AKCAKALE, TURKEY —
Refugees from a Syrian border town captured last week by Kurdish-led forces are unsure about when they will return but say they were driven out by coalition airstrikes and claims by Islamic extremists that Kurds would run amok in the town.
Thirty-three-year old Maryām is sitting under partial shade near the border gate in this southern Turkish town preparingto return home to Tal Abayad with her two remaining young children. A third child died in a coalition airstrike that hit her house.
She said she was in the kitchen when her home near the center of the then Islamic State-controlled town of Tal Abayad was struck. Her parents and six-year-old daughter were in other rooms and killed — so, too, was her husband, who received a mortal wound to his abdomen.
Watch related video report by Zana Omer from Tal Abyad, Syria
The elementary school teacher, still clearly in shock, echoes the recollection of other refugees among the 20,000 who fled this month from Tal Abayad, a mainly Arab town controlled by the Islamic State for months and the hub of a crucial supply route for the extremists. They highlight the airstrikes on the small town and surrounding villages as being the primary reason for their flight as well as the general fighting.
Others mention announcements by IS leaders that Kurdish fighters would loot the town and rape and kidnap women.
The reasons the refugees give for fleeing are important.
Turkish officials and some rebel commanders battling to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have accused Kurdish fighters, who led the forces that recaptured the border town on June 15, of seeking to displace Arabs from territory they seized from Islamic State.
Kurdish leaders deny this — and Syrian rebel claims — that fighters with the Kurdish YPG, People’s Protection Units, which are dominated by Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), want to carve a corridor along the border to have access to the Mediterranean. That would help them set up an autonomous Kurdish State in northern Syria and ensure it isn’t landlocked.
Turkey’s deputy prime minister last week accused the Kurds of “ethnic cleansing” in Tal Abyad.
But of the dozens of refugees VOA interviewed in Akcakale, most cited the airstrikes as being behind their decision to flee, as well as the general clash between YPG and IS fighters. Or they mention rumors spread by Islamic State.
Ahmed, a 31-year-old barber and father of three small boys, is also waiting to cross the border to go home. He says he and his wife were very afraid of the airstrikes, afraid for their children mostly. But now they want to return and they express no fear of the Kurdish fighters in the town.
Mohammed, a smuggler who once helped guide foreign fighters into Syria from Turkey, says the extremists spread false accusations about what the Kurds would do when they entered the town.
He says IS purposely sought to sow panic by telling Arabs in the town that Kurdish fighters would abduct their women and kill their children.
A few thousand refugees from Tal Abyad have returned, many say they will wait before going back until they are sure there will be no resumption of fighting or any more airstrikes.