On the 4th anniversary of the Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation of the ‘M4 Strip,’ RIC interviewed Berzan Abdullah, one of the members of the administration of Washokani camp, near Heseke city, and Souria Mohamed Hussain, a resident of this camp.
Since 2019, many of the people that were displaced from the city of Sere Kaniye and its surrounding areas during the Turkish invasion have lived here. According to Berzan Abdullah, “in the beginning, the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria [AANES] established this camp, and for a time humanitarian organizations did not interfere or offer any help. There were very tough times and hard conditions for the people here.” Even though there are at the moment around 9 to 10 NGOs operating in the camp, Abdullah tells RIC that the humanitarian situation in the camp is not ideal, and when “people have needs and when they ask for anything, they [the NGOs] say they can’t afford it, or they don’t have money.”
Berzan Abdullah, Washokani IDP camp administrator.
Between the 5th and the 10th of October 2023, Turkey escalated its attacks on NES, carrying out an intense aerial bombardment campaign that primarily targeted civilian infrastructure. Near the beginning of this campaign, the vicinity of Washokani camp itself was a target for Turkey’s airstrikes. When asked about these recent attacks, Berzan Abdullah replies that “near Washokani camp they [Turkey] struck four times with drones and warplanes. As a result, the residents of the camp on the western side had no choice but to leave their tents. There was fear in their hearts. To be honest, we would not be surprised if Turkey targeted inside the camp, because we expect anything from Turkey now.” During the 6 days of escalated aggression from Turkey, 48 people were killed and many more were injured. Berzan Abdullah emphasizes that Turkey is targeting civilian sites, giving the example of the attacks near the camp, telling RIC that “the places they targeted here are poultry sheds and they belong to civilians… when you leave you can see them with your own eyes… there is not military position anywhere here.” Many of the families that reside in the camp are IDPs from Turkey’s 2019 invasion, and the recent attacks awakened old fears and traumas, says Abdullah, creating a negative psychological impact on the people. He explains that “they [the people from the camp] are very anxious, whenever they hear a sound, they fear it is the sound of a warplane, and that it will attack us. The situation is that Turkey adheres to no rules or treaty, we don’t know when they will attack again, we don’t know when they will launch another act of aggression.”
The camp administration also brings up that since the Turkish occupation of the regions of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad (the ‘M4 Strip’) and Afrin, a notable demographic change has been witnessed in those territories. “Turkey settled families from Homs, Deir ez-Zor, Idlib, Daraa, and even from Damascus in Sere Kaniye and Gire Spi [Tel Abyad]. […] Sere Kaniye and Gire Spi [Tel Abyad] particularly have become a hotbed for the leaders and Emirs of ISIS who fled from al-Baghoz when it was liberated.” Abdullah says that the ‘M4 Strip’ locals, particularly Kurds, who now live in the camp, “were replaced, and families from other parts of Syria took their place. Even families from Iraq were settled and housed in Afrin, Sere Kaniye and Gire Spi. There is a huge, concerted effort to create demographic change right now. The houses of the people who are living here in the [IDP] camps are occupied by people from different regions of Syria and Iraq. The leaders of these groups who control the area are emirs from ISIS. This is well documented with pictures and reports, the US and Global Coalition know these facts well.”
With the displacement of thousands of people to camps that are full well over their capacity, RIC asks the camp administration about the organization of the camp. “There are 17,000 people residing here. This camp follows the system of the AANES: there are communes, committees, councils, and courts and everything is organized here. There are 5 communes here – each one consists of 400-500 families – and 8 committees such as health, security, services and so on. All the people take part in them. When people need something such as documents, they head to the commune, as it is the essential pillar of the community. The camp follows a communal system, the same as cities. There is no [administrative] difference between us and the cities, but the people here are displaced, and they live in tents, and the people of cities live in houses. In terms of regulations, we use the same system of the AANES, we have the same centers. We have 3 centers specifically for women. We have also a center for protecting children.”
