Margaret Owen

The present dire situation of over two million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Rojava, (refugees in all but name), abandoned by the UN, the US and the EU is a scandal and is a “preventable catastrophe”.

I am describing a humanitarian disaster in Northern Syria that could and should be alleviated providing that humanitarian aid is delivered. It is required now and urgently.

This Conference has called for “empirical data” but I can only give you these rough estimates of the numbers of IDPs who have sought refuge in Rojava, fleeing both the violence and atrocities committed by ISIS, and the persecution, torture, and killings of the Regime.

Sensitive mapping and profiling all the IDPs, men, women, children, their needs, their roles, their experiences, of violence, including sexual violence, their support systems, their survival and coping strategies (to stay alive, feed their families, care for their dependents) is needed so as to galvanise and energise support from the international community that is tasked with the responsibility of caring for the innocent civilian victims of conflicts.

Rojava is the only relatively safe region in Syria and those who have sought safety there are of diverse ethnicities and religions: Arabs, Alevi, Copts, Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Yezidis, and it is thought that some 70% of these are women and children, among the women many widows, wives of the forcibly disappeared and orphans.

The IDPs include hundreds of Yezidi women and girls captured on Mount Sinjar and taken into sexual slavery who have escaped, or been ransomed by their families. They also include those who have managed to escape from Mosul and of course, people who have fled the violence and persecution of the Assad regime.

Following the start of the 4th phase of the Wrath of the Euphrates Campaign to liberate Raqqa and its countryside, and the onslaught on Mosul in Iraq, to free the inhabitants there from ISIS, tens of thousands, (no official figures are available), have moved to Rojava since I was there two years ago, putting a huge strain on their hosts, who struggle to provide for them shelter, food, water, clothing, health care medicines, and other forms of support, practical, physical and psychological. The people of Rojava are sharing with them their already scarce provisions and amenities, with a unique generosity and compassion. It is grossly unjust that they are deprived of international aid.

Before the present conflict started about 2 million Kurds lived in Rojava, but today the population has more than doubled this original populations. In recent weeks, I am told that some 500 families a day are seeing refuge, in either camps, holding centres, or wherever they can find shelter. For Raqqa is a big city, with still around 100,000 civilians living there as the battle for its liberation, now in its last stages, rages and people are desperate to escape.

During my last visit to Rojava, in the summer of 2015, I visited the UNHCR camp set up for the Yezidis. There were many women and children, women and girls traumatised by their experiences as sex slaves, forcibly sold many times, married and remarried to ISIS fighters, who have died.

Two years ago, the UNHCR Yezidi camp was the only camp in Rojava, for then the IDPs were scattered about the towns in any shelter, however inadequate, that could be found. Now there are many camps, but still not enough to house all the people streaming in in search of safety.

I was appalled then, two years ago, in the UNHCR CAMP and generally, by the lack of essential services, of clean water, electricity and food, but what distressed me most was to talk to and observe the children, especially the young girls, who had no access to education – what was provided was very limited in numbers and quality, and no teaching was available for teenagers. These young girls were at risk of being married off in under age marriages, for a variety of reasons, including the concept that “marriage” would somehow keep them “safe”, and because families are unable to provide for them.

During that trip, I met with families that had fled the regime, who had come from Aleppo, who had hitherto led productive lives, in professions, or were in school or university, and now were stranded; living anywhere they could find walls and a roof. In empty offices vacated by the regime, in unfinished or damaged houses, and who felt abandoned without hope.

I met a young 14-year-old girl who had been top of her class in Aleppo, with an ambition to be a doctor. She had not been in school for over a year, and had abandoned all hope of attaining her goals. “What is my future? Have I any hope?” she asked me. I tried to comfort her telling her she would in time return to school and would become again top of her class because she will have seen how valuable, important education was. But I fear my hopes for her may not be realised, although the Rojava education departments are doing everything they can to address education needs, and managing also the issues of language.

The Rojava constitution endorses pluralism, freedom of belief, respect for minorities, and since the establishment of the North Syria Democratic Confederation, the official languages, in addition to Kurdish (banned by the regime) are Arabic and Assyrian. So education policies are developed to serve all the different ethnic groups. Yet, of course aid is needed, for buildings, books, and essential materials that every school needs.

Among the many people I met on my previous visits to Rojava were former students, still to qualify, who had to abandon their university studies, were imprisoned by the regime, or escaped, to avoid conscription and further violence. These bright, well-educated young men, and women should be helped by scholarships to continue their studies in host countries, such as the UK, so that they can be well equipped to serve their families, communities now, and especially later when peace eventually is secured. What a waste. Rojava needs its engineers, agricultural and mechanical, architects, doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc.

In particular, it needs support to regenerate its agricultural, industrial and entrepreneurial base so there are jobs, social housing, food security for self-sufficiency. It needs technical support, for example, for the growing numbers of agricultural cooperatives, many of them organised by women, and these are from all ethnicities, not just the Kurds. And it needs help in clearing land mines from potential agricultural land.

But today, as I speak to you, the situation of all the IDPs is far worse than two years ago, for Rojava is under siege. Its borders are blocked. Humanitarian aid cannot reach the people, streaming in from Mosul, and from the big city of Raqqa, and from AL-Laal Deir Hafer, AL-Maskana. Two-thirds of these displaced people are sheltering in abandoned houses and commercial buildings, garages, because there are not enough tents. Besides, many of the tents are now quite worn-out and no longer weather proof.

