The Disappearance of Women in Turkish Occupied Syria Continues Unabated, and Ignored
The Deafening Silence of the international community (including Western Human Rights Organizations) is a required component for allowing the killing and disappearances to continue
I am old enough to have had my political coming of age when a good amount of attention was focused on the missing and murdered women of Juarez, Mexico. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International produced and released thick, formal reports documenting the abuses, disappearances, and murders. The plight of these women, as it should have been, was present not only in reports of human rights organizations, but also in songs, films, and the popular culture of the anti-globalization movement. The topic was well represented in international feminist discourse and the mainstream press.
It is estimated that between 1993 and 2005 over 370 women were killed in Ciudad Jaurez. A notoriously violent city, squeezed by the pressures of sweatshop life, Mexico’s “war on drugs”, and psychopathic cartel gang violence, Jaurez’s women were paying a heavy price.¹
To the real power brokers, the suffering of these women was of course inconsequential at best or, at worst, an inconvenient stain on their neo liberal world order.
Fast forward to the start of 2018 to Afrin, Syria. Both a city and region (canton) in North West Syria, Afrin has been under the control of The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (also know as ROJAVA) since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Afrin in particular has not only been a safe haven, free of the war and violence raging across the region, but also has been undergoing a radical democratic and feminist transformation in accordance to the pluralistic and democratic ideology of it’s driving force, the Kurdish led Democratic Union Party. This has included placing real power in the hands of women, from the new grassroots communes and up through the mayoral roles of the cities and its defense forces.
This fact makes the tragedy of Afrin all the more critical and deserving of outrage and attention. Ironically, it just may be it’s former progress that is causing it’s current neglect.
Just a few weeks into 2018, The Turkish army and it’s allied jihadist gangs unilaterally and violently invaded Afrin. Viewing any Kurdish freedom, particularly leftist Kurdish freedom, as an existential threat to its nationalist and right wing aims, the success of Rojava could not stand. It’s mere existence both politically and even diplomatically, further undermined the Turkish state’s rationale for violently and politically repressing its own Kurdish population.
The invasion by Turkey, NATO’s second largest army, killed hundreds of civilians and displaced well over 100,000 people. What followed was to become some of the worst ethnic cleansing of the Syrian Civil War.
The brutality of the invading armies mirrored what many of the Kurds faced at the hands of ISIS. The particular violence against women was an ominous signal of what was to come under occupation.² Without any air defenses, or aid in any form from anyone, the Kurdish fighters held off the second largest army in NATO for over two months until the fall and evacuation of Afrin city in early March of 2018.
For the Kurds, Yezidis, and others who were expelled or fled, a perilous life awaited them in IDP (refugees in their own country) camps, where they remain to this day under constant threat of attack and almost weekly bombardment. Just last year, eight displaced Kurdish children were killed in a single attack, followed by an all too familiar deafening silence³. For the Kurds and other ethnic minorities who remained, a war specifically targeting women continued in earnest.
Aside from the usual cultural desecration, including the literal erasure of the Kurdish language from civic life, the darker side of ethnic cleansing remained no stranger to the women of Afrin. In 2020 alone, there have been 88 documented reports of women who have been disappeared. Locals claim a figure of kidnapped to be in the hundreds.⁴ The entire population of Afrin prior to it’s current state of occupation hovered around just over half a million. Just for comparison sake, that is about a third of the size of Ciudad Juarez. The population of post occupation is even less, as tens of thousands of IDPs have yet to return.
Although not much detailed information exists, the only summery in existence between 2018 and 2021 is by Amnesty International. It was released six months after the 2018 invasion and confirmed “86 instances of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearance” by the occupation forces.⁵ When it comes to tracking the disappearances of Afrin’s women since then, It has been mostly radio silence. A basic search of Human Rights Watch will produce one report on Afrin from 2014, written pre occupation, and no reports since. Their only news since then specific to Afrin, from June of 2018, reads as if the occupation, looting, and seizing property of the regions indigenous inhabitants is fine, as long as those original inhabitants are “compensated”, an insane standard by any measure, including its own.
