Ethnocide against the Yazidis in Afrin
For more than three years, the region of Afrin has been occupied by the Turkish army and Islamist militias allied with it. The Yazidi population in particular has been affected by massacres and expulsion.
Immediately after the start of the revolution in Rojava on July 19, 2012, the Yazidi village of Qestel Cindo was attacked by Islamist militias in Afrin. When the Turkish army entered Afrin on January 20, 2018, the village again became the target of attacks. Despite all attacks, Afrin’s Yazidis have organized themselves in all areas of life since the beginning of the Rojava Revolution and have been part of the democratic self-government.
During Turkey's attack in violation of international law and under the subsequent occupation, there were again countless attacks on the settlements and religious sites of the Yazidis, the democratic structures they had built, and on the Yazidi population as a whole. By settling families of jihadist militiamen from other parts of Syria or from abroad, the Turkish state is changing the demographics of the region. Mosques and settlements for jihadists and their families are springing up in Yazidi villages.
In 2018, the number of Yazidis in Afrin was still about 25,000, but today only 2,000 members of this community live in the region. They are exposed to ethnic persecution and religiously motivated violence by the militias supported by the Turkish state.
The violence of the Islamists forced many to flee
After the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic was repeatedly involved in massacres of Yazidi Kurds. The ethnic cleansing during the occupation of Afrin, which had already lasted more than three years, was accompanied by a policy of islamizing Yazidis and Alevis in the area.
But Afrin’s Yazidis have not only become a target of the Turkish state since the beginning of the occupation. Right after the revolution began in 2012, Turkey used the militias of the so-called "Free Syrian Army" (FSA) to attack Yazidi villages.
At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, 30,000 to 35,000 Yazidis lived in Afrin and another 5,000 in Aleppo. The war also marked the beginning of the promotion of jihadist groups by Turkey and other states in the region. The Islamists' violence against those of other faiths forced large segments of the Yazidi population to flee to Europe. One of the first of these acts of violence was the attack by FSA militias from Azaz in northern Aleppo on the Yazidi village of Qestel Cindo in Shera district in October 2012. This was followed by other attacks on the village and other places such as Qitme. The village of Êlî Kino was completely occupied in 2012-2013, and many of the Yazidis living there were abducted.
The attacks on Yazidi villages continued in the following years. The attack by the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS) on the Yazidi region of Shengal in northern Iraq and the unceasing threats by Turkish militias in the regions around Afrin prompted more people to flee to Europe.
However, a not insignificant part of the Yazidi population insisted on not leaving their homeland and building their own institutions as part of democratic self-government and preserving the Yazidi identity.
With the beginning of the Turkish invasion in January 2018, a large part of the Yazidi population was forced to flee the cities. The majority of those who initially remained in the cities were also forced to flee during the course of the occupation due to policies characterized by massacres, rape, kidnappings, and Islamization. The Yazidi Association of Afrin, which was forced to move its headquarters to the neighboring Shehba region due to the occupation, estimates the number of Yazidis remaining in Afrin at only about 2,000.
Turkey-backed militias openly threaten genocide
At the beginning of the invasion, the first attack was again directed at the village of Qestel Cindo, which was also the first target of the FSA militias in the first hours of the Rojava revolution. The militia group "Syrian National Army" (SNA), built by Turkey, threatened the Yazidi population of the villages around Shera and Sherawa, referring to the genocide committed by IS in Iraq: "We will do in Afrin what we did in Shengal."
The former chairman of the Yazidi Association of Afrin, Süleyman Cafer, recounts his experiences shortly before the invasion: "About four days before, we were sitting in front of the association's center when a group of women came by. 'We are all carrying poison, if the jihadists come to Afrin, we will take our lives. We will not allow the same thing to happen to us as happened to the women in Shengal,' they said to us. Turkey and its militias are no different from IS. Many of them were IS fighters before. All of the commanders were with the IS. Just as the IS attacked the Yazidi population in Shengal because they were 'infidels', they attacked in Afrin under the slogan 'We will destroy the infidels.'"
Countless holy sites were destroyed
During the all-out attacks and subsequent occupation, countless sacred sites of the Yazidi faith were destroyed. On January 26, 2018, a Turkish airstrike turned the 3,300-year-old temple of Ain Dara into a field of rubble. Before the invasion, there were 19 Yazidi holy sites in the Afrin region. Five of these sites and two cemeteries were looted and completely destroyed. Many other sites were devastated, and the wishing trees typical of the Yazidi faith were cut down.
The destroyed temple complex of Ain Dara
The center of the Association of Yazidis founded in 2013 was mined and blown up by the occupiers in June 2018. In the explosion, the historic statue of Zarathustra kept there was also completely destroyed. Countless books of the Yazidi faith had been gathered in the center. After the destruction, a militia Quranic school was built on the same site.
