Turkey's Afrin operation stokes Yazidi fears and fuels displacement
"The Yazidis living in the north of the Afrin district are leaving their homes one by one," he told The New Arab, with an anxious voice at his home in Ain Dera.
"Many shrines have been destroyed. Women have been abducted. If the Turkish army and the Islamists arrive all the way here, we don't know where we will be able to go." The New Arab was not able to confirm his claim of women being abducted.
Khaled was sheltering a Yazidi family from Qastal Jindo, a village in Afrin already captured from the Kurdish YPG militia by the Turkish army.
Ankara sees the YPG as the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) - an outlawed militant group which has waged a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state for nearly 35 years. Turkish officials view Kurdish control of northern Syrian areas bordering Turkey as a major threat to the country's national security.
Turkey, which has taken in nearly four million Syrian refugees, has trained and equipped fighters of the Free Syrian Army - mostly Sunni Syrian Arabs - and has used them to spearhead their operation to take over Afrin, a canton of northern Syria formerly controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia.
But reports are widespread that militiamen are abusing their newfound positions of power in the area. "In April, eleven Yazidis were kidnapped at the same time and their relatives were asked for large sums of money in exchange for their release," says Murad Ismael, executive director of Yazda, a locally focused non-profit organisation.
|Now we are refugees once again - and only God knows what we will be tomorrow
Another villager spoke to us, but did not want his name published for fear of reprisals.
"They destroyed the Yazidi shrines immediately upon arriving," he said. "We had fled Sheikh Maqsoud, the Kurdish quarter of Aleppo, because of the in-fighting, and found safety in our original village of Qastal Jindo. Now we are refugees once again - and only God knows what we will be tomorrow."
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Despite an almost total blackout in the canton now under the control of the Turkish army, evidence has emerged suggesting minorities are being discriminated against for their religious beliefs by zealous Islamist militiamen allied to the Turkish army.
|Afrin, Kobane and Jazira had all been controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey sees as the Syrian extension of the outlawed PKK
The fears Afrin residents shared with us before the completion of the Olive Branch offensive may have been justified.
"The number of Yazidis in Afrin was around 50,000 before the war. It fell to 35,000 as a consequence of the war. As the Turkish offensive started, the drop continued and reached approximately 25,000," said Mahmoud Kalash, chairman of the Committee of Yazidi Intellectuals in Afrin.
It is believed that number has since fallen further in the formerly Kurdish-held canton. Several Yazidis have reportedly converted to Islam to avoid retaliation from Islamist fighters.
"The Turkish government set up a local council to administer Afrin. One Yazidi representative was appointed within this council, but no one seems to know who that person might be," says Saad Babir, media director at Yazda.
In Ain Deraa, which had been a mixed Yazidi and Sunni-Kurdish town, residents had already seen their main sacred prayer site destroyed by an airstrike in January. This temple, a UNESCO site, was targeted despite there being no military activity near the site that we could detect when we visited.
"We used to go to this ancient site to pray and do our religious activities," said Babir.
The Turkish army has denied shelling any cultural site, saying they only aimed at military targets.
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Despite this, Saad Babir said at least eight holy Yazidi shrines had been destroyed in Afrin since the start of the Turkish operation. That number was corroborated by other activists on the ground, and by Yazda.
There is an ongoing population swap in the district. Families coming from refugee camps in Turkey are arriving while Kurdish residents are leaving. Some Islamist fighters have seized several houses, often choosing the most comfortable for themselves.
|If the international community remains silent and does nothing to protect our minority, there will be even more annihilation against us
Rebel fighters evacuated from Ghouta and other previously rebel-held territories have been invited to settle in Afrin, though some have reportedly refused to take part in what they see as ethnic cleansing campaign.
The process of resettling Sunni Arab rebels from other areas of Syria coincides with a trend of preventing local residents from returning to their homes after the fighting. Residents here tell The New Arab that Kurdish and Yazidi civilians have been prevented from returning to their homes and forced to remain in the enclave of Tel Rifaat, the last territory in the area still controlled by the Kurdish-led administration of the Northern Syrian Federation - also referred to as Rojava.
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Diseases are spreading in Tel Rifaat, due to the horrendous humanitarian situation for the displaced coming from Afrin and surrounding villages. Furthermore, Yazda reports that the Syrian regime has prevented some Kurds and Yazidis from reaching the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud, where they could have found shelter and a better humanitarian situation, according to Saad Babir.
"This situation will be the continuation of the Shingal massacre by other means and under almost total media blackout," added another local who asked to remain anonymous.
"If the international community remains silent and does nothing to protect our minority, there will be even more annihilation against us. Our religion is a religion of tolerance; we did not attack anyone and did not take homes nor land from anyone," stressed Mahmoud Kalash.
The ongoing Syrian civil conflict includes major powers such as Russia and the United States, as well as regional powers including Iran and Turkey. Because of this complex chess game, holding those now controlling Afrin to account seems almost impossible.
Despite evidence of the involvement of former al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters within the ranks of the rebels allied with the Turkish army, major international powers appear unwilling or unable to put significant pressure on the Turkish government to isolate those fighters.
Sylvain Mercadier is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @Sylv_Mercadier