The 2014 report claimed that the Autonomous Administration was holding 130 people in its Afrin prison. Although inferred to be a problem, that might set a record for the fewest incarcerated people per capita in any region, anywhere. In comparison, by US prison per capita standards, that number would be 3,685. It also highlighted, among other things, an alleged unfair trial and conviction of eight people for a bomb attack and the disputed suicide of one prisoner.⁶
The only issue raised that is backed up with reliable evidence is the use of underage soldiers. This is an issue to which the Autonomous Administration admitted to and is the only party in the entire Syrian Conflict that has devoted resources into de mobilizing those under the age of 18 and have engaged directly with foreign human rights organizations on the issue.⁷
An even uglier report by Amnesty in 2015 claimed that the Autonomous Administration was engaged in a “war crime” during its conflict against ISIS by “ethnically cleansing” villages. In an almost unprecedented move, the report was later debunked by an independent UN commission, clearing the Autonomous Administration of any such claims.⁸
Without entering into speculation as to why it exists, the chip on the shoulder that Western human rights organizations have with the Syrian Kurds has directly helped aid the atrocities committed today under Turkish occupation. As someone who has been engaged in human rights work for over 20 years, I have never seen the simultaneous inflation of alleged crimes of one group and the deflation of actual crimes of another be so stark. Not even with Israel and the occupied Palestinians.
Just last month, thanks the devotion small grassroots network, the one and only report (referenced above) since 2018 was released that details the disappearance and kidnapping of 88 women from Afrin in 2020. The report is cited with references for all to see and the sourcing rivals that of a well funded organization like Amnesty or HRW.⁹ The Missing Afrin Women Project, an initiative to document kidnappings and disappearances of women in occupied Afrin, is currently the only light shining on the current disappearances.
Proportionally speaking, even taking out the women who have been released, the missing women of Afrin far outpace those of Ciudad Jaurez, whose deaths only came to public light often well after the fact.
This past summer a video surfaced from within the military compound of one of the occupying forces. It shed a bit of light on the fate of a handful of the missing women, who were being rushed, barefoot and like cattle, from one secret prison to another.¹⁰
While some are abducted for ransom, out of pure opportunism by various occupying gangs, many are disappeared due to their past political support of the previous Autonomous Administration and/or ongoing opposition to the occupation. Worse, some are believed to have disappeared and trafficked into sexual slavery, a practice familiar within jihadist forces in Syria.
It is important to note; that in addition to the Turkish army, the armed Islamist allies who also occupy Afrin, are often locked in inane conflicts with each other over looting rights, kidnapping ransoms, and chaotic personal power struggles. At times this conflict between gangs can reach open warfare which has further claimed civilian lives.¹¹ This means the occupying forces have killed more innocent civilians (the invasion aside) in Afrin, simply by fighting among themselves, in one day, than the Autonomous Administration did in the first couple years of its existence. That is if we assume a guard of the Autonomous Administration did in face kill the prisoner referenced in the report.
It was during once such conflict between the occupying gangs that the video emerged of the Turkish backed Hamza Division, attempting to maintain control of their property, the kidnapped women, by rapidly moving them to another location in case they were to lose control of their plot of territory.
In 2020, the situation in Afrin’s secret prisons grabbed one paragraph’s worth of attention in a report by the UN Human Rights Council’s on Syria, released on September 15th of 2020, it is worth quoting in full:
During the period under review, cases of sexual violence against women and men at one detention facility in Afrin were documented. On two occasions, in an apparent effort to humiliate, extract confessions and instill fear within male detainees, Syrian National Army Military Police officers forced male detainees to witness the rape of a minor. On the first day, the minor was threatened with being raped in front of the men, but the rape did not proceed. The following day, the same minor was gang-raped, as the male detainees were beaten and forced to watch an act that amounts to torture. One eyewitness recalled that Turkish officials had been present in the facility on the first day, when the rape was aborted, suggesting their presence may have acted as a deterrent. Another detainee was gang-raped in the same facility some weeks after this incident.”¹²
Abuses like this, especially against women, would have been unheard of prior to the invasion and occupation of Afrin.
The current major power player in Afin is without a doubt the Turkish state. It’s position as a NATO ally and large arms market for the West and Russia alike, along their political connections to the US, grant it carte blanche when it comes to carrying out abuse and terrorism. This fact is not unlike other states. What is more unique to this situation is that the mainstream media has no knowledge and/or appetite for the occupation of Afrin or the abuses carried out there. The initial invasion was but a blip on the radar and soon vanished into obscurity.
