It’s now been three years since the Turkish military began their occupation of Afrin, Syria — a fertile, predominantly Kurdish region of Syria known for its olive groves. In early 2018, the Turkish military invaded Afrin. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) came to the defense of the people there in a fierce and bloody struggle, but the region fell to the advanced weaponry and air power of the Turkish military on March 18, 2018. The Turkish government now occupies the region, flying the Turkish flag and changing signs and placenames to the Turkish language, forcing schoolchildren to learn Turkish, and pasting Turkish President Erdogan’s picture in public places — patrolled by Turkish-backed militias calling themselves the “Syrian National Army.”
The region is now the site of frequent and well-documented human rights abuses and war crimes, including murder, rape, torture, detainment, kidnapping, holding for ransom, extortion, forced displacement, forced demographic change, property theft, and more. The groups committing these atrocities are militias such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Ahrar Al-Sham al-Amshat, Hamzat, Sultan Murad, Samarkand, and others. These groups acting as allies call themselves the “Syrian National Army,” and incorporate Islamic imagery and extremist practices into their operations. The groups are equipped, funded, managed, coordinated, and legitimized by the Turkish government.
This gallery of horrors shows some of the clearest and best-documented atrocities and horrors committed in the three years of the Turkish occupation.
Abuses and terror against women
Women, especially Kurdish, Yezidi, and Christian women of the region, have been subject to a campaign of murder, rape, kidnapping, and abuse. Women’s rights were flourishing in Afrin before the Turkish military invasion. Over 40 percent of positions of power were held by women as part of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which currently governs its five million people. Afrin is also the city where the YPJ was founded — the Women’s Protection Units of the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose fight against ISIS has now been immortalized in the book by bestselling author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, “The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Courage, Rebellion, and Justice.”
Today in Afrin, women are kidnapped, ransomed, imprisoned, raped. The women who are still there have been pushed back into solely domestic roles. They are afraid to leave their homes due to continued harassment by the Turkish-backed mercenaries.
In one such case, a 16-year-old young woman named Malak Nabil was kidnapped, raped, and eventually shot dead in the countryside of Azaz by Turkish-backed militia member, according to Ibrahim Sheikho, Director of the Afrin Organisation for Human Rights.
Nabil was assaulted, raped, and killed by militia members “on the pretext that she was a fighter in the Women Protection Units,” said Sheiko. “After being gang-raped for a week, they handed her to her family, then they kidnapped her again and carried out a field execution by unknown persons in the countryside of Azaz.”
“The fugitives from Afrin talk about the Afrin hospital crowded with the corpses of kidnapped women, for accusing them as terrorists and posing a threat to Turkish state security, even children,” said Sheiko.
“The rape, captivity and oppression of the Kurdish women in Afrin are carried out with the light, approval of Turkey, and dozens of women are killed daily, especially the minors, and they are financially extorted, raped and brutally subjected to violence and abuse like never before,” said one report from Sky News Arabia on December 23, 2020.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report in September 2020 that documented rape and human rights violations against women in the Turkish-occupied region of North and East Syria. The report includes the cases of at least 30 women who were reportedly raped just in February 2020. There have been more than 150 documented cases of abduction, rape and/or murder carried out against women under the Turkish occupation of Afrin, according to the US-based Missing Afrin Women Project. Documented cases likely show just the tip of the iceberg — most cases are not reported.
Destruction of agriculture
Cutting down more than 1,400,000 trees, including 670,000 olive trees and 730,000 forest trees. These trees are used for firewood or sold in the marketplace for firewood so that militias can fund themselves.
In addition, locals report that agricultural crops such as wheat are sabotaged by allowing livestock to graze on the lands of Kurdish people. Locals who protest are beaten and assaulted.
In one such case a Kurdish elder named Ali Ahmed, 74, was beaten and killed on April 22, 2020, by members of a Turkish-backed militia who were grazing sheep on his land in the town of Midanky, district of Sharan, in rural Afrin. Ali reportedly had a verbal dispute with members of the Turkish-backed militia “Sultan Murad,” after they allowed their sheep to graze on Ali’s land. Sources say that Ali asked the militia members not to tend their sheep there.
“We liberated this land with our blood and it will remain ours, and the Kurds should leave Afrin!” the militia members reportedly said (in Arabic). The militia members then undertook a severe beating of Ali with sticks. The Turkish-appointed police became aware of the beating but did not interfere to stop the violence or pursue the aggressors afterwards. Ali lost his life as locals attempted to rush him to the Afrin Hospital.
Theft and destruction of archeological sites
Under three years of Turkish occupation, most of the region’s 75 archaeological sites have been destroyed, damaged, or bulldozed. Graves have been exhumed, ancient sites have been bombed, and religious shrines have been destroyed. According to the statistics of the Directorate of Antiquities of Afrin, more than 28 archaeological sites and a warehouse were destroyed, and 15 religious shrines for different sects and religions were destroyed.
Destruction of ancient historical sites includes the theft of the massive basalt lion from the archaeological site of Ain Dara. The site, estimated to about 3,300 years old, is a unique example of an Iron Age Syro-Hittite temple noted by archeologists for its similarities to Solomon’s Temple or “the First Temple,” as described in the Hebrew Bible. The Ain Dara temple site is older than “the First Temple.” However, during the Turkish military bombing of the region in January 2018, over 50 percent of the ancient site was reduced to rubble.
