Fleeing Kurds Vow Never to Return to Syria as NGOs Warn of Looming Humanitarian Disaster

Syrian Kurdish refugees started arriving in Kurdish Iraq this week, fleeing the Turkish offensive in northern Syria. ‘I had a feeling we’d have to reopen this place one day — after all, we’re in the Middle East,’ says the head of the camp now sheltering them, in a second special report

Syrians who were displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria wait to receive tents and aid supplies at the Bardarash refugee camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2019.
Hussein Malla/AP

BARDARASH and ERBIL, Iraq — The column of white and blue buses seems endless as it enters the Bardarash camp in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 44Haaretz

Behind dirty windows, a few smiles of relief are lost in an ocean of otherwise mournful faces. The first Kurdish refugees from Syria arrived on Wednesday evening, 400 people in all, having fled the Turkish invasion and redeployment of Assad regime forces to their hometowns in northern Syria.

An infant cries so loudly he may damage his vocal cords. A 12-year-old boy, leaning against the ledge of a bus window, has his eyes locked toward the purple horizon and his homeland of Rojava, which until a week ago was the Kurds’ autonomous enclave in President Bashar Assad’s Syria.

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“We are finally safe,” murmurs Samira Ahmed, 63. With parched skin and foggy eyes, she says: “My house was destroyed in a Turkish bombardment. We left with nothing, because we have nothing left. We had to pay a smuggler — $500 per person — to cross the border [into Iraq]. First on foot, then on horseback, then by swimming to get to the other side of the river, where the Peshmergas came to our aid,” she recounts, referring to the Iraqi Kurdish fighters in the region.

Ahmed is now a refugee for the second time in her life. First, she had to flee from the Islamic State group, which was advancing on Kurdish lands, and now the Ankara-backed Islamist rebels. Two aid workers have to carry her off the bus to the camp reception, where a meal is being served.

‘We cannot let them go’

The camp, surrounded by sandy hills, had been closed since 2017, when it was hosting residents of Mosul — 32 kilometers, or 20 miles, to the southwest — who had fled the city’s bloody battle against ISIS.

Flames rising from burned cars at the site of an explosion in Qamishli, northeastern Syria, October 11, 2019.
/AP

“I had a feeling we’d have to reopen this place one day — after all, we’re in the Middle East,” smiles Salar Aziz, who runs the camp. “Let me tell you — as a Kurd and not as the director of Bardarash — that my heart is broken,” he adds, now sounding solemn.

According to aid groups, more than 200,000 civilians have already been displaced by the week-long conflict. As of Thursday morning, though, they say only about 2,400 have managed to reach neighboring Iraq. Most of these new refugees had to cross the border clandestinely, as the official Semalka border crossing between the two Kurdish regions in Syria and Iraq is seemingly closed to anyone who did not already have a travel permit.

Refugees confirm to Haaretz that they have been turned away at checkpoints by their own security forces, the People’s Protection Units (the YPG), in an apparent violation of international humanitarian law (which seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict).

“Listen to me: We cannot let them go,” confides a Kurdish guard working at the Semalka border crossing, and speaking on condition of anonymity. “If we do not prevent people from leaving the country,” he says, “we will face a mass exodus that would dramatically change the demographics of our region.” Turkey is attempting “ethnic cleansing,” he warns.

Turkey views the People’s Protection Units as a terrorist organization linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatist group within Turkey and wants to create a “safe zone” 30 kilometers into Syrian territory where it reportedly aims to resettle millions of mostly Arab Syrian refugees displaced by the country’s eight-year civil war.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday that Washington and Ankara had agreed a five-day cease-fire in the Turks’ attacks on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria (to allow the Kurds to withdraw to 30 kilometers from the Turkish border, the Turks said). The commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said later he was ready to abide by the cease-fire, although the Kurds also complained Friday that the Turks were still targeting their positions in the border town of Ras al-Ayn.

It remains unclear how the United States could make sure all parties abide by the cease-fire, having lost all leverage after leaving its positions in northern Syria this past week —a void subsequently filled by Russia.

