On the sixth anniversary of Turkey’s 2018 invasion of the Kurdish-populated city of Afrin (Efrîn) in northern Syria, the Women’s Protection Units’ (YPJ) Information and Documentation Office released a documentary which provides a platform for Afrin refugees to share their testimonies, painting a vivid picture of the human cost of conflict.
The documentary, released on Saturday, opens with Amina Seshid Youssef, who identifies herself as the mother of a martyr. The pain in her voice is palpable as she recounts the day when 73 airplanes descended upon their lives, foreshadowing the loss and upheaval to come. “What shall we do? Where shall we go?” she recalls, echoing the confusion and fear that besieged the residents of Afrin that day.
Another voice in the documentary belongs to a man simply known as Sadaq, the father of Reber. He describes the Turkish state as a cruel enemy that launched a multi-faceted attack on Afrin, involving not just the Turkish military but also ISIS, Al-Nusra and the so-called Free Syrian Army.
A third woman, Fidan from Khalial village, now a refugee in Shahba (Şehba) for six years, speaks of the double siege they face—from the Turkish state and the Syrian regime. She details the daily attacks and air bombings they endure, resulting in shortages of medicine, fuel and electricity. Her testimony is a stark reminder of the ongoing siege that has led to children dying from the cold and the lack of medical supplies.
The documentary intertwines these personal stories with a broader narrative of resistance and survival. Despite the overwhelming force used against them, the people of Afrin demonstrated their resilience. “We were organised in a system that allowed us to be autonomous,” Youssef explains, highlighting the self-governing structure they had built based on the philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) imprisoned leader.
Children, too, feature in the documentary, eager to return to their homeland. Their innocent voices contrast with the gravity of the situation, as they confidently express their desire to go back to Afrin.
The documentary concludes with a call to action. Sadaq’s words resonate as a plea for justice: “We want a trial. We want him to be accountable for his actions,” he states, referring to Turkish President Erdoğan and Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. This concluding statement encapsulates the documentary’s aim—to seek accountability for the lives disrupted and the rights violated.
The release of this documentary coincides with legal actions being pursued by international human rights groups. They are seeking to investigate and prosecute the alleged war crimes committed during and after the Turkish military operation. The documentary underscores the Kurdish community’s plea for recognition and justice for the atrocities they have suffered.
Since the beginning of the offensive, launched with 73 warplanes and numerous unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), the occupation process has led to the death of 706 civilians. In addition, nearly 10,000 individuals have been unlawfully abducted, and over 3 million trees have been cut down. The devastation extends to over 12,000 hectares of forested land being burned.
In a sweeping assertion of control, Turkish-backed militias have seized over 4,000 shops and more than 10,000 homes belonging to the people of Afrin. The Turkish government stands accused also of implementing a systematic Turkification of the region, altering street, neighbourhood, school and village names into Turkish. The implementation of Turkish identity and currency in daily use has been reported, alongside the destruction and desecration of dozens of historical sites and religious centres.
Recent reports have noted the establishment of 18 settlements and eight camps where approximately 650,000 family members of militias and individuals from outside the region have been resettled. Most recently, it has been reported that numerous families associated with Hamas have been relocated to Afrin.
The personal testimonies within the documentary, coupled with these reported figures, paint a picture of significant demographic changes and cultural shifts imposed upon the region. The voices of the displaced and affected individuals call for justice and a return to their homeland, standing in stark contrast to the documented alterations and appropriations in Afrin since the onset of the military operation.
The Women’s Protection Units, known by their Kurdish acronym YPJ, is an all-female military organisation which was formed during the Syrian Civil War in 2013. The YPJ is predominantly composed of Kurdish female soldiers, but it also includes women from various ethnic backgrounds in Syria. It operates as the female counterpart to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is a Kurdish militia in Syria.
The YPJ plays a significant role in the broader Kurdish struggle for autonomy within Syria, particularly in the region known as Rojava, which comprises parts of northern and northeastern Syria. The group has garnered international attention for its prominent role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), particularly in the Battle of Kobani (Kobane) and the Raqqa campaign.