The needs and difficulties of life in the camp are multiple, and according to Abdullah, “the people who suffer most are children and women, living with a shortage of medicines.” Souria tells that “they [Turkey] cut off the water supplies to us, even though it is our water. There are some tents where around 15 people live in. AANES helped us as much as they can and we don’t blame them at all. They are struggling a lot to keep ISIS in prison and to fight against them, at same time that Turkey is attacking.” Abdullah stresses that difficulties in the camp are not always overcome with the help of NGOs and other organizations. “Only the Kurdish Red Crescent helps but it is not enough. On the topic of education, no one helps the AANES, for example, UNICEF should work together with the AANES in educating the children in the camp because there is a massive need for the school supplies, especially since these people are very poor and this is a significant reason that students drop out from school and don’t get educated. Honestly, the AANES has given a lot of effort and is doing what it can to help the people here. For example, it established 3 schools. We, as the administration, will do everything we can do to help these people, especially women and children and for them, we will not hesitate to offer help.”
Souria Mohamed Hussain, Washokani camp resident.
The people that live in this camp still maintain a strong culture very much connected with the land and region that they are displaced from, emphasizes Abdullah. “We are from a class of workers: we love our soil and homes, and we will not leave this land. We could go to Europe, but we will not. For the people of Sere Kaniye, we will not forget our lands and we will be attached to them forever. Especially given that our camp is only 40km from Sere Kaniye. This camp is evidence that we will not give our lands up. 40-50 thousand people are now living here in camps. There are 250-300 thousand displaced people from all the cities, villages, and everywhere [of the Turkish-occupied M-4 Strip] who think about nothing but returning. Sere Kaniye will not be forgotten; we will not forget Sere Kaniye. We want to return there, this is what we want, this is our demand, and we call for all humanitarian organizations and the UN, and all concerned countries, to return to us our city.”
Regarding the recent bombings from Turkey, Souria tells RIC: “That day the airstrikes were right next to us. We are calling on the international court to say something about this escalation. […] What does he [Erdogan] want? All these people are not terrorists. […] Erdogan attacks these people with war planes. What does he want from the people? We are poor people, we did not harm anyone. We do not want anything we just want our land. We are the Kurdish people; we have our own language and culture; we also have rights in this land and for that we are asking to respect them. We have given our children for this. Today I have 45 martyrs from my family and tribe.”
Berzan Abdullah, also commenting about the recent attacks, adds: “The attacks that have been carried out with the aim to kill the will of the people and destroy our region have been done so based on the flimsy pretext of the events in Ankara and Istanbul [the latter in reference to Turkey’s November 2022 series of airstrikes, that closely resembled the more recent attack wave]. What does the Turkish State want from us? From these civilians? What would be our problem with the Turkish national security? What would we have against Turkey to attack it? We are in our lands and have nothing to do with Turkey. We do not have any problem with the Turkish people, they are our brothers, we have been living together thousands of years. But Turkey as a regime… they attack us and see us as the enemy. But the people of Turkey are not our enemies. More than 30 million Kurds live there [in Turkey], they have married each other, work together, eat together, we are not their enemy. But the state antagonizes us, the state is the responsible for killing Kurds. They target the livelihoods of people, aiming to break the people’s will, displace them, and empty Rojava.”
Abdullah ends the interview with an appeal for the end of the attacks: “We are people who always want our country to be the best, and don’t want our neighbours to have problems and we hope for the best for them as well. But unfortunately, we are surrounded by countries who see the Kurds as their enemies. We want our voice to be heard in the UN and humanitarian organizations, and that there will be no more killing Kurds. Why do they attack us, what did we do to them? We did not attack anyone’s country. Everything is very clear; all the people see what is happening and they should take action. We don’t have [warplane] missiles nor drones, and when a NATO state attacks us, unfortunately, NATO helps them. Thousands of civilians, including elders, women, and kids have been martyred due to the attacks of the warplanes and drones which on a daily basis conduct air strikes on the regions.”