Special Reports  ::   "Under A Scorching Sun" A Report on the Recent Events in Raqqa - August 2015


“Under A Scorching Sun”

A Special Report on the Recent Events Witnessed in Raqqa Governorate

Violations Documentation Center in Syria

August 2015

About VDC:

The Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) is a Syrian independent, non-governmental and non-profit organization. It was founded in April 2011 by prominent lawyer and human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh, together with a group of Syrian activists. The center monitors and documents human rights violations and contributes to the promotion of human rights principles in Syria.

The center has a staff of 30 activists outside and inside Syria. Inside Syria, VDC staff members work in various governorates, cities and towns. They monitor and document violations committed by all parties to the conflict. They collect names and document cases of victims, detainees, the disappeared and the kidnapped in Syria.  

Contents

1: Background................................................................................................................................01
2: Methodology ............................................................................................................................01
3: Challenges and Difficulties .......................................................................................................02
4: Terminology .............................................................................................................................03
5: Introduction .............................................................................................................................04
6: Battles in the Eastern Suburbs of Tell Abiad City (The First Displacement Movement) .........05
7: Battles of the Western and Southern Suburbs of Tell Abiad City ............................................08
8: Refugees from Other Syrian Governorates: .............................................................................10
9: The Displacement of Several Syrian Kurdish Families and the Displacement of Other Arab
Families from Raqqa City: ............................................................................................................12
10: Annex of Violations Committed by People’s Protection Units: ..............................................13
11: Map Showing the Military Presence in Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and Hasaka Governorates until the
End of June 2015 .........................................................................................................................14
12: Summary and Conclusions .....................................................................................................15

1: Background

The events of mid-July 2013 in Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê (Hasaka governorate) and Tell Abiad (Raqqa governorate) marked the beginning of a division in the social structure of the two cities as fierce clashes erupted between Peoples Protection Units (YPG) – the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – and Jabhat al-Akrad (the Kurdish Front Brigade) on the one hand, and fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front), the Islamic State (ISIS), and several battalions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades and the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement (HASHA) on the other hand. The events were accompanied by a series of violations that were documented by VDC in a report[1] issued in July 2013. Violations included the voluntary and/or forced displacement of thousands of Syrian Kurdish citizens and other Arab and Turkmen families from the area on charges of collaborating with the PYD, specifically in Tell Abiad city (Leil Quarter as an example). Other violations also included the looting of dozens of houses. Numerous Arab citizens intervened to protect property, defend Kurdish citizens and help many others to safely leave the area.

According to local eyewitnesses accounts, events were further complicated when ISIS forces seized control of Raqqa governorate for over a year and a half after its fighters defeated all other factions.

A number of Kurdish citizens from Tell Abiad city and its surrounding villages told VDC that they were surprised when ISIS began selling their properties to other Arab citizens. This tension continued until June 2015 when thousands of citizens fled their homes in the vicinity of Tell Abiad city, following what has since been dubbed the “Tell Abiad Offensive”.

2: Methodology

The VDC team conducted interviews with more than 24 Syrians seeking refuge in the Turkish city of Akçakale (Urfa Province) who were displaced either from Tell Abiad city or from the cities, towns and villages in the eastern, western and southeastern areas around Tell Abiad. More than 15 VDC workers conducted the interviews, which took place in refugees camps, residences, hospitals, medical units, at the border crossing (Tell Abiad Crossing[2]) and in Akçakale city. Respondents provided VDC researchers with detailed information about the first hours of their displacement and the causes of the displacement. The report also includes other testimonies by activists in the Turkish city of Urfa, who were in direct contact with many other displaced civilians through their work in relief and humanitarian organizations. Data was also obtained from dozens of public sources, media reports, videos and images that will be referred to hereafter. They are presented here (following the verification of their authenticity and impartiality towards the events on the condition they do not incite violence or hatred) to provide a general perspective of the painful events the area has witnessed. However, one-on-one interviews remain the primary source of data for this report. 

3: Challenges and Difficulties

VDC’s research team faced several challenges during the preparation of this summary report, the most significant of which were:

1- Eyewitnesses were highly cautious of all conflicting parties and were extremely fearful of any retaliation they might face resulting from their role in the completion of this report. Thus, a number of respondents refused to be videotaped and insisted on the use of fake names for the purpose of the interviews.

2- Most refugees were largely concerned with securing basic living standards as thousands of fleeing civilians were forced to sleep in public spaces due to a lack of shelter. A significant number of refugees were unwilling to talk openly about their ordeal.

3- In some targeted research areas, activist groups (seemingly in coordination with each other) prevented any access to refugees citing an “extreme concern" for their safety. These groups provided VDC with “information” similar to the incitement rhetoric that accompanied the events of Tell Abiad.

