Original article by Richard Hall, 12 October 2019

Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians arrive to Tall Tamr town, in the Syrian northwestern Hasakeh province, after fleeing Turkish bombardment on the northeastern towns along the Turkish border on October 10, 2019.
Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians arrive to Tall Tamr town, in the Syrian northwestern Hasakeh province, after fleeing Turkish bombardment on the northeastern towns along the Turkish border on October 10, 2019. (AFP via Getty Images)

When the bombing started, Azad Murad was away from his family. He learned that his home town of Qamishli was being shelled when he received a panicked phone call from his wife.

“She was crying. She didn’t know what was happening and she told me to come home now,” he said. He felt helpless, even more so when he heard his children crying in the background. 

“I didn’t know what to do. It was the most difficult moment,” he told The Independent

It was the same for thousands of residents of border towns and villages in northeast Syria this week, when Turkey launched a long-threatened attack against Kurdish forces in the area. 

More than 100,000 people have fled their homes in the first three days of the operation, many without any idea of where they will go. At least 15 civilians have been killed, among them three children. Aid agencies said that vital services have been interrupted, including medical facilities and water supplies.

Turkey launches offensive into Syria

The conflict has been years in the making, but the scale and speed with which Turkey launched its attack appears to have taken many by surprise. The offensive was set into motion when Donald Trump unexpectedly gave Turkey the green light to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), effectively abandoning a key US ally. 

The SDF worked closely with the US military in the years-long fight against Isis in Syria, acting as the main fighting force on the ground while US jets supported them from the air. It lost 12,000 fighters in the battle to defeat the Isis caliphate.

That alliance had infuriated Ankara, which considers the group a terrorist organisation for its links to separatists inside Turkey. Turkey says its operation is aimed at creating a “safe zone” some 20 miles deep all along the border, free of Kurdish forces. 

But the campaign, the stated aim of which is to bring “stability” to Turkey’s southern border, has turned a once relatively peaceful part of Syria into a warzone once more.

In the time since the bombing began, Mr Murad has been sheltering with his wife, three children and elderly parents inside their house. Most shops are closed in the multi-ethnic city of Qamishli, home to 250,000 people. 

“I’m playing music for my children when we hear shelling. This is the only option we have,” he said. 

Civilians ride a pickup truck as smoke billows following Turkish bombardment in the northeastern town of Ras al-Ain (AFP/Getty)

Mr Murad has reason to worry. Video released from a hospital in Qamishli on Thursday showed the chaotic scene as two children hit by artillery fire were rushed into the emergency room. Mohamed, 15, was killed by the attack. His sister, 8, whose foot was shown dangling from her shattered leg by just a thread, later had her limb amputated.

“Everyone was yelling and screaming in the hospital. The children’s aunt was crying, begging people to share blood, they needed a rare B-type for the little girl,” said Sharine, a resident of the city who went to the hospital to help.

“The doctors tried to reassure the aunt but in the last second they had to admit the little girl would lose her leg. Everyone looked horrified,” she told The Independent.

On Friday, the once bustling city was hit by more intense artillery. In the afternoon, a suspected car bomb struck a police headquarters in the city, sending plumes of smoke rising into the air.

Turkish artillery and jets have targeted towns and villages all the way along the border, but much of the ground fighting has been focused on the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad. Residents there were given little warning before Turkish jets screeched across the sky on Wednesday to begin their attack. Thousands piled into cars and jumped into the back of pick-up trucks in fear of the fighting. 

“We left in large numbers sharing cars, while we were under fire. People were terrified of the Turkish factions,” said Sara, who fled Tal Abyad for the city of Kobani. 

Hundreds of civilians reportedly turned up at the gates of a US base near Kobani demanding protection. Many who have been forced to flee their homes expressed surprise that the US, which one not long ago patrolled the border area alongside the SDF, had abandoned them. 

“We are in shock. How, after all the resistance and eliminating Isis, could this happen to us? We were once the safest city, now most of the people have fled and only a few are left in town,” she said. 

“The children are suffering terribly,” she added. “Before I left, I saw a six-year-old boy crying and asking his mother, ‘Am I going to die?’”

The scale of the initial displacement has taken aid groups by surprise, but the worst may be yet to come. Some 450,000 people live within 3 miles of the border, where Turkey hopes to introduce its safe zone. The International Rescue Committee predicts that the new hostilities will displace 300,000 more in the immediate future. 

That movement of people will likely create another crisis in a region already struggling. At least 700,000 of the 1.7 million people in northeast Syria need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. Many local staff working for aid agencies have fled to safety with their families. 

In the absence of an organised aid effort, families are finding shelter where they can. Fawaz Saydo, a teacher from the town of Tel Tamer, opened up the doors of the school where he works to people fleeing towns further north. 

“We have put people in schools and houses as much as possible, but there is not enough space. People have gone down themselves to the streets to take people into their homes. There is no food relief or medical relief reaching us,” he told The Independent.  

“Civilian areas not just military posts are being targeted,” he added. “A water point that supplied the whole of Hasakah was hit by the Turkish forces, so now Hasakah has been without water. There have been attempts to fix the water supply but we currently have no water.”

The chaos of the first three days of the offensive is likely to pale in comparison to what comes next. Amnesty International warned Friday that the Turkish offensive could spark a devastating humanitarian catastrophe. 

“Hostilities will impact and restrict access to humanitarian aid, pushing the civilian population – which has already suffered years of violence and displacement – to the brink,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Europe director.

The rights group said it documented indiscriminate attacks committed by the Turkish military and allied armed groups, and to a lesser extent Kurdish forces, the last time Turkey launched an operation against the SDF in the towns of Afrin and Azaz in northern Aleppo. It said scores of civilians were killed in the fighting.

Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians arrive to Tall Tamr town after fleeing Turkish strikes (AFP/Getty)

The chaos of the past few days is now giving way to fear of what comes next. Mr Murad and tens of thousands of others are now figuring out what to do. 

“Yesterday we were all discussing what options we have,” he says. None of them are good. 

“To flee to Turkey? To Kurdistan region of Iraq? To the countryside? And what if I am forced to fight? Or if I choose to fight defend the region?

“I don’t know what to do. I have kids. I have an old father and mother to take care of them.”

Many reserve a special anger for Mr Trump – who not long ago was a popular figure in this part of the world.  

“People call him a crazy person who cares only for money. And a big liar,” said Mr Murad. “The US left the people to their dark destiny.”

Additional reporting by Bel Trew