WASHINGTON - Thousands of civilians who fled the city of Afrin are enduring dire conditions after they reached Syrian-controlled areas south of the Afrin district.
“More than 2,000 people reached the towns of Nubl and Zahraa from Afrin in the past 24 hours, raising the number of total civilians in the two towns to 16,000. Many are suffering from tragic conditions,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights website.
Turkish media announced the control of Afrin on Sunday, after the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdrew from the city and thousands of civilians were evacuated — 59 days after the launch of Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish military operation in Afrin.
The Observatory said Nubl and Zahraa were struggling to provide shelter and food for the large numbers of displaced people pouring into the towns.
Sumama Al-Ashkar, a journalist in Nubl and Zahraa, told VOA that people were residing in houses, mosques, schools, public halls and warehouses.
“The civilians in Nubl and Zahraa are able to get some aid and services, but those who went to Tal Rifat in northern Aleppo are struggling to survive,” he said.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement on Monday expressing deep concern about reports coming from the predominantly Kurdish city in the past 48 hours.
“It appears the majority of the population of the city ... evacuated under threat of attack from Turkish military forces and Turkish-backed opposition forces. This adds to the already concerning humanitarian situation in the area, with United Nations agencies reporting a displaced population in or from Afrin district in the hundreds of thousands, who now require immediate shelter and other assistance to meet basic needs,” the statement said.
Destruction and looting
A number of reports circulated in the media said Turkish-backed forces were destroying and looting public and private properties after they entered the city.
The Afrin media center said once the Turkish-backed fighters reached the town center, they destroyed a statue placed in the center of the city that represents Kurdish cultural figure Kawa the Ironsmith.
“Kawa the Ironsmith is a major historical symbol for the Kurdish people, as it is linked to the most important Middle Eastern holiday, the Nawruz,” Afrin Media Center said.
Footage coming from Afrin also showed Turkish-backed fighters pillaging homes, shops and military sites amidst chaos. They were seen carrying food, electronic devices, civilian cars, farmers’ tractors and livestock.
Members of the Syrian opposition condemned the looting and destruction of the city and called for holding the looters responsible for their acts.
The General Military Staff of the Syrian Interim Government, an alternative government of the Syrian opposition, issued a statement Monday calling for the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels to protect civilians and their properties, and to respect religious and ethnic installations in Afrin.
In a comment to CNN, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdogan, did not deny the reports of looting but said the actions were committed by some groups who disobeyed their commanders. He said reports were being investigated.
On Sunday, Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim told ANF, the Kurdish News Agency, that the fight in Afrin entered a new phase, where the YPG and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) will continue to resist in the district.
Muslim added that the civilians had to leave the city for their own protection and vowed to step up the fight.
“The existence of civilians in the city will impose a challenge for our fighters. Our enemy kills civilians and strikes hospitals, and since the Turkish offensive started, civilians were targeted. Now, the war will continue in a different way after civilians left the city,” Muslim said.
A number of humanitarian organizations and civil society groups working north and east of Syria, including the Kurdish Red Crescent, issued a joint statement calling on the international community to act.
“We plea to the international community to intervene immediately to stop these attacks and let the refugees return to their homes, protect their possessions and civil rights, and deliver aid to thousands of people [who] fled this war,” the statement said Monday.