4- The ongoing state of conflict that began in mid-June 2015 prompted VDC to issue this summary report, which will be followed with a detailed report on the latest violations and displacements that took place.

4: Terminology

In line with our organization’s standards, VDC endeavors to use professional and impartial legal and human rights terminology to accurately document events, without pressure or interference from any outside party. Accordingly, certain terms and names will be used here in an attempt to faithfully shed light on the events. 

The conflicting parties mentioned in this report are:

  1. The Islamic State (ISIS) – also known as The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham;
  2. Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Brigades – also known as HASHA after seizing control of parts of Raqqa governorate;
  3. The Free Syrian Army (FSA);
  4. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD);
  5. The Kurdish Democratic Self Management (DSM) – announced in January 2014 at the initiative of the Democratic Union Party with participation of other parties in the regions of al-Jazira, Ayn al-Arab (Kobanî) and Afrin, including the Arab Shammar tribe in addition to other Assyrian and Syriac parties. DSM consists of three cantons; al-Jazira, Kobanî and Afrin;
  6. People’s Protection Units (YPG) – military wing of the Democratic Union Party;
  7. Women's Protection Units (YPJ) – YPG’s female military force;
  8.  Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade – anti-ISIS group affiliated with the FSA and headed by Abu Issa;
  9. Al-Sanadid Army – military force belonging to the Arab Shammar tribe, headed by Sheikh Daham al-Hadi al-Jarba;
  10. Syrian Government Forces;
  11. Euphrates Volcano Joint Operations Room – coalition of FSA factions and YPG units. The room’s official spokesman is Shirvan Darwish;
  12. Asayish Forces – also known as Asayish Rogge Ava; a security-police force affiliated directly with the DSM. These forces rarely participate in military operations;
  13. The Syriac Military Council;
  14. Sotour Forces – Christian military force with units fighting alongside both Syrian government forces and People's Protection Units;
  15. Tahrir Brigade (Abdulkarim Obeid, Abu Muhammad Kafar Zita) – established September, 2014, in Ras Al Ayn/Serekaniye. Group is affiliated with the FSA General Staff;
  16. Omana al-Raqqa Brigade – military force predominantly made up of Raqqa’s residents. Group’s slogan reads: “Its sons are its protectors”; and
  17. Shams al-Shamal Brigade – one of the battalions affiliated to Fajr al-Hurriya Brigades, an FSA faction with connections to the Euphrates Volcano Joint Operations Room. The group is led by commander Muhammad Mustafa, aka "Abu Adel".

5: Introduction

This report covers the events in Tell Abiad city during the months of June and July 2015, when the majority of displacement cases took place following a military campaign ousting ISIS from hundreds of villages in a large area. AFAD[3], a disaster and emergency management agency[4] in Turkey, reported that as of 18 June 2015, more than 23,000 Syrians fleeing the clashes sought refuge inside Turkey, with thousands more arriving in Turkey as the fighting expanded and intensified.

Several activists working for relief organizations informed VDC that the number of Syrian refugees that had arrived in Turkey from Tell Abiad reached more than 30,000 by mid-July, 2015. Some sources reported cases of the displacement of Arab families from western and southwestern suburbs of Tell Abiad. This report will cover the period from mid-June until mid-July 2015, as approximately 90 percent of displacements occurred during this period.

One local initiative, launched by the Association of Syria Refugees, provided VDC team with a report by the group’s special inquiry commission, which had been formed exclusively to cover the events in Tell Abiad. The report referenced numerous violations committed by YPG forces involved in the military operations. However, combat operations in Hasaka governorate were not limited to YPG forces alone, as fighting also included the direct involvement of Syrian government forces, the National Defense Forces (a pro-Syrian government paramilitary force), the Masked Army (forces affiliated to Arab tribal leader Mouhammad al-Fares) and the Sotour Forces. The commission's report listed dozens of cases of civilian detention from the villages of Tal Barrak, Tal Hamis and Tal Tamr. It also cited several incidents of looting and destruction of dozens of Arab homes.

Although attempts were made to contact a number of eyewitnesses, the VDC team was only able to secure an interview with one man from the village of Aghebish[5] (Tal Tamr administration), who witnessed the events that took place in the area in November 2013, including the destruction of property by YPG forces – including the homes of Muhammad Ali al-Melhem, Jomaa Saleh al-Dahham and Khalaf al-Jassawi. According to the witness's testimony, People's Protection Units set fire to several houses and killed more than seven people (only one of which was identified as a combatant), including Farhan al-Hasan al-Jasem al-Wawi (from al-Buhamdan Tribe). 

