This paper was prepared to shed light on the situation of civilians in Afrin, in the context of the continuing human rights violations, and the extent of the impact of the Corona pandemic on the lives and health of
Against the background of the media blackout and the suppression of civil and political freedoms, we relied on a specific mechanism for collecting information through different informants, located in Europe, the Kurdistan Region, Rojava "northeastern Syria" and finally in Afrin. We then analyzed these data and cross-checked them in order to ensure their accuracy.
i. The security situation.
Since the occupation of Afrin on March 18, 2018, violations against the people continue daily without interruption and include killing, kidnapping, torture, theft, and seizure of private and public property. These widespread violations did not differentiate between the young or the old, or between men and women. The most recent major violation occurred on 18 April 2020, when the Syrian National Army Brigade Al-Waqqas killed 80-year old Fatima Kan from the village of Haykhah in Jandares district. After the news of Fatima's death spread, the members of the brigade kidnapped her four children to put the matter to silence. This is not the first time that this type of violation was committed. In 2019, 75-year-old Houria Muhammad Bakr Deco was killed in the same way and for the same reason: theft. These and other violations are among the main reasons that prevent the return of the people of Afrin, 65% of whom are currently living elsewhere according to local council statistics: this constitutes one of the largest demographic changes taking place in Syria. Although there is evidence that these violations constitute clear war crimes, the position of the United Nations and the international community has not risen to the level of condemnation or even the formation of a commission to investigate these crimes and violations, due to political and security considerations, including not upsetting NATO member Turkey.
A citizen, A.S., tells: " One day in January my wife was alone at home, and I was at the market. I was away for 3 hours and when I came back my wife told me that the Sultan Murad faction came to the house and asked her to let a family live with us. She told them that she does not live alone in the house and I live there too. They did not believe her until our neighbour who is from Homs told them that her husband lives with her. Then they finally left”.
Although the level of violations continues to rise and fall, this is subject to changing circumstances and not due to measures that prevent them from occurring. There is no such thing as security stability. Today, as the COVID 19 pandemic is spreading, it appears that the security situation is getting worse, including the security concerns of female citizens.
M.H. who is a resident witness in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq says: "Through contacts with family, relatives, and friends in different regions in Afrin, and following the general situation there, I must conclude that the security situation is very bad. In fact, the security situation is a chaos, as armed groups under different designations practice all kinds intimidation and instigate fear against the Kurds in the region. There are kidnappings, extortion, ransom demands, and continuous assaults and killings”
ii. Health status.
The health situation in Afrin, like in other cities, has fluctuated as a result of the circumstances including the type of control, its tools, and its ideology, and it can be divided into 3 main stages:
Firstly: The pre-2018 stage: the health situation was subject to the supervision of what is known as the Health Authority in Afrin district, in cooperation with the Kurdish Red Crescent organization that was created by the Self-Administration, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Division of Afrin, in addition to the contribution of a number of civil organizations as Bihar Relief organization, which invested in Qanbar Hospital.
Afrin was supplied with medicine from Aleppo and Damascus, stored in 6 official warehouses inside Afrin which were supervised by the Health Authority in coordination with the Monitoring and Inspection Committee - the Division of Medicines that monitors the source of medicines, validity and prices.
There were also five hospitals operating in Afrin before 2018, namely: Afrin Hospital - Qanbar - Dersem - Jihan - Dagli, in addition to health centres affiliated with humanitarian organizations such as: The Union of Medical Relief Organizations, the Afrin branch of UOSSM, the Kurdish Red Crescent dispensary, the Afrin Crescent clinic Syrian Arab Red, Al-Ihssan Association clinic in Raju, and the dialysis department at Afrin Hospital. In addition there were health centres that existed before 2011, and there were 15 centres spread scross the districts where they carried out several tasks such as vaccination, distribution of medicines and monitoring of health status.
Secondly: the health situation in Afrin after 2018: the health situation deteriorated as a result of the violent bombing by the Turkish army and the national army factions that accompanied the occupation of Afrin. A number of hospitals were destroyed, such as Afrin Hospital, which was emptied from medical devices by the self-administration before they withdrew from Afrin. Some dispensaries were damaged as a result of bombing and battles, and the remaining medical equipment and devices were stolen by the factions. After the control of the national army factions with the support of Turkey, the vast majority of medical personnel migrated out of fear of violence.
The destruction of infrastructure however continued. After the spread of the Corona virus, Judge Muhammad Zaidan, who was assigned by the Governor of Hatay to the administration in Afrin, issued a decision to close a number of hospitals in the city of Afrin, on the pretext that their owners did not possess the necessary licenses. These hospitals are the Qanbar Hospital, a hospital Jihan, and Dersem Hospital. Also the Peace Hospital, which was managed by Bihar Organization, was closed because of discontinued support, and the work in the Mahmudiyah clinic, several mobile clinics and the clinic center of Bihar Organization was also suspended for the same reasons.
