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Turning a Blind Eye

“We will not keep silent”- Sinam Mohamad

London, UK – If you think IS has been defeated, think again. This time, in a different disguise, the brutal policies of IS have been resurrected in the form of a new monster.

In March 2018 Turkey and Turkish-backed militant forces began their advance and subsequent occupation of Afrin, an area in Northern Syria which is predominantly Kurdish, in which the administrative centre is the city of Afrin itself. In 2012 with support from the US, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) controlled the area. By March 2018 it was under the regime of Turkey and its allies through a systemic take over named ironically, ‘Operation Olive Branch.’ This operation was led by the Turkish Armed Forces and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA).

The capture of the city of Afrin went like this. On the March 12, 2018 the water supply and internet access was cut off and the next day Turkish forces announced they had surrounded the city. On the March 14 Turkish shelling commenced on Afrin killing 7 people with artillery bombardment against the city increasing by the next day with a further 12 killed and 60 injured. At this time 10,000 citizens fled the city while Turkey continued its attacks including an airstrike on the only functioning hospital in Afrin, killing 16 civilians.

In the following weeks it was reported that 300,000 Kurdish people had been forced to leave their homes and live in dangerous and sub-human conditions in refugee camps in the nearby al-Shahba region. Turkish militia began to occupy the homes and public buildings in Afrin, moving refugees from Eastern Ghouta into the abandoned homes of the residents of Afrin. They remain living in these homes to this day. Turkish-backed forces stole vehicles and personal property whilst looting the homes and businesses of the people of Afrin. Archeological sites were targeted, and holy shrines and centers of worship also destroyed by the Turkish military. In a deliberate ethnic cleansing policy, signs are now written in Turkish with Kurdish signs completely eradicated. Turkish is taught in schools in a systemic policy to impose its culture.

In a powerful and informative discussion “Friends of Afrin – Women Under Turkish Occupation in Northern Syria,” with Sinam Mohamad, Co-Chief of the US Mission of Syrian Democratic Council in Washington, DC and a member of the Presidential Council of the SDC; Pari Ibrahim the founder of the Free Yezidi Foundation and international speaker on the persecution of Yazidis; and Dawood Saleh the Ambassador for Global Peace Chain, author of ‘Walking Alone’ and a Yazidi Genocide Survivor, the three discussed the situation as it stands today.

Sinam Mohamad says:
“Wherever Turkey goes they create de-stabilization. They have the jihadist ideology….Turkey is having their dream to build another Ottoman Empire…This is an important and dangerous issue. It is a systematic policy Turkey is undertaking.”

In a report by Amnesty International in August 2018, the global human rights organisation stated that they had received reports describing abuse such as torture, kidnappings, disappearances of the residents of Afrin, arbitrary detentions, enforced exile and displacement, and the stealing and looting of possessions and property.

In a statement by Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, she was quoted as saying:
“Turkey’s military offensive and occupation have exacerbated the suffering of Afrin residents, who have already endured years of bloody conflict.”

Aykan Erdemir, an expert on Turkey at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies – a Washington-based think tank made the following statement about the abuse of Afrin citizens:
“The composition of Turkey-backed rebels and their ethos make them prone to undertaking criminal acts and violating the rights and freedoms of the locals.”

President Erdoğan has also taken steps to control reportage on this attack by ‘muzzling’ the Turkish press on reporting on this military offensive and stating there will be a “heavy price” for Turkish citizens who protested against the attacks. In addition, over 800 social media users and nearly 100 politicians and journalists have been detained for demonstrating against Operation Olive Branch, and numerous high profile pro-Kurdish and left-wing members of political parties have been arrested under Erdoğan’s orders.

Abuse and atrocities against the women in Afrin

Just when the world thought that IS had been eradicated, reports on severe violation of human rights of women in Afrin have been described by witnesses.

Sinam Mohamad observes:

“Afrin was one of the safest places in the Middle East for women to live. They had women’s rights…and freedom of religions. Unfortunately Turkey does not like this freedom of Democracy. Turkey has their ambitions in Syria and has committed a lot of crimes there especially to women. Women found naked in the street. Kidnapping women, killing them, torturing them, subjecting them to rape and forced marriages.”Pari Ibrahim states the following:

“Although many think ISIS was deleted, we have a danger of attacks which might be a resurgence of Islamic State. The resurgence of ISIS remains strong. Women in particular were subject to attacks (by the Turkish)…left unchecked by the International Community. The violence against women has been very visible. We see it in 2014 with IS and we see it again now.”

Naela Quadri Baloch is a founder member of Hind-Baloch Forum in India, a Baloch politician, women’s rights activist, and author and international lecturer on Baloch Qaum Parast rights. In a powerful statement about the physical, mental and sexual abuse suffered by the Yazidi women she said:

“The Baloch Kurd women are facing the same persecutions abduction, rape and sexual enslavement by IS…Yazidi women are our sisters and daughters and we stand by you.”