‘And they will die’

Rania Nazir, 20, and her brother sold their mother’s gold to pay the $1,500 fee a smuggler demanded to get them both over the border into Iraq. The siblings, from the northeastern city of Qamishli on the Syria-Turkey border, had initially decided to stay in their hometown, despite Turkish shelling and attacks claimed by ISIS militias. However, it was Damascus’ redeployment to the hitherto autonomous region that prompted their sudden exodus.

“We will probably never return to Syria — because with the return of the Russian-backed regime, young men like my brother will be conscripted into military service. And they will die,” Rania says, choosing each word carefully. With her chin up and her blond hair carefully combed back, she maintains a proud look despite her tired features. Asked what she thinks about the Assad regime’s return to northern Syria for the first time since 2012, she thinks long and hard — then politely refuses to answer the question.

Turkish soldiers are seen in the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria, in this undated photo released by Turkish Defense Ministry on October 17, 2019.
TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY/REUTE

Civilians are not the only people fleeing Syria. Already last weekend, a dozen aid workers were waiting in line at the border crossing between Faysh Khabur and Semalka. “It’s a first small evacuation, for prevention,” predicts one of the aid workers. “We lighten the staff so that if things get even worse, we can evacuate the rest of the team quickly. But I think it’s a bad idea,” says this young French aid worker, adding: “By leaving, we leave the field open to the Turks to move forward.”

That was seven days ago, and the world has changed a lot since then.

“The concern is that we don’t really know what the Assad regime’s attitude toward international agencies will be,” says Tom Peyre-Costa, spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq. “This is the reason why NGOs have fled the area, coupled with the fact that the entrance of a new military player leads de facto to increased fighting, and therefore higher risks for these organizations.”

Peyre-Costa admits the sudden exodus of humanitarian workers is “obviously very worrying, because even before the Turkish offensive many people [in Kurdish Syria] were dependent on humanitarian aid. Now, we find ourselves with camps completely empty of humanitarian agencies but completely full of displaced people.”

Negotiating with Assad

Some humanitarian aid workers tell Haaretz they fear hostile acts by the Assad regime, citing its bombing attacks on hospitals supported by international NGOs. However, many agencies, including the United Nations, have already been working these past few years in Damascus and other areas under the auspices of the Syrian president.

“When I told people that we had no choice but to leave, they burst into tears,” says a European aid worker who has just been exfiltrated from northern Syria. He requested anonymity in order to be able to speak freely.

Stationed in Tal Abyad hospital on the Syrian border with Turkey, he first had to take refuge in the hospital basement, spending the night listening to the repeated sound of explosions nearby. His management team then made the decision to withdraw him to Tall Tmar, about 20 kilometers from the Turkish border.

But then they learned that Turkish-backed militias had been spotted on the main road leading to their new position. The aid worker was forced to relocate a second time — to Derik, a 30-minute drive from the Iraqi border — until the advance of the Assad regime definitively marked the end of his mission in Syria.

“I am especially afraid for our local employees, who have also had to join the mass of displaced civilians,” he says, clearly concerned.

Will it be possible for him and hundreds of other aid workers like him to return to northern Syria soon? “Previously, we were in close contact with the Kurdish forces then in charge of the area,” says Dr. Marc Forget, head of mission of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) in Iraq. The organization’s Syrian mission was evacuated from northern Syria on Tuesday. “Now a new player has entered, with whom we don’t have such a close relationship, and with whom we’re going to have to negotiate our return.”

Of course, for Syria’s Kurdish refugees in Iraq, negotiating a return to their homeland is not an option.

As dusk falls on the Bardarash camp Wednesday evening, families start moving into their new homes: white tents, lined up in rows. Haaretz finds Samira Ahmed sitting in front of hers, her husband about to join her. From now on, they will be residing in shelter “B1.”

“We couldn’t bring any luggage with us,” the elderly woman says, the day’s last rays of sunlight reflected on her thick glasses. Yet despite her predicament, she offers parting words of reassurance. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” she says with a sad smile. “We’re getting used to being refugees.”