6: Battles in the Eastern Suburbs of Tell Abiad City (The First Displacement Movement)

The battles in the eastern suburbs of Tell Abiad city, namely the "Martyr Robar Qamishlo Campaign", took place from the start until the middle of July 2015, when People's Protection Units and allied forces seized control of the entire eastern suburban district of Tell Abiad city. The campaign was accompanied by fierce air raids from US-led international coalition forces on hundreds of ISIS positions and strongholds. Meanwhile, ground forces (YPG and allied forces) advanced on the city from the direction of Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê. It is worth noting that the military forces involved in the Tell Abiad offensive differed from those which executed the military operations in Hasaka governorate, Tal Barrak, Tal Hamis and Tal Tamr villages. These new formations, some of which are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, are mostly comprised of local fighters. The participating battalions, which came from the east[6], were:

  1. Euphrates Volcano Joint Operations Room – led by People's Protection Units and consisting of several battalions and factions, including the women’s YPJ and Shams al-Shamal (also known as “joint forces" in other regions);
  2. Thuwar al-Raqqa Brigade – FSA-affiliated group headed by Abu Issa; and
  3. Al-Tahrir Brigade – FSA-affiliated group headed by Abu Muhammad Kafer Zita.

These forces commenced their operations in the village of Mabrouka near Ras al-Ayn, advancing towards the village of Nesf Tal[7] until the township of Salouk, (a major ISIS stronghold southeast of Tell Abiad city and southwest Ras al-Ayn). Salouk is widely known as an ISIS “execution center", where Islamic State fighters are known to have disposed of hundreds bodies south of the town into so-called ‘death pits’ (al-Hota Hole).

Akram, a journalist accompanying these forces, reported that ISIS had set dozens of land mines in the area connected by thin fishing lines, making it extremely difficult to detect. ISIS fighters were also responsible for the demolition of a bridge prior to their withdrawal from the city.

The eventual withdrawal of ISIS from Tell Abiad was helpful in limiting the destruction of the city until opposition forces arrived in mid-June 2015. Immediately following ISIS’ expulsion, dozens of Kurdish families, which had been displaced during the events of 2013, returned to the city. As a result, more than 3,000 Syrian Arab citizens fled towards the Turkish borders fearing possible reprisals.

 

Eyewitness Muhammad Ali*, who declined to provide his real name or village fearing reprisals, spoke with VDC about his displacement from his home in the eastern suburbs of Tell Abiad. Speaking at a service center in Akçakale city, Muhammad told VDC:

"The total number of displaced Syrians reached about 28,000-30,000, most of whom were from both Tell Abiad city and its suburbs, and the Salouk area and its suburbs [​​Tell Abiad is divided into three areas: Tell Abiad city and its surrounding villages, Salouk area and its surrounding villages, and Ein Issa area]. The population of these three regions numbers around 200,000 people. The largest displacement movement was from the Salouk area and its suburbs. Many people, especially the poor, also fled to the city of Raqqa. The majority of those people fled their homes in order to escape the clashes and air strikes by the US-led international coalition’s air force. However, we heard about the displacement of many Arabs from some of the villages, like Hammam al-Turkmen and al-Zebakiya, as well as many villages whose residents have joined the ranks of ISIS, through social media and the internet. We later discovered that most of these people had left before the clashes began in their areas.

“It’s important to understand that dozens of Facebook and internet pages run by people with close ties to the People's Protection Units (YPG) published threats and insults against the Arab residents of certain villages, also exposing the names of men presumably wanted under the pretext of collaborating with ISIS, prompting thousands of people to flee their villages fearing revenge attacks after the information was circulated. ISIS members encouraged civilian villagers to engage in the fighting under the pretext of an alleged Kurdish threat, urging locals to join a jihad against the infidels in order to prevent them from raping women of the villages.

“After the Kurdish forces seized control of the village of Hammam al-Turkmen, a lot of people returned. However, not long thereafter, a car bomb exploded in the same village. As a result, the Kurdish forces requested that residents evacuate the village, giving them a deadline of several hours – that was at the end of June. Upon their arrival, the Turkish guards opened the roads and received them again in Turkey."

Another eyewitness from the village of Hamam al-Turkmen spoke with VDC on the outskirts of Akcakale city while attempting to return to Syria. The man, who also refused to reveal his identity fearing reprisals, said: 

"I am a 35-year-old driver. I was in the village when the recent events took place. I fled to Turkey, along with thousands of other people after clashes erupted between ISIS fighters and Kurdish forces. Luckily, I fled my village south of Salouk before the Kurdish forces arrived."

One woman, a displaced resident and mother of two from Tell Abiad, spoke with VDC at one of the medical units in Akçakale city. Preferring to be called Om Ahmad, she stated: 

"We fled our city after the Kurds arrived and seized it. Meanwhile, US-led international coalition forces had been shelling and launching military operations nearby, while ISIS fighters withdrew from the city without any resistance, which frightened us and compelled us to escape the area along with thousands of other civilians. Several children later died during the displacement. People from Sekkariya area, Ahmadiya village, Hurriya village, Ein Arous area, al-Thawra village, al-Asal area and al-Dadat area [largely inhabited by Turkmen] fled with us."

