Subdued Christmas for fearful Syrian Christians
QAMISHLI - Having to live with deserted streets, road blocks and the constant fear of jihadist attack, Christians in the Syrian town of Qamishli have little heart for Christmas this year.
Few decorations are to be seen in the streets of Wusta, the main Christian quarter of the Kurdish-majority town in the northeast of war-torn Syria.
A series of attacks including a suicide bombing at a restaurant in Wusta late last year, claimed by the Islamic State group, killed at least 16 people and wounded 30.
Today, cars can only gain access to the area through a single entrance, the streets are nearly deserted and CCTV cameras monitor every church.
On one street corner, the Domino restaurant, which was hit by another suicide bombing on May 22 this year, is almost empty.
Owner Nidal Zahawi said last year's attacks on New Year's Eve had already badly affected his livelihood.
"People are now afraid of going to restaurants," said the grey-haired restauranteur in his 50s as he sipped a coffee.
Zahawi said people had little enthusiasm for putting up decorations to mark Christmas and the New Year.
Qamishli, which is next to the border with Turkey and also close to Iraq, is under the shared control of the Syrian regime and Kurdish authorities, which have declared zones of "autonomous administration" across parts of north and northeast Syria.
The Wusta district is guarded by the Sotoro militia, a pro-regime group of Christian Assyrian fighters.
The group's headquarters is protected by sandbags and decorated with pictures of President Bashar al-Assad.
- People 'not very merry' -
"Carnivals and gatherings have been banned this year following a decision by the church," said a fighter sitting beside a stove in the base.
"Our duty is to protect the churches and the Christian districts in cooperation with other forces in the region, including those of the regime and the Kurds," the fighter, who declined to give his name for security reasons, told AFP.
"We plan to close all the roads leading to the (Christian) districts, instal surveillance cameras and multiply patrols in the district and around churches to prevent any terrorist attack," he added.
But in some alleyways, shopfront displays are decked out with bells, figures of Father Christmas and banners wishing passers-by a happy 2017.
"People are not feeling very merry. It's not like last year before the attacks," said Kostan Sergon, 35, who runs a shop selling Christmas decorations.
"People are buying, but to decorate inside their houses, for their children," he said. "They don't buy like they used to."
Families of those who died in last year's attacks are particularly subdued as they mark the first anniversary of their loved ones' deaths.
At the Blessed Virgin church, where a single Christmas tree is the only thing that marks the occasion, Pastor Abdul Massih Yusuf remembers the attack which resulted in "martyrs among the young people of our community".
This year, celebrations will take place only "inside the church, and will be limited to religious rituals. There will be no parties," he said.
Melinda Glo, 23, who is preparing to join her parents who have left for Australia, recalled the festive atmosphere of previous festive seasons.
She said she hoped for peace for everyone. But, she added, "today most of our friends have left".