By Sinam Sherkany Mohamad
Two years ago now, my life was thrown into chaos. Turkish soldiers marched over the border and invaded my home city of Afrin, a Kurdish city in Western Syria, The siege began the third week of January, 2018. They killed hundreds of civilians. Most of us fled. The world mostly stayed silent — perhaps it seemed like just another day, another tragedy in Syria.
But this Turkish invasion, occupation, and land grab was unlike any other event that Syria had experienced. Afrin had been a stable part of Syria, home to an inspiring new people-led democracy. The Turkish invasion ended all of that.
When the people of Afrin heard that Turkish forces were crossing the border after many weeks of shelling, they ran. I was lucky to be away on travel at the time. But I knew that, as a Kurdish woman, an outspoken feminist, and a political figure who had been a candidate for Parliament, I could never go back. I knew that I could be tortured and killed if captured.
My family was lucky to escape with the clothes on their backs.
We left our whole lives behind, but I can close my eyes and still recall it all — Our carefully designed house, for which we had picked out each stone for our masonry. My living room, where we taught our children daily lessons, and also had thoughtless little moments of caregiving, the hugs and jokes and snacks, small everyday expressions of love. My giant trays of carefully-wrapped dolmas, one of my family’s favorites, which I would take a whole day to prepare for special holidays in my kitchen. The fragrance of my garden in bloom, where I had painstakingly cultivated each flower, and my beloved variety of roses. Roses grow well in the sunny, lush climate of Afrin — as do olive trees, nut trees, fruit trees, and almost anything you would want in your vegetable garden.
The olive trees. Afrin was known for its olive trees, and my family had olive trees hundreds of years old. Turkey has now burned or cut down many of the famous olive trees of Afrin, as it seeks to completely rebrand Afrin as a Turkish city.
My husband and I had spent a lifetime building our factory in Afrin, with a mechanized process for making aluminum containers for olive oil, and growing the factory into a successful business.
After the invasion of Afrin, a Turkish-backed militia seized our factory, loaded all of our equipment and machinery onto trucks, and brought it back to Turkey. Nothing remains now but an empty building.
My beloved house, I have now heard, has also been emptied. Turkey and Turkish-backed militias stole everything from my home — all the furniture, clothing, books, carpets, appliances. There are now members of a Turkish-backed militia occupying it and using it as their local headquarters. Now people say, “when we are summoned to your house, it is for torture.”
My living room, which was the site of so many beautiful family memories, is now being used as a torture chamber for my neighbors. There are not enough tears for this tragedy.
My four adult children, my husband, my aunts, uncles, cousins, and so many more are now scattered to the four winds. I am here alone in the United States, continuing to work for peace and stability in our region.
My story of hardship is only one of so many. If each one were a book, a whole library could not hold these sad stories. Over 300,000 of Afrin’s residents are displaced — more than 50 percent of its pre-invasion residents.
Militias have been kidnapping, torturing, raping, and killing residents who stayed, especially Kurds and Yezidis. The Turkish flag now flies over our public buildings. Turkey has been teaching the Kurdish children of Afrin the Turkish language. They have targeted our archeological sites, such as our famous Ain Dara lion statues — which were over 3,000 years old but have now been reduced to rubble by Turkish bombardment. Turkey has been moving in new residents — non-Kurdish Syrian refugees, Turkish-back militia members, and Turkish administrators to oversee it all. Some estimates suggest that over 300,000 people have been moved into Afrin in the past two years.
All of these actions amount to forced demographic change, which is ethnic cleansing, and is a war crime. They are trying to erase our culture forever. These are just more methods by which Turkey is trying to erase the Kurds.
Turkey used the overall unrest and lack of stability in Syria as cover for its invasion, occupation, and land grab. The world let it happen. Now Turkey is building a fearsome concrete apartheid wall around the city, modeled after the Israeli-built wall to persecute Palestine. Turkey has taken Afrin, and it wants to keep it. If the Turkish do not leave, I fear that I will never see my home again.
Why would Turkey invade Afrin, you may ask? First, Turkey has been engaged in a genocidal war against the Kurds for the better part of the century. Afrin was a Kurdish city. Second, Turkey wanted our fertile agricultural land. Third, Turkey wanted to uproot the new democratic governance structure that had emerged in Afrin, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) — especially since the city government was led by a Kurdish woman.
The new democracy that had governed Afrin consisted of self-governing participatory democracies organized into a federation. Founded by Kurdish-led groups, the administration quickly expanded to include groups of many different ethnicities and religions of the region. It is based on gender equality, religious and ethnic diversity, decentralization, and democracy. Its military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces, partnered with the US military to defeat ISIS. It has been an inspiring sign that good things can emerge from the kind of power vacuums that we have seen in Syria. Now, without Afrin, the region is a bit smaller. In the United States people call it “North and East Syria” or simply “the Kurds.”
Of course, the authoritarian regime of Turkey did not want to see this revolutionary democracy succeed. So the armies massed at the border, waited for their chance, and pounced at their earliest opportunity, when they believed that the rest of the world would look the other way.
I was part of the new democracy in Afrin. I was a founding member of the administration and an early advocate of its principles. Now, two years after the Turkish invasion, I am here in the cold weather in Washington DC, in the United States, hoping that the world will do something to end the Turkish occupation of my home. As the official US representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of SDF, I am here promoting the ideals that I believe will change the world.
We hope that the world will hear our voices. We hope that the international community will end its silence on the Turkish occupation of Afrin. And we hope that the people of Afrin can go back to their villages, their homes, their farms, and their families.