Syria's largest Yazidi cemetery on Mount Şex Berkêt (Sheikh Barakat) in Dar Taizzah was looted and replaced with a Turkish military base. As part of this reconstruction, all evidence of the Yazidi faith was removed and replaced with Islamic symbols.
The Muslim faith is forced upon the Yazidis
Since the beginning of the occupation, at least 13 Yazidi civilians have been killed and 42 abducted in Afrin. Eleven of the abductees were women. There has been no information on the whereabouts of 35-year-old Afiyet Cuma and 32-year-old Sedika Ibo since they were abducted from the village of Qitme by militiamen in October 2019. 66-year-old Omer Şemo was executed by militia gunfire after refusing to convert to Islam.
On March 21, 2021, the Salafist "Ebadullah Society" ("Friends of Allah") invaded the village of Qibar. The group, consisting of 15 people, including Syrian nationals, stayed in the homes of 23 Yazidi residents for about two weeks with the purpose of forcibly converting them to Islam, according to sources in the village. During Ramadan, houses in various Yazidi villages were visited by militiamen in IS uniforms and the residents were reminded to observe fasting.
In Afrin, rules similar to those introduced by IS in its former "capital" Raqqa apply under the occupation. Women are forbidden to leave the house without a black veil. Children are required to attend madrasas, tells the current co-chair of the Yazidi advocacy group, Suat Huso.
Demographics and culture are being changed
Over the course of the occupation, which has lasted more than three years, the Turkish state has settled more than 450,000 people in Afrin from other parts of Syria, as well as from other countries. Many of them are jihadists and their families. Thus, the demographics of the formerly multi-ethnic region have been greatly changed. Jihadists were also settled in Yazidi villages. Traces of Yazidi and Kurdish culture have had to give way to mosques and Koranic schools.
Before the occupation, 90 percent of the residents in Qestel Cindo were Yazidis, while the remaining residents were Muslim Kurds. Of 450 Yazidi families, only 25 families remain in the village today, most of them elderly. Three homes of Yazidi families have since been converted into mosques.
As in all other formerly Yazidi villages, several houses in the village of Shadire have been converted into mosques. Only a handful of Yazidi families still live in the village, where the Turkish state is resettling people from the Islamist stronghold of Idlib. Next to Shadire, a settlement of 96 houses is being built for relatives of deceased jihadists.
Some villages are under particular pressure
The villages of Baflûnê in Shera) and Basûfane in Sherawa are under particularly strong pressure from the occupiers. Of the 3,500 Yazidi inhabitants of Basûfane, only 200 remain today. The Turkish army established a base in the village and initially settled mercenaries from the "Faylaq-al-Sham" militia. Recently, members of the al-Qaeda-derived al-Nusra Front have also settled there. According to reports, the Turkish army plans to settle the village entirely with Nusra members and their families due to its proximity to the canton of Shehba, which is still under the Autonomous Administration control.
In October 2020, Faylaq-al-Sham militiamen began building a mosque in Basûfanê. After worldwide protests, construction was halted, but at least three former homes were converted into mosques and the remaining Yazidi children continue to be forced to attend mosques.
A similar situation exists in the village of Baflûnê, whose entire population was forced to flee due to heavy bombardment during the invasion. The village and an adjacent camp of 70 huts are now inhabited by mercenaries from the Furqat al-Hamza, Ahrar al-Sharqiya and Ahrar al-Sham groups. The original residents are refused to return and, again, some of the houses have been converted into mosques.
"Today it is the grandchildren of the Ottomans who are driving us out”
Suleyman Cafer points out the historical continuity of violence against Yazidis, saying the following: “While the first 72 genocides against the Yazidi community were perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, today it is "the grandchildren of the Ottomans" who are slaughtering and expelling Yazidis. Not a single historical work that belongs to Kurdish culture has remained in Afrin. All of them were taken to Turkey. Moreover, the holy sites were destroyed. I think Erdoğan will soon bring out books and maps saying: 'Afrin belongs to the Turks, there is nothing Kurdish here.' The situation of the Kurds and Yazidis in Afrin is very bad right now. Turkey does not want a single Yazidi to remain in Afrin. Because as Abdullah Öcalan said: ‘If there are no more Yazidis, then Kurdish culture will also no longer exist’. The Turkish state has destroyed all the historical and holy places of the Yazidis and mosques are being built in Yazidi villages. Islamic religious clothing is being imposed on the Yazidi children and women, and all Yazidis are forced to convert to Islam. Humanity must finally raise its voice against this. It must break its silence. Turkey has occupied Afrin and is trying to turn a Kurdish area into a Turkish one. For this it pursues a genocidal policy against Yazidis and Kurds. Everyone must raise their voice against this policy. Turkey must withdraw from Afrin, from Serêkaniyê and from all of Syria."