(Beirut) – Turkey-backed armed groups in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have seized, looted, and destroyed property of Kurdish civilians in the Afrin district of northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The anti-government armed groups have installed fighters and their families in residents’ homes and destroyed and looted civilian properties without compensating the owners.
“Destroying or moving into the property of people who have had to flee the fighting is not what the Free Syrian Army fighters should be doing when they move into an area,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of protecting vulnerable civilians’ rights, these fighters are perpetuating a cycle of abuse.”
On January 20, 2018, Turkey began a military offensive to take control of the Afrin district in Aleppo governorate from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led Autonomous Administration. On March 18, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced that Turkish forces and Syrian Turkish-backed non-state armed groups had taken control of the city of Afrin. According to the United Nations, the fighting displaced at least 137,000 people.
Human Rights Watch interviewed in person two displaced people from the Afrin district, both of whom are in Qamishli, who said that FSA fighters had seized, destroyed, and looted their residential or commercial property. They provided photos of the properties before and after FSA fighters seized them. Neither property owner has been compensated.
Both provided the names of the factions they believed seized, destroyed, and looted the property – Ahrar al-Sharqiyah and Jaish al-Sharqiyah, which they had identified through their flags and insignia on their uniforms. Photos that their neighbors or relatives took showed that the groups had spray-painted their names on the seized property. Human Rights Watch has also been able to confirm the presence of these groups in Afrin at the time through open source material.
On March 9, the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Syrian National Army, commonly known as the Free Syrian Army – FSA, issued a statement inviting Afrin residents to submit complaints to the military headquarters in Azaz to claim their looted property. On April 20, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah issued a statement denying responsibility for property violations and looting and confirming that it had arrested several people who may have been involved in these acts. They also established a telephone line for complaints. Nevertheless, the residents said they had not been compensated.
One displaced resident said an FSA fighter used their home to house his family. Human Rights Watch also spoke outside of Syria to two other displaced people from the Afrin district who said their homes were occupied by FSA fighters and their families. In other cases, FSA fighters also appeared to install families displaced from other parts of Syria in the homes of displaced Afrin residents. One displaced person said he had seen fighters move families displaced from other parts of Syria into his displaced neighbors’ apartments.
Under the laws of war, pillaging, or forcibly taking private property for personal use is prohibited and can constitute a war crime even in the context of fighting in an area. Combatants are not allowed to seize property for personal use, including to house their own families. The laws of war also prohibit destruction of property not justified by military necessity.
De facto governing authorities have an immediate duty to provide shelter for displaced families and other vulnerable people without adequate shelter in the territory they control, but they must do so in a way that does not infringe on the owners’ property rights. The use of vacant property to shelter displaced families and other vulnerable people without adequate shelter should be temporary. Owners should be compensated for the use of their property and any damage caused; and the rights of owners and returnees should be guaranteed.
The UN Pinheiro Principles, which echo widely applicable international law on housing and property restitution in the context of the return of refugees and internally displaced people, state that, “all refugees and displaced persons have the right to have restored to them any housing, land and/or property of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived.” The removal, occupation, or destruction of personal and private property of displaced people can be a serious obstacle to their return.
Turkey and the FSA groups in Afrin should compensate displaced residents whose property they have seized, destroyed, or looted, and should not permanently deprive residents of their property. They have a duty to ensure that the property rights of the owners are protected and that they are able to return to their place of habitual residence in dignity and safety.
Authorities need to preserve land registries to the extent possible and put in place property dispute resolution mechanisms and legal and other assistance that will enable returning residents to understand and prove their ownership rights.
“Those who made the decision to take over Afrin also took on the responsibility of ensuring that both the residents of Afrin, and people there who have been displaced elsewhere have basic shelter in a way that doesn’t infringe on either of those groups’ rights,” Motaparthy said. “So far it seems that they are failing to do the right thing by either group.”
Property Seizure, Destruction and Looting
Roni Haji, who was smuggled out of Afrin on March 17, told Human Rights Watch that a friend who had remained in his town, Jinderes, 20 kilometers from Afrin, told him on March 25 that an armed group in the area had seized, looted, and damaged Haji’s property. The friend sent him photos showing the damage and the external graffiti.
Haji shared the photos with Human Rights Watch. They showed the word “seized” spray-painted in Arabic on the front of the house, and the name of the armed FSA group controlling the area – Jaish al-Sharqiyah, as well as damage to the interior. He also shared photographs of the house while it was still in the family’s possession, showing the same exterior without graffiti or damage. He said:
My brother is a martyr with the PKK [an armed group based in Iraqi Kurdistan engaged in a decades-long conflict with Turkey and affiliated with the PYD]. The FSA seized our house after we left. They [told our neighbors] since the house belonged to a relative of the party [PKK], then they could seize it.
Haji said he later learned from neighbors who remained in the area that the house was occupied by a Jaish al-Shariqyah fighter and his family. His neighbors told him Jaish al-Sharqiyah fighters questioned them about the family and any possible association with the PKK. During the same period, Jaish al-Sharqiyah arrested Roni’s uncle and questioned him about the family, releasing him after 10 days.
In the second case, Ser Hussein, a photographer, said that on March 18, the day after he left Afrin, his neighbors told him that Ahrar al-Sharqiyah seized two of his photography studios. One was destroyed and the other was turned into a butcher shop, he said. Hussein showed Human Rights Watch a photograph with Ahrar al-Sharqiyah spray-painted on a remaining wall and other photos of what appeared to show that the studio had been burned down. He said he believes the studio was destroyed because it contained photos of unveiled women.
On May 10, a picture circulated on Facebook showing that his second studio had been turned into a butcher shop. Hussein said had reached out to his neighbors, who confirmed that the studio had been taken over by a displaced family who were using it as a butcher shop, and he shared several images showing the studio before and after it had been turned into a butcher’s shop. Hussein said that as of May 28, his studio was still being occupied.
Combatants Seizing Property for Personal Use
In addition to Haji’s case, Human Rights Watch documented two other instances in which FSA fighters seized the personal property of displaced Afrin residents for their personal use.
“Bilal,” a local journalist, said that his house in Alam Dar, a village in the countryside of Afrin district, was taken over by an FSA fighter and his family after Bilal left Afrin on March 11. He used social media to contact the FSA fighter, who confirmed he was occupying the house “until they were able to leave.” The fighter was still there on May 31, Bilal said.
“Jassem,” a second media activist who left Afrin on March 11, said that the FSA police task force that Turkey had created to maintain order in Afrin seized and occupied his family home. He said he got the information from his siblings, who remained in Afrin.
Property Seizure to House Displaced People
One displaced Afrin resident, ‘Samer,’ said he saw FSA fighters move displaced residents from other parts of Syria into the homes of Afrin residents who had fled as a result of the fighting. He said that April 26 a week before he left the city of Afrin, he saw 31 white buses arrive and stop in Azadi square, in the city center. He said within a few days, three apartments in the building adjacent to his were occupied by families displaced from elsewhere in Syria. He said the neighborhood was under the control of Sultan Murad, an FSA armed group, and that he could identify them because of the red flag they used with their name clearly emblazoned on it. He said that armed men from Sultan Murad accompanied the families when they moved in.