Eylül Deniz Yaşar – Istanbul
Horrific human rights abuses targeting especially the Kurdish residents and women in Afrin have been no secret, but it is still alarming that there have been no serious reactions, as no party involved in the invasion of Afrin has yet been held accountable for what they have been doing to those people for the last three years. After three years of invasion, the people of Afrin have become the “ghosts” of the modern wars.
On 28 May 2020, at least eight women, one with a newborn were found held in a military headquarters of the Hamza Division.
This very recent example is only the tip of the iceberg that represents a chain and network of perpetrators of crimes targeting the women in Afrin.
On 24 April 2016, the first lieutenant Saif Abu Bakr announced the formation of the Hamza Division in northern rural Aleppo.
Hamza Division has been controlled and supported by Turkey and is a part of the 2nd Corps of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, Syrians for Truth and Justice said in their report on “Afrin: How Eight Women were Forcibly Disappeared by the Hamza Division?”
On 20 January 2018 Turkey attacked Afrin for the first time with the launch of the operation “Olive Branch’. As of 24 March, Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army took the whole control of Afrin. On 9 October 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the launch of another military operation named “Operation Peace Spring” into northern Syria, rallying the participating Turkish forces in the name of the “Mohammadi Army”.
‘Shameful disregard’ and shamelessness
“Turkish military forces and a coalition of Turkey-backed Syrian armed groups have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes,” said Amnesty International in a report published on 18 October 2019.
Human Rights Watch documented summary executions carried out by “armed groups affiliated with the Turkish-backed National Army in northeastern Syria,” in a report published on 27 November 2019.
The UN Commission of Inquiry noted the allegations in their report published on 14 August 2020 that “Turkish forces were aware of” a number of incidents as well as being “present in detention facilities run by the Syrian National Army where the ill-treatment of detainees was rampant”. “In failing to intervene, the Commission underlined, Turkish forces may have violated the applicable human rights treaty obligations that Turkey remains bound by.
In addition to countless reports prepared by international organisations, a very special research project has been documenting a gruesome pattern of recurring gender-based violence targeting the women of Afrin. “Missing Afrin Women Project” has been a valuable source for human rights defenders and journalists trying to carve out the hidden facts about the kidnapped and disappeared women of Afrin.
What has been happening in Afrin has been going on before the eyes of the world for the last three years, but Afrin’s truth is still waiting to be brought into the day light. Medya News questioned the hidden facts of Afrin in an exclusive interview with the independent researcher and the founder of the “Missing Afrin Women Project” Meghan Bodette, discussing key issues of gender-based violence, women’s engagement in war and women’s political representation in North East Syria in an effort to make the ‘ghosts’ of Afrin more visible…
1- You initiated the project “Missing Afrin women” in 2018, when Turkey and affiliated Syrian armed groups took control of the region. How did you come up with the idea of tracking kidnappings and disappearances of women in Afrin then? What were the doubts or motives for you back then that after Turkey’s offensive that women might be the special targets of the offensive?
I started this project, because from the very beginning of the invasion and occupation of Afrin, there were several things that were very clear that they were not being repeated at all in main stream media, by governments or by human rights organizations. The first was that this was an open campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting the Kurdish people, the Yazidi people, the other peoples who had lived and co-existed peacefully and safely in Afrin under the Autonomous Administration since 2012. And the second was that as part of that attack it was very much an attack on the achievements of women in Afrin.
Women there participated in institutions at a very high level and given the ultra-nationalist and religious fundamentalist attitudes that both Turkey and the Syrian National Army and the affiliated armed groups have, first of all any Kurds there were a threat and Kurdish women, who organized themselves to create the free and democratic society that they were building in Afrin were especially a threat to their very dark fundamentalist nationalist world view. And so we saw terrible attacks on civilians, these kidnappings and disappearances of civilians, war crimes targeting women and we saw women essentially forced out completely from politics and life when Turkey and their affiliated armed groups took over this area. So I started the project to call attention to the reality of the situation there, because these atrocities were happening and no one was talking about them and I wanted to help give a voice to these issues, to encourage the media and governments and human rights organizations to stand with these women.
2- The 2020 report of Missing Afrin Women revealed that there was approximately one incident of a missing woman every four days occurred in Afrin in 2020. What is your own view of what has been happening in Afrin and Turkey’s role on any violations of women’s and human rights in Afrin?
Yes, it was one incident approximately every four days for a total of dozens and dozens of these incidents targeting women, teenage girls and there were even many kidnappings of men and boys as well. These armed groups really terrorized every civilian left in Afrin, which is horrifying. In looking at the situation of these women what we saw was first of all that it was clear which armed groups was responsible for these crimes of atrocities disproportionately targeting women:
The Turkish backed military police, which are directly organized and paid and trained by the Turkish military in an attempt to clean up the image of their armed groups, which are responsible for a large number of incidents
The Hamza Division, which was the group that was found on video to be running an illegal prison with many woman prisoners over the summer.
The Sultan Murad Division, which is another Turkish-backed group very close to Turkish Military Intelligence (MIT) and was known for many kidnappings of women. This group also has a disturbing record of kidnapping women and girls for forced marriages, for abducting these women to marry members of these armed groups, which is a war crime.
