam - spoke from her home in the village of Tal Jumaa. Despite the threats of bombings, she told Al Arabiya that she refused to leave her home.
“We are strong, we do not leave! We do not leave!” she said.
But many fellow villagers have fled, she added.
Another, an Assyrian Christian, who agreed to talk to Al Arabiya too spoke of her refusal to leave the place she calls home.
“Whether there is bombing or not we are staying here,” she said. “Where are we supposed to go? “This is our property, this is our land, these are our houses.
“We do not want to go anywhere; we will stay home.”
The mother-of-four says two of her children have stayed in the village. Her other two have moved abroad.
Many others have fled the village, especially those with daughters, according to the residents.
Another local resident said families feared their daughters would be kidnapped by the Free Syrian Army and have left to seek refuge elsewhere.
“They are scared. Anyone who had one or two girls at home left.”
Once the village was bustling, said another resident, a young Syrian.
He said after ISIS left the area, many villagers who had fled returned.
But the arrival of the Free Syrian Army meant many were forced to leave their homes for a second time as rebel forces continue to fight over the geopolitical border.
“Tal Taweel was a demarcation line since 2015. It was one of the most sensitive areas during the war or at frontlines, the same events are happening again now,” the resident said. “The villagers’ lands here are on the demarcation line between us and the Turkish forces or between us and the mercenaries. What we are fighting now is an enemy with great technologies and heavy weapons and developed military power.”
'A new ISIS'
As shelling and gunfire peppers the skies, a group of young Syrian men make plans to leave for safety.
One spoke of an era of a ‘new ISIS’ – the same threats weary Syrians have faced for years, but now under a different guise.
“What we experienced today is, of course, just a part of our daily events,” he said. “Today, of course, what we are seeing is ISIS returning with different names. Before it was Daesh terroristic organization today it is Sultan Murad or Ahrar al-Sharqiya, etc.”