There is an urgent need for baby food, clothes, electricity. mattresses, bedding and blankets. There is barely any vaccine. Nor serum against snake bites.

Turkey has cut off the water supply from the Euphrates, causing a drop in water levels to Kobani, Tabqa and other towns and villages in Rojava. These cuts have affected sanitation, hygiene, and causing an increase in chronic diseases, measles, Leishmaniasis disease, flu, etc. This is the first time in 17 years that the water level has been so dramatically reduced. Turkey is using water as a weapon of war. The impact of this act that is deliberately causing the dehydration of the people of Rojava, and affecting local agriculture, electricity and their water supply, under international law is a war crime.

People both in the camps and in gathering points on the borders of Rojava are forced, for lack of sanitation, to defecate in the open, putting all the people at risk of further diseases.

In the gathering points of Siluk and Al-Hisha, north of the town of Ain Isa, and in the Ain Isa , Mabrouka, Al-Karam, and Hol Camp, 50 km east of Al-Hasaka, the millions of displaced people from Mosul, Baaj, Sinjar, Nineva, Deir-al-Zour, and Raqqa, are suffering extreme deprivation.

Electricity being so intermittent, people are trying to keep warm and cook using solar energy lamps. Rubbish is everywhere, and this is used, including plastic, and old cloths, instead of firewood to make cooking fires. In consequence, the air is polluted, and the old and children suffer from breathing problems.

Without international aid coming in, via the UN, the EU, the US, the burden of supporting thousands of these innocent people, and the most vulnerable are the women and children, especially the girls, falls upon the stretched resources of the Kurdish NGOs, especially its women’s organisations.

International NGOs, such as the Mercy Corps, the IMC (International Medical Council) Danish Church Aid, who had been delivering aid, have found their staff arrested and deported by the Turkish authorities last April, on spurious grounds that they had not obtained permits or registered with the appropriate Ministry.

The fact is that Turkey is blocking aid to Rojava, and with the KRG, has sealed the north and eastern borders, so that not only can no humanitarian aid get in, but nor can international observers, journalists, and human rights monitors.

Why? Because Rojava is not recognised by the UN, and nor by the EU, or the US.   And moves we make in the UK here, to draw attention to the appalling situation of millions of innocent displaced civilians, are met by silence. Because of our relationship with Turkey.

My friend and colleague, Zainab Bangura, the former UN Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, was sent by the UN Security Council last year to visit Syria, and I gave her the contacts of the unique and under resourced women’s NGOs in Rojava who were doing all they could to meet the needs of the IDPs, especially the women, such as the Yezidis, who had escaped the torture of being sex slaves to the Da’ish.   She was never permitted to enter Rojava, in her ToR, but stayed in Damascus.   The IRC (Red Cross) can only deliver aid to Damascus, not to Rojava.

We speak of “no impunity” for these terrible crimes against women, but the Kurdish Women’s Organisations, such as SARA that focuses on violence against women issues, need technical help so that the evidence they collect from traumatised women is gathered in such a way, that it will be admissible in any tribunal or court of law that will attempt eventually to prosecute these criminals. But dealing as they do, Yekitya Star, Kongra –Star, with so many cases of VAWG, there is much that we in the West can learn from them, how to reform our own justice and police systems so we can better protect and empower women victims of these abuses.

Sitting as I do, on various UK bodies set up to address particularly the status of women in conflict and post conflict scenarios, suggesting ways to identify and respond to the needs and support the crucial roles in their families and their communities…of the most hard-to-reach women and girls, aware of the quite extraordinary achievements as well as challenges facing the Kurdish women’s organisations in Rojava, who have welcomed and accommodated within their ranks, women and girls from the other ethnicities and religions, Arab, Copts, Yezidis, in a totally new environment where gender equality, pluralism, secularism, freedom of believe, equality are central to the Rojava administration, I have mostly met with silence.

Aware how much we western governments and western based international NGOs could learn from the miracle of Rojava, I am appalled at the refusal of my government, here, the UK to so much as recognise Rojava, and to prioritise its vested geopolitical interests far above the welfare of innocent and vulnerable people.

An important question is how do we get the really useful information on the situation of the IDPs. Data tends to be quantitative not qualitative. Information provided by the people themselves is needed, their collective voices must be heard, their stories, survival strategies, about their roles, and most of all their hopes for the future.

DATA gathered by conventional top down methodologies never gives us what is needed to spur the international community, the UN, governments, ultimately responsible, into effective action. It is the IDPs voices that must be heard, it is they who can inform us of their basic needs and long-term aspirations for peace and stability.

All of us gathered here at this important Conference should agree to use all our powers of persuasion, influence, to change the policies of our governments, and through their lobbying as Member States, the UN, so that Rojava, fighting ISIS, the Regime, and other anti-Kurd militias, is recognised. The US and Russia have airbases in Syria. The US, partly recognises Rojava and supports now the YPG and the YPJ, the only reliable local troops on the ground, with badly need heavy weaponry, and with training.
Surely, these air bases could provide, if the KRG refuses to open the border at Fishharbur, a landing site for much needed humanitarian aid to be flown in.

And, finally, to conclude, I also ask all of you here, academics from various countries, to consider offering your time and expertise to the newly established Rojava Mesopotamia University. Consider (once the border is open) spending one month, doing some teaching, but also learning about the miracle that is ROJAVA! And spread the word!


Thank you.