Azad Osman and Sefira were arrested for protesting against former Syrian president Hafez al Assad in 1987. Since then they've beat the odds and are now a living testimony of everything that has gone wrong with Syria.
On the afternoon of February 12, a Kurdish family of four from northern Syria broke into an old Kurdish song. “Once upon a time there was a girl from Afrin, whose heart was broken...,” they sang in unison.
Azad Osman, his wife, son and daughter sat in the living room of their apartment in a poor suburb of southern Turkey’s Mersin province. With his head down, the 53-year-old Osman followed the notes of the Turkish saz, its chords struck by Dilar, his son.
For a moment, the family seemed to have drifted away from all their worries, away from morbid memories of war and trauma. But as they finished singing, they were back to reality.
They are refugees who have not only survived the deadly bombings of the Assad regime, but also endured the abuse and trauma inflicted by the YPG, an armed extension of the PKK, which is considered as a terrorist organisation by the US, EU and Turkey.
Both Osman and his wife, Sefira Sido, had been punished for espousing the communist cause since their youthful days. Their union began at the University of Aleppo, while at a protest against the dictatorial policies of Syria’s former president Hafez al Assad in 1987.
First, intelligence officers arrested Osman on campus, then they picked up Sido from the nearby nursing college, where she was pursuing her diploma in paramedical sciences.
“They (the intelligence police) took me to different places and then they finally led me into a small room where Azad was held,” she said.
She saw Osman naked, handcuffed to the ceiling.
“They asked me, 'how do you know each other,’” Sido recalls. “I told them, ‘I love him.’”
She was moved to a women’s prison cell, where she spent 15 days before her release. Osman was released soon after. But they were both blacklisted. And they were dismissed from their schools and all government-run avenues were closed for them.
Ever since, the couple has encountered numerous hostilities stemming from the Syrian state, the cadres of the YPG, and the parochial attitudes of the male-dominated society. They are a living testimony to everything that has gone wrong in Syria.
Though they have grown disillusioned with the communist cause, their love for each other is resolute. When Sido speaks about Osman, her eyes still light up with joy and she often tells him 'hezdikim', 'I love you' in Kurdish.
Caught between a rock and a hard place
Born in 1965 in Aleppo, Osman grew up in a politically active family. Though his father was a peasant who struggled to make a living, he was affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), a political front currently led by Masoud Barzani in northern Iraq.
In the 1960s, Osman’s father worked for the front’s branch in northern Syria. Barzani's father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, led armed assaults against the then-governing Baath party in Iraq. He also spoke critically of the party’s extension in Syria led by former president Hafez al Assad.
The Baathist regime in Syria perceived Barzani’s KDP as a threat, frequently launching military crackdowns against its members in Syria.
Since Osman’s father was a frequent target of those crackdowns, Osman did not have a happy childhood. “When I was about six or seven years old, my mother woke me up. I got up to see my father being taken away. They were hitting him and dragging him,” Osman said.
“It was very difficult and hard, my father was being hit and dragged right in front of my eyes. Time passed; I grew up. But what I witnessed then stayed with me.”
In his early 20s, Osman became a member of the Syrian Communist Party, which was founded by a Syrian Kurd named Halit Bektas. The party underwent a split in 1986 and ideological differences emerged within various communist networks in the country. But Osman stayed loyal to the communist cause for almost 24 years.
But in 2004, he couldn’t relate to the communist movement anymore, although he was smouldering with the revolutionary sentiment.
Osman came to believe that communist parties in Syria had been hijacked by the state. His longtime comrade Mustafa Ali Mousto said that it took them a few years to understand that some of the leftist groups in the country had grown "under the wings of Assad’s Baathist regime.”
By the mid 1990s, Osman formed a civil society group to moderate discussions on democracy among the Syrian people. He cultivated friendships among the “like-minded” Kurds, who shared similar grievances against the Baathist regime, and the PKK and its proxies.
