Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

'The end of the Kurdish people': Kurds fear the worst as Turkish onslaught continues

As Kurds escape danger under moonlight, they face a new, more powerful foe than ISIS

The trek out of Ras Al Ain lasted into the night, and for many, it was just another bloody, tiring chapter in a litany of war.

Much of the town's majority-Kurdish population began preparations to flee as soon as the scream of Turkish F16s overhead began on Wednesday.

A labyrinth of tunnels under the city provided only temporary shelter from the air strikes, and as soon as the roar from the skies stopped, Rokan Qasr, 17, gathered her seven siblings and elderly mother and marched them into the darkness.

"We were screaming," Rokan says. "All of the neighbours were screaming."

The family walked for an hour before flagging down a lift in a passing car. She was unable to reach her father, a Kurdish intelligence officer in the town, who was left behind to join them later.

"We did not know where we were going," Rokan says.

They walked with hundreds of others, among them the elderly, the sick and the very young.

Now the family of 10 is living in the Abdul Ahad Mousa school about 75 kilometres away in Hasakah with 300 others who fled the air strikes and incoming fighters.

Chalk is still scrawled on the board, but in the corner a stack of boxes branded with the UN High Commission for Refugees logo hints at what the school has become.

The Qasr family left with only a handful of personal items. For now, these are all the belongings they have.

The UN estimates that more than 130,000 people have fled their homes since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched "Operation Peace Spring" on Wednesday evening.

Ankara says it plans to resettle some of more than three million refugees inside the "safe zone" it is trying to clear along the Syrian side of the border.

The Qasr family fear it may be their home in which others are resettled.

Another of those who joined the march into the night is Iman Mato, 40, who fled with her three children.

"We walked for almost five hours,” Iman says.

Now she shares a classroom with two other families, 16 people in total.

Like many adjusting to their new surroundings in Hasakah, Iman has been touched by war before. In 2015, she lost her father, brother and eight cousins in an ISIS attack in Kobane.

For her, this week's operation is not merely a new phase of the civil war. It is a concerted effort to wipe Syria's Kurds from the map.

"We were safe. We had forgotten about the feeling of war, then Erdogan started attacking us," she says, breaking into tears.

"If America doesn't do anything to stop Turkey it will be the end of the Kurdish people".

Ankara claims it is striking only at the YPG, the mainly Kurdish militia in the Syrian Democratic Forces.

It considers the group the Syrian wing of the PKK, a guerrilla group that has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Yet Iman and many others who have fled say Turkey doesn’t distinguish between civilians and fighters, as artillery fired from Turkey repeatedly lands on the city of Qamishli.

There is a sense of betrayal. The Kurds feel they proved themselves in the fight against ISIS, losing more than 11,000 fighters as they pushed the extremist group out of cities such as Raqqa, Kobane and most recently Baghouz.

“The same people that are dying now were fighting ISIS,” Iman says.

In a nearby hospital, Delil Hasakah whimpers on a stretcher. He was brought in on Sunday morning, injured in an air strike in early hours clashes in Ras Al Ain.

It has been barely two years since the Arab member of the Syrian Democratic Forces was fighting against ISIS in Raqqa.

Now things are very different.

“Turkey has done what ISIS couldn’t – put me in hospital,” Delil tells The National.

Rumours circulate around the school in Hasakah of atrocities committed by Turkish-backed fighters against Kurds - some unfounded, some true.

In one unverified video that surfaced over the weekend, fighters are seen executing two men.

Many who fled see the Turkish-backed fighters as little different from the ISIS militants who ravaged many of their communities over the past five years.

“Erdogan. Terrorist,” they often claim.

Despite the apparent disaster that has befallen Rojava, as the Kurds call the area, there are those who still hope Washington will come to the rescue.

They hope that US President Donald Trump will rekindle a relationship that has restored stability and peace in this corner of Syria.

They hope that America will remember their sacrifices and step in to restrain Mr Erdogan.

As Iman insists: "We still have faith in America."

Updated: October 14, 2019 09:46 AM

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