World

A photographer’s account from the frontlines of Turkey’s incursion in Syria

It was Oct. 8 when photographer Alice Martins entered Syria, one more trip on top of the dozens she has made to the country in the past seven years, often on assignment for The Washington Post. Oct. 8 was a day after President Trump tweeted that the United States would withdraw its small contingent of U.S. forces from northeast Syria, clearing the way for Turkey to begin an air and ground assault on Kurdish areas. Martins, in her own words, describes what she saw in Syria as Turkey launched its attack.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Ras al-Ayn, Oct. 8, 5:30 p.m.

A few dozen people sat around in a large circle, most looking bored as some took turns on the microphone to proclaim their disdain for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the mood in Ras al-Ayn was calm. Kurds had grown used to threats that, eventually, had never materialized.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Civilians participate in a sit-in protest against Turkey in Ras al-Ayn.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Boys in a neighborhood of Ras al-Ayn, next to the border with Turkey, seen in the background.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Qamishli, Oct. 9, noon

At a tea shop in this border town, old men sat around playing cards and smoking cigarettes. A television broadcast the latest news on a loop ignored by all. Today was supposed to be the start of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring. But the attack was supposed to be limited to an area between Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad, a three-hour car ride from Qamishli. Most people believed Turkey wouldn’t dare target a town shared between the Kurds and the Syrian regime.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Men sit in a tea shop in Qamishli.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Ras al-Ayn, Oct. 9, 3:30 p.m.

I went back to Ras al-Ayn to see if the mood had changed now that Turkey’s threats seemed real. As we approached the town, I saw dozens of packed minibuses speeding in the opposite direction. At a checkpoint, a family of four was crowded in a small truck with all its belongings, while a woman pleaded with officers to let her family pass. “I swear we are not trying to flee,” she said. “We are just taking these things to my sister’s house in the village, but we will be back.”

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

A child sits in a truck at a checkpoint in Ras al-Ayn.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Civilians flee Ras al-Ayn ahead of Turkey's military operation.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Civilians cram into a small minibus as they flee Ras al-Ayn.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

A family ride a motorcycle as they leave Ras al-Ayn.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

As I entered the town, there were few people in the streets. I saw a man standing outside a repair shop. Next door, a wall was covered with the words “seri hilde,” or “rise up.” As the man spoke about his decision to remain in Ras al-Ayn while many others chose to flee, I looked up and noticed contrails left by Turkish warplanes flying above the town. The man dismissed it, saying: “Those are probably just drones. They’re always above us.” But then came the thuds of bombs dropped.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Graffiti in Ras al-Ayn.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Smoke traces of artillery in the sky over Ras al-Ayn as the Turkish military operation begins.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Qamishli, Oct. 9, 9 p.m.

That evening, when he heard a blast across the street, Fadi Sabri rushed to close his small shop. Then a second mortar landed in his front yard in Qamishli. The father of three and his wife, Joliet Nicola, were injured by shrapnel and rushed to a hospital as their children, unharmed, watched in shock. As he lay in a hospital bed, Sabri wept, saying, “I just want my wife to be okay.” Joliet was unconscious and in critical condition. The doctors who performed surgery to remove shrapnel from her back say she may never walk again.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Fadi Sabri was injured by shrapnel when artillery landed outside his house in Qamishli.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Fadi's wife, Joliet Nicola, lies on the operating table in critical condition as surgeons remove shrapnel from her abdomen.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Qamishli, Oct. 10, 9:30 a.m.

