On the rooftop of a building in the city of Afrin in northwestern Syria, Keilistan Afrini celebrated Nowruz in protest against a decision by Syrian armed opposition factions to ban celebrations of the Kurdish New Year that falls on or around March 21 every year.
Afrini lit the Nowruz fire with her friends, and they danced to the rhythm of Kurdish music. She told Al-Monitor that they took photos of themselves tied to their musical instruments with metal chains as a sign of celebration and protest at the same time.
She added, “For us, Nowruz means going out into nature, celebrating, lighting fire in all fields and singing from morning to evening. But we held small-scale celebrations instead.”
While Afrini and her friends celebrated Nowruz, three members of the opposition in Afrin raided the place and extinguished the fire. But a military force soon came and apologized, promising to hold the members accountable.
For the second year in a row, Afrin citizens were deprived of going out into nature to celebrate Nowruz, which they consider a national holiday. Nowruz coincided last year with Operation Olive Branch, which the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) launched against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG); as a result, Turkish-backed forces came to control Afrin fully.
In mid-March of this year, Afrin’s Kurds felt hopeful when a joint statement was released by the local councils in Afrin, announcing an official holiday on the occasion of Nowruz. The statement called on people to celebrate in a special way and allowed them to embrace nature, which is one of their rituals. But the councils warned them against large gatherings for their own safety. The statement was soon recalled, however, and another was released.
The second statement canceled the official holiday celebrations and banned citizens from protesting, walking, burning tires or celebrating. Afrin citizens, including displaced Arabs from other regions, felt angry.
Shaffan Ahmad, 60, a farmer from the village of Sheh in the Afrin countryside, told Al-Monitor, “The decision to ban celebrations shocked us. Even local council employees in Sheh were surprised. The decision made me feel Afrin was not ours, but rather the occupier’s.”
A former member of the Afrin civilian council told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We were seeking an official celebration in Afrin for local councils and factions, with the participation of citizens, but it seems the councils’ statement bothered the military factions. So the councils had to cancel the statement and ban celebrations.”
The member added, “We were hoping to turn Afrin into a model for the Syria we want, but what happened was insulting for the local councils in front of their citizens. It deepened the social rift among Kurdish Arabs.”
Dijwar Afrini, 35, who hails from Afrin, did not seem surprised. He expected military factions to ban Kurds from celebrating.
He told Al-Monitor, “Those who destroyed the statue of Kaveh the Blacksmith, which is the symbol of Nowruz, will not allow us to celebrate. Afrin citizens want to light a fire to celebrate the holiday, and they do not want to protest or raise anti-factional slogans. But the ban and the factions’ anger prevented the citizens from celebrating.”
Fighters affiliated with Turkish-backed opposition factions destroyed the statue of Kaveh the Blacksmith in March 2018, soon after taking control of Afrin.
An FSA military leader in Afrin told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The decision to ban Nowruz celebrations in public places resulted from information that the Kurdistan Workers Party was planning to bomb the celebration place and frame the FSA factions for it.”
The source added, “The ban was put in place for security reasons and out of fear for civilians’ lives. It did not aim to limit the freedom of Kurds in practicing their rituals, as party members claimed.”
In a move showing solidarity, activists displaced from eastern Ghouta expressed their sympathy with Afrin’s Kurds, congratulated them and participated in Nowruz celebrations in Afrin despite the ban.
Khaled al-Rifai, who was displaced from Arbin in eastern Ghouta, told Al-Monitor, “I decided to participate in Nowruz and break the fear barrier of my Kurdish friends. I urged them to celebrate and extended the greetings to them.”
As people from Damascus and its countryside, including eastern Ghouta last year, fled to Afrin, local citizens saw this wave of displacement an attempt to instill demographic change and accused Turkey of supporting this step.
Rifai said those who have moved to Afrin want to change the stereotype that the YPG has that the displaced are settlers taking the properties of Afrin citizens.
Ammar Hamou contributed to the article.