Persecution of the Yazidis

Declared by ISIL to be devil worshippers, 2014 saw the systematic persecution of Yazidis resulting in them becoming victims of a genocide. Whilst starting a campaign to eradicate non-Islamic influences in Iraq and surrounding countries, they also seized two oil fields in the town of Zumar as part of an operation to control Mosul’s hydroelectric dam resulting in 200,000 civilians including 40,000 Yazidi to flee the city.

At the hands of ISIL, women were forced to convert to Islam and sold as brides while those who refused to convert were raped, tortured and murdered.
Yazidi women captured and enslaved by ISIL were subjected to systematic rape and physical violence and were sold in markets in Syria carrying price tags.

Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American academic and former Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, D.C. described the trauma and abuse suffered by the women:

“They usually take the older women to a makeshift slave market and try to sell them. The younger girls are raped or married off to fighters,” she said, adding, “It’s based on temporary marriages, and once these fighters have had sex with these young girls, they just pass them on to other fighters.”

Today there are 70 confirmed mass graves – all with the Yazidi victims of IS, however this is not the end of the cycle of persecution.

Sinam Mohamad says:

“Tactics used by Turkish backed militia are the same people and tactics as ISIS. ISIS are roaming around…tens of thousands of ISIS members. We will see violations happen against women. Over 2,500 Yazidi women are missing…where are they?”

She goes on to say: “We are so proud of the international support we got to defeat ISIS but after 2018 Turkey started to attack Afrin.”

Pari Ibrahim adds:

“ISIS members are now Turkish backed militia. We have reached out to countries…foreign ministers. They are all sympathetic to the cause but there is no real action. These things will keep happening. Millions and billions of humanitarian aid can be put into the Middle East but nothing will happen…”

Dawood Saleh says:

“Turkey is making it hard for us to start life again. We have no international help. Yazidis are in grave danger. Women and children are kidnapped. Some go missing forever and some…their families have to pay thousands of dollars to have them back. Temples are being destroyed by these militia groups. We are scared that the Yazidi communities will vanish entirely.”

Governments and the International Community

So why does the International Community ignore this crisis and who really has an interest in keeping the Middle East de-stabilized?

Sinam Mohamad makes this pertinent observation:

“In Syria we have the US, Russia and Turkey, and even the Syrian regime. Many forces and powers are in the same area making it complicated, and everyone has their own interests. The people in Northern Syria – Kurds, Arabs, Christians have to empower themselves together and get a powerful role in the International Community to defeat these terrorists. Turkey is a threat for the whole region. In order to stop these atrocities, they should be discussed in the International Community. The United Nations should stop Turkey. In order to stop, we have to ask Turkey to withdraw from Afrin. It is the responsibility of the International Community.”

Following on and expanding upon Sinam Mohamad’s observation, Pari Ibrahim states:

“Since Turkey is a NATO member, NATO should step up and demand that Turkey ends their airstrikes against Iraqi territory. We haven’t heard much of a reaction from the International Community. Turkey wants to create a new Ottoman Empire…If we are really concerned about peace in the Middle East, we should raise our voices now.”

Dawood Saleh says:

“The role of the US in the Middle East is that it is trying to step back. Turkey is then taking advantage to de-stabilize the area. Turkey is finding this as the best time to carry out their plans and ideas of controlling the area. For us as religious minorities, Turkey is trying to replace us by what they want and controlling history. The International Community is watching Turkey committing these atrocities. NATO is aware of this and leaving Erdogan with his plans for the area.”

Going forwards…

In a situation which seems to have minimal support from the International Community, what positive steps can be taken to support the Kurdish people? The answer to this may lie in the reintegration and healing of the Yazidis and other displaced people.

In response to this possibility Pari Ibrahim says:

“It is very difficult to leave your homeland…even thought it was always war and torment, it is difficult to adjust to a new life. Our organization (The Free Yezidi Foundation) gives psychological treatment to hundreds and thousands of Yazidis who have trauma. A lot of Yazidis have suicidal thoughts and there is a high suicide rate. Untreated trauma will have a severe impact on the younger generation following them. You have to heal the person from the inside before you can rebuild an area.”

Call to action

It seems the time has come for the world to take note of the plight of the Kurdish people in Northern Syria and to take heed of the warnings of the outcome if the persecutions are ignored.

Sinam Mohamad states:

With all the violations since 2018 until now…this needs a political solution, a political decision to ask Turkey to withdraw troops from Afrin and other regions. Turkey is a NATO member…this is the responsibility of the European countries …Western countries. We have heard a lot of voices…but no solutions…We will not keep silent…”

Dawood Saleh observes:

“Many of the International Community and the Superpowers have interests in Turkey and this is why they are not stepping in, but at the same time we think the International Community have a responsibility to address these issues. Without the International Community Turkey will continue to commit all these atrocities.

To Turkey and all the International Community that is supporting Turkey… History will remember what is going on, as we always remember what happened to the Jewish people.”

Perhaps it is important to remember history and to know that sometimes it has a habit of repeating itself. Let us, in this context, remember these words by the German theologian:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

– Martin Niemöller

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