US government report finds impunity for abuses targeting women in occupied Afrin

The latest U.S. Department of Defense Lead Inspector General report to the United States Congress on Operation Inherent Resolve found credible reports of kidnappings of women in occupied Afrin, as well as widespread impunity for these incidents and other abuses carried out by Turkish-backed armed groups.

The report said US officials have stated “concern regarding reports of human rights abuses in Afrin, including…kidnapping for ransom of Yezidi and Kurdish women.”

While the United States could not confirm these reports, the Inspector General report noted, officials said that “many appear to be credible.”

The report also noted that there was “no evidence that the Syrian Interim Government has consistently arrested, prosecuted, or otherwise held accountable any TSO members implicated in human rights abuses or violations of the law of armed conflict.”

To date, more than 150 women whose identities are known have been reported kidnapped by Turkish-backed armed groups in Afrin since the start of Operation Olive Branch in January 2018. Five such alleged incidents took place last month.

The Missing Afrin Women Project encourages governments and international organizations to further investigate kidnappings and disappearances of women and girls in occupied Afrin, along with all other rights violations carried out by occupying forces.

July 2020: Five women reported kidnapped, violence increasing

Kidnappings

Five women were reported to have been kidnapped by armed groups in occupied Afrin in the month of July. One was allegedly released.

On July 9th, Jaish al Islam announced that they had captured two women in Afrin city, accusing them of terrorism and connections with the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Such false charges are a common pretext for kidnappings and disappearances of both men and women in occupied Afrin, including those with no political affiliation or military background.

On July 14th, the Afrin Post documented the identities of both women: Nisreen Walid and Sevin Ahmed Sadiq Ibo. They reported that both were civilians, and that the mother and siblings of one woman were attacked in their home after the arrests.

Neither has been reported released. Both the Afrin Post report and a later report from the Afrin Activists Network alleged that they were handed over to Turkish authorities.

Malak, the mother of Sevin Ahmed Sadiq Ibo, was reportedly kidnapped on July 10th, according to the July 14th Afrin Post report. She was beaten along with her fifteen-year-old son, and their house in the Ashrafiyah neighborhood of Afrin city was confiscated by the Turkish-backed Civil Police.

On July 13th, members of Sultan Murad Division kidnapped a woman named Rojin, the wife of Jamal Ahmed Khaled, from Babak Ushaghi village, according to the Human Rights Organization – Afrin.

According to the Human Rights Organization – Afrin report, as well as reports from the Violations Documentation Center in Northeast Syria and the Afrin Activists Network, she had been kidnapped before on charges of affiliation with the Autonomous Adminstration of North and East Syria.

A fighter known as Abu Ammar is allegedly responsible for the Sultan Murad Division units in the region.

On July 31st, a woman named Hidayat Tahir Omar, from Bulbul, was kidnapped by members of Sultan Murad Division after a relative living outside of Afrin had transferred a sum of money to her. She was released two days later. Armed groups confiscated the money that had been transferred.

Gender-Based Violence Increasing

A report from the Violations Documentation Center in Northeast Syria noted that there had been an increase in forced marriages and child marriages in occupied Afrin in recent months. Families have forced their daughters to marry relatives to “protect” them from being kidnapped by armed groups, or accepted demands from the groups themselves.

A video that appears to first have been posted on July 22nd by an individual known as Sarok Omar allegedly shows a man from Afrin beating his wife after her refusal to marry their daughter to a member of Sultan Murad Division.

Kongra Star, a coalition of women’s organizations in North and East Syria, shared the video and confirmed the details of the case.

Sultan Murad members have been implicated in many allegations of sexual violence and forced marriages reported from Afrin in recent months, including two cases documented in the Missing Afrin Women project database.

Sexual and gender-based violence, forced marriages, and child marriages were all criminalized in Afrin Canton prior to the Turkish occupation. Women and girls were able to access institutions to protect them from violence and resolve disputes. Today, under the Turkish-backed government, no such legal and civil society protections exist.

Testimonies Describe Torture, Sexual Violence, Threats in SNA Custody

Three video testimonies published this month of women kidnapped or interrogated by SNA factions describe torture, sexual violence, and other cruel and degrading treatment in interrogations and in detention facilities run by the groups.

In June 2020, the Afrin Human Rights Organization reported that a woman who had been working as a hairdresser in Afrin city was accused of witchcraft by Ahrar al Sharqiya. Militia members threatened to rape her during the interrogation, demanded money, and threatened to kidnap her husband.

A video interview with the woman, conducted by the Human Rights Organization – Afrin and shared with the Missing Afrin Women Project, was published by the Rojava Information Center on July 4th, 2020.

On July 29th, Hawar News published an interview with a woman from Afrin who was allegedly kidnapped by the Military Police in June 2019, identified only as E. A. for her safety. Her parents, husband, and three-year-old daughter were all detained with her.

