“For weeks, more than 100,000 civilians from the Syrian-Kurdish enclave of Afrin have found what shelter they can, making 12 formerly abandoned villages home.
Families sleep rough or in half-destroyed houses littered with hidden explosives, after fleeing a months-long push by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels to claim the city of Afrin and the surrounding area – part of a wider Kurdish enclave of the same name. Shortly after those military operations succeeded, in late March, photojournalist Afshin Ismaeli spent a week visiting Tel Rifaat (about 30 kilometres southeast of Afrin) and other villages.
Having escaped aerial bombardment and advancing ground forces, the people he encountered face new dangers: hunger, sickness, and the legacy of improvised explosive devices left by the so-called Islamic State, whose fighters once occupied the villages. Families begged him to take their children to a safe place, hoping to ensure their survival.
The UN has estimated that 137,000 people from the Afrin district have been displaced to the villages and surrounding area, including some 105,000 in and around Tel Rifaat.
Ismaeli said he saw only Syrian and Kurdish Red Crescent volunteers providing assistance, but the major international aid organisations often distribute their aid through local partners. The World Health Organisation said it had sent four mobile health teams to Tel Rifaat and several other villages, and delivered 10 tonnes of medical supplies. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, stated in a 25 March report that it had participated in an inter-agency convoy, delivering non-food items in 30 trucks.
With Afrin under Turkish-backed control and Turkey now threatening to extend its military operations, many people sheltering in the towns fear the conflict will reach them yet again. Some families are already packing, ready to flee, Ismaeli said. But with Turkish armed forces and members of the Free Syrian Army on one side of towns like Tel Rifaat and Syrian government forces on the other, it’s difficult for civilians to know where to head.
“Airstrikes destroyed our house, and then they stole everything we had,” said Arat Sik, 30, a former resident of Afrin. “We can never go back.” Worried about more airstrikes, his family is living outside, believing that is safest.
The following photographs tell his story and that of others who have taken up residence in what were, until recently, nearly ghost towns – themselves emptied of inhabitants after earlier conflicts.