(Baghdad) – Iran and Turkey’s cross-border attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan killed more than a dozen civilians and displaced thousands between mid-July and November 2011, including in areas that did not appear to have military targets, Human Rights Watch said today.
Iran and Turkey contend that they are responding to cross-border attacks from armed militant groups. But Kurdish residents and officials in Iraq told Human Rights Watch, which visited the affected areas in November,that many of the areas attacked are purely civilian and have no armed groups conducting attacks against Iran and Turkey or any other potential military target.
“Iran may say it is responding to armed attacks from Iraqi Kurdistan, but its own attacks, including indiscriminate use of rockets near civilian villages, are causing grave harm to civilians,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), founded in Turkey, and the Iranian Kurdish Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK)do maintain headquarters and operate in or near some civilian areas in Iraqi Kurdistan, Human Rights Watch said. Both groups should avoid conducting military operations or placing any other possible military targets within or near densely populated areas, Human Rights Watch said.
In a recent attack, Turkish warplanes bombed multiple areas in Sulaimaniya and Erbil provinces on the night of November 22, injuring a 20-year-old civilian and causing heavy damage to farms and livestock, without any apparent military target, local officials told Human Rights Watch. The situation in areas in Iraqi-Kurdistan affected by Iranian bombardment has improved since an early September cease-fire between Iran and PJAK, a group formed in 2004 that is affiliated with the PKK.
Human Rights Watch observed and photographed clearly marked remnants of Iranian 333mm Shahin rockets, one kilometer from a village in Pishdar district. The rockets, fired in late August, should not be fired from long range into populated areas because they cannot be precisely targeted and thus are prone to indiscriminate use, Human Rights Watch said.
According to local officials, the attacks between July and November displaced about 1,350 families (8,000 individuals), although most families have now left the displacement camps in the region because of cold weather, lack of services, camp closures, and improved conditions back home.
Between November 7 and 10, Human Rights Watch visited 18 villages in the mountainous areas of Qalat Diza, Qandil, Sangasar, Zahrawa, and Sidekan, and spoke to more than 40 villagers from affected areas who are or had been displaced since August. They said they fled their homes because of bombardments in or near their villages. Human Rights Watch observed dozens of damaged homes, more than 10 villages fully or partially deserted, and two temporary makeshift tent camps in Sidekan. Human Rights Watch observed rebel activity in large portions of Qalat Diza and Qandil where the PKK or PJAK maintain checkpoints, and villagers confirmed their presence. But residents and local officials said that neither of the armed groups operated in other bombed areas that Human Rights Watch visited in Sidekan, Sangasar, and Zahrawa.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed displaced families in Rania district who did not flee to camps, but instead were staying at the homes of extended family members, and therefore were not counted in aid organizations’ tallies of displaced persons. All areas were within Erbil and Sulaimaniya provinces. All these areas are administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), although portions of Qalat Diza and Qandil are effectively under the control of either the PKK or PJAK.
Since June 2010, Human Rights Watch has documented casualties to civilians and damage to their property caused by the Turkish and Iranian attacks, as well as evidence that suggests that the regular Iranian bombardments may be an attempt to force Iraqi civilians out of some areas near the Iranian border. Iran has claimed all of its operations target rebels from PJAK operating in the mountainous border region, and Turkey claims it only targets the PKK, which is fighting a decades-long conflict with Turkey.
Both rebel groups openly admit to multiple guerrilla attacks against Turkish or Iranian soldiers in a self-proclaimed struggle for ethnic equality for Kurds in those countries. Since August, attacks in Turkey by the PKK, which has its headquarters in Qandil, have killed and injured civilians in cities including Ankara, Batman, Siirt, Bingöl, and Tunceli.
The attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan have damaged the economy of the affected areas. Local officials and villagers told Human Rights Watch that the yearly cross border attacks from both countries have forced hundreds of poor farmers to leave their crops and orchards unattended, destroying much of a year’s harvest – for many, their entire annual income. A number of farmers told Human Rights Watch that because there has been shelling each year during the short planting and harvesting season, they believed it showed an intentional effort to drive civilians from the area by harming their livelihood. Other damage reported to or witnessed by Human Rights Watch included houses, schools, wells and water storage, generators and electricity networks, and several hundred livestock killed.
