Don't look away from Rojava

“If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we will choose our people,” Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, wrote a little over a month ago. Abdi, who commands tens of thousands of male and female soldiers who fought and beat the Islamic State organization, knows what he’s talking about. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, is on the brink of an abyss. The American abandonment, the offensive by Turkey and its jihadist allies, and the involvement of Syria’s Assad regime and its Russian patrons have forced the area’s inhabitants, especially the Kurds, to maneuver and compromise in order to preserve human life and stop the fighting.

Published in Haaretz:

But the agreements that have been reached primarily serve Turkey, whose achievements include damaging the armed Kurdish forces, causing civilian flight from the new “security zone” and diverting international attention to other places. After a few days in which the world showed signs of concern over the hundreds of people who were killed or wounded and the thousands more who were expelled, the imaginary cease-fire has calmed international public opinion and allowed Turkey to continue with its plans for regional domination. But the fire has not ceased and quiet has not been restored. All the world needs to do in order to realize is to stop plugging up its ears.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve spoken with several Kurds who were in Rojava during the Turkish operation. These conversations took place in Sweden after the interviewees — Swedes of Kurdish origin — returned from visits to northern Syria. When you hear their stories and combine them with reports from other sources, it’s no longer possible to believe Turkey’s claim that it’s only fighting terrorists and restoring order. Bejan Rashid, for instance, is a Syrian who found refuge in Europe nine years ago. After receiving a European passport, he went to visit his hometown of Qamishli. “I was in Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain) when the fighting started,” he said. “On the afternoon of October 9, F-16 planes started to bomb various targets, some of them entirely civilian. They bombed schools, residential buildings and hospitals.” Bejan said that  he volunteered to help the Kurdish Red Cross to transfer the wounded to a hospital. “I saw many who were killed and many who were injured,” he said. “Most of the injured were missing arms or legs or were hit by shrapnel. I tried to help the children and the elderly people first. The thing that’s hardest to forget was a girl, about 8 years old, who was sitting by her dead brother, trying to wake him up.”

A few days after the Turkish offensive began, Amnesty International published a report that showed the big picture. According to this report, civilians were bombed indiscriminately. One of the testimonies in the report described the bombing of an area near a school that was far from any military target. “In total, there were six injured and four killed, including two children,” a Kurdish Red Crescent worker said. “I couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls because their corpses were black. They looked like charcoal.” Other witnesses described an attack on a convoy of hundreds of civilians. Six people were killed and 59 wounded in this incident, which a journalist who was present described as “an absolute massacre.” The report also accused Turkey’s jihadist partners of executing people in cold blood, including a female Kurdish politician, Hevrin Khalaf, on the road between Raqqa and Qamishli. These claims have been reinforced by a Wall Street Journal report that quoted American sources as saying that serious war crimes of this sort were filmed by American military drones.

Those who survived the attacks and escaped to safer areas have to endure impossible conditions and uncertainty about the future. Helin Kerim Sonmez is a young Swede of Kurdish descent who traveled to Rojava after the Turkish invasion and spent a week volunteering in the Hesîçe (Hasakah) region. She told me about thousands of refugees staying at schools who suffer from bad sanitary conditions and a lack of medical care. There is no running water and sometimes no mattresses or blankets either; they just sleep on the bare ground.  “Traveling between the different schools between Hasakah and Tell Tamer,” she said, “we saw buildings in the villages that were totally destroyed. Roads were destroyed. We saw a water silo which was bombed and destroyed and schools that were hit too.”

Another Swede of Kurdish descent, Lorîn Ibrahim Berzincî, was in Qamishli on a family visit when the fighting started and was witness to the artillery bombings and the panic they created. “At night they bombed the old town area (Kudurbek) and the next day they hit right in the center of town. They hit a bakery, a soccer ground and a street in the center of town, but luckily that bomb didn’t detonate.” Lorin, who was staying at Qamishli with her family — which included young children and old people — managed to leave town before the situation deteriorated. But before coming back to Sweden, she witnessed another aspect of the Turkish assault. In a local hospital, she briefly met Mohammed Hamid, a 13-year-old boy from Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain), who suffered from horrible burns that may have been caused by white phosphorus. “More than half of his body was burned,” she said, “and the doctor who took care of him told me he’s never seen anything like it.”

Many Rojava residents say these crimes are part of a deliberate policy. Elisabeth Gouriye, one of the leaders of Rojava’s Christian community, said in a videotaped speech that the Turks intend to “cleanse” northern Syria of its Christians by means of massacres and expulsions. This jibes with the claim that the Turks’ goal is to settle the region with Syrian refugees expelled from Turkey in place of Christians, Kurds and others. The Amnesty report, which was published in October, reinforces these claims and brings evidence that Syrian refugees have indeed been deported from Turkey into battle zones in Syria. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening to “flood” Europe with 3.6 million migrants if its leaders oppose his actions.

Even though Rojava is disappearing from the headlines, a catastrophe is still in the offing. Fighting continues in key areas, suicide bombings are targeting civilian populations, clerics are being murdered and refugees aren’t being allowed to return to their homes. This is a manmade catastrophe, and it’s happening before our very eyes. But unlike previous such catastrophes, it’s accompanied by pictures, videos and calls for help on social media. In his address to the Bundestag in 1998, the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer suggested adding three more commandants to the existing 10: “You, your children and your children’s children shall never become perpetrators”; “You, your children and your children’s children shall never, never allow yourselves to become victims”; and “You, your children and your children’s children shall never, but never, be passive onlookers to mass murder, genocide, or (let us hope it may never be repeated) to a Holocaust-like tragedy.”


David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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