UN: armed groups commit war crimes of hostage-taking, torture, and rape in occupied Afrin

A report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria has found widespread evidence of torture and sexual and gender-based violence targeting civilians who have been kidnapped by Turkish-backed armed groups in occupied Afrin, and warned that many of these violations amount to war crimes.

In its Key Findings for Mandate Report A/HRC/45/31, which covered the period from January 11 to July 1, the Commission noted that: “The situation for other Kurdish women remains precarious. In addition to harassment, women and were  detained by Syrian National Army fighters, and subjected to rape and sexual violence – causing severe physical and psychological harm at the individual level, as well as at the community level, owing to stigma and cultural norms…there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syrian National Army members committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment and torture and rape, which may also amount to torture.”

The Commission cited disturbing examples of these violations targeting kidnapped civilians in Afrin, Ras al-Ain/Sere Kaniye, and Tel Abyad . This is the first time that the United Nations has put forward concrete evidence of these kinds of violations since the Turkish occupation of northern Syria began.

“In detention, civilians – primarily of Kurdish origin – were beaten, tortured, denied food or water, and interrogated about their faith and ethnicity…two women were detained by the Syrian National Army in November 2019, at a checkpoint operated jointly with Turkish officials in the Ra’s al-Ayn region, when returning to their homes. One of the victims described how, during interrogation, she had been threatened with rape and beaten on the head by Syrian National Army members, in the presence of Turkish officials,” noted one section of the report.

“During the period under review, cases of sexual violence against women and men at one detention facility in Afrin were documented. On two occasions, in an apparent effort to humiliate, extract confessions and instil fear within male detainees, Syrian National Army Military Police officers forced male detainees to witness the rape of a minor. On the first day, the minor was threatened with being raped in front of the men, but the rape did not proceed. The following day, the same minor was gang-raped, as the male detainees were beaten and forced to watch in an act that amounts to torture. One eyewitness recalled that Turkish officials had been present in the facility on the first day, when the rape was aborted, suggesting their presence may have acted as a deterrent. Another detainee was gang-raped in the same facility some weeks after this incident,” the Commission said.

“The Commission also received reports of forced marriage and the abduction of Kurdish women in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn, which primarily involved members of Division 24 (the Sultan Murad Brigade) of the Syrian National Army. In January, a woman was abducted by a member of the Brigade, who forcibly married her and divorced her shortly thereafter.”

“The Commission received further information that families from Tall Abyad chose not to return to their homes, fearing rape and sexual violence perpetrated by Syrian National Army members. At least 30 women had reportedly been raped in February alone. A former judge in Afrin confirmed that Syrian National Army fighters had been charged with rape and sexual violence carried out during house raids in the region, however none had been convicted, but rather had been released after a few days.”

To date, the Missing Afrin Women Project has documented over 150 reports of women and girls who have been kidnapped in occupied Afrin. Allegations of torture or sexual violence were reported in more than 25 of those cases.

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, and to hold all perpetrators accountable.

August 2020: 11 women reported kidnapped

11 women were reported to have been kidnapped by armed groups in occupied Afrin in the month of August, the highest number of cases reported in any month this year. Five have allegedly been released, while the whereabouts of six are unknown.

Four of the women kidnapped this month were allegedly tortured in custody, and an earlier allegation of torture has been newly documented. Two women were reportedly murdered by their husbands.


On August 4th, a woman named Dalal Mustafa was reportedly kidnapped by an unknown armed group at an SNA checkpoint in Dêrbelûtê/Deir Ballout, along with members of her brother’s family, according to the Violations Documentation Center in Northeast Syria. A checkpoint is known to exist in the town, which borders HTS-controlled Idlib.

On August 8th, a 60-year-old woman named Fikret, the wife of Mohamed Alou Brimo, was reportedly kidnapped along with her husband and another elderly man, according to the Afrin Activists Network.

On August 15th, three women were allegedly kidnapped from the village of Hêçikê by Liwa al Waqqas: Malak Sobhi Jalabi, Zahida Khalil Sheikh Mustafa, and Maqbola Abdo Tana.

Earlier this month, three men from the same village were also reported kidnapped by Liwa al Waqqas. The armed group was reportedly responsible for killing Fatima Kanna, an elderly relative of the three men.

When Kanna was murdered, several members of her family were reportedly kidnapped and subsequently released—including a woman named Maqbola, identified at the time as the wife of Muhammad Sabri Tana. This could be the same individual as was reported kidnapped in the August 15th incident.

On either August 18th or August 19th, a girl named Salwa Ahmed was reportedly kidnapped by Jaish al Nukhba. Different reports of the incident made different claims about her age, but all sources reported that she is a minor.

The first report of the incident was published on August 20th by the Human Rights Organization in Afrin, which claimed that Ahmed was kidnapped on by an unidentified armed group on August 18th between Maabatli and Afrin, and taken to the village of Emara. They allege that she was released by August 20th, and that militia members involved in the incident had been arrested by the Military Police.