As in past years, aid organizations and local municipalities have struggled to meet the basic needs of those fleeing the attacks. By late November, most families had left the major displacement camps, in many cases, because of the extreme cold of the camps during winter and the lack of services there such as water, heating fuel, and children’s education, families and aid organizations said.
“Turkey and Iran need to live up to their responsibilities toward civilians even if they live near places where military operations are ongoing,” Whitson said. “The PKK and PJAK should not unlawfully endanger civilians, either in the way they conduct their operations or by operating from or near civilian areas.”
In the Sidekan area, near the Turkish border, Human Rights Watch observed 100 families crowded in makeshift tent-camps without plumbing or sufficient heat, along high mountain roads. These families had fled the villages of Kole, Letan, Baserkan, Shekhrash, Nawdarok, Daroauk, Beykam, Sunia, and Peyrabrai because of Turkish bombardment in September and October. Asa’d Ali Mustafa, the mayor of Sidekan, told Human Rights Watch on November 9 that he was clearing an area for the construction of 200 semi-permanent structures for those displaced by Turkish bombardment.
“Seven of the villages are currently empty because of the bombing, which still happens almost every day, and two more are partly empty,” Mustafa said, as snow flurries began to fall around the nearby tents. “Some areas in Kurdistan are in PKK territory, but these villages are not. The people are innocent, they are freezing, the children cannot go to school now, and there are dire psychological effects to this kind of displacement.”
Long-term residents and local officials said that they had had not observed PKK forces in any of the nine villages and had not given them shelter before, during, or after the Turkish attacks. They said they did not know of any other conceivable military target in the villages.
Mula Issa, an elder and spokesman for the displaced residents, told Human Rights Watch:
The PKK fighters do not use our villages. We thought before that Turkey was trying to make us all leave so they can have their war with the PKK anywhere they want. But after the most recent bombings [since early October], which have actually hit our houses, we feel they are now attacking us.
Fawzia Razoul, 42, told Human Rights Watch that Turkish aerial bombardment intensified on October 5 in her village, Basarkan, causing her family to flee.
When the bombing started, I was crying and screaming. Some people tried to drive away, some hid behind stones, other people tried to get to some nearby caves. I cannot bring up children like this; they are always frightened that we will be bombed at any time. Our house was damaged, all the windows were smashed, and 11 of our sheep were killed. We do not have much money, and this is a huge loss for us.
Kassim Rasoul, in his 40s, said a Turkish aerial bombardment, also in early October, threw him to the ground and part of his house collapsed on top of him. He lay in the rubble for three hours before he was rescued. “No one can stay in the villages,” he said. “We have gone back after a few days or a week in previous bombings to take care of our milk-giving animals, but these keep going almost every day. Most of the sheep have been killed. More than 500 goats and sheep have been killed from our villages.”
As reported in September by Human Rights Watch, on August 21, Turkish warplanes bombed a vehicle carrying civilians, killing seven members of the same extended family, according to relatives of those killed, local officials, and news reports. Turkey denied its planes were responsible. The family, including four children, was on a highly travelled main roadway in a white 2011 Nissan pickup truck, traveling from the village of Bole to Rania to visit relatives. On November 9, Human Rights Watch inspected the remains of the vehicle, and confirmed that the location of the incident, although close to PKK-controlled territory, was on a roadway frequented by civilian traffic.
In more than a dozen instances during visits by Human Rights Watch, villagers in Sidekan, Sangasar, and Rania became visibly nervous when they heard a buzzing sound similar to that of an unmanned drone, and they sometimes gathered children inside a house or tent as a result. They said that bombings sometimes followed shortly after sightings of these planes, which they said looked and sounded strikingly different than conventional manned planes.
On November 14, a Pentagon official told reporters that the United States had previously deployed Predator drones from Iraq to Turkey, for surveillance flights in support of anti-PKK operations. In October, the Pentagon also announced its plans to sell Turkey three AH-1 Super Cobra helicopters. Human Rights Watch called on US authorities to ensure that any drones supplied to Turkey are not used to support unlawful attacks against Kurdish civilian villages.
What is known as the principle of distinction, which requires parties to an armed conflict to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians, is central to international humanitarian law, which regulates the conduct of armed conflict. Under international law, military operations may be directed only against combatants and other military objectives; civilians and civilian objects may not be the target of attack. Deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks against or affecting civilians and civilian objects are prohibited.
