ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Ahmad and his daughter Berivan are from Afrin. They are among the first refugees from the city to reach Erbil since Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies seized the northeast Syrian canton in March.

Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch on January 20 with the stated aim of pushing the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) back from the Turkish border.

The UN estimates 137,000 Afrin civilians have been displaced by the conflict. Many have been blocked from returning to their homes, while others trying to flee to Aleppo have been turned back.

Ahmad, a 62-year-old veterinary doctor, paid smugglers to take him, his wife, and their 16-year-old daughter to safety, first to Aleppo, then Qamishli, then across the border into the Kurdistan Region.

Now staying with relatives in Erbil while Ahmad tries to find work and enroll Berivan in a local school, the family describes their ordeal.

“There were threats from Turkey, but the citizens did not take them seriously,” Ahmad told Rudaw English.

“But the [ruling PYD] was expecting it, because there were hints proving the Turkish attack on Afrin. It was obvious, from digging trenches, warehouses for supplies and food, arranging meetings with the citizens saying keep enough food in your houses. So the hints of the attack were obvious, but the citizens were not expecting an attack.”

Ahmad vividly describes the outbreak of war as Turkish forces began bombarding the city.

“The bombing started on January 18, then the artillery bombing started and the roads were closed. Until the 18th, supplies were still imported to Afrin. After the 18th, all the roads were closed… So people started to get scared as these were the hints, and the artillery bombing started. On the 20th, the air force bombing started, and they officially declared a war.

“The people got frightened. There were people who tried to flee Afrin in the first 3-4 days, trying to escape, but the party wouldn’t let them. Even the regime would stop them. But they could make it to Aleppo through smuggling – of course, only the ones who had money, and those who didn’t, they stayed suffering inside Afrin. The bombing, suffering, and lack of supplies were expanding day by day until we could make it out of Afrin.”

Ahmad’s daughter Berivan recounts living under the Turkish bombardment.

“I would get frightened, when the war first started and we heard sounds, we were not used to it,” she told Rudaw English.

“First of all I would always think about my mother, as she is sick. I would always think something might happen to her. I would try to calm her down, would forget about everything like the airplanes and the sounds. I had so much fear within me. But mostly I would be afraid about my mother, and I would calm her down, tell her don’t be scared.”

Berivan’s mother is now in Sulaimani receiving treatment. The tenth-grade student is grateful her family is safe.

“Yes, sure I’m lucky, because so many children and families are unable to get out of Afrin because of their financial circumstances. I’m lucky for sure that among thousands of families I could make it out to a safe place,” she said.

Turkey and FSA have different agendas 

When Olive Branch forces entered Afrin, images began to emerge of soldiers looting homes and businesses abandoned by fleeing civilians. Ankara condemned the looting.

Ahmad is outraged by the behaviour of the Syrian opposition forces, regarding them as opportunist thieves.

“They would even loot chickens and goats. There are videos and pictures of them looting goats. In fact, they don’t care about anything. They are robbers and thieves, nothing more than that,” said Ahmad.

“The Turkish state is using them as mercenaries. In fact, they went there for looting… Let them loot everything, let them loot my house and everything, but let these people stay in their homes peacefully. That’s what we want, nothing more than that. Just let the people stay in their homes in peace. Let them loot everything, no problem.”

Besides looting, Olive Branch forces also destroyed the statue of Kawa the Blacksmith – a central figure in Kurdish mythology. Many saw Kawa’s destruction as a deliberate act of cultural cleansing.

Ahmad thinks the FSA destroyed the statue at the behest of Turkey, which he believes came to fight the Kurdish nation.

“My feeling is that it’s not a good thing at all. They came to loot everything, but the statue is a symbol of remembering an event for this nation,” said Ahmad.

“They came to fight the nation, not the PYD or some other party. No, this is not their aim. This is the aim of the Turks for sure, not the aim of the FSA. Because the FSA doesn’t care about Kawa’s statue. Their aim is looting and stealing, while the Turkish agenda is different to the FSA’s agenda for sure.

“Most people got more upset about the statue, more than their houses. It’s just a statue, but it has a moral meaning. So we got upset about that statue more than we got upset about looting the belongings in our houses and our car.”

The international community accused Turkey of destabilizing an area of relative peace within Syria and of undermining efforts to defeat ISIS. However, they failed to enforce a UN-brokered ceasefire or compel Turkey to halt its advance.

Aid agencies are struggling to reach displaced civilians.

“What will they give you? Some water? Whatever!” Ahmad scoffed. “You can eat some grass, you will survive. What people actually need is security.

“People want to return so there won’t be any camps left. They will return. They just need safety. Then everything will go back to normal … Safety is the most important thing. We want the international community to provide safety and peace for us in Afrin.”

‘I won’t return’ 

Now they are out of immediate danger, the family must consider their next move.

“If I find work I might stay here for a year or two years until the situation in Afrin improves,” said Ahmad. “Whenever the situation in Afrin gets better, I will go back there.”

“Sorry, but we have been working in Afrin for 40 years, and we lost everything in one week. My daughters were studying in their fourth university year. Everything is gone. One daughter is left who still has her future ahead of her.”

Berivan is unsure what that future will look like, her mind fixed on studying medicine but her heart set on fashion design. One thing is for sure – she refuses to go back to Afrin.

“I don’t know. Maybe we will not go back,” she said, aware of her father sitting next to her. “As for me personally, my future will be destroyed there, because I always have to think about my future. I won’t return.”