AFRIN, Syria / TRIPOLI — Human rights organizations in northern Syria have documented horrific human rights abuses committed by members of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) against women and underage girls in occupied Afrin, in northwestern Syria.
The SNA — a collection of militias, including several espousing Islamist ideologies, formed and funded by Turkey — have reportedly trafficked women and girls from Afrin to Libya where they are being held in sexual slavery, subjected to mass rape and forced abortion.
The Afrin Activists Network reported that the first batch of Afrin girls arrived in Libya 10 days ago.
The mercenaries of the Turkish occupation were and are still continuing to violate women’s rights and all human values in the occupied areas.
The Turkish invasion of Afrin Region, launched 20 January 2018, saw the mass displacement of the local population — estimated at anywhere between 150,000 and 300,000 people at the time — and widespread criminality in what used to be the safest region in a country ripped apart by civil war.
Shortly after the occupation took control, and even in the middle of the offense to take the region, looting and extrajudicial killing was endemic. As the occupation dragged on, the crimes became more systematic and better documented. The destruction of Yazidi holy sites, the routine abduction, torture, and extortion of Afrin’s ethnic and religious minorities, mass theft of public and private property – especially of the region’s famous olive harvest. The city’s rich cultural heritage stolen and sold on the black market for profit.
The people of Syria, from all ethnicities, religions, and genders, have suffered during the nine-year-long Syrian war that has seen large parts of the country destroyed and the national economy in ruins. The conflict has resulted in the kidnapping, detention, and disappearance of thousands. In April, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), one of the governing bodies in North and East Syria, announced the formation of a committee to investigate instances of detention and disappearance.
Hardest hit by the Turkish occupation have been the regions women. Once co-equal members of society and government, the women of Afrin have been subjected to the worst violations imaginable.
During a recent spate of in-fighting amongst the Turkish-backed factions occupying Afrin, dozens of women, many of them naked, were freed from a detention center run by the Hamza Division out of their headquarters.
On 1 June, in response to the incident and video showing the enslaved women being removed from the Hamza Division’s headquarters, the Syriac Women’s Union, alongside several other women’s organizations demanded the United Nations and international human rights organizations form a fact finding committee in order to hold the perpetrators of violence against women in Afrin accountable:
“Since the beginning of the Turkish occupation and its mercenaries for the city of Afrin, its violations and practices – which fall under the category of war crimes in light of a general international silence – are still ongoing, despite the resistance made by the people of Afrin in the face of forced displacement and the systematic demographic change that the Turkish occupier and its mercenaries aim at.
The people of Afrin are exposed on a daily basis to the most brutal inhuman violations and systematic violence, in which women had severely suffered as a result of the continued indiscriminate shelling of al-Shahba areas, kidnapping, rape, forced marriage of minor girls, and the killing and torture of women in detention centers inside the city of Afrin and its occupied villages to completely empty the region of its population.”
The statement went on to say that the crimes against women in Afrin should be considered war crimes and called on the international community and human rights organizations to investigate the violations and hold the perpetrators accountable.
The Families for Freedom Movement — a coalition of human rights watchdog groups from Syria — issued a statement detailing the facts about the incident and calling for an investigation:
“Inside were eight women formerly detained by the faction, accompanied by a child. The raid followed an incident the previous day in which one of al-Hamza’s fighters threw a hand grenade into the shop of a displaced civilian from Eastern Ghouta, killing one adult civilian and a child, and injuring others. This prompted a number of residents to demonstrate in front of the faction’s headquarters, demanding the handover of those involved and protesting the repeated attacks against civilians.
Though the video appeared to show the liberation of the detained women, their whereabouts remain unknown, as do their names, identities, and the reasons for their detention. Conflicting and alarming reports suggest they may have been handed back to al-Hamza, which is notorious for countless violations including theft, kidnapping, killing, and intimidation of civilians. Another report, from the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, said they had been handed over to military police.
While the women’s whereabouts were unknown, activists managed to document the names of two who appeared in the video: Haifa al-Jasem, from Afrin, detained since 2018; and Rukan Manla, from the town of Juwayq,, detained since July 2019, according to the activists. This means at least one of the detained women spent two years in the headquarters of a military faction, without her family knowing her location, the reasons for her detention, or the circumstances she faced.”
On 1 August, several young men who were in the prisons of the Turkish-backed factions indicated that they have been subjected to extreme brutality at the hands of the SNA.
A family of five and two young men who managed to escape from Afrin city attested to the conditions in which civilians live in Turkish areas. Three of the group were in the prisons of the SNA in the cities of Afrin, Al-Bab, and Azaz.
They spoke about the brutality they suffered during their detention, stressing that the prisons are full of kidnapped men and women, many of whom are being held under fabricated charges. According to the young men, some of the kidnapped women have their children with them.
Given the territories are under their control, Turkish authorities are ultimately responsible for their security and ensuring the rights of residents.
Turkish authorities are well aware of the problem of human trafficking yet have done little to combat the trafficking of women and children, even within their own borders.
In war torn Libya, the destination of trafficked women and girls from Afrin, masked Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries sent to the country to support the Turkish-allied Government of Nation Accord (GNA) fire live ammunition at demonstrators in Tripoli demanding the dismissal of Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the GNA, and the expulsion of Syrian mercenaries from Libya.
“We monitored the armed group that shot the demonstrators with indiscriminate bullets and kidnapped a number of them in Tripoli,” GNA Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha declared, indicating that his ministry is ready to use force in order to maintain security.
As the Turkish-backed Syrian factions in Libya increasingly engage in criminal practices, their welcome among the local population has worn out.
Similar protests occurred earlier this month in Tripoli. Protests that began as a call for better public services morphed into an airing of concerns about the proliferation of Syrian mercenaries sent to the country by Turkey.
Thousands of mercenaries, mostly Syrian but hundreds from other nationalities, have flooded Tripoli since Turkey began sending them to the country earlier this year. The demonstrators condemned the spread of the Turkish-backed mercenaries and the instances of looting and extortion of Libyans by the factions.