TEL TAMER, Syria — The streets of Tel Tamer are barren aside from a few ragged dogs, a band of Christian fighters and a handful of locals like Athur Ishak, a 32-year-old mother of one who has chosen to remain in her ghost town.
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It’s not long after the Islamic State’s February offensive on 11 of the 35 Christian villages nestled along the Khabur River in northern Syria. The villages surrounding Tel Tamer fell like dominoes and over 150 civilians were kidnapped, sending the remaining families into a mass exodus. Some hostages have been forced to convert to Islam, a Christian official says.
“We should resist and stay; we shouldn’t leave our land,” says Ishak over the roar of a mortar attack a few hundred meters down the road.
The young mother sits in her minute home with her 9-year-old son Ashur Francis, a picture of the Last Supper hanging crookedly on the wall behind them. Ishak divorced her husband nine years ago and her family fled the Syrian turmoil and moved to Canada and the United States.
Sporadic waves of immigration following threats by the Free Syrian Army in 2012 and the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have seen over 500 Christian Assyrian families flee this once popular summer destination for Syrians.
By the end of last year more than half the Assyrian community had left — today there is only a handful of people. Most have fled to the cities of Hasakeh, Amuda and Qamishli.
“The people who have stayed to protect the town are my new family; it’s because of them that we are still here,” says Ishak as she prepares coffee for the armed men outside her home. Most of them are part of the Assyrian Guards, an armed security organization. The rest are civilians who have taken up arms.
“We are surrounded from the south and west,” explains Jiwan Issa, the head of Tel Tamer’s council. He signals toward the town of Tel Nasri, some 700 meters to the south and still under Islamic State control. On Easter morning the Sunni extremists blew up the village’s 80-year-old St. Mary Church.
“What we need is for you to finish them; we want them off our land,” screeches an elderly woman from her front door. Tensions between Arabs and Christians are high in northern Syria as the Islamic State’s violence deepens the fears and rifts.
“Kurds and Assyrians live peacefully together but some Arabs have joined ISIS,” says Issa, lowering himself behind a mound of earth to avoid the gaze of an enemy sniper.
Photo by Sofia Barbarani
Kurdish forces, the People’s Protection Units, took control of Tel Tamer and surrounding villages in 2013. And while local Christian Assyrians have ruled over the towns and villages, the protection units — also known as the YPG — hold a tight grip on this strategic region.
The town is situated on two major roads, both cutting through the Kurds’ de facto autonomous Jazeera canton. If the Islamic State takes Tel Tamer, it is expected to use the town as a gateway to the Kurdish region.
Tel Tamer is a coveted target for the Islamic State, says YPG spokesman Redur Xelil from his office in Qamishli. He says the YPG will “protect whoever lives inside Jazeera canton.” But not everyone supports what could be seen as Kurdish encroachment on Christian land.
A short drive from Tel Tamer is the tiny Assyrian village of Am Kef, where opposing views spark a heated debate between an armed Christian and a YPG fighter. Here some locals lean toward Syrian President Bashar Assad and resent Kurdish control.
In a rant that echoes Assad’s claim that rebel forces are “puppets of the West,” a 50-year-old Christian who declines to be named blames America and Israel for the Islamic State’s presence in Iraq and Syria, not Damascus. “Some people have sold themselves to ISIS for money,” he says against the backdrop of a church recently hit by a mortar shell.
Photo by Sofia Barbarani
The YPG’s Xelil insists that Assad’s army did not mobilize to protect the Christian region during the February onslaught. He says that instead the regime may have facilitated the violence in an act of revenge against the Kurds’ military expansion.
“We have created a Christian military force that has become a part of the YPG, and this angers the regime,” says Xelil, who admits to friendly ties between some Christians and the regime. “But after they were attacked and the regime did not give a hand [to protect them], we believe the Assyrian and Syriac Christians will not make the mistake again to turn against the YPG.”
Tel Jummah, adjacent to Tel Tamer and an active front line, has emptied of civilians. While 10 local men have remained to patrol the city, the Kurdish presence is considerably greater.
Three young YPG fighters clad in fatigues fire heavy machine guns and snipe intermittently, targeting the enemy less than 500 meters away. Although better equipped than the local men, the young Kurds’ weapons are old and often jam.
“There has been no international arming of the YPG; we need heavy weapons,” laments Xelil.
At midday the Kurds momentarily drop their arms and gather in an abandoned home to eat under a portrait of Jesus. It’s an ironic image given the YPG’s strong secular principles.
Back in Tel Tamer four mortar shells or so hit the town’s outskirts in just under an hour, so the stray dogs scatter under cars. This isn’t an unusual occurrence.
Ishak and her son don’t bat an eyelid when the windows of their house tremble under the force of another attack. “I wanted to send him away to my cousin’s town,” says Ishak looking over at her silent son, who has gotten used to the deafening noise.
But the son wouldn’t leave his mother. As Ishak puts it, “He told me: ‘I want to die with you in our town.’”