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

Syrian Kurds who escaped the Turkish incursion fear they will never be able to return

DOHUK, IRAQ - OCTOBER 17: (EDITOR'S NOTE: Alternate crop of #1176332462 ) Syrian refugees fleeing the Turkish incursion in Northern Syria wait to receive water, bread and lentil soup as more than 200 arrive at the Bardarash IDP camp on October 17, 2019 in Dohuk, Iraq. More than 1000 refugees have arrived in Northern Iraq since the beginning of the conflict, with many saying they paid to be smuggled through the Syrian border. (Photo by Byron Smith/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***
Powered by automated translation

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 Sere Kaniye 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 have also 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 force, formerly branded the Free Syrian Army, consists of both moderate Syrian rebels and hardline factions.

They would terrorise the village and arrest people

The SNA has come under fire by rights groups for a series of videos that appear 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 Norwegian Refugee Council found 17 per cent of displaced Syrians in Iraq say they have no home to return to because their houses were 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.

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

A Syrian girl who is newly displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, weeps as she sits in a bus upon her arrival 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)

Several families told The National they believed the SNA was preventing the return of non-Arabs to Ras Al Ain. Both Human Rights Watch and the activists at the Rojava Information Centre documented similar instances of residents being 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,” ormer Ras Al Ain resident Nora Ossi said.

Ms Ossi and her family are 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 said they were too scared to return home to retrieve their belongings or check on their house. Ms Ossi said she knew of two Kurdish men who were 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’.”

Kurds in the camp point to Turkey’s presence in Afrin as a harbinger of what’s to come.

The UN estimated more than 100,000 people fled after Turkish forces captured the Kurdish-majority city last year. Many who remained saw their homes seized and looted by the same rebel forces now supporting Turkey in its offensive in north-eastern Syria.

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

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

Mr Seydo, 23, said he and scores of other young men were arrested in Afrin for serving 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 in October, the family were on the move again.

Unwilling to risk a repeat of their experience in Afrin, they fled to Iraq. Mr Seydo said he had no intention of returning to Syria and hoped to get his family asylum in a European country.

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