A year has passed since Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf was murdered along a highway in northeastern Syria, the 34-year-old dragged by her hair, beaten and shot to death by mercenaries. Photos of her mutilated body later emerged on social media, in what many said was a clear message from Turkish-backed forces in the region: this is the price Kurdish women who’ve fought for liberation will pay.
“Those were really difficult days,” Evin Swed, a spokeswoman for Kongra Star – a confederation of women’s organizations in the Kurdish enclave – told Haaretz, reflecting on the death of her friend. And things have only deteriorated since then, she adds. “Hardly a day passes without hearing news of kidnappings, rape, forced marriages and the killing of women,” says Swed, speaking from the border city of Qamishli.
A recent UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry on Syria highlighted an increase in “sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls” in Syria in the first half of 2020. The report documented that at least 30 women in the Kurdish town of Tal Abyad had reportedly been raped in February alone.
A former judge 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,” the report noted
Since 2019, Kurdish women throughout the region have faced “acts of intimidation” from Syrian soldiers, “engendering a pervasive climate of fear which in effect confined them to their homes,” the UN report added.
Public life for women in the region has become “unlivable,” sums up Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist and researcher at the University of Oxford.
Female kidnappings have become so common that the Missing Afrin Women Project launched a website in early 2018 to track reports of disappearances in the town of Afrin: 6,000 abductions have been recorded since May 2018, including 1,000 women, a Kongra Star report claimed in August.
In the days following the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria last October, Turkish-backed forces surged into the Kurdish enclave with the stated aim of creating a 30-kilometer (18-mile) “safe zone” along the border with Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan determined to clear the area, which he describes as a terrorist hot bed associated with the Kurdish Workers Party (aka the PKK), which both Turkey and the United States deem a terror group.
For the hundreds of thousands of Kurds living in the roughly 100 kilometers stretching from Ras al-Ayn to Tal Abyad, the reality on the ground has reportedly become more nightmarish by the day. Ground-shaking booms followed by billows of smoke from airstrikes, shelling and car explosions have become the norm. Reports of abductions, rape, torture and murder from local human rights groups continue to pour in. The Islamic State is said to be making use of this power vacuum and is reportedly resurgent in the region.