In the least, we must not let what is happening continue in the dark. A gaping weakness in the West’s tacit and/or direct political support for Turkish occupation of Rojava (both Afrin and the territory occupied after its second invasion in the fall of 2019), is that these lands are now safe spaces for Islamic terrorist groups, including Al Queda and other right wing jihadist organizations, often now populated by former ISIS members¹³/¹⁴.
While the US supported the Kurdish forces militarily during their front line conflict with ISIS, their leftist politics were certainly seen as inconvenient, to say the least. That being said, now the West is allying with forces openly supporting groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda whose politics of “kill all of us” is clearly something that would be embarrassing in any public arena.
Last October, within the newly occupied town of Serekaniye, public support for ISIS among the occupying forces went on full display. Like Afrin, Serekaniye was previously under the control of the Autonomous Administration after being liberated from Al Qaeda back in 2013. Like Afrin the city fell to the invading Turkish army after air-strikes pounded the defenseless city. It is worth noting that my friend and comrade was killed in an airstrike defending the town’s hospital.
The city was evacuated and left largely abandoned. It is currently being resettled by the occupying forces, many are Islamists and mercenaries from other parts of the region. It is worth noting, that many are refugees from other parts of Syria who fled to Turkey during the war. Suffering discrimination and xenophobia, Turkish President Erdogan cynically used them as pawns to both kill Kurds and conveniently expel their own selves from Turkey, leading them to war with racist Islamist propaganda and promises of new homes and military salaries.
The horrid lynching of unarmed Kurdish female politician Hervan Khalif, by such Turkish backed Islamists during the second 2019 invasion of Rojava, did garner some mainstream attention. This attention maybe even helped bring about a temporary halt to the conventional military carnage which helped to stabilize the occupation borders.
The UN Human Rights Council released a report a few months her killing, in March of 2020. It noted that while documented cases of detentions, killings, beatings, abductions, widespread looting, and appropriation of civilian homes carried out by Turkish-backed groups in the newly occupied towns of Tal Abyad and Serekaniye, were systemic, and that it was also like the “consistent, discernible pattern previously documented in Afrin.”
The report also stated that Turkish-backed groups targeted almost every “aspect of Kurdish women’s lives” in areas under their occupation and that “Armed groups generated a palpable fear of violence and duress among the female Kurdish population.”¹⁵
While Trump’s support for the Turkish goverment’s second invasion of Rojava was widely panned as a great betrayal, it still happened, and with no accountability or consequence.
US power brokers have obviously (and consistently) put profits and their class power over human rights in their foreign affairs. I, as a student of such, can not draw another comparison where US elites by doing so have knowingly bolstered groups both so unstable and openly hostile to the US population as a whole. Morality aside, this should have been a foreign policy scandal the likes of Iran Contra (no, the Iranians are not as hostile to the US population as a whole as Al Qaeda and ISIS).
Every single politician who backed Trump and his Syria policy, every single Western politician allied with the Turkish state’s lobby, the arms dealers and their political allies, and all of NATO must be made to publicly answer for their role in these crimes. Such crimes did not happen in a vacuum. They were predictable, they were calculated, and they were funded and continue to be funded with raw capital and with political support and diplomatic cover.
While the incoming Biden administration seems to have less “authoritarian solidarity” with Turkish President Erdogan than Trump, it does not mean they will do much without serious pushing. In one good sign, diplomat Brett McGurk, who helped lead the Global Coalition against ISIS, will be on Biden’s National Security Council. McGurk, a fierce critique of the Turkish government’s role in Syria, had resigned in disgust after Trump and Erdogan’s 2019 invasion.
While a changing of the guards in US power alone probably will not do much to help the missing Afrin women, it can at least help guide us in a direction that can stop further bleeding. Pressure must be kept up not only with lobbying and solidarity actions, but also within the human rights community. Just a few days ago, Tulay Hatimogullari, a brave member of the Turkish Parliament from the leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP), demanded answers, publicly, from those responsible for these atrocities.¹⁶ Whether or not she herself will be thrown in prison, like so many of her colleges, or if the disappearances of the Afrin women will continue, is up to us. We must not allow what is happening in Afrin to continue under the cover of darkness. Shining as bright a light as we can onto the reality of occupied Rojava is the only way to stop its suffering.
The invasion of Afrin began three years ago to this day.