In recent weeks, residents of Afrin have seen their quiet Syrian town transformed, with the arrival of thousands of people displaced by fighting in previously calm Kurdish parts of the city of Aleppo.
“I never thought it would happen to us,” said Nisrine, a 25-year-old woman who fled to Afrin, a mostly-Kurdish town 40 kilometres (60 miles) from Aleppo, in northern Syria.
“We were getting on with our lives and then all of a sudden we had to flee with just the clothes on our backs,” she said.
Nisrine now lives in a classroom with her husband, son, parents-in-law and survives only thanks to food aid given by the Supreme Kurdish Council, the umbrella organisation for Kurdish political parties in Syria.
These Syrian Kurds took the road to Afrin without a second thought because “it is the only safe place, and we are among our own people,” said the head of a family housed in one of Afrin’s 17 schools hastily converted into makeshift camps.
The other men all agreed.
The new arrivals come from Sheikh Maqsud, an area in the north of Aleppo which had been as calm as the Kurdish villages in the northeast, the only part of Syria still free of bomb blasts and gunfire, and buildings gutted by air strikes.
Since the beginning of Syria’s uprising more than two years ago, the Kurds, who make up about 15 percent of the population, have tried to stay out of the fighting, stopping both rebel and regime forces from entering their neighbourhoods.
Last summer, Assad’s troops pulled out of majority-Kurdish areas and the Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), took over.
The PYD is considered as the Syrian branch of Turkey’s PKK.
“We are with the revolution against the Baathist regime that has robbed us of our rights,” a party member said at Afrin.
“We have taken a defensive position, we have never gone on the attack, we just retaliate, which is what happened at Sheikh Maqsud.”
Kurds account for 20 percent of Aleppo’s population.
In Sheikh Maqsud, rebels and Kurdish groups have joined together to fight forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.
Government forces, in turn, have struck back by calling in air raids, one of which killed 15 people, including nine children, on Saturday.
The casualties were evacuated to a field hospital in Afrin, where beds were filled with children, women, civilians and a handful of YPG fighters, among them a 28-year-old man wounded by shellfire.
“I was brought to this hospital a week ago, I don’t know if my children are in Aleppo or even if they are still alive,” he said.
“In the first days of fighting, 100,000 people arrived here. Ten days later, that number had risen to 250,000,” said Seenan Mohammad, co-president of the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), an offshoot of the PYD.
“As other people displaced by fighting had arrived in the area before then, from Homs (centre) and from Deraa (south), the population of Afrin and the villages around it more than doubled from 600,000 to 1.5 million,” she added.
Mohammad also sits on the Supreme Kurdish Council, which oversees a dozen of Syria’s Kurdish parties.
The recent influx has seen the area change drastically, placing its resources and services under serious strain, residents told AFP.
“Before, Afrin was a quiet town. But now you would think you were in Paris with all these traffic jams,” one man said.
“International organisations have sent no aid to help support displaced Kurds. For the moment, residents are picking up the costs and giving food, but what will we do a month from now?”, a volunteer with the Humanitarian Committee of the Supreme Council asked.
Some of those displaced by the fighting in Aleppo predict that their stay in Afrin could go on for quite some time.
“Yesterday, the neighbours called us to tell us our house in Sheikh Maqsud had burned down,” one woman said from the room where she shares with her family, living on half a dozen mattresses scattered across the floor.