The following morning, after an uneasy night — marked by sounds of incoming artillery, outgoing mortars and ambulances rushing by — I went to inspect the sites that had been hit. Most of the locations where civilians were injured seemed to be within a few dozen meters from possible military sites. But political offices seemed to be targeted also.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Neighbors walk by Sabri's house to inspect the damage.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Sabri's backyard, destroyed in Turkey's military operation.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Qamishli, Oct. 11, noon

On the second day of Operation Peace Spring, the shelling claimed at least two more civilian victims in Qamishli. Seven-year-old Sarah was severely injured when a shell hit the road outside her home. She lost her right leg, and her older brother Mohammed was instantly killed.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Sarah and Mohammed's mother, left, grieves at a hospital in Qamishli.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Sarah, 7, lies in bed recovering after being severely injured when a mortar landed outside her house in Qamishli.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Hasakah, Oct. 11, 1:50 p.m.

By the third day of the operation, schools in Hasakah were turned into shelters for displaced civilians, mostly from Ras al-Ayn, and were quickly filled by families who told stories of risky escapes and nights spent out in the open as they fled the fighting that had engulfed their hometowns. Many feared they would never be able to return home. “We saw what happened in Afrin,” said Shiar Becker Awni, a young Kurdish father of three who had crammed onto a motorcycle with his wife and children to escape the violence.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Civilians displaced by fighting take shelter in a school in Hasakah.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

A woman tries to sooth a crying newborn child at an improvised shelter in Hasakah.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Shiar Becker Awni with his family at an improvised shelter for displaced civilians in Hasakah.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Infants lie on a blanket on the floor at an improvised shelter for displaced civilians in Hasakah.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

Civilians talk to Kurdish Red Crescent staffers for information about their injured relatives.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

al-Malikiyah, Oct. 12, 7 a.m.

Early next morning, I headed toward al-Malikiyah, a town near the Iraqi border known to Kurds as Derik. I felt it was a better place to spend the night, in case I had to leave the country in a rush. On the road outside Qamishli, we passed a U.S. military convoy. Its presence appeared increasingly irrelevant to locals who were angered by what they saw as President Trump’s betrayal.

Alice Martins/Der Spiegel

A U.S. military convoy outside Qamishli.

Alice Martins/FTWP

Qamishli, Oct. 13, 1:50 p.m.

The next day, I drove back to Qamishli and found that only a few shops remained open, including a toy store, its owner hoping the few parents who visited that day would distract their children from the war with a new toy. Later that day, the SDF, Syrian Democratic Forces, announced it had cut a deal with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for protection from Turkey. Syrian army reinforcements were welcomed into the city as crowds cheered and waved the national flag.

Alice Martins/FTWP

Shops closed in Qamishli.

Alice Martins/FTWP

Khaled Sheikhmus, 46, stands in front of his toy store in Qamishli.

Alice Martins/FTWP

But, back in al-Malikiyah, the town’s Christian community remained fearful. So far, they had enjoyed a good relationship with the Kurdish administration, as they did with Assad’s regime. “Between the Kurds and the regime, we know there wouldn’t be fighting,” Georgeous Lahdu said. “But if Turkey invades, the regime will fight back to liberate our town from the mercenaries. It is the Syrian army’s duty to protect us,” he added.

Alice Martins/FTWP

Members of the Christian community in al-Malikiyah attend Sunday morning service.

Alice Martins/FTWP

A member of the Christian community in al-Malikiyah leaves the church after Sunday morning service.

Alice Martins/FTWP

al-Malikiyah, Oct. 14, 7 a.m.

As the sun rose over al-Malikiyah, I went up to the roof to take one last photo of Syria. This was a town that had been largely spared the brunt of the violence. Today it represented the loss of a people’s hope for change. A huge part of the young generation had emigrated. Many of their parents and grandparents remained, like the old man and his neighbor, a woman in her 60s, sitting under a pomegranate tree in the house where he grew up, a picture of Assad still taped onto his window; a deceptively faded image of the current brutal reality.

Alice Martins/FTWP

A view of al-Malikiyah at dawn.

Alice Martins/FTWP

A Christian woman from al-Malikiyah.

Alice Martins/FTWP

A pomegranate tree in the backyard of a home where a man has lived since he was a child.

Alice Martins/FTWP

A small, faded portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a man's backyard in al-Malikiyah.

Alice Martins/FTWP