His drive to build up a strong opposition took him to Iraq, where he reached out to anti-Baathist networks. By the early 2000s, he had developed strong ties with “several small groups” in Sulaymaniyah, a predominantly Kurdish city in northern Iraq. He discreetly hosted meetings, introducing prominent Kurdish community leaders who held anti-Baathist and anti-PKK views, in Sulaymaniyah, Erbil, Aleppo and Damascus.
Around the same time, he also set up a food company in Sulaymaniyah. But he couldn’t dodge Assad’s shadow state for too long. He was arrested in 2007 for conspiring against the regime, a charge that was commonly slapped on people for speaking against Assad.
Unlike his previous detention, which lasted for two weeks, this one was much longer. He was imprisoned in the notorious Sednaya Prison, which is known as “Assad’s slaughterhouse," where 13,000 people have been secretly hanged by the Syrian regime, according to Amnesty International.
His prison inmates held differing political views. They were largely affiliated with Al Qaeda and the PYD, the PKK’s political extension in Syria.
At times, fist fights would break out over political disagreements. Osman managed to survive the toxic prison environment. One thing always kept eating at him from the inside though: his longing for his wife Sido.
For two and a half years she was denied a jail visit to Osman. When she was finally allowed to see her husband, she could not speak at all. “She just kept crying,” Osman said.
Osman befriended several inmates who somehow shared a similar worldview and they all aspired for a revolution. The revolution did happen, but it did not happen in Syria. In 2011, the wave of the protests, dubbed Arab Spring, swept Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, pushing long-serving dictators out of power.
“We were happy to hear that and we hoped it will come to our country too,” Azad said. “We had debates in the prison, some of my friends would say that the regime is too strong, fascist and indestructible. But I held the opposite view saying that the Spring would come to Syria anyway.”
The Arab Spring
By March 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians were inspired by the Arab Spring. They took to the streets, demanding the resignation of Bashar al Assad.
But the regime retaliated with brute force, killing hundreds of protesters, raiding towns and villages to quell the uprising. In retaliation, the Syrian people were compelled to take up arms to save themselves from Assad’s military, which was baying for blood. The hopes of Osman and his inmates to see a peaceful Syrian revolution succeed were soon dashed as the country slipped into a civil war.
As the armed opposition made some territorial gains, Osman said, the Assad regime opened its prison gates, releasing several hundred members of Al Qaeda and the YPG/PKK.
At the same time, Assad’s security forces withdrew from predominantly Kurdish-populated northern Syria, leaving the YPG as an essential force there.
The idea behind releasing the dreaded militants—accused of horrendous terror acts—was to open several fronts and divide the opposition along ideological lines.
Osman was released along with hordes of other prisoners.
The amnesty was a calculated move. It opened a new macabre chapter of deaths and destruction in Syria. The armed revolution, that was recognised by global powers like the US, the UK and Turkey, was undermined as members of Al Qaeda, released by Assad, and other extremists groups started to mobilise, recruiting foreign fighters and raising money from the Gulf countries. Amidst the wave of extremism, Daesh emerged as another force, besides Al Qaeda-backed fronts like Al Nusra.
“They aimed to spoil Syrian revolution by releasing those militants,” Osman said. “They soon assumed leadership positions in Al Nusra and Daesh.”
As the new season of beheadings, shootings, kidnappings and torture began, it was hard to determine who was killing whom. The senseless violence inflicted by extremist groups such as Daesh terrorised the Syrian population. They were left with two options: to accept Assad's regressive regime or live under the shadow of terror.
The Gulf monarchies, shocked by mass uprisings in the Arab world, fuelled the chaos. They felt the Arab Spring endangered their authoritarian rule if it succeeded in Syria.
To keep the protests out of their borders, they fuelled the Syrian civil war by funding all kinds of extremist groups. Their aim was to use the chaos in Syria as a tool to discourage the feeling of dissent in their countries.
“They (the Gulf monarchs) spread fear among their population by giving them an example of Syria. They said, 'If you want democracy, look at Syria,'” Osman said. “Even Nigeria's government used Syria’s example to bring its population under control. In the end, Syria was sacrificed.”
On the other hand, Assad held his fort in Damascus with the help of Russia and Iran. While Russia provided military support to Assad, Iran sent its Shia militias to fight the revolutionary forces.
