Traumatized by Turkish Airstrikes: Testimonies from Rojava
By Ali Ali & Lucas Chapman
Children searching around for their father’s head. Cats running away from homes and refusing to return. Fires so bright they turn the night into day and resemble the surface of the sun. Terrified children who have gone mute out of fear. Fainting mothers who awake and do not recognize their children. Six young friends lying dead together in the street with nobody to retrieve them. Parents finding their son with only half his face. Families keeping their kids from attending school so they can all die together. Entire cities trembling from explosions. And a traumatized generation without power, water, or food trying to maintain a semblance of hope. This is the apocalyptic hell that Turkish military jets and drones have forsaken the people of Rojava to over the last month, as described in this article by the victims themselves.
This living nightmare began in early October, when the Turkish state launched one of the most intense waves of aerial bombardments in Rojava’s recent history. While occasional drone strikes have been common since the end of the invasion of Afrin in 2018, the series of air and drone strikes that began on October 5th this year is the deadliest cluster of attacks since the wave of airstrikes carried out by the Turkish military in November 2022. At that time, more than 1,500 strikes on 265 locations claimed the lives of more than a dozen SDF fighters and 14 civilians, as well as 19 Syrian government soldiers.
On October 5th, Turkish warplanes began their campaign of terror, striking electricity, oil, gas, and water infrastructure and leaving many areas of Rojava without power or drinking water. Several strikes also targeted the area near the Washokani IDP camp, home to those displaced by Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Serê Kaniyê, causing humanitarian organizations to withdraw from the camp. It is obvious that Erdoğan’s regime in Turkey is using the fact that the world’s media is singularly focused on the war in Gaza, to carry out his own atrocities unnoticed.
The Kurdish Center for Studies (KCS) carried out several interviews with witnesses and survivors of the recent bombings, which have left 48 dead and civilian infrastructure completely destroyed, according to local monitors from the Rojava Information Center.
49-year-old Shahnaz Yusuf described the scene of an airstrike on the Girdahol oil field, near the city of Tirbespî, to KCS:
“At around noon, the village next to us, Girdahol, was bombarded. I never thought they would strike us too on the same day. During the evening, we were sitting in our home … suddenly, there was an explosion and the world turned red. Dirt and dust rained all over us. We thought for sure that our house had collapsed on us; that day we had guests and we thought that they had all died. Everyone, young and old, was afraid and trembled with fear. Even my cat, which I had raised from a kitten, ran away and never came back…I saw him in the street later and called to him, but he would not come.
When the plane struck the well, we were all disoriented and shaking; we did not know whether to stay inside or go out into the garden because our house was mud and therefore unsafe. There were strikes in many places. There was an Arab family that lived next to the well, they were our neighbors. The father and son both died, and the father was decapitated. The family had to search all over until they found his head.
My husband cannot walk, he told us to run away and that he would stay in the house. But there was not even a road to flee on because they were targeting everywhere around us, so we thought, Let us all die together. We hope that Turkey will leave us alone and safety will return to our lands.”
Edla, a 53-year-old mother of seven, was at her home in Tirbespî, recovering from open-heart surgery at the time of the strike on the Girdahol field:
“We live around the oil wells; there are only about 500 meters between us. I have lived here for 40 years. During the last attacks on Tirbespî, we were at home. Around 10:30 at night we were sitting at home; we were praying because the situation here was bad and there were planes flying overhead. Out of nowhere there was the sound of an explosion. We went outside to see what was happening, and all around us was dust and smoke and flames. After a while the oil well was targeted again by three rockets from a warplane. The sonic boom was so loud and powerful.
Our whole house was shaking, and our neighbor’s windows shattered and their ceramic floor cracked. The fires spread everywhere and grew until they were as bright as the sun. It burned until the morning because all the petrol barrels had exploded. Because the planes did not stop their bombardments, no one could leave their homes.”
Edla explained that beyond destroying large swaths of infrastructure and terrifying the civilian population, remnants of the shells used by Turkish bombs still pose a danger to civilians, and children in particular:
“Our land is covered in shrapnel. Our kids cannot leave the house because there is still shrapnel all over the ground and it is dangerous if a kid picks up a piece.”