A displaced doctor, who also refused to reveal his identity, informed VDC that ISIS fighters had dismantled and taken all the equipment of Tell Abiad Hospital before they withdrew, including dialysis machines, surgery and life support equipment, power generators and incubators, adding:

"Dozens of internet pages, whose administrators are Kurdish, published threats, insults and lists of wanted people from the Arab population. On the other hand, pro-ISIS pages published similar threats, which created a climate of fear among the civilians. It seems that those were the most significant causes of displacement."

The doctor added that following the displacement of thousands of people, ISIS conducted a series of car bombings, the last of which occurred on 4 July 2015, when a car exploded at the YPG-controlled Mabroukat checkpoint, killing three Kurdish fighters and 11 civilians, including a family of five from the Salouk area travelling to Ras al-Ayn in search of a hospital for their son. The family members were identified as: Khalif al-Saloum (70), his nephew Khaled al-Saloum (45) and his wife, their three-year-old daughter and two-year-old grandson.

Father of five from Tell Abiad, Abu Ali, spoke with VDC while attempting to return to Syria from the Turkish city of Akçakale. YPG forces had restricted access at the border crossing in order to prevent people from entering. Abu Ali told VDC:

"Our fear of the Kurds pushed us to flee the area, especially after hearing they intended to kill and slaughter people like ISIS does. We were terrified. People fled to the Turkish borders. After we arrived here, we heard that some people, whose names were connected with ISIS, were arrested and disappeared."

Abu Habib, a 30-year-old farmer and father of three from the eastern part of Tell Abiad, told VDC:

"I fled with the other citizens that escaped during the first days. I was living in eastern Tell Abiad, which was under the control of ISIS. When the Kurdish forces approached, I left with thousands of other people fearing reprisals, military operations and air strikes. The other citizens had come from Kherbet al-Rez, Hammam al-Turkmen, al-Jern, al-Hurriya, al-Hawi and al-Asi, and most of the eastern suburbs and villages near the Turkish borders, up to Ras al-Ayn city in Hasaka governorate. More than 90 percent of these residents fled fearing the actions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“The greatest displacement movement occurred before the forces arrived. Residents feared the advancing forces. A number of residents from the Salouk township told us that most of the people there were prevented from leaving their homes by ISIS fighters, and that two houses were blown up with their inhabitants inside. While attempting to return from Kobanî/Ayn al-Arab border crossing, the People's Protection Units prevented us from entering just because we are Arabs."

Another witness from Tell Abiad’s eastern suburbs, currently residing in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, spoke with VDC by phone. The witness, whose identity is withheld in this report for security purposes”, stated:

"The People's Protection Units and Asayesh Forces treated people differently after they assumed control of the area. I am only talking about the eastern suburbs of Tell Abiad city [near the township of Salouk] where I lived. This area has not witnessed any incidents of systematic displacement by those forces at all. However, residents left because they feared the revenge attacks by the Kurdish forces, possibly because of the atrocities ISIS fighters had previously committed against the town’s Kurdish citizens. Thus, not knowing how the new forces will treat them, the majority of the residents fled towards the Syrian-Turkish borders. Several villages were emptied of their population, after rumors emerged that ISIS forces had booby-trapped headquarters and cars. A number of days later, only the residents of Salouk and its vicinities could return to their houses while people of other villages and areas were denied access."

 

A Kurdish citizen from Tell Abiad city (originally from Ayn al-Arab/Kobanî) spoke with VDC about the reasons that drove him to escape to Turkey:

"I am originally from Ayn al-Arab city (Kobanî), but I have been living in Tell Abiad city for more than 40 years. I left the city with other residents fearing war and clashes, and in search for a better job. Unfortunately, we ended up living in this worn out tent. No one asked us to leave, not the ISIS nor the YPG forces."

 

7: Battles of the Western and Southern Suburbs of Tell Abiad City

Opinions differ as to the nature of the troops that emerged from Ayn al-Arab/Kobanî, and headed in the direction of the western and the south-western countryside of Tell Abiad, which were later called on by the Joint Forces (or Euphrates Volcano Joint Operations Room). Some observers claim these forces, which included the People's Protection Units, Thuwar al-Raqqa Brigade, and al-Tahrir Brigade and led by Abdul Karim Obeid/Abu Mohammed Kafer Zita, were only affiliated with the joint operations room and differed from the forces that emerged from the east. However, a significant number journalists who embedded with these forces reported the fighters did in fact belong to the joint operations room, but the forces that came from the east were part of the Robar Qamishlo Campaign (named after a YPG fighter who had been killed several days earlier in a mine explosion).

