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‘This Is Ethnic Cleansing’: A Dispatch from Kurdish Syria

Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images
Mourners attending the funerals of Syrian Democratic Forces fighters killed in battles against Turkish forces, Qamishli, Syria, October 14, 2019

Qamishli, Syria—When my mom called to ask me where I was, I lied to her. Sometimes I do not want to worry her, as I’m often reporting on stories from places that aren’t safe. When she said, “Get ready to move,” I realized something was wrong. Qamishli was under attack. “Can’t you hear the shelling?” she screamed. She lives in Rimelan, a city an hour away, but she was here to visit my brother. The Turks were targeting my neighborhood, she said.

That was Wednesday afternoon, October 9, the first day of Turkey’s attack on Rojava, Western Kurdistan, as we call it in Kurdish. Qamishli, my city, was one of the few places in northeast Syria that had enjoyed relative peace despite Syria’s eight-year civil war. 

In past years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made constant threats against us, but I never really expected him to make a move. The Americans were here, and they promised they would protect us. So Erdoğan’s bluster seemed meaningless. I was wrong.

First, we experienced clashes with the regime forces of Bashar al-Assad, then it was our turn to face the fighters of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. After the group rose in 2014, ISIS detonated bombs and planned suicide attacks in Qamishli and the towns of northeast Syria

For all that, we never had artillery shelling before. So, when my mother called, I was scared. Everyone was.

That day, October 9, I was driving back from Serekanye, about fifty miles from Qamishli, when an airstrike targeted a military base a few hundred yards from the scene of a protest that I had been due to report on about half an hour later. In the aftermath of the bombing, we feared we were going to be hit by another wave of Turkish planes. Everyone fled the scene. My colleague Alan, who is an exceptionally good driver, got us out of there in seconds.

By the time we reached Qamishli, there was no one on the streets. All the shops were closed; ours was the only car around. Then we came upon a crowd of people who had gathered at a gas station, where they hoped to get enough fuel to get their family out—by driving to the Iraqi border or into the countryside. It was clear that this time, my world was going to change forever.

When I got back to my neighborhood, I realized that my home’s proximity to a police station actually made it very dangerous. For the past two years, I’d considered myself lucky to live next door to the police; for one thing, it meant having electricity 24/7, unlike many other houses in the city. Many in the same neighborhood had had to put up with power outages several times a day.

Now, things were different. At any moment, that police station could be a target for an air strike, and my home would be collateral damage. I was hesitant even to go in to grab things I needed, like documents and personal effects. I decided to take the risk. “Yalla, let’s go,” I said to myself.

I entered the yard and opened the metal door to my place. I started to grab things, put them in a bag, as fast as I could. I don’t remember how it happened but I collapsed on the floor and started crying. “Why is this happening to me? Why?” This was the first time in this nine-year-long conflict that I had felt so dissociated: broken inside, crushed. The last time I’d had such a panic attack was after my youngest brother died fighting in 2014. He had gone to Sinjar, in northern Iraq, with the YPG, the Syrian-Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, to help save the Yazidi people from being massacred by ISIS.

I pulled myself together. I had to go. As I switched off the lights for the last time, I knew that I might not see my home again.

*

Mohammed Ahmad/AFP via Getty Images
The aftermath of a car-bomb attack in Qamishli in Kurdish-held territory facing the Turkish invasion of Syria, October 11, 2019

By October 9, the whole border with Turkey was under attack. From Kobane in the west to Derik in the east, no one felt safe. The border is a roughly 500-mile long stretch of mostly flat land. In 2018, the Turks built the third longest border wall in the world to separate them from us. The first longest is the Great Wall of China; the second is the barrier between the United States and Mexico.

That day, three people died and nine were injured. I went to Salam Hospital in Qamishli to report on the casualties. When I got there, it was chaos. Dozens of people were waiting in the entry hall. Inside, a man named Fadi Habsono was lying in a room surrounded by his relatives. When I asked him what had happened, he started crying. His wife, Juliet Nicola, was in surgery. Her life was saved, but she was paralyzed from the waist down. They are both Syriac, a Christian ethnic minority group in Syria. 

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about what I ought to be doing for my family and my homeland. Since 2011, I have worked as a journalist, covering events as they unfolded. When the demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad first began, I had to tell the world what was happening—and then about the atrocities carried out by the regime.

At the same time, in Rojava, we were building our revolution; we wanted to build a new system. We wanted democracy for our people, and to break the patriarchal system that had oppressed women for so long. I, too, wished to play a part in this, and I became one of the first women working in the media.

It has been difficult; I can’t deny it. But I felt sure I’d made the right decision when, on January 21, 2014, Rojava’s system of self-administration officially formed. I still remember the scent of the crisp winter air that greeted its beginning. All of the local journalists came to cover the event. The inauguration ceremony was held in the cultural center in Amuda, a town about thirty minutes’ drive from Qamishli.

At the entrance to the hall, a huge statue of a woman symbolized the revolution. On the walls were portraits of the martyrs who had lost their lives in the struggle. Jiwan Mohamed, an official spokesperson for the Rojava self-administration, started to read the constitution. Then its appointed delegates took their oath. The moment was so full of emotion that many wept.