Sami Sherzad, a 33-year-old man who works as a guard at Girdahol oil field, told KCS that this is not the first time the field has been targeted. Sherzad recalled his terror when the field was hit twice by Turkish drones seven months ago:
“The well was targeted by a drone strike, and I was called to go and shut off the well. I went to the electrical panels and shut it off, and then the firefighters showed up and put out the fire. As I was heading back, another drone struck the electrical station. The fire spread and destroyed the entire site. I threw myself on the ground and crawled to the ground to hide in the guard hut because the fire had erupted in two places and spread everywhere.”
Though Sami was not at the field during the most recent wave of strikes, his colleague working at the field was severely injured and forced to undergo an operation to insert metal rods into his leg.
“I am Sherzad, from the village of Girdahol in Tirbespî. I am 55 years old. We are surrounded by oil wells. The edge of the village was bombed from the morning. In the evening, a drone came and surveilled the area, and one hour later a warplane came with a sonic boom and attacked the wells. We were at home when the bombardment happened. We immediately threw ourselves to the floor. There was so much dust in our house, like a sandstorm. My kids were crying. The fires were so bright it was like it had turned into day. We were too afraid to leave our room. Later when the situation calmed down a bit we went to my brother’s house and saw that there was shrapnel everywhere. One of them had fallen into my brother’s garden. Our house is 500 meters from the well but there was still shrapnel on our land. Now we do not know what to do with our land and how to clean it from this shrapnel. The petrol tanks on our land were all burned but our land still has not been cleaned. We do not know if we can ever use our land again.”
The electricity transformers in the city of Qamişlo, to the west of Tirbespî, were targeted twice, once on October 5th and again on October 6th. The strike left nearly two million people without electricity, and only those with the means to afford either solar panels or personal generators and the fuel needed to run them were able to have power in their homes.
Ziyad, 42-year-old shopkeeper and father of six from Qamişlo, told KCS that his family was without electricity for ten days after a bombardment targeted the city’s electrical station on October 5th. Ziyad was sitting outside of his shop, just 100 meters away from the transformers, when the strike occurred. When KCS interviewed him, he was still rebuilding one of the walls of his home, which had partially collapsed during the bombing.
“The pressure from the bombardment shattered all our windows. All our walls shook, and an entire section collapsed; as you see, I am still repairing it. Everyone was afraid. The children were crying, our neighbors fled from their homes. At that time, I said, ‘that is it, there is nothing left, and we will surely be killed!’”
Ziyad and his family were still reeling from the first strike, which destroyed one transformer. The next day, the station was hit again and the second transformer was destroyed.
“At that time, my only son, who is still a child, fainted and went mute out of fear. I immediately ran out into the street so I could see what was going on. I saw they struck the electrical station, and two guards were sprinting away from it, terrified. I saw the smoke and fire floating up into the sky and shrapnel struck my walls.”
Ziyad’s son stayed in the hospital for around four days until his anxiety abated and he was finally able to speak. Ziyad says that he, like millions of people living in Rojava, has nowhere to go amidst the chaos and terror caused by the strikes.
“Wherever we go, we are under threat because they strike everywhere. If we were not poor, we would not have stayed here. But what can we do? Our home is all we have. It is too difficult for us to buy another house and move all our things there. These attacks are not just on soldiers; they affect us a lot as civilians. We will not leave our land, this is our place. We were born here and grew up here, and because of this we will always resist. Sure, we are afraid and we are suffering and our children are distressed, but we cannot abandon our land. We will not surrender our land to anyone.”
The strikes have had far-reaching effects, including the economic costs associated with reconstruction as well as lost wages and salaries, particularly from workers depending on daily wages to survive. Osman Abdulaziz, a 28-year-old plastics workshop owner from Qamişlo, described witnessing the strikes on the city’s electrical transformers on Thursday afternoon:
“There were a lot of people there bringing recycling to my warehouse, across the street from the electrical station. Out of nowhere there was a very loud sound, a kind of whistling sound, and then an explosion. I looked around to see what had happened. We thought that a rocket had hit us because it was so loud. I could not see in front of me because of all the smoke. Many of the men threw themselves to the ground to protect themselves, but I did not know to do that.”
Abdulaziz decided to take his employees home in the event that there was another strike, but decided to return to work the next day in order to bring the potentially flammable plastic – a major hazard should there be another strike – to a warehouse in another location in the city.
