By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Her fellow Kurds have suffered death, serious injury and homelessness because of the United States’ abrupt decision to pull troops out of northeastern Syria, said Widad Akreyi, who received a peace award in Davenport two years ago. Last week’s cease-fire has not stopped Turkish forces from advancing and attacking villages, she noted in an Oct. 18 email to The Catholic Messenger.
Defend International, the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) she works for, has its own local network on the ground. “Our members and representatives in Syria have informed us of advances made and attacks in different villages,” said Akreyi, who chooses not to disclose her whereabouts. Two years ago she traveled to Davenport where Bishop Thomas Zinkula presented her with the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award for her steadfast commitment to human rights advocacy.
“The impacts are horrific because there are still wounded children and some families trapped in Serê Kaniyê,” the city that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to want to conquer before his meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, she said.
She called the brutal killing of women’s rights leader Hevrin Khalaf on Oct. 12 “one of the many war crimes committed against our people in this genocidal campaign.” Hevrin, a 35-year-old Kurdish woman, worked for the cause of women, democracy and peace. She served as co-secretary of the Syrian Future Party, an organization created at the suggestion of the United States to improve relations with Turkey, Akreyi said.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, reported Oct. 18 that over the previous week the agency and its partners had provided “life-saving assistance to nearly 60,000 newly displaced Syrians as well as to those forced to flee from one camp to another. Nearly 23,000 people have received core relief and winter items in the camps….”
“The UN currently estimates some 166,000 people have been forced to flee their homes over the past seven days. Newly displaced families continue to seek shelter in camps, makeshift sites, communal shelters, with family, friends or acquaintances. Many of them have been displaced multiple times from one area to another in Al-Hassakeh, Tal Tamer and Raqqa.” UNHCR reported that its teams are working with partners to provide services needed, “including psycho-social support and protection services.”
People “need peace and every basic human need…. They have nowhere to go, because this was the most peaceful part of Syria, the only part where people could enjoy a little sense of normality in the madness that is called Syrian crisis,” Akreyi said.
“However, President Erdogan — emboldened by world leaders, either by their silence or encouragement — decided that hundreds of thousands should spend this cold winter with no shelter. Our people are once again homeless, on the roads, with no food or drinking water, nothing but fear.”
Turkey wants to maintain long-term control because of oil and natural gas in northeast Syria, she believes. In her opinion, President Erdogan also seeks to free thousands of ISIS prisoners currently detained in the region and would displace or slaughter the people there (Kurds, Christians, Yazidis) and bring Arabs and Turkmens to live in their homes.
Defend International has launched a campaign to bring the voices of the innocent people of northeast Syria to the international community. “It is important for the world to know that this is a serious humanitarian catastrophe.”
Akreyi beseeches the world’s leaders “to intervene and stop this genocide. President Erdogan has waged his bloody campaign with total disregard to human life. We are calling it genocide because the massive disproportionality is striking.”
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the pullout of U.S. troops a “grave, strategic mistake” in his Oct. 18 opinion piece in the Washington Post. “Even if the five-day cease-fire announced Thursday holds, events of the past week have set back the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists. Unless halted, our retreat will invite the brutal Assad regime in Syria and its Iranian backers to expand their influence,” he wrote. “In addition to limiting Turkey’s incursion and encouraging an enduring cease-fire, we should create conditions for the reintroduction of U.S. troops and move Turkey away from Russia and back into the NATO fold.”
Some 25 million to 35 million Kurds live in the region, which borders Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. Kurds make up the fourth-largest ethnic group but have never obtained a permanent nation state. (BBC News, Oct. 31, 2017).
Akreyi consider the people of the region “my extended family. Of course, I have many friends and colleagues over there. Our relations go back to the 1990s and 2000s when I used to defend their human rights through urgent actions. Whenever someone was arrested by the Syrian regime, I was the one they would turn to for help. Bonds of friendship were cemented more during the 2014 genocide when I became their voice at the global level.”
The United Nations acknowledged that genocide occurred against the Yazidis in Syria and Iraq in 2014. World pressure contained the scale of the atrocity, Akreyi said. “It remains to be demonstrated whether world leaders will stop President Erdogan from doing what he intends to do.”
“ISIS barbaric attacks in Northern Iraq in 2014 were implemented by about 1,000 ISIS militants. Imagine the barbarism that would result from unleashing the viciousness of thousands of them,” she said.
Akreyi calls for the United States “to not only maintain, but strengthen its presence in Northeastern Syria. The collaboration between the U.S. and the Kurds brought peace to that region and saved many lives. We know that collaboration works.”