Washokani IDP camp

Interview with Mohammed Baaqi, livelihood officer for the NGO Hevi. The NGO works with IDPs living both in camps and informal settlements. Mohammed Baaqi was interviewed 26 April 2020.

My name is Mohammed Baaqi, and I am from the city of Sere Kaniye. I am a livelihood officer with the local NGO Hevi, and since the Turkish invasion [October 2019] I am based in Qamishlo. We work among IDPs, both in camps and with those in informal settlements and in the cities. 

The situation of the IDPs and refugees following the Turkish invasion of North and East Syria is very dangerous. Our people experienced much hardship, and for those in the camps the situation continues to be very hard. For those in the villages as well. We thank the international NGOs, and the national NGOs as well, but their efforts cannot take care of all the people and respond to all their needs. There are significant needs not being met, which cannot be solved by the NGOs.

There are a lot of international NGOs working with the IDPs. Blumont [US front group] fills the role of camp management. The NGO Acted works as camp management in Washokani. Our local NGOs, like Hevi, Udaan and so on, are more active on the ground. Our work focuses on meeting emergency needs, with regards to food, health, children and so on. The international NGOs do work, but their role is more the camp management and there are others, like Mercy Corps, who play an essential role together with NGOs like Hevi as suppliers. We work together, on this basis: The international NGOs send supplies and we work on the ground.

“The biggest shortcomings at the moment are in
the health sector, also in terms of psychology.”

The biggest shortcomings at the moment are in the health sector, also in terms of psychology. What we call ‘inclusion’ is also difficult, finding ways for IDPs to enter the local economy. In the cities, it’s perhaps a little easier, but for those in camps these things are the biggest challenge. The biggest shortcomings are for children. We cannot establish a ‘safe place’ for them, or provide psychosocial support. They need to forget the trauma they have experienced, but we cannot provide this. In the current economic situation and with the difficulties we face, there are difficulties in all fields. 

The situation of the IDPs in the schools in Heseke was very difficult at first, but with the support of local NGOs they have managed to make these schools an appropriate place to live. They have installed electricity, water tanks, wash stations, WCs and so on. Their situation is better than the situation of those in the camps, because they can leave, go out into the city, look for work, engage with the local community. But to live in a camp is like living in a prison. Their situation [in Heseke] is better than that of those who live in the camps.

There are a lot of needs in the camps. For example, the camps need to be expanded and made more accommodating. They are build directly on the earth, and this needs to be replaced with proper infrastructure. The infrastructure is much better in Hol camp than in those for IDPs who fled the Turkish invasion – they need WCs, wash stations, and so on. Then we need to set up centers in the camps, for psychosocial support, health centers and so on. For example, the Kurdish Red Crescent runs health centers directly inside the camps – this is very important, and we thank them. All NGOs should operate in this way, working with a center directly inside the camps. To provide psychosocial support, health support, to set up markets in the camps so people can work and also purchase what they need. 

“The United Nations closed their only aid crossing into North and East Syria,
and this created a lot of difficulties for this region.”

The United Nations closed their only aid crossing into North and East Syria, and this created a lot of difficulties for this region. The connection between the AANES and the United Nations was working well, but when the aid is sent via Damascus, a lot of difficulties emerge. It becomes a political subject, and Damascus creates a lot of problems with the UN, and uses bureaucracy to make it difficult for aid to arrive from the UN to NE Syria. This created a lot of problems for the local and partner organisations that work together with the UN. For example, when deliveries arrive from Damascus they are very delayed, or there are many things that are missing, or never arrive at all. 

This quarantine which has been imposed for coronavirus has made a lot of problems for the international NGOs. In terms of their staff, many have stopped working. We local NGOs like Hevi continue to work on the ground, in Heseke and elsewhere, and there are other local NGOs still working. So what is the problem? Supplies. Our suppliers cannot send us the products that are needed for our distributions, as the gate has been closed. There are a lot of shortages at the moment. Particularly emergency supplies, such as health kits, medicine and so on, which is a particular concern during the Coronavirus quarantine. Agricultural supplies that we need for our local economic projects have also run out. Also supplies for coronavirus prevention, like hygiene kits, cleaning materials and so on. We are very short on this front. On the other hand, we have a lot of food supplies which we source locally. 