It is apparent that the forces which emerged from the west came from behind ISIS fighters, assembling with the remaining forces advancing from the eastern region of Kherbat al-Rez, before heading towards Tell Abiad city and Ayn Issa. These forces, advancing from both the east and the west, managed to seize control of all Tell Abiad and its countryside, until the borders of the ISIS-controlled city of Jarablus.

Doctor and activist Ali Diab spoke with VDC following his field visit on 22 June 2015 to Tell Abiad city. Starting from Ayn al-Arab (Kobanî), he reported that he passed several villages on his way including Jern Saleh, Jern al-Buassaf, al-Fares and Al-Badriya, meeting with dozens of village residents. Ali explained:

"We spent a night in Tell Abiad city, then headed towards the area between the cities of Ayn al-Arab (Kobanî) and Jarablus, which had been controlled by ISIS four months earlier. There were seven empty Arab villages, namely Shiyoukh (Shawwakhat), Khaikakda, Seifiya, Nasro, Kharous, Beir Hasso, Qarra Quzaq, Jaada al-Saghira and Tel Ahmar. Shiyoukh (Shawwakhat), Khaikakda, Seifiya, Nasro are frontlines, while Beir Hasso, Qarra Quzaq are away from clashes. Some witnesses informed us that, particularly in Shiyoukh and Seifiya, crops were burned down and houses were bombed by the Kurdish forces. Meanwhile, in other Arab villages, like Qubbeh and Jaada Kabira, the Tal al-Ahmar farmlands and the areas of Qanaya and Hamdashat, which are inhabited by both Arabs and Kurds, life continued peacefully, markets remained open and no violations were committed. On the other side, when passing by some Kurdish villages, you could notice how huge fires had destroyed the trees and crops. The villages were Seif Ali, Bayadiya, Jebneh, Taalak, Zarak, Owina, Bandor, Bishko and Derbaza – areas where many abandoned houses lie."

Ali added:  

"The Kurdish forces arrested many citizens whom they suspected of colluding with ISIS. Many residents told me that those people who were not deemed guilty were released. It is worth mentioning that locals stressed there wasn't any deliberate burning of crops in the villages I travelled through. During my stay in Tell Abiad, I didn’t witness any attacks on private property, like the looting of homes. I also asked the residents of those villages whether they had been forced to leave their houses, most of them said they hadn't."

In a house in Akçakale city, VDC met a witness from Tell Abiad’s western suburbs. The witness requested we not reveal his name out of fear for his life. He stated. 

"I am from a village in the western suburbs of Tell Abiad. We fled our houses after the YPG forces arrived. The names of most of the people in my village and in other neighboring villages were published on Facebook pages, specifically on a page that is run by someone from the Hazeem family [the son of a YPG military leader]. Most of the published names were of civilians, some of which had been dead for several years, like Hammoud al-Ali and his children from Abdi Kawi village [18 km west of Tell Abiad city]. Dozens of family names, whose children are members of ISIS, were also published, even though the family members are civilians. The people whose names were published, estimated at hundreds, were forced to escape their houses fearing potential retaliation."

The witness added:

"We heard about villages whose inhabitants were displaced, such as al-Kalba village, which was renamed al-Thawra (Revolution) village after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. We were told that Kurdish forces gathered the villagers in a mosque and gave them three days to leave. However, we haven't met any of them."

Another witness, Abu Khalaf, a 35-year-old worker from Ayn Issa, told VDC:

"As our area was completely controlled by the Islamic State, when the Kurdish forces arrived, we were terrified of violence, war, clashes and retaliation. We had heard that they were arresting people and handing them over to regime forces. We heard about such an incident involving a person from Salouk area. I have also met a family from the village of Hammam al-Turkmen. They told me that one member of the Kurdish forces had been killed by an ISIS car bomb. In retaliation, the Kurdish forces displaced the people of the village, who were all Turkmen.”

Abdulkareem Muhammad, a tailor from Ayn Issa area, said that he had run from his village in north Ayn Issa only days before the Kurdish forces arrived. He added that the area had been targeted fiercely by US-led coalition air strikes, which pushed him and thousands of others to seek refuge in Turkey.

Khalil Ramadan al-Ahmad, also from Ayn Issa area, told VDC:

"My whole family fled our area when the Kurdish forces arrived in mid-June 2015, following the withdrawal of ISIS. When we returned a few days later, we found that the Kurdish forces had seized all of ISIS’ headquarters. I asked one of the fighters if I could go back to my house. He asked me, “where is your house?”, so I told him. When he could locate the house, he drove his car there and took my personal property, including a fuel filter. When I objected, he told me I could try to complain to any party I wished. The YPG forces were wearing military uniforms and were accompanied by female fighters and members of the FSA. These fighters have taken a lot of the citizens’ property, especially the livestock and crops."

