Syria's Christians Caught Between Militias in Ras al-Ayn

"Everything was gone, accept our statue of Mary, thank God ' The deserted streets in the Christian neighborhood of Ras al-Ayn, in the northeast of Syria, reflect the fear of the people. This was once a place where Christians went for coffee to Muslims and Kurds had tea with Arabs. Today there is no place for Orthodox Christians to practice their faith. Since the end of January this year, the priest fled the country and left the St. George Church with closed doors. With his origin in the Middle East, St. George’s is still one of the most important saints in the region. "Before the revolution in Syria there was no distinction between Christians and Arabs. We shared everything, the good and the bad" says Basma, a Syrian Orthodox in her thirties and mother of four daughters. "Meanwhile, many of our neighbors have fled the city. Some have even left the country. Others fight along with the Free Syrian Army or the Kurdish militia YPG. We do not know who to trust anymore." Late November the city fell into the hands of Syrian rebels after the Free Syrian Army won a bloody battle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Where previously peaceful opposition held the upper hand, there have been many killed by now. Tolerant villagers became suspicious neighbors. Nowadays the city is controlled by two groups. The Kurdish militias who want to ensure their place in this region of Syria on the one hand and Arab militias who want to make the regime falls on the other hand. Each with their own goal, the situation remains tense. Several skirmishes between the two militias announce that this war does not stop at bringing down the regime. Basma believes that Ras al-Ayn is the first witness of what will later play across the entire country: division, discord and more deaths. Basma has been a long time shelter with relatives in nearby town Derbasiya. "Our house was the front line of the battle between Kurdish rebels and Muslim rebels. Security was far away, but I wanted to stay. This is my house, my street, my country. " Like many others Basma is temporarily forced to leave her home. For her own safety and that of her children, as she was told. Moreover, the militia promised that she would be able to return very soon. But when they returned a week after the fighting, they could no longer recognize their own house. The walls are full of bullet holes and in most places you can still see the bullet sitting. The refrigerator is used as a shield and is riddled to pieces. "I had no chance to take something along when we had to leave. And when I came back, everything of value was gone. Accept our statue of Mary, thank God." Basma points to the statue on the shelf and hits a cross. She pulls her youngest daughter towards her. Their eyes speak fear and uncertainty. In an attempt to suppress her tears Basma turns angry. "I still do not know if I am safe here. While cleaing the house upon our return, I found an unexploded bomb next to the statue of Mary. They are making fun of us, but this is dangerous. Weapons on the street have become an everyday picture, but a bomb in my own house, the house where my children sleep, that makes me sick. " After a painful palpable silence, in which the daughters curl up close to their mother, Basma decides to show me the church. We are standing in front of closed doors. "For the time being the church is closed. The priest fled to Lebanon and we do not know whether he's coming back. But I still come for him every day, you never know." Because of the many bullet holes the church door seems almost lace and one can barely recognize the heroic St. George, portrayed as a soldier fighting a dragon, painting on the door. The gloomy bullet holes that pierce him stand in stark contrast to the myth. Two of the holes are used to connect a lock that prevents us from entering the church. If you look closely, you can catch a glimpse of the church, but what you see is sad. Crucifixes are removed from the walls, the church lies empty and deserted in front of us. "We do not know who did this. The rebels, that is clear. But whether it is the Kurdish militias or the Free Syrian Army, everyone is pointing fingers to each other," says Basma desperate. Arevig -grandmother of the Armenian Christian family- shows us the ruins of her home. It has served as a refuge for the Kurdish militia during the recent battles. Many Christians today feel trapped between the various military forces. The street is colored with camouflage suits and weapons in all shapes. The city became a wire of checkpoints. The Kurdish militia controls some of them, others are kept by the Free Syrian Army, and some are supervised by the radical Islamic Jabhat al-Nusra. Between armed men in military uniform, children play on the ruins of their homes. Market vendors there selling fruits and vegetables while young people drinking coffee and smoking hookah at the corner of the street. The division among the militias is a huge insecurity and brings chaos into the city. There are also more and more stories of people who have to leave their homes and kidnapping for ransom. The revolution has caused a lot of damage in Ras al-Ayn, in northeastern Syria, where countless minorities effortless could get along very well, until recently. Since the promulgation of the cease-fire in late January, residents are trying to pick up their lives again. After the battle, peace seemed to have returned, but a closer look reveals underlying tensions and threats. Some Christian families seeking refuge with the Kurdish militia, the other with the Arabs. "The city is characterized by division," said Arevig, "only God knows what future awaits the Syrian Christians." The memory of Saint George for the first time this year took place in silence, without a priest.

In Serekaniya, or Ras al-Ayn (the Arabic name for the same city, dominated by a Kurdish population) Christians fear for their future.


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