“Around Til Temir, there is a lot of fear among the IDPs, and there is also a lot of fear among INGOs – they won’t go and work in these regions. These IDPs suffer a lot, because Turkey shells these villages and launches attacks, and so INGOs won’t go there.”

As the Hevi NGO, we recently distributed food aid packages to 63 villages housing IDPs between Heseke and Til Temir. There are many, many villages housing IDPs throughout this whole region. All of them are from Sere Kaniye and the surroundings and in many of these villages, Turkey continues attacks in the near vicinity, particularly around Til Temir. There is a lot of fear among the IDPs, and there is also a lot of fear among INGOs – they won’t go and work in these regions. These IDPs suffer a lot, because Turkey shells these villages and launches attacks, and so INGOs won’t go there. Only our local NGOs go there to support them. 

And again, from Til Temir towards Heseke there are around 40 more villages with IDPs living there. Between Qamishlo and the Semalka border crossing there are also many villages housing IDPs, plus in the cities themselves, because as you may have heard then 350,000 people were displaced following Turkey’s attacks against NE Syria. 

“Very few people have returned to Sere Kaniye,
and those that go back face beatings, kidnapping for ransom.”

The UN’s figures for returns to Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad come from OCHA’s Turkey office. We do not believe these figures are correct. They serve as propaganda for the Turkish government. Very few people have returned to Sere Kaniye, and those that go back face beatings, kidnapping for ransom. People are kidnapped and they demand up to $2000 for their release. They say 130,000 people have returned: this is not true. As a local NGO, we go among these people, we work with them, and we know these people’s situation. Few go back and many of those who have gone back have been kidnapped. Scores of people have gone back, not thousands, and many properties have been expropriated by the Turkish-backed forces. People cannot go back because terrorist forces are present in these regions now. 

It is not just the local NGOs saying this: Blumont, Mercy Corps, Aktej – these international NGOs also know very well that people cannot go back and live there. 

The Syrian observatory of Human Rights has documented the constant infighting between Turkish-backed groups in Sere Kaniye, over the things they have stolen.As a staff member of a local NGO and as a resident of Sere Kaniye, I know full well that 50,000 people have not gone back – this would mean that the entire population had returned. 

“Turkish-backed faction members have transferred their families
[to Sere Kaniye] and installed them in the homes of local Kurds,
Christians and Arabs, all the people of the region.”

According to our sources in Sere Kaniye, the Turkish-backed faction members have transferred their families there and installed them in the homes of local Kurds, Christians and Arabs, all the people of the region – not just Kurds, Arab homes as well. They have brought people from Idlib, Homs, Hama, and installed them in our cities. They have stolen these cities and our people cannot return. Officially speaking, we can say that our people have only returned in small numbers and those who have returned have faced great hardship. They live in fear, under the threat of death. People have not returned to Sere Kaniye in their thousands.

I recently visited Raqqa. There are not many people from Sere Kaniye there. Raqqa is in the process of being rebuilt, following its destruction in the war with ISIS. There are few people there from Sere Kaniye, but very many from Tel Abyad. The people of Tel Abyad fled from the Turkish-backed fighters. We saw many of them there, who had fled the violence of the Turkish-backed forces, who pillaged their homes. They targeted people and seized their property, saying ‘you worked with SDF’, ‘you worked with the civil administration’ and took their homes.

Raqqa is home to IDPs from all over Syria, from Aleppo, from Homs, from Hama, from Sham, from Sere Kaniye, Tel Abyad, all the cities of Syria. The city is peaceful and the condition there is generally good, under the protection of the SDF and the administration of the Raqqa Civil Council. It’s much better there than it is in Sere Kaniye or Tel Abyad now. 

The most important thing is that NGOs, whether local, international or connected to the AANES, take care of our people in the camps, who suffer a lot in the winter and the summer.