It was just a few weeks ago, on a sunny day in early October, when Ibrahim Hassan stood snapping photos of his children smiling with American soldiers in his hometown of Ras al-Ain.
The regular US patrols gave the Kurdish construction worker a reassuring sense of security against the chaotic backdrop of Syria’s civil war. The troops were a sign of the long-term alliance between the US and Kurdish forces, which fought ISIS in northern Syria and provided critical intelligence that led to the death of terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
A few days after the photos were taken, those soldiers were pulled from the border area and a Turkish military offensive against Kurdish forces began, cleared after a telephone conversation between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Artillery rained down on Ras al-Ain and Hassan loaded his wife and five children into a car and fled.
Now, the photos stir anger and confusion. “We thought America is strong and we were happy with this,” Hassan says of how life used to be.
“But since America betrayed us, every time I look at these photos of my children with the Americans, I want to erase them. Now we hear and we see on the television, America saying they’re only here for the oil. What about the innocent people who were depending on you here? Where is your responsibility? Why did you betray these people? Why did Trump do this?”
Hassan and his family now live in a drafty classroom in a school in the city of Al Hasakah that has been turned into a shelter for those displaced by Turkey’s military offensive. A stack of mattresses leans against the wall. One of his sons from the photographs stares at us from the corner as we talk.
Hassan’s words are laced with bitterness and a potent sense of betrayal that is shared by many here that the US did not do more to protect the Kurds from Turkey’s onslaught. It was the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up primarily of Kurdish fighters, who were America’s strongest ally in the battle against ISIS. More than 10,000 of them were killed in that fight.
A “safe zone” was agreed between the US and Turkey days after the invasion began, that was to include Hassan’s home in Ras al-Ain. Trump promised it would be “a much more peaceful and stable area.” To Hassan, those are empty words.
Hunched under a puffy coat to stave off the cold, he drags deeply on his cigarette as he shows us a video of what remains of his home. The house appears to have been ransacked. One room has been burned. Hassan says his was one of many homes in his Kurdish neighborhood that were targeted for looting by Turkish-backed forces.
“Before they burned it, they took everything. And after they took all our belongings, they set it on fire and burned it all. Now nothing is left behind. No home, no kitchen.”
Nearly 180,000 people have been displaced in the wake of the Turkey’s push into northern Syria. The stated goal of the military operation became to create a “safe zone” 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep along the border area that has been cleared of the Kurdish-led SDF that Turkey views as an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by the acronym PKK group.
But at the Twayn camp for the displaced near the town of Tal Tamr, some fear that the real aim is to push Kurdish people out of the area completely and change its ethnic makeup forever.
Almost all of the 3,000 people in Twayn are from Ras al-Ain, a town on the border with Turkey. Ras al-Ain used to be 75% Kurdish, according to a local monitoring group. Now, they say, there are just a handful of Kurds left.
Conditions in the camp are bleak. The terrain is bare and rocky. At night, temperatures plunge below freezing.
Fatima, 31, tells us bitterly that it is impossible to live decently there.
“There’s no bread, no milk for the children, the water is bad. It’s cold and we don’t have proper mattresses to sleep on.”
She says, she doesn’t know that she will ever be able to return home.
Turkey has done little to alleviate her fears. As the Kurds have poured out of the border areas, Arabs have been bussed in – Syrian refugees whom Turkish authorities claim are originally from these areas.
After eight years of civil war, Syria is full of stories of people forced from their homes. Every phase of the conflict seems to bring with it a new upheaval.
In the small Christian village of Tal Nasr, we find more families from Ras al-Ain, sheltering in the ruins of a destroyed church.
ISIS drove Christians from this area when it was in control. Five years later, ISIS has been virtually defeated but the Christians have yet to come back. Now the village provides refuge for another group of people forced from their homes with no sense of a possible return.
As we prepare to leave, a tall Kurdish fighter with silver hair called Ramadan approaches and asks where we are from. We are American reporters, we tell him. He pauses for a moment before speaking.
“In the beginning ISIS was a common enemy for America and the Kurds. We were brothers in arms,” he says. “American soldiers should have been the first ones on the front lines when Turkey attacked.”
This story has been updated.