Displaced from Eastern Ghouta, Syrians seek refuge in emptied Afrin

Vastavam web: Displaced from her home in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, Umaima al-Sheikh and her family sought refuge in an abandoned house across the country in Afrin.The traditionally Kurdish town had been emptied of its residents just weeks earlier, after a brutal Turkish-led offensive forced tens of thousands to flee.”No one wants to live in a house that isn’t theirs, or use other people’s belongings,” said Sheikh.”We all want to be in our own homes, our own towns, but the situation forced us to settle in a house that isn’t ours,” Sheikh told AFP in a leafy park in the town.

“The homes we left behind are now being lived in by other people, too. This is the case for everyone in Syria, not just us,” she said.Since war broke out in 2011, half of Syria’s population has been displaced, including more than five million outside the country and another six million internally.Among them are rebels and civilians transferred en masse from one bombed opposition area to another under “reconciliation” agreements.The offensive by Turkish-backed rebels sparked a wave of accusations that Ankara was guilty of ethnic engineering, by resettling Syrian Arabs into Afrin after pushing out Syrian Kurds.

As many as 35,000 people have taken refuge in the Afrin region, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.Some live in a pair of refugee camps in a rural area, but many have moved into the town’s empty and ruined homes.”We left Ghouta and lost our homes, land, and work. We were forced to leave Ghouta, and we also came here in a forced way,” said Haymur.

With help from rebel military police, he and his family have squatted in several Afrin homes but their owners have arrived and asked them to leave.The owner of the abandoned block where he lives now has allowed them to stay temporarily, Haymur told AFP.Ahmad al-Buri, 19, was displaced to Afrin from the outskirts of Ghouta’s largest town of Douma.”If the owner of this house comes back and we have to leave, I don’t know what we’ll do. We’ll have to find another home or go to a camp,” he shrugged.

Those camps house an estimated 10,000 people, according to the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination office (OCHA), which also confirmed the house-squatting.”While some are paying rent, reports of internally displaced people residing in empty houses without obtaining the permission of their owners continue to emerge,” it said.”There are families from Ghouta that come to our neighbourhood. We talk to each other,” he told AFP.

“They can come into Afrin but people originally from here cannot enter,” said Khalil, whose friends escaped the town during clashes but have been unable to return.A pair of Turkish-backed rebels guard one access route, checking the vehicles coming in and out.OCHA has expressed increasing concern over “protracted displacement” from Afrin as security operations continue.”There are strangers living in my nephew’s house who won’t leave,” said Mahmoud Hassan, 58, a farmer in Afrin.”People from Ghouta are good people, we can talk to them and there’s peace between us,” he told AFP.