When Taha Mustafa al-Khatr, his wife Amina, his two daughters Zakia and Safa and son Sulieman went to bed in the tiny village of Maabatli, they placed their shoes outside the door. Most Middle Eastern families do the same.
It’s a tradition and a sign of cleanliness in the home. The cheap plastic slippers were still there, of course, when the Turkish shell hit their house at one in the morning – and when I arrived a few hours later, I found the same shoes, a few blown down the stairs but most still neatly lined up next to each other. Did one of the daughters choose the slippers with the plastic bows? Even the rescue workers – such as they are in the Kurdish province of Afrin – didn’t touch the shoes. They left one of the blood-soaked bedspreads where it was in the rain under the collapsed roof of the cheap breeze-block house. The bodies, of course, had gone.
Since the identities of the victims are known – not, of course, that of the Turkish gunner who slaughtered this family – we should, perhaps, be better acquainted with them. Taha was 40 years old, his wife Amina the same age, Zakia was 17 and her bother Suliemann just 14. Safa, who is 19, survived – miraculously, with only wounds to her hands – but of course she is now an orphan.
Ironically, since the Turks are supposedly aiming at Kurdish YPG fighters, the very name of their military assault on Kurdish Syria, Operation Olive Branch, makes one’s gorge rise in the stone village of Mabeta, surrounded as it is by olive orchards – and the al-Khatr family were not Kurds but Arabs, refugees from the village of Tel-Krah further north.
They were so new to Maabatli that Kurdish neighbours I spoke to did not even know their names, but in the Kurdish province – the village is about 10 miles from the city of Afrin – populations are mixed (there are Alawites, too) and no one was surprised when the al-Khatrs arrived on Thursday night.
Taha’s uncle already lived in the hilltop village and he seems to have put his refugee relatives in his storeroom – it was filled with the wreckage of sacks of grain, a fridge and frozen vegetables. The bodies must have been unimaginable.
“You come to our hospital here in Afrin to find out what happened,” Dr Jawan Palot, director of the Afrin Hospital, remarked to me with cynicism, well aware that The Independent was the first Western news organisation to visit Afrin since the Turkish attack. “You should see the dead when they come in – and the state of the wounded with the blood on them.” And there came forth the usual photographs of ferociously broken corpses.
And there followed, too, in the Afrin Hospital, a maudlin tour of the wards where the survivors of Turkey’s assault on the “terrorists” of Afrin, which began on 20 January, lay in their beds. There was Mohamed Hussein, a 58-year old farmer from Jendeeres, with head wounds and a closed eye, almost killed when the roof of his house caved in under air attack on 22 January. And Ahmad Kindy, eight years younger, who took his family out of the village when Turkey’s Olive Branch first cast its shadow over the land early on 21 January, but who unwisely returned and was hit in the back by shrapnel. “There were no YPG fighters there,” he said.
But what if there were? Does that justify the pain of 15-year old Dananda Sido from the village of Adamo, terribly wounded in the chest and legs who turns from us in tears when we try to speak to her in the Afrin Hospital? Or that of 20-year old Kifah Moussa, who was working in her family’s chicken farm at Maryameen when Turkish planes dropped a bomb on the building at midday, killing an entire family of eight people beside her? She was hit in the chest. She smiles bravely at Dr Palot and myself, although it is unclear if she knows that her brother is among the dead.
Then there is the eighth-grade Kurdish schoolboy Mustafa Khaluf, also from Jendeeres, who heard the Turkish planes coming above his home and suffered severe leg wounds in the air strike. Close to him lies seven-year old Aya Nabo, with severe chest wounds, and who turns towards the wall beside her bed rather than talk to her doctor. Her sister says she was hit in the street on 22 January. After a while, it becomes a kind of obscenity to demand, constantly, the circumstances of this suffering. We all know who did this.
It is, however, almost equally obscene to recall the official Turkish version of this little massacre – for that is what it was for 34 civilians whose bodies were taken to the Afrin Hospital alone – which states that more than 70 Turkish jets bombed YPG Kurdish militias in Syria on 21 January. The Turkish news agency Anadolu stated blandly that Turkish aircraft bombed more than 100 “targets” – including an “airfield” (mysteriously unnamed) – on the first day of the attacks. The operations supposedly targeted YPG “barracks, shelters, positions, weapons, vehicles and equipment”.
Where, I wondered as I walked through the wards of Afrin Hospital, had I heard all this stuff before? Was this not a replay of every Israeli air assault on “terrorists” in southern Lebanon, of every Nato air strike on “Serb forces” in ex-Yugoslavia, of every US attack on Iraqi “forces” in 1991 and 2003 and on Afghanistan and on Mosul last year? All were “surgical” operations – carried out with absolute precision to avoid “collateral damage”, of course – and all left a litter of tens or hundreds or thousands of dead and wounded. Our air assaults – Israeli, Nato, American, Turkish – feed off each other in lies and victims.
To make his own calculated point, Dr Polat, who says he was studying medicine in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk when he decided to return to Afrin in 2014 “to help my people in the war”, prints out his entire hospital records from the 21 January to midday on the 26 January and gives them to The Independent. According to Dr Polat, he had received only four YPG fighters dead and two wounded on the first day of the Turkish assaults, another seven fighters and nine wounded later in the week. Because these are real people, not just statistics, there is probably a journalistic duty to record at least some of the lives — and deaths — of these poor civilians.
Dipping into the hospital files – and taking names at random – I find that among the 49 civilian wounded brought here, were three-year-old Hamida Brahim al-Hussein, from Maryameen, who was wounded in the head in the chicken farm attack in which Kifah Moussa was injured. And two-year-old Hassan al-Hassan (wounded in the head). Then there was 70-year-old Asia Sheikh Murad from Shiya – with head wounds on 23 January. And 46-year-old Khaled Mohamed Ali Abdul Qadr with head wounds – again, for houses collapsed on their owners – in Maryameen. And Hamid Battal, aged 30, from Fkeiro and Ghengis Ahmad Khalil, whose warrior name did not prevent the 20-year-old from suffering stomach wounds at Midan Ekbes. Sudqi Abdul Rahman, who is 47, was wounded in the leg by shrapnel at Ruzio-Jendeeres on 25 January. A 75-year-old, Shamsa Moussa, is listed as receiving “multiple broken bones” in the village of Rajow on 23 January.
The list of the dead – 10 children, seven women, 17 men – is bleaker, for the hospital had not bothered to catalogue their wounds. They include infants. One-year old Wael al-Hussein, a refugee (who surely could not have known it) from the village of Jebbarah, was killed on 21 January, six-year old Moussab al-Hussein from Idlib (clearly from another refugee family) on the same day. 60-year-old Fatima Mohamed from the village of Arabo was killed in Jendeeres on 23 January. Abdulkader Menam Hamo from Jamo was killed on 24 January.
There will be no war memorials for them – as there are for Kurdish fighters in the military graveyard some miles from Afrin, most of them killed fighting Isis – and no record of their deaths, save, perhaps, for the cold lists in Dr Polat’s files — each stamped, in Kurdish, “Avrin Hospital”. There is no mention of Syria.