E. A. described being repeatedly beaten and accused of collaborating with the SDF, and claimed that her interrogators threatened to rape her, distribute explicit photos of her, and kill her daughter. She claimed that she knew of many civilians who had died in custody as a result of torture.

She was reportedly released on a ransom of 17 million Syrian pounds, and is now in Shahba region with her daughter.

Hawar News also published an interview with E. A.’s mother, a 50-year-old woman identified as M. A, on July 31st. M. A. was also detained in June 2019, and was in SNA custody for 26 days. She reportedly did not know that other members of her family had been detained, and was shocked to find her daughter and granddaughter in the same prison.

She described being beaten every day and accused of working in a village commune— the smallest political unit under the Autonomous Administration, which worked to settle disputes, distribute goods, and manage other local affairs.

She claimed that women were raped by militia members in prison, and that even children and the elderly were tortured on a daily basis.

Over 150 women reported kidnapped in Afrin since 2018 – Reports

161 women and girls whose identities are known have been reported kidnapped by Turkish-backed armed groups since the start of the Turkish invasion of Afrin, Syria, the Missing Afrin Women Project has found. 

Local human rights organizations claim that hundreds of women and girls have been kidnapped during this time period. The details of most incidents are unknown, as communities fear retaliation and outside journalists and observers cannot enter the area.

The Missing Afrin Women Project compiles reports from media and human rights groups documenting these incidents, including the name of the individual, the date and location of the incident, the armed group responsible, and whether the individual has been reported released, as well as relevant details about the incident.

Cases with allegations of torture or of sexual or gender-based violence are marked as such.

In 17 incidents, reports included allegations of torture in custody. Six out of the 17 individuals who were allegedly tortured in custody were reported to have been kidnapped by one armed group, the Hamza Division.

In five incidents, reports included allegations of sexual violence in custody. Three of these cases involved minors.

Six of the women reported kidnapped were identified as Yezidis, including a mother and daughter who were both kidnapped and released twice. One Yezidi woman was reportedly tortured and forced to renounce her faith in custody.

Of the 132 cases where reports alleged that a specific armed group or element of the security forces was responsible for the kidnapping, 34 kidnappings were attributed to the Turkish-backed military police, 17 were attributed to the civilian police, and 15 were attributed to the Hamza Division. 

Reported pretexts for kidnapping include accusations of working with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria or the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include actions as innocuous as voting in an Autonomous Administration local election; false terrorism allegations; and documenting information about the situation in Afrin or sharing such information with outside sources. 

Only about one out of every three victims has been reported released; the whereabouts of the majority are unknown. 

Reports from the region and interviews with survivors suggest that torture, cruel and degrading treatment, and sexual and gender-based violence are pervasive and systemic, beyond the individual cases where these crimes were reported. 

“We were dozens of kidnapped women of different ages, among us were minor girls, who were always raped; one of them, named Zaloukh, died from heavy bleeding after being raped,” one survivor said

“They were transporting us during the night hours outside the prison, after blindfolding us, they were tricking us that they were about to execute us. They were defaming their weapons, putting their rifle barrels on our forehead, while others were shooting in the air, to terrorize us. Many of the abductees committed suicide, and others were killed in cold blood, and their bodies were thrown in the forests near the villages in Azaz, Al-Bab, Afrin and Jarabulus. Those crimes were committed against unknown abductees,” she described. 

In a video interview conducted by Hawar News Agency, a local media outlet, a woman who was kidnapped by the Military Police in June 2019 along with her daughter described similar conditions. 

“The gangs kidnapped us from our house for unknown reasons. They took us to the commercial school. There they beat us with water hoses. They insulted us. Every time we were beaten, they claimed I had connections with the YPG and was supposed to give them information, she said. 

“One of these militiamen named Abu Haydar interrogated me during the torture. They kept saying that I was part of the YPG and asked me what information I gave them. When I said that I had nothing to do with it and did not give any information, they threatened me to kill my daughter or give her drugs…Abu Haydar threatened me constantly. He threatened to kill my daughter, rape me, take pictures and distribute them to everyone. He forced me to watch the cruel torture of women. The women were tortured with electric shocks and blows with water hoses. The torture was so bad that I became ill because of the sight.” 

In another video provided by the Human Rights Organization – Afrin, a woman kidnapped by Ahrar al-Sharqiya described how militants accused her of witchcraft, threatened to sexually assault her, and demanded large sums of money. 

A video showing several women being led out of an illegal prison reportedly operated by the Hamza Division surfaced in late May after clashes between armed groups in Afrin city center. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that they were naked when they were originally found, and that they had suffered other cruel and degrading treatment in custody. Most of the women in the video have been identified by human rights monitors and news outlets, but only one has been reported released. 

The map and database will be updated with new cases as they occur and as information about earlier incidents is published. Please click here to view the data.