Syrian government forces and smugglers exploit internally displaced persons from Afrin
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Afrin area in Aleppo, Northern Syria faced significant difficulties when they evacuated their towns and villages due to the Olive Branch Battle launched by the Turkish Army and Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions. IDPs had to sleep on the streets, and others found themselves to be victims of exploitation on their way to Aleppo city, which is currently controlled by the Syrian government forces.
The IDPs had to evacuate towns and villages amidst bombings, and many slept on the streets of Afrin city:
Ahmad Yajroo, who was one to evacuate the village of Yakhour, 15 kilometers west of Afrin, and lives in the al-Hasakah governorate, Northeastern Syria, said that Turkey followed the approach of expelling residents outside of villages and towns as the Turkish Army bombed the perimeters of the towns and villages using different kinds of arsenal in the prelude for a ground attack. Yajroo added that residents of the village of Yakhor did not evacuate, but were forced to evacuate after the Turkish Army bombed the central village, killing three civilians and injuring four others.
Yajroo added that the population of Afrin reached 1 million citizens, including IDPs, who arrived in the city.
Yajroo noted that when he was in Afrin, a missile landed near the al-Ma’arati roundabout, killing three civilians. Yajroo added that the residents of Afrin led a life of fear, confusion, and panic as battles approached the city.
Another IDP, Abu Samah from the village of al-Mururiyah at the Turkish border and who lives in the city of al-Qamishli, said that IDPs with no relatives and friends had to sleep on the streets, byroads, shops, under construction buildings, and in parks.
The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) emptied the city of Afrin of civilians:
Yajroo reported that as the Turkish Army and FSA approached the city of Afrin amidst constant shelling, there was a spread of confusion and panic among the residents. Given this, the YPG called upon the residents via loudspeakers to evacuate the city. Yajroo added that he evacuated the city without taking anything.
A woman reported (before the YPG allowed residents to evacuate Afrin) that her neighbors attempted to evacuate people from Afrin through a smuggling route, but the YPG stopped them, arrested a husband and then ordered his wife to pay 100,000 Syrian pounds (more than 200 USD.)
The woman added that the residents were afraid the YPG would prevent them from evacuating Afrin (....); however, the “rumors said that the YPG would allow us to evacuate the city as battles and bombings intensified(...)". "Everyone wanted to evacuate Afrin,” the woman added.
The YPG not only prevented civilians of Afrin from evacuating it, but also halted a convoy of IDPs from Idlib heading for the city of Azaz in Aleppo, Northern Syria. On Jan. 24, 2018, bus drivers reported that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) detained 200 IDPs from Idlib at the checkpoint of Qatmeh village in the Afrin area.
On Jan. 31, 2018, the United Nations (UN) stated that they received reports of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration and Syrian government forces, calling for civilians to be prevented from evacuating the Afrin area.
Civilians evacuated the Afrin area in their private vehicles; however, other IDPs escaped on foot. It took the IDPs three days to arrive in areas controlled by the Syrian government forces, according to Yajroo.
Yajroo noted that thousands of IDPs arrived in the Tal-Rif’at area, 29 kilometers north of Aleppo, which is a small area compared to Afrin. Yajroo added that many IDPs had to sleep in streets, fields, and houses, which included ISIS landmines.
Few IDPs, including Yajroo and Abu Samah, managed to arrive in the city of al-Qamishli in al-Hasakah; however, other IDPs headed to the city of al-Raqqa or the Eastern Aleppo countryside. The Kurdish Autonomous Administration received the IDPs, with limited capabilities. Hundreds of families returned to their homes in Afrin amidst fear of the unknown future.
A local official in the Afrin area reported that residents of the area thought of leaving due to the constant violations committed by the FSA. The official confirmed that the FSA prevented civilians from returning to their homes and asked others to pay large sums of money in order to allow them to return. The official added that the FSA expelled civilians from their areas and prevented farmers from harvesting crops, while also beating other civilians etc.
Smugglers and the Syrian government forces exploit IDPs:
Abu Samah narrated his attempts to transport his wife (who is a cancer patient) to hospital in the city of Aleppo controlled by the Syrian government forces. Abu Samah added that the Syrian government forces prevented him from entering Aleppo.
Abu Samah stressed that although he obtained permission from the hospital of al-Zahraa town to transport his wife by a Syrian Red Crescent ambulance, the Syrian government forces at the checkpoint of al-Ziyaraa village prevented him from entering Aleppo and told him that “residents of Afrin were not allowed to enter Aleppo.”
Abu Samah added that following failed attempts to admit his wife to a hospital, Abu Samah contacted smugglers, who then exploited him. Abu Samah noted that after a long argument, he managed to convince the smugglers a price of 300,000 Syrian pounds (670 USD.)
A local source reported that the Syrian government forces detained thousands of people of Afrin in areas between the towns of Nubul and al-Zahraa and areas controlled by the FSA and Turkish Army. The source added that the Syrian government forces prevented the people from entering Aleppo.
Local sources reported that the Syrian government forces' checkpoint on the road between the towns of Nubul and al-Zahraa and the city of Aleppo, requested IDPs to show documents of an Arab guarantor, and pay 100 USD per person to allow them to pass.
SMART visited villages that shelter IDPs in Northern Aleppo and interviewed the IDPs, who reported that entering Aleppo is next to impossible as some of them have to pay up to 500,000 Syrian pounds to loyalist militias near the town of Nubul.
The battle for Afrin lasted three months during which the Turkish Army gained control over the city of Afrin and its surrounding towns and villages, following clashes against the YPG. The Turkish Army killed and injured hundreds of civilians. Hundreds of thousands of civilians evacuated the Afrin area towards an unknown fate and poor humanitarian conditions.