‘They will simply kill you': Syrian Kurds still fear wrath of Turkey-backed proxies

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The Syrian fighters who stormed Evin’s home ripped the front door off its hinges. What they didn’t take with them, they trashed.

“They stole everything. Maybe only my clothes are left,” said Evin, a former Ras Al Ain resident who requested a pseudonym to protect her identity.

Home to a mix of Arabs, Kurds and other religious and ethnic minorities, the Syrian town of Ras Al Ain — known as Serê Kaniyê in Kurdish — was overrun in October by Turkish-backed armed groups. Until recently, Evin’s Arab neighbours were sending her regular updates over the messaging service WhatsApp. They too have now fled.

“My husband and I built our home for our children, and now it’s occupied by terrorists,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

Evin’s story is a familiar one in the sprawling Bardarash refugee camp outside the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk.

A sea of white canvas tents serve as makeshift homes for the majority of the 18,000 Syrians who have crossed into Iraq since mid-October. These refugees make up just a fraction of the more than 200,000 civilians displaced in the aftermath of Turkey’s assault on the Kurdish YPG fighters it views as terrorists.

Despite an October deal reached between Russia and Turkey to halt the bloodshed, clashes have continued in the stretch of territory between Tal Abyad and Ras Al Ain held by Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies known as the Syrian National Army (SNA). This largely Sunni Arab force, formerly branded the Free Syrian Army, consists of both moderate Syrian rebels and hardline Islamist factions.

They would terrorise the village and arrest people

Mohammed Seydo

The SNA has come under fire by rights groups for a series of videos appearing to show its fighters degrading, torturing and killing prisoners in what Amnesty International called “a shameful disregard for civilian life.” Ankara denies such atrocities were committed by its forces.

But two months after the start of Turkey’s border operation, former residents say SNA fighters continue to terrorise their towns. A recent survey conducted by the Norweigen Refugee Council found 17 per cent of displaced residents in Iraq say they have no home to return to because their houses were either destroyed or occupied.

“There was a fear of what might happen if they return and face Turkish-backed forces,” Alexandra Saieh, an advocacy manager with NRC in Iraq, said of Ras Al Ain residents.

“People have to rely on secondhand information — speaking to family and friends, watching the media — to understand what’s happening inside Syria.”

A Syrian girl who fled the Turkish offensive into northern Syria weeps as she sits in a bus after arriving at the Bardarash camp, north of Mosul in Iraq. The camp used to host Iraqis displaced from Mosul during the fight against ISIS and was closed two years ago. AP Photo

Several families told The National they believed the SNA is preventing the return of non-Arabs to Ras Al Ain. Both Human Rights Watch and the Syria-based activists at the Rojava Information Centre have similarly documented instances of residents targeted and in some cases killed trying to re-enter the town.

“When they recognise that you are Kurdish, they will simply kill you. We were afraid that they would do the same to us,” said former Ras Al Ain resident Nora Ossi.

Ms Ossi and her family are clearly new arrivals to Bardarash. Her teenage nephew is still freshly shaven and her daughter’s shoes aren’t yet covered in the yellow dirt that blankets the camp.

All three say they’re too scared to return home to retrieve their belongings or check on their house. Ms Ossi says she personally knows of two Kurdish men shot trying to do so.

“My nephew wanted to go check on the house, but I didn’t let him go,” Ms Ossi said. “I told him, ‘these gunmen will kill you’.”

Kurdish residents in this camp frequently point to Turkey’s presence in Afrin as a harbinger of what’s to come.

More than 100,000 people fled following Turkey’s capture of the Kurdish-majority city in March 2018, the United Nations estimates. Many who remained saw their homes seized and looted by the same rebel forces now supporting Turkey in its current offensive in northeastern Syria.

“They are not a “free” army, as they call themselves. They are just mercenaries,” former Afrin resident Mohammed Seydo, who fled to Bardarash camp with his six-month-old daughter, said of the Turkey-backed rebels.

“They would terrorise the village and arrest people,” he said. “They would tell us, ‘you are Kurdish, so you must be a PKK member. You Kurds are pigs.’”

Twenty-three-year-old Mr Seydo says he and scores of other young men were arrested in Afrin for having served their mandatory military service in the YPG. After spending two months in prison, he and his wife sought refuge in Ras Al Ain. But soon after Turkey launched its operation this October, they were on the move again.

Unwilling to risk a repeat of their experience in Afrin, they fled to Iraq with their six-month old daughter. Mr Seydo says he has no intention of returning to Syria and hopes to get his family asylum in a European country.

“At least there are human rights in Europe,” he said.

Updated: December 23, 2019 06:15 PM

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