People displaced from Afrin sort through clothing donations in Tal Rifaat this week. Photo: George Ourfalian/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Afrin civilians say it is not safe to return home and those who try become targets for Turkish-backed Syrian militias now controlling the canton, despite claims out of Ankara that civilians are now returning.
In one shelter in a village, ten families who fled from Afrin are living together, Rakan, a member of one of the families told Rudaw English by phone, asking that their location not be revealed. At least one in their group is in need of medical care, she said.
She said that her mother was killed by Turkish forces in Afrin.
Despite the difficult conditions where they are living, Rakan said they cannot return to Afrin because it is not safe – people who have tried have been targeted by militiamen with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported this week that fighters loyal to Ankara are using checkpoints to prevent people returning home.
Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, speaking during a tour of military units stationed near Turkey’s borders with Syria this week, claimed that civilians have begun returning to Afrin, state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
The United Nations has estimated that 183,500 people have been displaced by Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. The majority, about 140,000 have fled to Tal Rifaat – a town that is unable to deal with the influx of desperate people who fled with just the clothes on their backs.
An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 civilians remain in Afrin city, according to UN figures.
They are living in fear of being accused of having ties with the Kurdish forces. Shekho Dlo, a lawyer from Afrin, told Rudaw English by phone from outside that canton that people in the city are afraid to use their phones because they will be accused of spying for the Kurdish YPG forces.
Yezidi leaders have repeatedly expressed concern about the safety of the minority community in Afrin where some 21 villages were home to Yezidis, according to advocacy group Yazda that was established in the aftermath of the genocide committed by ISIS.
“We have learned that in some places in Afrin, the so-called Free Syrian Army is obligating Yazidi women to use Hijab and the so-called Ahrar El Sham Battalion forces Yazidis to learn Islamic religious texts,” tweeted Yazda Executive Director Murad Ismael this week.
He called on Turkey to intervene and “stop these violations immediately.”
Elements of the FSA were photographed looting shops and homes in Afrin. Ankara has pledged to punish those who commit looting and a pro-FSA news agency has reported that a battalion has been expelled from the force because of looting.
“Sho’ous al-Haq battalion headed by Abuzeid Manegh and numbering 52 fighters is dismissed because of confiscation of money and property of civilians from Afrin city of Syria,” read an undated letter, signed by Hassam Abu Yasin, head of Levant Front’s Third Corps, and published by Syria Call.
The order bans the battalion from all territories controlled by the FSA and said records of violations were sent to a military court.
Members of the battalion protested the dismissal in a video shared by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In the video, a group of fighters address Abu Yasin, laying claim to the real Syrian revolutionary spirit.
“Abu Yasin, I told you ‘My soul, we are revolutionaries… and the revolution continues. We will stay in revolution history, not you,” said a man identified as Abuzeid Manegh.
The Levant Front is also known as the Sham Front (Jabhat al-Shamiyah in Arabic). It is an alliance of a number of Syrian Islamic groups that was formed in 2014 after months of negotiations in Turkey and northern Syria.