“I heard another loud explosion at the electrical station, but this time without the sound of a plane or the whistling of a rocket. The pressure was very intense and shattered all the windows of the house next door. The mother from this house fainted and could not even recognize her own children when she woke up.”
Abulaziz’s workshop closed for six days after the second strike, grinding life to a halt for the approximately 30 men and women who work for him, most of whom work for a daily wage to support their families.
Both civilians and security forces have been injured and killed by the series of strikes, which continued for multiple days after the initial bombings. One of the most egregious losses of life occurred on October 8th, when Turkish airstrikes targeted an academy of the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) in the Kocherat region near Derik. 29 members of the Asayish’s anti-narcotics department were killed, with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria declaring three days of morning in the wake of the attack.
On the first day of the bombardments, a drone strike targeted the village of Tel Habash, south of Amûdê, killing six members of the Asayish. Sipan Ali, the brother of one of the deceased, spoke to KCS about his late brother Bahoz:
“He and six of his friends had come to Tel Habash to get bread. When they arrived, a drone struck them, and six of them died. Their bodies remained on the ground for half an hour before their friends came and brought them to the hospital.
Seeing his body was so painful. One side of his face was completely gone. His arms were all burnt and his legs had been severed. It was such a painful and grotesque sight. May God not spare the ones who killed them so senselessly. He was a young man, only 22 years old, and still unmarried. He was the youngest brother out of us five. He had worked for almost five years and worked hard to provide for us; we are a large family and our financial situation is not very good.
This situation we are going through is horrible. We are suffering from the drones and we cannot work anymore. Every day or every other day the planes fly around striking people. We just want stability and safety. Sure, my brother fell martyr and we are hurting, but we are so proud of him.”
Ali recalls that his brother had only one month left on his contract with the Asayish when he was killed.
For many civilians living under the terror of Turkish aircraft, there is a very real fear that there will be a repeat scenario of the Turkish invasions and occupations of Afrin and Serê Kaniyê, which happened in 2018 and 2019 respectively. 46-year-old construction worker Kawa Mahmoud, a native of Amûdê, tells KCS:
“The ongoing situation has greatly affected us and has stopped our work frequently. Our work stops every time there is an airstrike. We are all afraid of a loss of stability, we are afraid that we will lose our city like we lost Afrin, Girê Spî, and Serê Kaniyê. We used to work a lot and be very active in the region, but now we are afraid that we will lose our city. We have become quite hopeless. Our city is slowly emptying due to the attacks. In the last attacks we lost our electricity and lost our water. If it were not for generators, we would have no electricity at all. And if you are not financially stable, you cannot afford a generator anyways. These attacks which started in Afrin and Serê Kaniyê have now spread, and they are attacking everywhere.”
Mahmoud lived only 700 meters away from a workshop that was bombed in Amûdê, and described his entire house being shaken by the blast after just having returned from giving condolences to a neighbor whose brother was killed in a bombardment.
“Everyone was afraid and just looking at the sky and wondering where the next airstrike would be. Every time another strike happened, we would lose hope. The psychological effect is even worse than the material ones; I mean, after the war is over, how long will it take us to return to normal?”
He describes the psychological effects that the strikes have had, particularly on young children, many of whom have developed severe anxiety and are afraid to step outside of their homes.
“My children’s school has also been closed for many days, and my kids are too afraid to leave the house and go to school anyways. We say to ourselves, ‘it is better for our children to be with us if they die rather than each one being in a different place.’ They’ve struck the petrol, water, and electricity stations, so we know they will strike the school at some point.
We do not know anymore how long this will continue to affect us and our work. We have not done anything to deserve this happening on our land. We were here before the Syrian regime was here, before ISIS was here, and before the Autonomous Administration was here. But sadly, this is our life now.”
Mahmoud explains that this is not the first time his region has been targeted and expresses the uncertain future that the people of Amûdê, and of the wider region are now facing.
“Last year, also in October, the region around us was shelled by tanks. No one knew where the shells would fall because the attack was completely indiscriminate and random. We stopped working for six months. This last strike, the airstrike, shook all of Amûdê, and was one of the worst, because many of the soldiers killed were fathers and heads of households, and not just young men. After they die, it affects all of society, and entire generations of children will be affected. As civilians, we are always afraid and there is no more safety. We have stayed firmly here until now, but now I do not know if we will leave our homeland or not.”