On August 22nd, Afrin Activists Network posted an alleged photo of Ahmed, and claimed that the armed group responsible for the incident was Jaish al Nukhba. They specifically implicated a member of the group named Khaled Zuhair. Their report also noted that there had been unusual security activity and conflicts between different elements of Turkish-backed forces in the area around Emara.

That same day, Afrin Post reported on the incident. They made a similar claim to the account published by the Human Rights Organization in Afrin, alleging that members of Jaish al Nukhba had been arrested and that Ahmed had been released after one or two days. They also alleged, however, that she had been kidnapped so that the group could send her to Libya. No other sources made this allegation.

On August 29th, the Human Rights Organization – Afrin claimed that Ahmed had been kidnapped because Zuhair intended to force her to marry him. They alleged that the Military Police found several dead bodies and large quantities of stolen money when they raided the village, which was controlled by Jaish al Nukhba.

While they claimed that Zuhair was among the members of Jaish al Nukhba who were arrested in the aftermath of the incident, the Violations Documentation Center in Northeast Syria claims that he has fled Syria to Turkey.

On August 20th, Farida Abdo was reportedly kidnapped from Çolaqa village by the Military Police, along with other civilians. According to the Human Rights Organization – Afrin, she was subsequently released on a ransom of 850 Turkish lira.

On August 24th, 2020, four women were reportedly kidnapped by the Military Police from the town of Kerzayhel, south of Afrin city: Yasmine Abdo, Siham Saeed Jafar, Khalida Kamal Jaafo and Mawlida Mustafa Jaafo.

Siham Saeed Jafar, Khalida Kamal Jaafo and Mawlida Mustafa Jaafo were reportedly released on ransom after one day, while Yasmine Abdo remains missing.

Allegations of Torture

According to the Human Rights Organization – Afrin, Yasmine Abdo, Siham Saeed Jafar, Khalida Kamal Jaafo and Mawlida Mustafa Jaafo were tortured after being kidnapped by the Military Police this month.

Azima Manan Rasho, a woman who was allegedly kidnapped earlier in 2020 from the village of Şêx Hûtka by Jaish al Nukhba, was reported to have been released by multiple sources this month. She had been kidnapped at least twice prior to this incident.

Both the Afrin Activists Network and the Human Rights Organization in Afrin alleged that she was tortured in custody. The Human Rights Organization in Afrin alleged that she has suffered from ongoing health issues since being released.

Murders of Women

Two women in Afrin were allegedly murdered by their husbands during the month of August.

On August 8th, claims that the body of an unidentified woman had been found in the Ashrafiyah neighborhood of Afrin city began to circulate.

On August 10th, Afrin Activists Network published images of the woman, identifying her as Istarvan Baker. They alleged that she had been murdered by her husband, identified as Abdulqadir Jamil Qarmaz.

On August 11th, Afrin Activists Network published photos showing the body of a woman that had been found near the village of Deir Sawwan. They identified her as Gule Khalil Farraj, and claimed that she had been murdered by her husband, identified as Sheikh Saleh.

Activist Shero Alo published a photo of a man alleged to be Sheikh Saleh on August 11th.

There has been no report claiming that either perpetrator was prosecuted. Sheikh Saleh has allegedly fled the area. The legal system in Turkish-occupied areas is based on Syrian law, with provisions that are perceived to violate Islamic law removed. Women have few protections from gender-based violence. The Syrian Islamic Council, an Istanbul-based body whose rulings are followed by some SNA groups, has ruled that there are cases wherein it is acceptable for a man to murder his female relatives, claiming that the crime is “an act of jealousy that is consistent with human instinct.”

International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances: fate of 109 women in Afrin is unknown

August 30th, 2020 marks the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Out of 173 women and girls allegedly kidnapped by armed groups in occupied Afrin since January 2018, just 64 have reportedly been released. The fate of 109 others is unknown.

According to the United Nations, an enforced disappearance occurs when: “persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organized groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.”

With every additional day that these women and girls individuals remain in the custody of Turkish-backed armed groups in Afrin, they are at risk of torture, sexual violence, and other human rights violations. There have been multiple allegations of these crimes in incidents compiled by the Missing Afrin Women Project.

In some cases, Syrian detainees in Turkish-occupied areas have been taken to Turkey and put on trial under Turkish law, without the knowledge of their families. There have also been allegations of human trafficking and forced prostitution.

One recent incident illustrated the urgency of complete and thorough investigations for these cases. On May 28th, 2020, a video filmed during clashes between armed groups showed eight women who had been detained in an unofficial prison operated by the Hamza Division in Afrin city center.

All eight were identified as women whose disappearances had been reported between June 2018 and February 2020. None of the women’s families knew of their whereabouts prior to the video.

The family of one woman had reportedly been told that she was dead, and others had only been contacted by members of armed groups demanding ransoms.

As of August 2020, seven of the women seen in the video are still missing. Some reports allege that they are held in another unofficial detention site in Afrin, while others claim that they may have been transferred to Turkey.

The Missing Afrin Women Project calls for an end to all kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, and disappearances in occupied Afrin, and the immediate release of all those who have been subjected to these practices. We continue to encourage governments and international organizations to further investigate these incidents.

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


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.