The lion was reportedly stolen by the Turkish-backed militia known as the Hamzat militia. The massive lion, which is estimated to weigh several tons and carved out of basalt, was a prominent feature of a sprawling temple complex that was discovered and excavated in the 1950s through the 1970s. The lion’s whereabouts remain a mystery.
Forcing Turkish culture and language upon the region
Schoolchildren are now being forced to learn in the Turkish language instead of Kurdish or Arabic. Historic landmarks of early civilization in the Afrin region have been changed to the Turkish language, as well as the names of public squares, main streets, and even villages. Images of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear in public spaces.
Famously, the Turkish overseers of the occupation have on many occasions coordinated photo ops with Afrin schoolchildren waving Turkish flags. It is unclear whether the children pictured are aware that the flag symbolizes the country of Turkey at all.
Ethnic cleansing of Kurds and forced demographic change
According to surveys conducted by the Human Rights Organisation of Afrin, roughly 300,000 of the original inhabitants of Afrin have been displaced. In survey results released by the organization in January 2021, only 23 percent of the inhabitants of the Afrin region population identify as Kurdish, whereas before the occupation, over 90 percent identified as Kurdish. The reason for this is that Kurds have fled from the region, and settlers have been brought in by Turkey and the Turkish-backed militias.
Approximately 400,000 settlers have been resettled in all 366 villages and suburbs of Afrin. These new Afrin settlers identify as Arab and Turkmen people, and are mostly the familes of pro-Turkey Islamist fighters of the Syrian opposition. They are bussed to Afrin from lost enclaves of the armed opposition, following Astana deals among Russia, Turkey, and Iran. This amounts to deliberate and systematic forced demographic change — a war crime.
Deaths and injury by bombings, assault, torture, and abuse
More than 604 civilians have been killed, of whom 498 were killed as a result of the Turkish bombing and Turkish-backed militias, as documented by the Human Rights Organisation of Afrin. Over 82 were killed as a result of or following torture. These cases are only those that the organization has been able to document. More than 500 people remain missing or “disappeared.”
More than 696 have been wounded as a result of Turkish bombing and shootings by the armed militias, including about 303 children and 213 women. There have been 207 documented cases among Afrin residents of death or injury as a result of land mines and booby traps, some of which are left in abandoned dwellings by militia members or settlers for the original inhabitants to set off when they return to their homes.
Theft of homes, looting of property, fraud
Anything of value has been subject to looting and theft under the Turkish occupation. There have been tens of thousands of homes stolen from the original residents of Afrin, now inhabited by settlers. Turkish-backed militia members have reportedly been acting as a real estate business for the most valuable homes, selling off the property of the inhabitants they have abducted, imprisoned, or forcibly displaced.
Agricultural crops, such as olive, grains, fruits, sumac, and grapes, are being unlawfully looted by opposition factions acting under direct orders of pro-Turkey local councils. Militias threaten Kurdish residents with death if they try to harvest their own seasonal crops. Afrin’s most valuable resource, olive oil, is being systematically looted by pro-Turkey commanders of the armed groups while Turkish traders buy it cheaply from Afrin markets to be reprocessed in Turkey, bottled, labelled as Turkish brand and finally exported to Europe, the Gulf, and the United States to finance the armed groups. Illegally-seized
In the months following the Turkish invasion, The Guardian documented Afrin locals discussing the theft of their property:
“Lands are being confiscated, farms, wheat, furniture, nothing is ours anymore; it’s us versus their guns. It’s difficult to come back, you have to prove the property is yours and get evidence and other nearly impossible papers to reclaim it,” said original Afrin resident Salah Mohammed, 40. “There is definitely a demographic change, a lot of Kurds have been forcibly displaced on the count that they’re with the PKK when in fact they weren’t. There are barely any Kurds left in Afrin, no one is helping us go back.”
Another original Afrin inhabitant, Shiyar Khalil, 32, said: “When the Kurds try to get back to their house they have to jump through hoops. You cannot deny a demographic change, Kurds are not able to go back. Women are veiled, bars are closed; it’s a deliberate erasing of Kurdish culture.”
Forced extradition and illegal transfers of prisoners
Over 60 residents of the Afrin region have been illegally extradited to Turkey, to face trial in Turkey. Most have been arrested after accusations that they were involved in, or supporters of, the local government administration prior to 2018, the AANES. These extraditions — illegal transfers of prisoners — are war crimes.
One such resident was Ghazala Mannan Salmo, 45, a Yazidi woman from the village of Basufan in Afrin’s Sherawa district. Salmo was abducted by Turkish-backed Faylaq al-Sham militia members, as reported the Human Rights Organisation of Afrin. According to the organization, Salmo was kidnapped alongside Kurdish residents of the villages of Baiyeh, Basofan, Kabashin, and Burj Haydar, and accused of acts of terrorism.
According to a source inside the Isca prison, where Salmo has been held, she was brutally beaten and tortured to an extent that she may now have a traumatic brain injury. The source said that Salmo has now been illegally extradited to Turkey to stand trial, supposedly on a charge that she committed an act of terrorism.