AMMAN: Thousands of people displaced by a Turkish-backed offensive on the isolated, Kurdish-majority Afrin canton are facing aid shortages, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in the canton’s capital, aid workers and displaced people told Syria Direct.
Between 15,000 and 30,000 residents of Afrin canton, in northwestern Aleppo, have fled their homes over the past three weeks, Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) told Syria Direct on Thursday.
Afrin residents are fleeing their homes to escape shelling and ground fighting between Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions and a local Kurdish militia that began on January 20.
Most of the displaced have sought refuge in Afrin city—the center of the eponymous canton and, for now, a settlement relatively isolated from the most intense fighting and bombings.
There, new arrivals are staying in basement shelters established by the Kurdish Self-Administration—the de facto government of Syria’s northern Kurdish-majority regions—most of which are “unfit for living,” Hayfeen Muhammad Hanan, a Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) spokeswoman in Afrin, told Syria Direct on Thursday. The KRC is currently providing aid and medical care to residents affected by the conflict.
“The city is crowded,” said Hanan, and a lack of shelter is leaving some displaced people “with nowhere to go.”
Municipal services in Afrin have been severely limited since the Turkish-led offensive began, UN spokeswoman Tom told Syria Direct.
“We’ve received reports that the city is overcrowded, electricity has been cut and water is an issue,” said Tom.
Four recently displaced Syrians who fled their villages and towns in recent weeks all described overcrowding, a high cost of living and poorly maintained underground shelters in conversations with Syria Direct from Afrin city this week.
‘Overrun by rats’
Omar Suleiman Abbas, a farmer from the Jandrees region near the frontlines west of Afrin city, fled his home late last month when an airstrike landed atop his neighbor’s house in the middle of the night, destroying it. “The bombing forced us to leave,” he said.
Since leaving a previously “comfortable” life in Jandrees as a municipal employee, today Abbas lives in a basement in downtown Afrin designated as a shelter. Abbas says that the shelter “smells, and is overrun by rats.”
“We need food and water—we need everything,” ِAbbas said, “we are fending for ourselves.”
KRC spokeswoman Hanan told Syria Direct on Thursday that the organization’s personnel have visited various shelters in Afrin city and witnessed a need for “blankets, baby formula, basic medicines, food and other supplies.”
Smoke rises in Afrin city after Turkish airstrikes on January 28. Photo courtesy of George Ourfalian/AFP.
“If the campaign ended, I would go home immediately,” Abbas told Syria Direct. “But I am afraid I will have to flee [Afrin] again if airstrikes target the city.”
One Turkish airstrike hit Afrin city earlier this week, but heavy bombardment and ground fighting has largely been limited to the canton’s outskirts and rural areas near the border.
Hamadi Bakar, a farmer with four children from Jandrees sent his family to Afrin city when Operation Olive Branch first began in late January. But after spending “four days under the falling bombs” in Jandrees, he drove to Afrin city to reunite with his family.
Today, Bakar and his family also live in a chilly basement “unfit for living,” Bakar told Syria Direct.
Even so, “ downtown Afrin is much safer than Jandrees,” Bakar said. “I hope we’ll go back soon, but I don’t know what tomorrow holds.”
Before Operation Olive Branch began on January 20, more than one-third of Afrin’s 324,000 residents—approximately 120,000 Syrians—were originally from elsewhere in the country and now “may have been displaced multiple times,” said UN spokeswoman Tom.
Shells ‘falling like rain’
Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch aims to oust the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from Afrin. Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organization because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, with which Ankara has been embroiled in an internal conflict for decades.
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a powerful political party that leads the Self-Administration government in Afrin and other Kurdish-held territories in Syria.
As of Thursday, the Turkish military claims to have killed at least 1,028 “terrorists” in Afrin canton since January 20. The YPG, for its part, claims to have killed dozens of Turkish soldiers and FSA fighters.
During the fighting, airstrikes, shelling and ground fighting have killed at least 70 civilians in Afrin, according to statistics sent to Syria Direct by the Kurdish Red Crescent earlier this week.
Ahmad Daoud, a 59-year-old father of three, described shells “falling like rain on the roads and homes” in his village of Raju as he fled with his family in late January. “I didn’t think we would survive.”
“We don’t know when we’re going back,” said Daoud. “We only have God.”