Ahrar-Al-Sharkiya was another group known for kidnapping women and they are notorious as being the group that murdered Havrin Khalaf during Operation Peace Spring, the invasion of Serekaniye and Tell Abyad.
So we know that the groups that are closest to Turkey and the groups that are known for committing some of the most visible atrocities in the occupied areas are also the groups that target women and girls the most. That was something that the United Nations has recognized in its recent report with the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria finding that ‘Turkish-backed groups’ had created a ‘pervasive climate of fear’ for women in the occupied area so great that many of them preferred not to leave their houses at all. That is also something I have heard from people in Afrin.
In the project since 2018, I have documented over 200 cases, but I am certain that there are many more numbers of these incidents, because I know for a fact that there are many people who are afraid to speak up about what is happening to them. This is a pervasive pattern and this is only scratching the surface. We need real investigations and real accountability to hold Turkey and their proxy forces accountable for making life unlivable for women in the occupied areas.
3- How would you evaluate the attitude of the United Nations and the international human rights organizations towards Turkey’s violations of many international human rights laws, which are normally supposed be binding for Turkey? What would be your recommendations for all those international bodies to act in order to hold Turkey accountable for the violations of women’s rights in Afrin and in general in Syria?
We have seen time and time again with Turkey that they never abide by even the most basic human rights provisions, that by even their own laws and treaties that they have signed they have to abide by. Turkish law has said that the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights are binding, but of course when the ECHR rules that they have to release Selahattin Demirtaş, they completely ignore that and refer to court’s ruling as ‘supporting terrorism’, they refuse to apply their own laws, because it was politically bad for the ruling regime.
We see an attitude of complete ignorance for international law and legal human rights norms in Turkey’s behavior in Syria as well.
Several Kurdish MPs of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) actually asked about this in parliamentary questions. The government actually did not even answer. They are blatantly not engaging with local accountability efforts from opposition members of their own government, they are ignoring the UN and the fact that these violations have all continued after the UN report came out shows that they have complete contempt for these basic human rights standards. I think that international institutions and human rights organizations need to make it very clear to Turkey that they cannot continue to flout the international law in this way; they need to be a lot more forthright and a lot more forceful in condemning the fact that Turkey is not living up to the basic obligations that is has as an occupying power in Syria.
4- How do you evaluate the crimes against women in the other regions of northern Syria, such as Ras al–Ayn and Al-Hasakah, where ISIS recently staged the kidnapping and murder of two Arab women who worked for the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES)? Do you think that women are a special target because of their leading role in the revolution and in the politics of North and East Syria?
I completely agree that these women have been targeted by Turkey, by the Syrian regime, by the Syrian opposition and the Syrian National Army, by ISIS and often at times even by conservative men in their own communities, who might not necessarily be open sympathizers of these fascist and fundamentalist forces, but who still have a problem seeing women in power.
What the women of Rojava and North and East Syria have done in building a mass movement across ethnicity, across religions, across geography in nearly one third of Syrian territory in order to build the Autonomous Administration and ensure that every step of the way that women’s freedom has been prioritized, is, in my view, really one of the greatest political achievements of any cause of freedom of our time. I think it is an example for women everywhere in the world. The recent tragedy in Hasakah shows that there really is this level of fear of what these women have achieved. Particularly, in this case, the fact that these were two Arab women from Tell Shair near Hasakah close to the Iraqi border -it is not an area that would have had much contact with the ideas of the Kurdish women’s movement that began in Rojava earlier in the war and the fact that these women in this very conservative region stepped up to lead their communities and adopt these new ideas was something incredibly brave and important. I think what those women did was, in many ways, the worst nightmare of the nationalist and fundamentalist and ultra-conservatist forces on all sides of the region.
The reason that we have seen woman politicans and activists in North and East Syria targeted by the Syrian National army, by the Turkish government and ISIS is because all of these forces can agree that what women have built in North East Syria, a democratic system based on women’s empowerment and women’s freedom that is a threat to their ability to continue to wage war, to keep populations divided, afraid and submissive to a very authoritarian system that these states and armed groups support.
So sadly, I think that these crimes against women will continue to happen as long as there are forces like ISIS and Turkey that are active in the region and are targeting these women’s achievements. However I also think that as we have seen time in time again that the women in North East Syria are willing to stand up and resist. I have to say personally as a woman, all women everywhere should look at the courage that the women of North and East Syria have despite these attacks are continuing in a determined way, to build their system even in the face of the threats from all sides and many different parties to the conflict.
5- What is the significance of the women’s representation issue you have just referred to on Kurdish unity talks? With regard to the Kurdish national unity agreement, Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) Aldar Xelil stated in a January 12 2021 interview that the Kurdish National Council-ENKS aims at changing the “co-presidency” system adopted in AANES. What are the differences of both sides’ (Kurdish National Unity Parties allied with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and ENKS) approach to women’s representation in politics?