The Kurds have been oppressed and persecuted through history, but now we could finally be ourselves without being ashamed. It was a historic moment, and it reminded me of the republic that an earlier Kurdish leader, Mahabad, had established in 1946, in the Iranian part of Kurdistan. Created with the support of the Soviet Union, it lasted just eleven months. As soon as the Soviets withdrew, the Iranian forces crushed the fledgling Kurdish republic. The Kurdish leader Qazi Muhammad was hanged in 1947, the first of many more martyrs.

In much the same way, this sudden withdrawal of US support seemed a repetition of history. President Donald Trump’s announcement came through late, so, on October 7, I awoke to hundreds of messages on my phone. I was shocked, angry, and speechless. Everyone was asking: What will become of Rojava? In Kurdish culture, guests are so important that they take priority over everything. We will not eat in order to feed them. This is how we treated our American allies, and now they were turning their backs on us. There is a proverb in Kurdish that says, “Don’t spit in the dish you ate from.” The Americans spat in their dish.

The consequences of this shortsighted policy will be catastrophic, not just for us, but for the whole region. It will have an impact on the national security of many other countries around the world. The so-called Islamic State will regroup. This war will not just continue here, but, with many terrorists on the run, it will strike in the heart of Europe.

And there will be a new wave of refugees from northeast Syria. Many civilians will try to go to Europe, looking for peace and stability. After nearly a decade of conflict, we are all tired. The worst feeling is that in Rojava, we were living the dream of being at peace—finally, after so much struggle. Now we have to hear the American president calling us children and saying that this is just a quarrel in a sand-box with Turkey.

It is so mortifying to hear these words. We Kurds fought ISIS, the most dangerous terrorist group of the twenty-first century, on behalf of the entire world. On March 28, when we defeated the Caliphate, I remember all the Western heads of state congratulating our forces. Where are they now? Why are they allowing Turkey to send jihadist groups into our land, once again?

Ankara’s plan is to wipe out the Kurds from the border region and, in their place, resettle millions of Syrian refugees, mainly from other parts of the country, such as Ghouta near Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. They are not Kurds, they are Arabs. If Erdoğan succeeds in this scheme, there will be a vast and radical demographic change. We Kurds will be forced from our homes, and we have no place to go. This is ethnic cleansing.

The other possibility, besides Turkish occupation, is that Assad will come back. The Rojava self-administration made a military deal with Damascus to secure the border to keep Turkey at bay. But who can trust the regime? Assad’s henchmen have been responsible for untold crimes, and to have to bend the knee before Assad now flies in the face of everything the Kurds have been fighting for. Assad’s forces have now entered Kobane, which was the first Kurdish town to declare autonomy from Damascus in 2012, and was later liberated from ISIS’ occupation, at enormous cost.

Meanwhile, in the days since Turkey’s so-called Peace Spring operation started, some 235 civilians have been killed, including twenty-two children, with a further 677 people injured. Approximately 200,000 people have been displaced, the latest refugee crisis of the Syrian civil war, thanks to the American president. And whether Turkey wins or Assad regains control, thousands of ISIS prisoners will have fled.

Byron Smith/Getty Images
A family that fled Qamishli, displaced by the Turkish invasion of Syria, arriving at a refugee camp in Dohuk, Iraq, October 17, 2019

For my own part, I fear the return of the regime. As a Kurd in Syria, I faced discrimination: I was fired twice from jobs as a result. First, in 2008, when I was working as a translator in a trading company, while studying English literature at the University of Aleppo. One day, I was sitting at my desk when intelligence officers, dressed in black, stormed into the office. My boss wasn’t there, and they asked me to identify myself. As soon as I told them my obviously Kurdish name, they shook their heads. Later that day, my boss called and said they’d threatened him, pressuring him to fire me. As it was, he’d had to bribe them not to take me to prison right away. My offense? Teaching some friends at university basic Kurdish.

That day, I realized I was not Syrian—at least not in the eyes of the Assad state. As a Kurd, I was a second-class citizen.

I was working as a teacher the second time I lost my job: I argued with another teacher, a member of the same Alawi sect as Bashar al-Assad and the country’s elite, because she insisted on using ethnic slurs against Kurds like me. For objecting, I was fired.

In the past seven years, the Kurds have achieved so much—and not just for the Kurds alone. We built a political system, a grassroots democracy, in which everyone was welcome and no distinction made between a Kurd, an Arab, or a Syriac. We built a revolution in women’s rights that has inspired millions in movements around the world. All that could now be lost.

The fragile future of Rojava is in the hands of politicians around the world. In recent days, I have witnessed the Turkish bombardments, and the injuries and death inflicted. I have reported on the new refugee problem and told the stories of people living under shell fire. The other night, I went to see my parents in Rimelan, another city along the border. My mother was cooking dolmas, while my father smoked cigarettes in front of the TV. It seemed as though nothing had changed for them. Sometimes, I am envious of their quiet life. For as long as it lasts.

They asked me how I was. I lied, once again. I couldn’t tell them what I’d seen.