 

Regarding the events of mid-June and the subsequent displacement, witness Khalil Ramadan said:

"I was present during the events. Then we heard that large numbers of troops were mobilizing to storm the area. A lot of the inhabitants of Ayn Issa and its surrounding areas, like Fatsa, Sharqaraq, and al-Ali Bajlieh decided to flee fearing potential raids and US-led coalition air strikes. We were not afraid of the troops, but most residents fled fearing the air strikes, especially after the YPG forces arrived on the outskirts of Brigade 93."

8: Refugees from Other Syrian Governorates:

During a VDC field visit to the Municipality Garage (a gathering point for displaced Syrians), it was apparent that in addition to large numbers of displaced persons from Raqqa governorate, many more civilians were also displaced from other governorates (estimated at hundreds of families), including Idlib, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor . One of the displaced civilians from Deir Ezzor, who arrived in Tell Abiad days before the clashes began and preferred to be called Abu Mouhamad*, told VDC:

“When the fighting started I was in Raqqa governorate and part of my family was in Turkey; I was so worried about them. I wanted to join them and they asked me to, especially after my house was destroyed by the Syrian government shelling and ISIS started taking youths to ‘Sharia courses’ – or so-called ‘repentance’ courses. Moreover, the Islamic State issued a new law at the beginning of June 2015, stating that fathers with young sons must either marry them or send them to join jihad. Otherwise, they will be exiled [this law was only implemented in Deir Ezzor]. One of my relatives, who has strong ties with ISIS members, told me about it. As the fighting started and the military forces approached, I fled to Turkey along with thousands of other residents seeking safety.”        

Abu Ahmad, 42-year-old farmer from al-Sor Township in Deir Ezzor, told VDC:

“We fled to Turkey along with many other people when the border crossing was opened. I left my home because of the deteriorating economic situation and a lack of job opportunities. We came to Turkey hoping for a better life but when we arrived, things turned out to be very different than what we were told. I was forced to live in this tent in the open-air with my wife and children. We have been here for more than 15 days and they have not provided us with anything except for one meal a day.”

When asked about the displacements of Arabs, Abu Ahmad said that there were no displacements in his area. However, he stated that his relatives told him some Arabs were displaced from the areas of al-Hol, Ras al-Ayn (Serêkanî) and Rmelan (Ma'badah) in Hasakah governorate. They also said that houses were destroyed and some youths were forced to join the military to defend their lands against ISIS. Abu Ahmad said he also heard stories from other relatives who deny such practices, adding that he is yet to encounter any witnesses.

One lady who was displaced from a village in the south-west countryside of Tell Abiad, told VDC that she had left at the request of ISIS members. She said ISIS told her the “infidels” were coming, and that they would assault the town’s residents. She said:

“We left just after YPG forces conquered the village we lived in – this was before they conquered Tell Abiad. We heard that there were cases of looting by these Kurdish fighters. However, our houses were not looted, as they are still inhabited; someone is guarding them at night and goes to the nearby villages during the daytime. As for the livestock, we left them in some other villages. There have been cases of reprisals against the village residents by Kurdish fighters, despite the fact that ISIS members – not local residents – were responsible for the looting against Kurdish residents last year. This happened in 2013 in several villages including Abdi Qawi.”

9: The Displacement of Several Syrian Kurdish Families and the Displacement of Other Arab Families from Raqqa City:

On 23 June 2015, following the events in the area of Tell Abiad, ISIS demanded Raqqa’s Kurdish citizens gather at the city’s cultural center in Dariya[8], threatening to arrest those who don’t attend. Speaking to VDC in Turkey, a Kurdish father of four from Raqqa said he fled to Turkey after Kurdish families were informed they would be forcibly transferred to “special camps” on the outskirts of the archeological city of Tadmur (Palmyra), Homs governorate. VDC was unable to verify the exact number of displaced, but the witness estimated that more than 100 families, most of which lived on the outskirts of Raqqa, were displaced to different locations, including camps in Turkey and Ayn al-Arab/Kobanî.

A mother of five from al-Salhabia village (near Euphrates Dam[9]), who requested she be called Om Rami*, was interviewed at a medical point in the Turkish city of Akçakale. Om Rami said:

“I fled with my family, my husband and children, fearing clashes between ISIS and the Kurdish fighters, but also fearing the international coalition air strikes that target ISIS positions prior to deploying ground forces. We didn’t want to wait for the battles to start, so we immediately left. Some of us fled towards the Lebanese camps, especially those who were not wanted by the Assad regime. Living conditions were already so hard; the price of a loaf of bread was 100 Syrian pounds; it was impossible to live with such unrealistic prices imposed by ISIS."