That is definitely a very important question. Even though it concerns the rights and representation of half of the population who have been completely left out of much of the discourse on the unity talks. You can see what the KNC wants and their broader view of how they want to use the unity talks for their own advantage based on their own very authoritarian, conservative and patriarchal demands that the Autonomous Administration and the PYD get rid of the co-chair system.
The co-chair system is, in my view, one of the greatest innovations in women’s leadership that we have. It is a really important institutional measure to guarantee real equality and real representation at every level of politics. Just because one particular political party/movement came up with it, that does not mean that it is not something that should not be adopted anywhere else. For that reason it is very telling that the KNC opposes it; they just simply do not have the level of women’s empowerment and women’s leadership in place that has been seen in Rojava. So they want to attack that achievement instead of holding themselves up to a higher standard. Fundamentally, it shows that they do not respect the democratic will and achievements of women, not just Kurdish women, but all women in northern Syria, because the co-chair system has been adopted everywhere from Kobane and Afrin before the invasion all the way down to Deir ez-Zor across to the Iraqi border and into places like Raqqa that was the capital of ISIS for years. Women from all different communities have embraced this co-chair system and used it as a way to have a say in political spaces that before the Autonomous Administration, women really were not ever present. Taking that away from women just because the KNC does not like it or thinks that it is too affiliated with one party, it is really an attack on the democratic achievement that women across all of north and east Syria have fought so hard for.
6- The war in Syria has opened up a broad discussion about women’s engagement in war on opposing poles. We see, on the one hand, women’s struggle based on a paradigm of women’s liberation, on the other, women joining ISIS. How is your stand regarding the discussions reflected in the international mainstream media on the women who had joined the ISIS from many countries, mainly portraying them as “victims” and referring them as the “ISIS brides/widows”?
That coverage of female ISIS members has been very harmful in a lot of ways. First of all, it relies a lot on stereotypes that suggest that women have no agency and they are not capable of going to Syria and joining a terrorist organization that is fighting for all of these values that ISIS fought for. Assuming that they are any less radicalized and any less dangerous than male ISIS members is a very incorrect assumption and one that will prove very dangerous, because we know that these women believe in ISIS ideology; that they are committed to raising their children to believe in ISIS ideology. Assuming that just because of the fact that they are women that they cannot be dangerous because they did not pick up guns and fight that they are not just as committed to the ideological and political project of ISIS is a very harmful assumption. It allows us to let these women escape accountability for the atrocities against countless other women in Iraq and Syria.
If we do not see the role these women played in maintaining the ISIS system, which was based on slavery, on mass murder of certain communities, on the brutal oppression of all women, we cannot fully acknowledge the crimes these women have committed and the real victims of ISIS, who were so many women and girls from the region.
One case that has always particularly shocked me is the case of an American woman, who joined ISIS along with her husband. She was actually complicit in many of the worst atrocities. She participated in the system of slavery of the Yazidi people, who were kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS; she supported her husband’s decision to raise their children as ISIS members. In my view, that is all just as harmful and just as supportive of ISIS as taking up arms on the battlefield. This woman comes back to America and she is charged with just basic terrorism offences that do not look at her role on genocide and wider systematic atrocities; that do not look at how she supported the system that brutally oppressed countless other women and girls. The whole “ISIS bride” framework is very counter-productive in terms of international justice and in terms of helping the women, who actually did suffer because of ISIS.
7- Based on a speech she gave criticizing Turkey’s military offensive in Afrin, Leyla Güven, a prominent Kurdish politician was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. How would you comprehend the level of democracy in Turkey in the light of such charges given by the Turkish courts? Maybe a bit of a personal question, but would you feel safe in Turkey to express your opinions or the outcomes of your research in Afrin if you visited the country?
Goodness, no. In term of the personal question, I would not feel safe there. I would not want to go there as someone, who stands in solidarity with the oppressed peoples of Turkey. They are a very authoritarian country; they are a country that targets people for speeches in social media posts. There are many wonderful people who are there, struggling and resisting that I would love to meet in person, but I do not think that I would ever be able to go because of that kind of authoritarianism. That for me is one reasons why I feel compelled to speak out, because living in the United States I am safe to speak out about these other countries and what they are doing and particularly given the role that the US government plays in supporting Turkey militarily and diplomatically, I think I have an obligation to criticize what they are doing and try to work with others and organize and advocate to stop that alliance. Thank you for asking that question.
In terms of the question more politically about Leyla Güven, I think that she is one of the bravest people in politics today just looking at the fact that she ran for parliament from prisons when she was jailed on these charges about opposing the invasion of Afrin the first time, that she ran on hunger strike in order to stop the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan, which is a huge impediment to peace and prospects for negotiations in Turkey, that she was able to return to parliament after concluding the hunger strike for some time before they arrested her again and that she continues to resist and advocate for peace, for democracy, for women’s freedom and for all of the values she has defended and represented. People have to know about her and what she has done. That example, as well, is why she has been faced with these charges simply for a speech. In a lot of ways she is everything that Erdoğan’s government fears right now. I think they are afraid of her and that’s why she is facing this horrifically unjust sentence simply for her speech opposing the invasion of Afrin.