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Residents sit in the back of a truck as they flee the city of Afrin in northern Syria on March 18, 2018, after Turkish forces and allied armed groups took control of the Kurdish-majority city. © 2018 Getty Images/Bulent Kilic/AFP

(Beirut) – Syrian government forces are blocking some civilians fleeing the Turkish-led military actions in Afrin from entering territory under government control, Human Rights Watch said today. The civilians are stranded in areas with limited food, clean water, and medical supplies. Syrian government authorities should facilitate freedom of movement and aid delivery for the affected civilians.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch has documented that armed groups working with Turkish forces are looting and destroying civilian property in the city of Afrin and surrounding villages, exacerbating the plight of civilians there. Turkish forces and non-state armed groups in control of Afrin should halt the looting and hold those responsible for the damage accountable.

“While the humanitarian conditions for all civilians who have fled fighting in Afrin are acute, those denied access to government held areas and suffering looting of their property are particularly vulnerable,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish forces and anti-government armed groups should end the rampant looting and destruction of civilian property that is taking place in Afrin, and government soldiers need to stop blocking those trying to flee.”

Turkey began its offensive on January 20, 2018, to take control of the Afrin district in Aleppo governorate from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party-led Autonomous Administration. On March 18, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey announced that Turkey and Syrian Turkish-backed non-state armed groups had taken control of the city of Afrin following an air and ground campaign. According to the United Nations, the fighting displaced at least 137,000 people. About 50,000 to 70,000 people remain in Afrin city.

Medical personnel and residents who fled told Human Rights Watch about dire conditions in areas under government control, and some villages in the Afrin district under the control of Turkish and allied armed groups. Several described sleeping in open fields without shelter, going without food, and having no access to clean water. On March 29, the United Nations said the needs for these displaced people were “staggering” and emphasized that aid was needed for their basic survival.

A former Afrin city resident who fled to a nearby village said that she and the others there had little food, no electricity, no regular access to water, and no medical care. “There is no bread,” said “Laila,” whose real name is withheld for her protection. “We are [eating] bulghur, and [using] generators [for electricity]. I am pregnant, and there is no medicine and no hospitals I can go to.”

A doctor told Human Rights Watch that he and his colleagues fled the city for Shaba’, an area near Tel Rifaat with barely any medical supplies, forced to leave behind medicine and medical equipment. He said that they set up a field clinic there to treat people who had been displaced, but cannot keep up with the needs. “In this wilderness, we have no water, no food, no capacity,” he said.

Those fleeing violence could not freely enter government-controlled areas with better facilities and access to assistance, Human Rights Watch found. Thousands of people initially tried to reach the city of Aleppo and the towns of Nubul and Zahra, all under government control, three people said. But the people staffing government checkpoints controlling access to Nubul and Aleppo were demanding up to 500,000 SYP (US$1,000) to enter.

“I wasn’t able to enter Nubul,” said a man who fled two days before Turkish forces took control of the city. “At the checkpoint, soldiers asked for 150,000 SYP (US$291) per person at least.” Those who could not afford to pass returned to villages in the Afrin district, or remained in the countryside in government-controlled areas with almost no access to services.

Under the laws of war, all parties to the conflict are required to allow civilians to flee ongoing hostilities and to gain access to humanitarian assistance, Human Rights Watch said.

People who had fled Afrin said that armed groups who entered the city with Turkish forces confiscated civilian property, in some cases threatening residents with death or violence.

“I saw them take a car, a tractor with my own eyes,” Laila said. “They said, ‘We just need it for something,’ but we never saw it again … Even my house, it was entirely looted. The furniture, the crystal [was] all broken, money [taken] … There is nothing left.”

Laila identified Jaysh al-Sharqiyah and Liwa al-Fath as the groups responsible for looting and destruction of civilian property in her area. She said that these groups spray painted their names in areas where they operated. A Turkish journalist visiting the area also reported that anti-government armed groups spray painted their names in areas they planned to loot.

On their twitter account, Jaysh al-Sharqiyah confirmed their members were in Afrin at the time. Human Rights Watch could not confirm whether Liwa al-Fath was in Afrin. Human Rights Watch reviewed video footage and photographs posted online that appeared to show looting of livestock, food, and vehicles by armed men in Afrin, whose uniforms and armbands matched the description by the witnesses.

Under the laws of war, pillaging, or the forcible taking of private property for personal use, is prohibited and can constitute a war crime even in the context of an assault on an area. Military commanders are required to prevent serious violations of the laws of war. The removal and destruction of personal and private property also becomes an obstacle to the return of displaced people.

A Turkish journalist close to the government reported that Erdoğan condemned looting by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a Syrian non-state armed group that had participated in the fighting against Kurdish forces, in a meeting with governing party parliament members. “[We] went into Afrin together with the FSA,” the journalist quoted him as saying. “Some of these groups see this as bounty. This was stopped immediately. Measures were taken against them.”

“The Turkish military and its allies in Afrin show little sign of doing what it needs to do to protect the civilian population there,” Fakih said. “Turkey should mitigate the negative impact of its military operation to the greatest extent possible, by protecting civilians’ personal property.”

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