When asked about the connection between the high cost of living and her displacement, and whether she had met any other displaced persons, the witness responded:

“We are unemployed and the high prices have caused us many financial problems, not to mention we have already suffered from bad financial conditions because of the drought. As for the displacement, some citizens told me that the conquering troops did not assault them, but they still burned the houses of those who joined ISIS. We met some residents of Salouk who had moved to Raqqa city; they told us that the Kurdish fighters had burned the houses of ISIS members.”

Mouhamad al-Hanish, a 35-year-old worker who fled Raqqa governorate with a number of family members, told VDC:

“I escaped from Syria in June 2015, after the events in Raqqa started. My village, which I prefer not to name, is still under ISIS control. We expected the People’s Protection Units and its allied forces to advance and liberate the village, but they didn’t. I fled my village towards Tell Abiad after hearing news of military clashes. When I arrived there I could not return to my village, so I was forced to go to Turkey along with thousands of others where we waited for a whole day on the border before being allowed to enter.”  

When asked if he was forced out of his village, the witness replied that he was not. Mouhamad claimed he had seen other people who were displaced from the neighboring villages of Salouk, stating that he received news of the displacement of people from his neighboring villages. According to Mouhamad, they were told PYD forces were advancing, and were no different from ISIS in terms of killing and beheading. Mouhamad added:

“People still fled for fear of retaliation by the YPG forces. There were 2,000 of us.”

10: Annex of Violations Committed by People’s Protection Units:

Mahmoud Ahmad al-Elka (39), a resident from Tell Abiad, said that People’s Protection Units opened fire on him. He narrated his experience to VDC:

“I am a taxi driver and my brother asked me to take him to the Turkish-Syrian border at about 4 pm on Tuesday, 30 June 2015. When we heard the sound of clashes in Eastern Tell Abiad[10], we had to divert towards the Turkish village of al-Ella from the intersection near the Agriculture Bank and cemetery. We passed by the Kurdish forces positioned near the cemetery. They were deployed there but did not set any checkpoint. I dropped my brother at al-Ella crossing. On my way back, some other women and children asked me to take them to Eastern Tell Abiad, which was only 200 meters away. That’s when the forces directly opened fire on me. I did not expect it at all, as I had just passed near them and they saw me dropping one family and picking up another. When I felt that I was injured, I opened the car’s door and ran towards the Turkish borders guards. They took good care of me and later transferred me to the hospital. I don’t know what happened to the other civilians who were in the car when I was shot.”

When asked whether he had witnessed any cases of displacement against any Syrian citizen in the area, especially in Tell Abiad, Mahmoud said that he was unaware of any specific case, but had heard stories about such cases. Mahmoud said he had not met any citizen claiming to be displaced.

VDC also met with another man, a 25-year-old worker who preferred to be called Abu Khalil*. He stated:

“At 1 pm on Tuesday, 30 June 2015, while at home, we heard the sound of shooting right next to our house. Some of the bullets hit the inhabited houses in the area under the control of the Kurdish fighters. We went out and moved towards the Turkish borders. Then the shooting increased and became more random due to clashes, but we didn’t know who the fighting parties were. I was hit and was left in the street, only to be moved to the border by some residents four hours later.”

In response to news reporting the displacement of locals, Abu Khalil added:

“During the recent events, we were in our homes in Tell Abiad and no one forced us to leave. I haven’t met anyone that was forcibly displaced by any party; thousands of people, however, were displaced because of the fierce battles and the air strikes by international coalition forces. I heard about the displacement of people in the areas of Turkmen and Salouk, but I haven’t seen any, myself.”

11: Map Showing the Military Presence in Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and Hasaka Governorates until the End of June 2015

