Akcakale, Turkey-Syria border – Khalil al-Hassan stood on the roof of his brick home, gazing into the distance towards the other side of the border.
He fled to Akcakale, a town on the Turkish side of the frontier, four years ago, he says, pointing at the clouds of smoke rising above the “big trees” surrounding his village of Abdikoy, some 4km (2.5 miles) into Syrian territory near the town of Tal Abyad.
“If it’s safe, I’d take my family back in a heartbeat,” said the 65-year-old farmer, an ethnically Arab Syrian who was forced to leave his ancestral land in northeast Syria after the arrival of Kurdish forces.
“There is nothing more precious than our land.”
For the first time in four years, hope appears to have returned for al-Hassan and thousands of ethnically Arab Syrians who believe a Turkish operation in northeast Syria will grant them safe access to the stretch of territory they claim as their own.
For nearly a week, fighters with the opposition Free Syrian Army have been backing Ankara in its push aimed at driving the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) away from the border area.
The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), was founded in 2015 to assist the United States in its battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group in the region. It has since significantly expanded its control across northern and eastern Syria and has sought to create an autonomous federation along the lines of the Rojava region.
But Ankara views it as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and has long made it clear it wants to clear the border area from “terrorist elements”. The PKK has waged a decades-long armed campaign inside Turkey and is considered a “terrorist group” by Ankara and many Western capitals.
Khalil al-Hassan fled from Tal Abyad four years ago [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]
Al-Hassan’s Qays tribe is one of many Syrian Arab tribes in the country’s Jazira region, which is the largest of the three original regions of the de facto Kurdish autonomous administration of North and East Syria.
The region includes three main governorates: Deir Az Zor, Hasakah and Raqqa, as well as Ain al-Arab, an area that falls under the Aleppo governorate’s administration.
With some 4.5 million people, the northeastern Syrian region is predominantly inhabited by Arabs, with Kurds accounting for more than an estimated 10 percent of its population.
Prior to 2015, al-Hassan says they happily co-existed with their Kurdish neighbours, who were a minority among the ethnically Arab tribes of the area.
“We lived side by side for years,” he said. “But one day, they turned against us when the armed YPG took the area from opposition fighters.”
Khalil al-Hassan’s daughter looks out into the direction of Tal Abyad [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]
Al-Hassan said he fled his village with eight of his children “when the YPG showed up four years ago”.
“All I wanted was for them to be safe, especially after losing my 18-year-old son to their firearms,” he said, having moved inside his house. Speaking under a fluorescent light bulb that lit his small living room, al-Hassan recalled how his son, Nafer, died after the arrival of the Kurdish forces in the village.
Holding a rifle, Nafer refused to leave his family home, on the edge of some 50 dunams (12 acres) of farmland. Arriving with heavy machine guns and assault rifles, the YPG “flattened the village”, al-Hassan said. “That day I not only lost my son, but also my home and my land, which proudly was our only source of livelihood,” al-Hassan said with a broken voice. “I lost my world,” he added, fighting back tears.
According to al-Hassan, the village’s locals were accused of supporting “terrorist” ISIL fighters, which at their peak in 2015, controlled large swathes of land across Syria and Iraq. “We tried explaining that we were just honest farmers who would die for our land,” he said, sitting on a pile of square-shaped pillows. Even with documentation that carried the family’s tribal name, proving ownership of the land, al-Hassan said he was told to “rip the paper up into pieces”.
Al-Hassan’s grandchildren fled Syria with their mother, Mona, in 2016 [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]
Despite being cleared in March 2017 by a UN investigation of committing rights violations against ethnic groups, the YPG has been accused by rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of various abuses.
In October 2015, Amnesty accused the YPG of forcibly evicting Arabs and Turkmens from areas they took control of after driving ISIL out. It said the instances of forced displacement and demolition and confiscation of civilian property constitute “war crimes”, allegations the SDF denied.
Al-Hassan’s daughter, Mona, who fled Tal Abyad’s city centre with her husband and two children in 2016 said she was among the lucky ones for still having a “standing home” on the other side.
“My husband and I worked hard to buy the land and build our home on it,” the 35-year-old told Al Jazeera. “We had moved in just two years before,” she added. It was not an easy escape, as Mona said YPG bullets targeted “even the truck we drove off in”. Her sister-in-law, who remains on the other side of the border, told her that her home was looted soon after she left for Turkey. “Every time I go up the hill at the end of the road, I can see all the villages in Tal Abyad,” she said, eager to return. “I can see the big tree planted in my garden from the top of the hill,” Mona added.
“There is nothing more difficult than seeing your home, and not being able to return to it.”
Ankara has long said it wants to create a so-called “safe zone” into neighbouring Syria’s northeastern region where some of the 3.6 million refugees currently residing in Turkey can be returned to. Earlier suggestions indicated that the buffer zone would span a stretch of territory 120km (75 miles) wide and 30km (19 miles) deep inside Syria, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday the area may be wider, running between the towns of Hassakah and Kobane, a stretch of 440km (273 miles).
The announcement, which promoted a reaction from the Syrian government, came after Turkish-backed forces claimed control over parts of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, the two main towns initially targeted in the operation.
It also came after Turkish forces and their Syrian allies seized the town of Suluk on Sunday, which lies southeast of Tal Abyad, approximately 10km (six miles) from the border with Turkey.
This particular advancement was hailed by Ismail al-Habib, a 51-year-old judge from Suluk, who says the operation has given him “purpose again”. After fleeing Syrian government air raids from Suluk in 2012, al-Habib’s family, who had moved closer to the border with Turkey, packed up some of their belongings and drove past the border three years later. “I was wanted by ISIL, so towards the end, my family and I literally fled for our lives,” he said.
In June 2016, YPG forces entered Suluk and its surrounding villages, forcing more than 30,000 people to flee – half of whom fled to Turkey, according to al-Habib.
The 51-year-old judge said he finally felt confident that he would return to his hometown “soon” and was keen to offer his expertise to “reintroduce safety and security” to the area.
“As a judge, I feel like I have a lot to offer,” he said enthusiastically. “People who fled have witnessed a lot of hardship and need a governing model that acknowledges that, one that offers them direction and care.”
The al-Habib family hopes to return to Suluk within six months [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]
Al-Hassan’s brother, who resides in the same two-story building with his three wives and children, agreed.
“We hope to be back within six months time,” he said.
For years, al-Hassan said he turned down opportunities to migrate to Europe and instead, chose to remain just a few kilometres away from his hometown with hopes of one day returning.
“There is nothing like returning to a place where everyone knows who you are, where you can make a difference,” he said.
“And most importantly, where you can live without fear.”