'If they see a Kurd, they’ll kill them': Syrian Kurds flee to Iraqi Kurdistan

Thousands are displaced from north-east Syria after Turkey's incursion and the Syrian regime's deal with Kurdish groups

Workers set tents in preparation to receive a few hundred Syrian refugees who have been newly displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, at the Bardarash camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. The camp used to host Iraqis displaced from Mosul during the fight against the Islamic State group and was closed two years ago. The U.N. says more around 160,000 Syrians have been displaced since the Turkish operation started last week, most of them internally in Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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Arif Hisso woke up Monday morning in his native Qamishli – a largely Kurdish city that was calm until recently, despite the Syrian civil war around it for more than eight years. But when Turkey invaded northern Syria last week to remove the main Kurdish group in the area his beloved home town became a target for Turkish shelling.

As Kurdish forces struck a deal with the Syrian government to drive the Turkish-backed Syrian forces  out, rumours began to circulate that young men in the area could be subject to military conscription.

In the early hours of Monday morning, facing the risk of death or injury from the Turkish assault or forced conscription into Syrian regime forces, Arif began a four-hour walk to the Syrian border with Iraq along with six family members.

They carried only small bags with them, leaving most of their possessions behind in the city as they walked through the dark, fearful they could be shot or bombed.

After crossing over into the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq, Arif and the family took a bus to Domiz refugee camp, where tens of thousands of Syrian Kurdish refugees who escaped earlier in the eight-year war already live.

"Everyone was getting killed," Arif told The National.

Northeast Syria has experienced autonomy during the civil war under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES). The area is largely Kurdish with many Arab, Syriac, Assyrian and other residents as well. The multi-ethnic SDF is the main military force in the area.

Syrian refugees protest the Turkish offensive against Syria during a demonstration at the Domiz refugee camp on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq October 12, 2019. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Nearly 200 people from northeast Syria, which Kurds call Rojava, arrived at the Domiz camp on Monday in white Nissan buses. Domiz already hosts more than 30,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees who came to the camp in the northern Duhok province years earlier due to the Syrian civil war, according to camp officials and residents.

Arif  and the other refugees got off the buses with few belongings. Many had small children with them, some of them crying. UN and International Organisation for Migration (IOM), staff members, camp residents and camp staff who work for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) greeted them and began the process of registration.

Zakho Abdullah also arrive at the camp on Monday. He’s originally from Afrin, which the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) took from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in 2018. He most recently lived in Kobane – where Syrian regime forces are reportedly entering to prevent a Turkish takeover. Many Kurds fled Afrin after the YPG’s defeat there, and the ordeal was traumatic for Abdullah and others.

"There's nothing left. It's all war," Zakho, fresh off the bus and smoking a cigarette, told The National. "Afrin is gone, Kobane is gone."

“The free army (FSA) came and they’re just like Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Zakho is afraid Kobane will meet the same fate as Afrin.

“If they see a Kurd, they’ll kill them,” he said.

In addition to removing the YPG from its border, Turkey wants to settle some of its roughly 3,000,000 Syrian refugee population in towns in a new ‘safe zone’ it wants to create in Kurdish territory. The move is popular in Turkey and among some of the refugees, but some Kurds say it constitutes forced demographic change.

Zakho hopes he can find a job in the camp. He does not expect to go back to Syria anytime soon.

“Not while Assad is there. Not while Turkish groups are there,” he said.

Many of the men who arrived in Domiz on Monday said they were fleeing the Syrian army’s advances after the deal they struck with the YPG. They are particularly concerned about Syria’s mandatory conscription, which requires males of age to serve in the army.

The regime and Turkey and its allies all moving into the northeast has left Zakho with nowhere to go but the camp.

“The regime will take me to the army,” he said. “And then there’s Turkey. Where can I go?”

The way to the border between the KRG and northeast Syria is a semi-desert area with unfinished roads. Giyan Habsho said she spent two hours walking the final leg of her journey after leaving her car behind. She is from Sari Kan in Ras Al Ain.

"There was war and bombing and fighting," she said to The National.

Some of the refugees accused the YPG of preventing them from leaving via the official border crossing in Peshabor. Giyan said she came “illegally.”

“We were smuggled,” she said.

Giyan speculates that the YPG did not want a mass exodus of people giving up on living in the autonomous statelet in northern Syria.

“The country would be empty,” she said.

An official from the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A UN body tweeted that the refugees who came this week did so via an informal border crossing in Sahela, not the official border crossing at Peshabor.

The KRG announced that 180 refugees arrived in the Kurdistan Region on Monday, and that they expect an “influx” in the near future.

The UN says there are are already more than a million displaced people in the Kurdistan Region. This includes internally displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees.

Kurdish social media seethes with anger at the US decision to withdraw from Syria, which paved the way for the Turkish invasion. For now, Zakho prefers not to comment on the global politics that helped contribute to his displacement.

“Every country has its policies,” he said.