Evidence of Rocket Attacks by Iran
In Pishdar district, villagers and local officials say that since the September ceasefire between Iran and PJAK, Iran has reduced its bombardment to occasional mortars. Though there is extensive damage in many of the villages, dozens of families have moved back to their homes. Several families told Human Rights Watch that the situation has improved for the time being, but they also said the attacks in 2011 had intensified over previous years, causing increased damage.
On November 7, one kilometer outside the village of Shahid Ayhan in the Qalat Diza area, Human Rights Watch observed a burned out remnant of a rocket motor with markings identifying the weapon as an Iranian 333mm Type FL2-A, an unguided artillery rocket produced in 2010. This type of rocket is not capable of accurate targeting and thus is prone to indiscriminate use.
Under international law, indiscriminate attacks in or near civilian areas are prohibited. Attacks are indiscriminate when they are not directed at a specific military objective or employ a method or means of warfare that cannot be directed at a military objective or whose effects cannot be limited.
Shahid Ayhan residents told Human Rights Watch that the rocket section was first spotted in late August. There had been two explosions the previous night, one of which caused fragment damage to a house, a villager said. Human Rights Watch saw two other similar remnant rocket motor sections about 50 meters from the village of Zewke, and one more next to a stream, away from structures or roads.
Human Rights Watch also witnessed PJAK fighters operating in the direct vicinity, and villagers said that PJAK fighters had a regular presence there, including in August, during the time of the rocket attacks. Nearby PJAK fighters told Human Rights Watch that while they are present in Qalat Diza, they have no long-range weapons or planes to stage attacks originating from the civilian areas in Iraq.
More than 10 villagers living in the area near the rocket remnants gave consistent evidence about the effects of the FL2-A rocket explosions, which they said produced more fragmented metal than the explosions from other weapons used in previous years. An elderly woman in the village of Maridou told Human Rights Watch:
There was a new kind of explosion that started this year, and we’re all scared of it. There are still the regular explosions, but the new ones seem like they are louder. When they explode, they cause much more damage, because they send thousands of pieces of metal into everything around. The regular explosions might kill two or three sheep and leave others alive, but in some of the villages in this area, one explosion has killed an entire flock, or left only a few alive.
According to villagers, the entire population of Maridou had left the village four times due to bombardments since July, when about 50 families lived there. At the time of the visit, only five families remained, and many houses had visible damage that the villagers attributed to bombardment.
Displacement and Kurdistan Regional Government Response
Though local officials estimated that Iran and Turkey’s cross-border attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan had displaced 1,350 families (8,000 individuals) between July and November, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) put the number of displaced at about 5,000 people in 850 families. Unlike estimates by local officials, though, UNHCR did not include those only briefly displaced to camps who had then moved on to unknown locations, but said it did not dispute the government’s estimates. Neither tally counted those who did not register in displacement camps, and stayed with their families, or elsewhere.
As in past years, aid organizations and local municipalities have struggled to meet the displaced families’ basic needs. Plans by Erbil’s governor to erect 550 semi-permanent structures in Choman, Rawandouz, and Sidekan are a positive development, but also demonstrate an expectation that the displacement will continue, Human Rights Watch said. Mustafa, Sidekan’s mayor, said, “Every year, people are left with no place to live, so we have to plan ahead for this as a regular occurrence.”
By late November only about 100 families remained in the major displacement camps established by local municipalities, according to the officials and aid organizations. The families and aid organizations said families were often leaving not because the security situation in their villages had improved, but because of the extreme cold in the camps during winter and the lack of services, such as water, heating fuel, and children’s education. Although local authorities say that people leaving the camps are returning to their villages, many villagers told Human Rights Watch that they have been forced to find other sources of housing and that remote villages throughout the region remain partly or fully uninhabited.
The Gojar Camp in Sulaimaniya was empty when Human Rights Watch visited the area in November, and local officials and aid organizations have reported that 275 families had “returned to their place of origin” since July. However, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on October 9, local officials disconnected and removed the camp’s main generator and emptied its water containers while more than 30 families were still there, saying they were unable or afraid to return to their homes. On November 7 and 8, Human Rights Watch visited six nearly-empty villages in Qalat Diza. Two families there said they had returned from Gojar Camp when they heard the attacks had decreased, and one said they returned because the camp was cold and unsanitary. Many others said had stayed with extended family in Rania or other surrounding areas. Most of the houses in the six villages were still empty.