With tears in her eyes, Rasheeda Ali said she would not celebrate the Kurdish New Year this week after she and her family were forced to flee under fire from Syria’s Afrin.
The annual Nowruz holiday which was being marked on Wednesday had always been a time for Syrian Kurdish families to gather together and mark new beginnings, but this year is different.
Tens of thousands have been left homeless after abandoning their homes and loved ones in the northwestern city of Afrin, now controlled by Turkish troops and allied fighters.
The fall of Afrin on Sunday was a major blow for Syria’s Kurds, who have proudly run autonomous local governments since 2013 — finally speaking Kurdish and marking customs long banned by the Damascus government.
With her hometown overrun, Nowruz this year is nothing but “tragedy and displacement,” Ali said, a mauve scarf wrapped around her hair and her eyes moist with tears.
“Death would have been easier than leaving our home,” said the 40-year-old Arabic language teacher, in an area outside Afrin that is jointly held by Kurds and the Syrian regime.
“I left my home — which looks like a palace — and now I live in this house with 50 other people,” she said, gesturing to the small room in a collective shelter in the Ziyara area.
Children huddled around her as she spoke. A mattress was propped up against a wall behind her and scant belongings were stacked on bare metal shelves.
Around 100,000 civilians streamed out of Afrin, using the only escape route available into government-held zones to the south and east, the UN says.
They hit the road on foot, in cars, on motorbikes and in pickup trucks, with what little belongings they could carry or cram into their vehicles.
Once in regime territory, they sought shelter in mosques, schools and buildings under construction.
Some have nowhere at all to go and have been sleeping in their vehicles, others are still on roadsides sleeping in the open.
For Syria’s Kurds, Nowruz symbolizes the deliverance of Kurdish people from a mythical tyrant — but that was hard to imagine now.
“I’ll never forget fleeing. Looking back and getting a last glimpse of Afrin, feeling helpless and torn,” said 38-year-old Rohan, also displaced.
“Away from Afrin, Nowruz means nothing. Afrin was our paradise,” she told AFP in the nearby Zahraa area.
In Ziyara, Mohammed Zaki, a middle-aged man, recounted how he and his family fled farmland on which they had lived for generations.
“We fled on foot carrying just the clothes we wore,” he said, now living with several other displaced families.
Women and children packed the room, as a small child slept bundled up in a donated blanket behind him.
“We have no money to buy food. We left everything and came here penniless,” Zaki said.
It may be Nowruz but “we wouldn’t dream of celebrating,” he said. “We just dream of ending this tragedy for our children.”
Afrin, an agricultural area famed for its olive trees, was part of territory in northern Syria where the Kurds have been setting up systems of self-rule.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) recaptured eastern areas of the territory from the Daesh group, with backing from a US-led coalition.
The Kurds have otherwise largely stayed out of Syria’s complex seven-year conflict, instead focusing on building their own institutions including in Afrin.
But Turkish-led forces on Jan. 20 launched a deadly assault on Afrin, dragging Kurds into conflict and capturing the city in a major setback for the dream of autonomy.
His boots and a bag of flat bread by his side, 82-year-old Khalil Tamer sat on a blanket atop a layer of straw — thin cushioning for the hard concrete floor underneath.
With his head hung low, he recounted how he and his family escaped fighting in the neighboring province of Aleppo to Afrin.
When Turkey began its assault on the YPG, whom it considers “terrorists,” Tamer and his family were forced to flee a second time.
“We walked out on foot for four days straight,” he said. But in the chaos, he was separated from some of his loved ones and will mark Nowruz without them.
Smoking a cigarette in a holder, he repeated his fate in disbelief.
“We lost the children. I lost them. I lost my children.”