The beginning of the Turkish military invasion of Afrin in Syria in 2018, cynically dubbed operation ‘Olive Branch’ by the Turkish state – perhaps in reference, as some analysts have suggested, to the hundreds of ancient olive trees they were planning to destroy and the olive oil they were going to steal for export from the dozens of olive producing farms they forcibly took over (something that has been extensively documented and analysed, as such, by investigative journalists) – led to the documented displacement of the Kurdish owners who had run the olive businesses in the area for generations. They now struggle to survive in the refugee camps of Shahba and Azaz in Syria.
The Turkish Air Force in early 2018 had bombarded and pummelled Afrin for months, killing hundreds of civilians and Kurdish fighters who fought bravely to defend the city. Then Turkey’s affiliated Jihadist mercenaries, relabelled as the Syrian National Army (SNA), began a ground invasion, carrying out war crimes (as documented and assessed by several analysts, human rights defenders and organisations) as they moved forward. Ultimately, hundreds of civilians in Afrin were killed and tortured, and hundreds of thousands were displaced leaving the city to be ransacked and pillaged.
During this time of war and chaos, in August, as bodies of those who were killed could not be taken to Afrin’s traditional and established cemeteries (as the Turkish and Turkish affiliated forces were taking over the city), a grave was established and named the Avesta graveyard. Many Kurdish civilians killed by Turkey’s bombing and invasion were hurriedly, but carefully and respectfully, buried in this graveyard before Kurdish forces had to ultimately retreat from the city to avoid any further civilian deaths.
The Avesta grave was reported in the Kurdish media at the time and everyone knew of it.
When the invading forces took over that area in early August 2018, they desecrated and destroyed the Avesta cemetery – as has, of course, been the documented custom of the Islamic State and Turkish forces in many different theatres of war. Such actions of desecration were carried out all over Afrin during the invasion – as detailed by Bellingcat, a non governmental organisation that details and geo locates sites of desecration to their exact position. Bellingcat included the Turkish desecraction of Avesta cemetry in this report of desecrations and destruction of cultural sites in Afrin. Gravestones were looted and sold while others were smashed to pieces by the Jihadist gangs and Turkish controllers.
So, it was a surprise for the Kurds of Afrin and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), when on 14 July 2021, the Turkish official news agency, Anadolu Agency, published photographs of ‘men in white suits’ standing very earnestly, looking the part, with their white suits and masks in the middle of what was left of the desecrated Avesta graveyard with an accompanying report of an apparently ‘newly discovered’ and ‘unknown mass grave.’ It unsuccessfully tried to pretend that this was a ‘newly discovered mass grave’ and accuse the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of ‘war crimes.’
This was a cynical charade, aimed at trying to present a narrative that they had just newly ‘discovered’ a ‘mass grave,’ blaming the YPG for ‘war crimes.’ This was a crude, dark and deceitful ‘black operation’ by Turkey – notorious for exactly this sort of psychological warfare of misinformation and lies (as documented by several analysts) – that was aimed at trying and discredit and criminalise the YPG, known famously around the world for its ‘heroic and honourable stand’ against ISIS.
Medya News spoke to Saleh Muslim, member of the Co-Presidency Council of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) about the ‘graveyard’ incident. I asked him whether he was surprised at the nature of this incident? What was the reaction of AANES and what is the nature of his appeal to the international community?
Saleh Muslim pointed to Turkish history, stating that such crimes were not a surprise for him at all, nor for the peoples of the Middle East as Turkey has been carrying out such crimes for hundreds of years and that Turkey systematically desecrates the graves of Kurds and Kurdish fighters, pointing to examples in recent times.
He said: “We are countering an enemy that does not know any ethical measurements or follow any laws or rules or anything. They just do their crimes to show themselves and do not care for humanity. We have known this enemy, not just from now, but from the beginning, so all the people of the Middle East have been witnessing such an enemy for the last 500 years.
“And Europe? Maybe they have forgotten also but they have also seen all these crimes done by the Ottoman Empire – for example, when they reached Vienna and other places in Eastern Europe. Maybe they have forgotten what they were doing, if you go back [into history], you will find the same things. Many, many Kurdish leaders were killed during the twentieth century and we don’t even know where they have been buried,” he said.
Muslim emphasised over and over again that this is not the first time such things have happened and he detailed the events during the invasion of Afrin – how this grave was established during the time of the invasion, chaos and war and how it was well known that civilians and Kurdish fighters were buried there.
He explained how the YPG and YPJ had published the names of those martyrs buried there and how the gravestones had been smashed or looted by Turkish forces and affiliated merceneries. Muslim described how the Turkish state had before, again just days before other important diplomatic meetings with US President Biden, bombed a hospital and blamed the YPG in the same manner as they did with the ‘graves story’ to supposedly, in their minds, think they could strengthen their hands at the meetings and be able to point to ‘YPG atrocities’ where, in fact, they had themselves carried out the killings and attacks simply to blame the YPG for the purpose of the meetings with Biden. Everybody knows this, he said.
Saleh Muslim then went on to call on the international community and media to be able to freely visit the area and investigate this incident specifically and many other similar incidents that have taken place in Afrin – which he calls war crimes and he called on Turkey to be brought before the human rights court in the Hauge to be charged with war crimes.
Muslim firmly stressed that Turkey is a danger not only for the Kurds but for Europe and Middle East too. He stated that the Kurds are fighting Turkey on the ‘front lines’ but Europe needs to struggle against Turkey too. Europe should defend itself against Turkey and its threats and blackmail against Europeans.
He said that the least Europe could do would be to not sell weapons and arm Turkey as it clearly represents a threat, not just to the Kurds but to Europe as well. He referred to the threats of Erdogan against Europeans when he referred to Europe’s attitude towards Turkey, when he said a few years ago “that if Europe continues in this way, no European, in any part of the world, will be able to walk safely on the road.”
He lastly responded to a question on the recent resolution of the Catalonia Parliament saying that they were positive developments but that any solution to the war in Syria must come from the Syrian people themselves, and that the Autonomous Administration should be – and needs to be – recognised as a legitimate opposition in Syria, whether a Damascus government would exist or not, but that there must be a Syrian solution to a Syrian problem for and by the Syrian people.
It was urgent that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) be officially recognised as a legitimate Syrian opposition because without such recognition, it is impossible to address urgent issues such as emergency aid and the issue of former ISIS fighters and their families held in prisons in North and East Syria, he noted. Only through such recognition could such urgent humanitarian issues be solved, Muslim added.