The debut in war
Osman picked up arms in 2012. “We were dragged into the war,” he said. “We tried hard to sort out things in a peaceful manner but so many people were arrested and it didn’t work.”
Osman joined a fighting group called the Liwa al Tawhid Brigade, which fought against both the Assad regime and Daesh.
For Osman, a Syrian Kurd, there were many battles to fight. Apart from defending the Syrian revolution, he wanted to protect the Syrian Kurds from Assad’s influences.
In one of the battles he fought in Aleppo, he witnessed co-operation between the Assad regime and the YPG. He could never come to terms with the YPG's tacit alliance with Assad, since he grew up witnessing his father and many other Kurds being tortured by the regime, scarring his childhood.
“There is a neighbourhood in Aleppo called Ashrafieh,” Osman said. “The arms coming out of police stations and warehouses were distributed among YPG members there. From that point onward, I knew that no Kurd would join the civil war. Why not? Because the YPG would prevent them. With the regime’s support, no Kurd will join the war.”
The tactic worked. The Syrian Kurds saw two forces — Daesh and the YPG — emerging out of the civil war. “The war got much worse. As Daesh got stronger, so did the YPG. The more Daesh’s horrific videos spread online, the stronger the YPG became on the ground,” Osman said.
Eventually, the perception among a significant number of Syrian Arabs changed. They saw the Assad regime as a lesser evil than Daesh and other extremist militant groups. And the Syrian Kurds were left with no option but to settle down with the YPG as Daesh began to march toward northern Syria, particularly in Kobani.
By the summer of 2014, the YPG had gained enough local support. They launched a counterattack against Daesh to defend Kobani. As the YPG managed to contain Daesh’s advance to rural areas, the US chipped in.
Washington decided to support the YPG in late September. With the help of US-led coalition, the YPG managed to push Daesh forces out of Kobani.
The YPG’s ambitions didn’t stop there, though. They moved beyond Kurdish-dominated regions, taking control of the Arab-populated areas of Syria.
The Assad regime did not protest the takeovers because the two sides have a history of collaboration.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Baathist regime, led by Assad’s father, worked hand-in-glove with various extremist groups, including the PKK and Hezbollah. In the late 1970s, when the Baathist regime occupied Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the PKK and several Shia militias ran training camps under Hafez al Assad’s supervision.
The camaraderie continues to this day. Posters of Bashar al Assad and the founder of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, hung next to each other on the streets of Aleppo’s Afrin district after Turkey started a military operation, Olive Branch, in late January to clear the YPG militants from the region. Ocalan has been serving a prison term in Turkey since 1999.
“YPG’s desire to turn Afrin into a second Qandil is a huge problem,” said Azad, whose father was born and raised in Afrin. “As for Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, Turkey is a big and strong nation. Turkey wouldn’t allow Afrin to become a second Qandil (the PKK stronghold in Iraq) in front of its eyes.”
In 2013, he moved his family from Syria to Turkey. But he continued to fight. In 2014, both Osman and his son had a close shave with death. Their safe house in Aleppo came under a mortar attack by the regime forces, leaving them seriously injured.
The father and son came to Turkey for medical help and reunited with their family members. Osman saw his family “in a deplorable state.” “It was time for me to find a job, so they wouldn’t go hungry,” Osman said. “I started cleaning houses with my wife. Then I switched over to construction.”
“We were laying tiles during construction. My son lifted more because (he thought) his father was injured. I tried to lift more because my son was injured. We lived through very difficult days. But, most importantly, we could sleep easy in Turkey. There were no guns, no arrest. Assad’s missiles were gone, too,” he added.
Sido’s fondness for Osman has grown with time and separation.
"Nobody could separate us. Not the regime, not people's comments. On the contrary, we came closer to each other. Our love grew," Sido said.
Though the couple could not build a decisive Kurdish resistance against the Assad regime, they continue to fight everyday battles of existence from the periphery.
“There are many problems in life, but when you stand together with each other, there are no obstacles,” Sido said.
Nadia Ali Mousto, Melis Alemdar, Burak Catakli and Bahire Yesilnur contributed to this article