Syrian refugees in Turkey have begun returning to their homes in Tal Abyad after Kurdish forces seized the border town in a major blow to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Some 200 men, women and children carrying their meagre possessions crossed back into Syria through the Turkish border post of Akçakale, a day after Kurdish fighters backed by Syrian rebels took Tal Abyad.
The fight for the town prompted some 23,000 people to flee into Turkey, but on June 17 the first returnees said they were eager to get back home.
“I’m returning, I left my husband there. But I’m still very afraid of the bombs, how would someone not be afraid of bombs?” said Fahriye, a 40-year-old housewife. “I’m also afraid of ISIL coming back. I’ll go and decide with my family whether we’ll stay or not.”
Mahmud, a farmer, said he too was eager to return home ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins on June 18 in Syria.
“It’s not so good here… It’s not like home,” he told Agence France-Presse. “We want to spend our holy Ramadan in our homeland. We have been looking forward to it.”
Fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) and Syrian rebel forces declared full control over Tal Abyad on June 16, less than a week after they began an advance on the jihadist-held town.
Analysts said their capture of Tal Abyad, aided by U.S.-led air strikes, was the most significant defeat for ISIL in Syria so far.
The town was a key conduit for foreign fighters and supplies into ISIL-held territory in Syria and for exports of black market oil from jihadist-held fields.
The loss cuts a key ISIL supply line to the jihadists’ de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa.
ISIL will now have to rely on border crossings much further west in neighboring Aleppo province, adding several hundred kilometer to their supply lines.
The group still holds the Syrian side of the Jarablus crossing in Aleppo, which is closed on the Turkish side, and it has other informal border routes, but none that rival Tal Abyad.
Inside the town on June 17, life was beginning to return to normal, said Sherfan Darwish, a spokesman for the Burkan al-Furat (Euphrates Volcano) rebel group that fought alongside the YPG.
“Military operations have finished. Tal Abyad’s civilians are returning,” he told AFP. “The local bakery in Tal Abyad was not functioning, so yesterday we restarted operations and we’re distributing bread to the residents who are coming back.”
He said Kurdish and rebel forces had carried out sweeps of the town to remove mines and car bombs left behind by ISIL jihadists. “We’re doing everything we can and providing security to the best of our abilities.”
Darwish said similar sweeps were being conducted in recently captured villages near Tal Abyad, with villagers being asked to leave while searches were done.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said YPG and rebel forces had asked residents of 10 villages in the area to leave their homes while searches were carried out.
The orders come amid accusations by some Syrian rebel groups and Turkey that Kurdish forces are seeking to “ethnically cleanse” Tal Abyad and the surrounding region of Arabs and Turkmen.
The YPG and their Arab rebel allies dismiss the allegations, and Darwish said villagers were being asked to leave for “an hour or two… just enough so we can search the villages.”
Before the Syrian conflict began in 2011, the Tal Abyad region was ethnically mixed, but Kurdish residents say they were largely expelled from the area by Arab rebel fighters in 2013.
Some Arab residents now have expressed concern about returning to their homes under Kurdish rule.
The YPG-led victory has prompted consternation in Ankara, which is concerned about rising nationalist sentiment among its own large Kurdish minority.