These decisions and forced closures as a result of discontinued support worsened the health situation in Afrin. In addition, it resulted in dissatisfaction of doctors and medical staff in the region, and also citizens expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of access to health services after the closure of a number of hospitals.
Despite these closures, Al-Shifa Hospital (formerly Afrin), Al-Manar Hospital (formerly the School of Friends), and Al-Hikma Hospital (Al-Mahabba) are still operating in the city of Afrin, as they are run by people affiliated with the armed factions. The Turkish Military Hospital is also operational.
Thirdly: The health situation in the shadow of the Corona pandemic: After the spread of the Coronavirus in the world, news and rumors spread about a number of infections in Afrin, which would have been transmitted by people traveling between back and forth from Turkey. However, through our communication with multiple sources from inside Afrin, we were unable to document any infection with the Coronavirus, and we were unable to obtain any official data or accurate and reliable information about the presence of Coronavirus infections in Afrin until the date of preparing this report. Poor security conditions, the control of armed factions, the lack of freedom of expression, the lack of neutral media, and the widespread security chaos, led to the complete isolation of Afrin and put it in a state of "quarantine", as described by M. H.:
"Frankly, the Kurdish in Afrin are predominantly in quarantine, not from fear of the Coronavirus, but rather from fear of ‘viruses’ spread in the region by armed groups and gangs."
According to Sham News Network, the Turkish Ministry of Health has decided to start testing on Coronavirus in the Afrin region. Its Health Directorate started doing this in cooperation with the SRD and the Turkish Afad. The sick are now transferred to private quarantine tents in the areas of Al-Bab, Idlib and Darat Azza. There is no proper centre for quarantine or treatment.
The local councils, in coordination with the health committees that were formed, also adopted a set of measures and decisions to confront the Corona pandemic, which include:
Preventing movement between the sub-districts and the center of the city of Afrin. Citizens can not move between the districts and the center of the city of Afrin, unless they obtain special permission from the military factions in each district or village.
The abolition of the "bazaar" (weekly market), which takes place weekly on Wednesday.
The abolition of the livestock (sheep) market, which takes place weekly on Tuesday.
Prohibition of large gatherings in the streets and parks.
A ban of weddings in halls, as well as a ban on mourning tents.
Allocation of a ward in the military hospital which is equipped to receive COVID-19 patients. This includes 12 beds equipped with respirators.
Spraying sterilizers on streets, neighborhoods, and markets.
Increasing the number of bread distributors to prevent large gatherings.
Steps are being taken to prohibit street vendors.
iii. Living situation:
The people of Afrin suffer from the bad economic situation due to the loss of safety, theft and organized robberies carried out by armed factions as well as the seizures of private and public property. The movement of commercial exchange is almost completely halted and is confined to the areas of the Euphrates Shield, Al Nusra Front in Idlib, and areas under the control of the Syrian regime. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with continuing violations by armed groups and the lack of employment opportunities, living conditions deteriorated even further.
A witness says: “Living conditions are very difficult, as prices are high and many items are simply unavailable. My children abroad send money, but there are no safe ways to receive it. Exchange officed are dealing with the free army and the gangs, and if they know that we have money they might kidnap us for a ransom. We try to exchange only small sums between €100 and €200, and use a variety of exchange offices to circumvent this".
Moreover, the decision to close hospitals increased citizens’ suffering and led to dozens of families losing their only source of livelihood. One of the witnesses said:
“The decision increased the suffering of residents amid a wave of high prices and an uptick in unemployment rates, as more and more refugees arrive from Idlib and the western countryside of Aleppo.”
In the context of the economic hardship, the ever-increasing number of citizens in Afrin, and the absence of a way out, in addition to the exorbitant price of goods imported from Turkey or coming from government-held areas, the decision to close the hospitals has made the situation worse. It paved a way for private clinics to control the costs of medical examination and treatment: an examination now costs 5 thousand Syrian pounds and the olive oil price reaches 20 thousand Syrian pounds for a barrel of 16kg.
The general mood in Afrin:
There is a clear lack of interest in the Corona virus and quarantine measures among citizens of Afrin. This is arguably due to an indifference of death in the light of the constant threat, the spread of kidnappings, liquidations, ongoing conflicts between the factions, and the disastrous economic situation. Most residents say that dying from Corona virus is not worse than being shot, kidnapped, tortured, or dying from hunger.
All factions and the Turkish army must withdraw from Afrin and its villages, end the occupation and hand Afrin over to a civilian administration which will allow hospitals to reopen and medical personnel to return to work, which the region badly needs in these times.
Corona virus screening and testing centers must be established and necessary medicines to treat patients provided, in addition to placing the health portfolio under the mandate of the World Health Organization.
Permanent or field hospitals must be established in the center of the region (Afrin) and in sub-districts. Protective equipment such as respirators, masks, and clothing for doctors, assistants, and medical personnel must be provided, as well as ambulances equipped to transport patients.
Coordination and cooperation with Syrian, regional, and international organizations is pivotal to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and to treat the affected people.
Urgent food aid must be secured and distributed fairly to the needy. The factions' use of aid must be prevented.
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