Forced To Flee, Kurds In Syria Fear They May Never Return Home

Turkey has forced the Syrian Kurds into an astonishing trap, leaving hundreds of thousands with little choice but to flee.

Syrian children in Tell Abyad after a Turkish and Syrian-led offensive
Syrian children in Tell Abyad after a Turkish and Syrian-led offensive
Allan Kaval

BARDARASH — Ten days before crossing the Iraqi border, 37-year-old Mahmoud Issa was giving English classes at a school in the Kurdish and Arab village Ras al-Ayn, in northeastern Syria. Today, he's eating rice doused in tomato sauce from a plastic box under a hanger belonging to the Peshmerga, the Kurdish Iraqi armed forces, near a village lost in the charred, meandering hills between Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Turkish bombs have begun falling nearby and radical Muslim groups on Ankara's payroll have crossed the border. The images of the abuse, humiliation and executions they inflict have spread terror throughout the region. The Syrian regime has begun its retreat to the northeast.

Discarded along with about 300,000 other Syrians in the northeast, Mahmoud Issa wandered from town to town before deciding what to do: "In Syria, with the regime, plus the Turks and ISIS all taking advantage of the current situation, nothing is good anymore…" The only option left is the uncertain, often dangerous route of exile. He's seen his country close in on him like a trap — and on his wife and children, who are younger than the war itself. They had no choice but to leave.

And so the English teacher made his way towards the border, through the steppes where nothing grows from the earth except heavy columns of black smoke that mark the clandestine refineries of petrol traffickers, towards the villages with low-lying houses and the lost roads where every night, darkness is an accomplice to smugglers, armed shadows, and every type of killer.

In Syria, nothing is good anymore.

Like hundreds of other refugees who have arrived at this camp in Bardarash, Iraq, Mahmoud Issa had to put the fate of his family in the hands of the lords of the troubled border: Bedouins from the Shammar tribe, a group formerly known for their camel breeding. They're now renowned smugglers who, for $750 (675 euros), brought the teacher's family via mule to the Peshmerga on the Iraqi side. The Kurdish fighters took them in along with dozens of other Kurdish Syrian refugee families.

That night, approximately 1,000 people — men, women and children — crossed the border. Two days later, on Oct. 22, they were close to 1,300, bringing the number of Syrian refugees passing into Iraqi Kurdistan to 7,100 in one week, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Kurdish protesters in London on Oct. 20 — Photo: Steve Taylor/SOPA Images/ZUMA

"In 2013, I already had to flee when al-Nostra the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda took control of Ras al-Ayn. We came back when the comrades chased them away," recalls Mahmoud. The "comrades' are the Kurdish fighters in Syria, a name that evokes a distant Marxist-Leninist period in their movement. "The gangs sent against us by Turkey aren't any different from al-Nostra," he says. "But this time, we don't know if they can be pushed back by our forces…"

Same beards, same radical Muslim slogans, same brutality, same taste for humiliations. Their abuse and terror are broadcast on social media almost daily. This new enemy looks a lot like the last one. But now it's backed by the aviation, artillery and intelligence of a NATO army: The Turkish Republic.

"Every night, the number of people crossing the border grows thanks to smugglers," says Abdulwahab Walid Salim, an employee of Barzani, a charitable humanitarian organization linked to the Iraqi Kurdish authorities that is at the forefront of the beginning of this Syrian Kurdish exile.

Same beards, same radical Muslim slogans, same brutality, same taste for humiliations.

"The Turkish intervention, the regime's return, the fear of armed radical Muslim groups supported by Turkey … They don't see any other option except exile," he adds in perfect French, thanks to 25 years of working with French NGOs in the region.

Last night, on the Peshmerga side, these humanitarians took in a panicked family. During their midnight mule ride over the border, an infant fell from its mother's arms along a bumpy part of the road. A few hours later, the baby's cries allowed a search team to find it in the dark night.

Since 2014 and the population displacement due to the war against ISIS, the area has been swarming with stray dogs, abandoned by fleeing families, farmers and sheep breeders. The hanger where today's Syrian refugees are having lunch dates back to the very same war — originally set up by the UNHCR, the facility is back in service.

And this is only the beginning of a crisis on track to intensify. "On the Syrian side, their families are waiting for news, to know how things are over here before coming to join," says Abdulwahab Walid Salim. "I don't see what would stop this movement of the population."

It's the end of Kurds in Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), predominantly Kurd, are nonetheless trying. For them, limiting the influx of refugees is vital and they intend to stop it by force, blocking access to the border as much as possible. In times of war, every adult that leaves means the loss of one more potential fighter to help face the adversaries. Every child that crosses to the other side is one less Kurd in the region's demography.

For Damascus, reducing the Kurdish presence in the Syrian northeast is an old strategic goal that dates to the 1970s, brought about by the installation of Arab populations as well as oppressive administrative measures that made the many Kurds in the region outcasts in the Syrian Arab Republic. The goal was never totally achieved — but it may happen soon, the Syrian Kurds fear.

"It's the end of Kurds in Syria," stated a refugee from Ras al-Ayn who wished to remain anonymous. The city is included in the "safety zone" that Turkey wanted according to the terms of the temporary, vaguely-defined ceasefire established during U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence's Oct. 17 visit to Ankara. But Oct. 21, Ras al-Ayn was evacuated by the Kurdish forces. Indeed, it's precisely because of this agreement that many decided to flee.

For Mahmoud Issa, who crossed the border with a dozen family members, Turkey has begun an irreversible demographic shift. "The Turks have entered two cities and there are over 300,000 people leaving. They're not going to stop there … Their goal is to empty Syria of its Kurds. Arabs will go back to the cities that they've taken. But for us, that's now impossible."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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