George Abdulahad stood on his balcony in the Syrian city of Ras Al Ayn filling in bullet holes with plaster. His apartment, like many in the Christian neighborhood, lay gutted, the walls destroyed by an RPG or some sort of incendiary device. The fighting had been over for nearly a month now, but Abdulahad still seemed devastated by his newfound homelessness. “Where can I go, I don’t know,” said the 58-year-old man. “There is no electricity, no water. The living here is like living in a coffin.”
On Easter Sunday, the churches that follow the traditional Christian calendar in this Syrian border town lay empty. They haven’t had services for four months, and most of their congregations have fled or are picking through the rubble. Some fear that another round of fighting will break out. A recent spate of kidnappings has also cast a shadow over the Christian residents of this diverse city in northeastern Syria.
Those still left in the city feel defenseless among the current vacuum of authority. Despite a truce currently in place, the constant presence of heavily armed rebel soldiers from different warring factions does little to assuage their fears. “There are so many battles in this city, I don’t feel safe. There is no one in charge, no government,” Abdulahad says. “I am afraid of anyone with a gun.”
Starting in November, roughly four months of fighting devastated the city. The Free Syrian Army, along with Islamist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra, attacked Assad regime soldiers. After regime soldiers were forced out, the rebel coalition then battled the Kurdish militia known as the Popular Defense Forces (YPG), They fought pitched battles throughout the city streets as the Assad regime continued to send aircrafts on bombing runs.
During the last phase of the fighting, in which the FSA fought the YPG, Abdulahad lay trapped in his apartment for 17 days, subsisting on very little water and stale bread. Many residents fled the city, with some activists speculating that 65 percent of the total population had left. In February, Syrian Christian dissident Michel Kilo brokered peace between the factions. Some residents have returned, despite power cuts, water shortages, and the constant presence of various armed fighters.
Ras Al Ayn, located along the border with Turkey, is a city of 50,000 with a diverse population of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens, and it’s home to three Christian churches. Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Syria’s 23 million citizens. Issam Bishara, regional director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, recently told Asia News that approximately 300,000 Syrian Christians have fled the country. The increased sectarianism in the conflict, especially the growing influence of Jihadi forces, has left many fearful of what’s to come.
Prior to the conflict, many saw Ras Al Ayn as a beacon of tolerance between Muslims and Christians. Residents say that they there is still a camaraderie among the citizens that live there, but that problems arise from those fighting who don’t live in the city, be they FSA, YPG, or Islamists.
At one of the damaged churches, the caretaker said that 25 local Muslims had come to the church after the fighting stopped to help clean up. Near a small cluster of shops just down the road from where the last airplane strike hit, a group of shopkeepers drinking tea discussed the unity of the city. “I am 62 years old, a son of this city,” said one. “I lived in a city with Kurds and Arabs and Christians, from the old days when the mosque was side by side with the Church. It didn’t matter, we lived like brothers.”
Residents were hesitant to speak of Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda-linked jihadi group and most powerful Islamist faction in Syria, which has established a base on the other side of town. Some claimed not to be perturbed by their presence, though it’s hard to tell if they were being truthful or simply feared reprisal for negative comments. Two Assyrian Christian brothers, Ziad, 50, and Najeem, 64, work on a border checkpoint with the FSA and some of the Islamist factions. “I have no problem with Jabhat Al-Nusra, is better than Bashar [al-Assad] 100 times,” Ziad said. “They don’t attack us or send airplanes. They are like the FSA, they will bring justice.”
Jean, an 18-year-old whose home was also destroyed in the fighting, said, “In the beginning we were afraid of them, the regime told us Jabhat would kill Christians, but now Jabhat has not done anything to us so we are not afraid.”
Still, Jean says he would not venture to the area where Jabhat had set up their base. “They are so religious, maybe they think that I’m a nonbeliever and then, I don’t know,” he added, trailing off.
In an article written for a Christian Orthodox website, Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Eusthathius Matta Roham called the Islamists, without naming Jabhat specifically, a great threat to the lives of Syrian Christians in Ras Al Ayn. He also praised the YPG for rooting out the rebels and protecting the Christian neighborhood.
Like many other Christians interviewed, a 24-year-old Christian named Diana refuses to answer questions about the specific armed factions. “We don’t know about the fighting groups. All we want is the fighting to stop,” she said. “My home has been destroyed, everyone has left.”
I asked her who she was scared of. “Everyone,” she replied. “My future is gone.”
Previously she had studied in Aleppo, but she rarely leaves her neighborhood now.
Of particular concern to the Christians is kidnapping, which only some would admit seems specifically targeted at Christians. The week before we arrived, two local Christian men were kidnapped after they went searching for a stolen car. It’s unclear who’s doing the kidnapping. Many speculate it’s simply criminal gangs trying to make money.
Elias Karmo, 22, is one of the few from his friends and family to remain in the city. A caretaker for one of the churches, he walked us around the damaged property, showing us the bell tower used by snipers and the adjacent school that had been ransacked. “Before the damage and this fighting we could take a walk, do whatever we want. Now we can’t,” he said. “Everyone is scared they could be kidnapped.”
Elias’s uncle, Joseph Karmo, described in detail how he was kidnapped twice. The first time, he was in a car near the church. A group of armed men drove up and told him they needed medicine from the closed pharmacy where his brother works. Then they grabbed him and drove him three hours to the countryside of Aleppo. He was held for seven days. They didn’t beat him much, but they showed him pictures of dead people. “They asked my family for money, and they said, ‘If they don’t pay, we’ll kill you like this,'” he said.
The second time he was kidnapped was in Hasakah. A group of men pretended there was a car accident. When he stopped to see what happened, they pulled out guns and took him while his wife and children sat in the car. He says he doesn’t know why they targeted him. It could be criminals, or a gang, he speculates. “It’s very bad here, the situation is very bad,” he says. “When the night comes, we don’t leave our homes.”
Diana sees little hope for the future of Syrian Christians, and talks of joining cousins in Sweden. No one, she said, has provided any help or support to the Christian community in Ras Al Ayn. “We don’t want words, we want action. Our cousins in America and Sweden tell us they pray for us, but this prayer does nothing,” she said. “We are still here.”