12: Summary and Conclusions

  1. The military forces of the People's Protection Units and Euphrates Volcano Joint Operations Room, which conquered Tell Abiad city and its neighboring areas in June 2015, are responsible for the looting of dozens of houses, mostly owned by civilians with no connection to ISIS, namely in Ayn Issa, for supposed ties to ISIS and their alleged role in the looting of Kurdish homes in 2013. Witnesses stated to VDC that most of those who were victims of the recent looting were civilian non-combatants with no military affiliation. In the rare case that a member of a family was known to have joined ISIS, this led to the punishment of the whole family.
  2. People's Protection Units and a number of other factions have arrested dozens of civilians under various pretexts, on top of which was alleged collaboration with and/or joining ISIS. However, in dozens of cases, there was no mention of the reason for the arrest. Most detainees were taken to Bawabah Prison in the city of Tell Abiad. A number of news sources reported that the prison’s detainees are being transferred to the city of Ayn Arab/Kobanî for interrogation, but VDC was unable to verify the claim from other independent sources.
  3. In Zahleh, near the villages of Shirean and Kherbet al-Rez, the joint forces gathered more than 180 people, all women and children, according to eyewitnesses and other sources. The residents returned to their villages twenty days later after the joint forces had initially displaced them, forcing them to reside in neighboring villages like Buz al-Khanzir.    
  4. Several displaced residents have been prevented from returning to their villages due to the ongoing clashes beginning the end of June 2015. Villages include: Salouk, Abdi Kawi, al-Kalbah (al-Thawrah), Abu Kharaza[11] and some other villages to the west of Tell Abiad. Until the time of writing this report, the joint forces controlling Tell Abiad Crossing, namely the People’s Protections Units, were still preventing residents from returning to their villages and cities. Turkish borders guards, for their part, said that they are ready to secure the way for the return of people, but Kurdish forces continue to refuse.
  5. The joint forces, led by the People’s Protections Units, requested the residents of Doghaniya to leave their homes as ISIS fighters approached their village (which consists of around 100 homes). The residents, accordingly, fled to another village controlled by ISIS.
  6. The fighting between the Euphrates Volcano Joint Operation Room and the Islamic State on the one hand, as well as air strikes by the US-led international coalition, which preceded the deployment of those forces on the other hand, were the main reasons for most of the displacements in the eastern suburbs, the Salouk area and the city of Tell Abiad. Thousands of Arab citizens fled their villages[12] prior to the arrival of the forces, pushing the number of displaced to more than 23,000. However, it appears that the inciting media campaigns that preceded the battles also played a vital role in increasing the number of displaced. These campaigns were run by people affiliated with the YPG who were responsible for publishing "wanted lists" in addition to threats to residents of certain villages, and/or by ISIS members who warned residents of an advancing 'infidel' force hell-bent to slaughter and rape. Some sources also reported to VDC that Kurdish units displaced a number of people from several cities and villages, specifically at the beginning of July 2015. However, our center could not contact any resident in these villages, nor meet with any witness. Therefore, VDC may release another summary report in the event any witnesses become available.
  7. Many of those interviewed by VDC spoke of the displacement of civilians from the predominantly Turkmen village of Hammam al-Turkmen. A large number of civilians (around 150) who were displaced from the village were being temporarily housed in a building in Akçakale. VDC attempted to speak with these people about their experiences, but was prevented from doing so by an influential group in Akçakale. However, the two witnesses who were met by our center denied that any party had displaced them. The witnesses also added that they fled their village due to the intensified clashes and air strikes of the US-led international coalition forces. Notwithstanding, several public sources have confirmed that hundreds of Turkmen families were forcibly displaced. Unfortunately, VDC could not verify this information from the residents themselves. 


[1] Violations Documentation Center in Syria (2013): Report on the Recent Events Witnessed in Tal Abyad- Al Raqqa. To view the report:

 http://www.vdc-sy.info/index.php/en/reports/talabyad#.VbNGUbUas4I

 

[2] Syria refers to the point as Tell Abiad Border Crossing, while Turkey calls it Akçakale Border Crossing.

[3] Anadolu Agency quoting (AFAD) 2015: "More than 23,000 Syrians enter Turkey in the past 2 weeks": http://www.aa.com.tr/en/u/540263--more-than-23-000-syrians-enter-turkey-in-past-2-weeks  

[4] For more information on the Turkish response to the crisis, please visit AFAD’s website:

https://www.afad.gov.tr/en/Index.aspx

 

[5] The complete testimony will be included in another report that will be allocated to the events in Hasaka governorate, following the collation of numerous eyewitness testimonies from residents and the displaced.

[6] An eyewitness reported that Sotour Forces participated in a number of military operations, namely in the western suburbs of Ras al-Ayn/Serê Kaniyê, and assisted People's Protection Units in looting of houses belonging to civilians accused of collaborating with ISIS.

[7] Located near the Syrian-Turkish borders. It was considered one of the most significant ISIS strongholds.

[8] For more information, read (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently) 2015, ISIS Displaces Kurdish Residents from Raqqa. http://www.raqqa-sl.com/?p=1642

[9] The dam, originally named "al-Thawra Dam", is also known as the Euphrates Dam. However, ISIS refers to the structure as "al-Fath Dam".

[10] The eastern part of Tell Abiad city. Residents of the area call it "Eastern Tell Abiad"

[11] These were the villages mostly mentioned on social media in regard to forced displacement. The witnesses VDC met, especially those from Salouk and Abdi Kawi, stated that they fled their villages fearing retaliation by the Kurdish forces, the ongoing clashes, and the air strikes from the US-led international coalition. Unfortunately, we could not meet any witnesses from Abu Kahraza village, where People's Protection Units, as confirmed by a source, forcibly displaced hundreds of citizens.

[12] The term and shape of a "village" in the countryside of Tell Abiad is different from that in other Syrian governorates, as some villages contain no more than five houses. Due to reasons related to the administrative corruption that was widespread before the revolution regarding the Syrian government’s structure, each group of houses had to be named a village in order for electricity and water to be delivered to them. This led to the existence of dozens of villages, each of which consists of only a small number of houses.  



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