Thu, 21 Nov 2019

Reporter's Notebook: Confusion and Fear in Northeastern Syria

Voice of America
22 Oct 2019, 08:05 GMT+10

TAL TAMER, SYRIA - Ambulances howled down the road to Ras al-Ayn, while small trucks piled with mattresses, appliances and children hurried out.

At the hospital, about 10 minutes behind the convoy, doctors and nurses prepared to treat some of at least 35 patients who were believed to be trapped underground in a makeshift clinic in Ras al-Ayn.

The first attempt to rescue them Saturday morning had been swiftly aborted when bombs fell near their convoy.

We heard later that day that authorities had secured a "humanitarian corridor" to evacuate the injured, but the ambulance drivers and aid workers said they were not sure they believed it. Only a week ago, at least nine people were killed when another convoy to Ras al-Ayn was attacked.

Even if negotiators had secured a cease-fire, the people on the ground had no way of knowing whether the various military groups had agreed or would adhere to it.

"I guess we'll find out," said one British volunteer, a young woman in casual military garb and a long blonde ponytail, before preparing a dusty assault rifle in the back of a tan Land Cruiser marked Ambulance.

More traditional foreign aid workers fled Syria a week ago.

"They said there is a cease-fire, but it's not true," said Jamila Hamee, who heads the Kurdish Red Crescent. Turkish military operations in northeastern Syria began more than a week ago, and since then, hundreds of people have been killed.

"We think the number is much higher," she added, "because we cannot get into the battle zones."

As the convoy roared toward the city, some drivers waved or gave a thumbs-up to the four journalists watching them go. We jumped in our gray van and followed.

Rescue

Less then 20 kilometers from Ras al-Ayn, the road was nearly empty. We saw some armed locals guarding a few villages, and a few more families huddled on the backs of trucks. One family was evacuating their cows.

But unlike every other war we have covered, we saw no military checkpoints ringing the battle zone, and there were no soldiers to either grant or deny permission to go in.

There were also no soldiers to tell us what was going on inside, or what dangers to beware of.

A few minutes later, at least four small artillery shells smacked the ground near our speeding van. We whipped back around toward the hospital.

"This is not Islamic State with their homemade bombs," said a photographer in the back of the van. "This is the second largest army in NATO."

When we got back to the hospital, heath workers and journalists were still milling about, buzzing with news that the convoy had made it in safely. It was just starting to rain when we heard they had also made it out.

As it got dark, one of our Syrian colleagues got nervous. A current danger in this part of Syria is changing checkpoints. What if one of the roads was taken by Turkish-backed militants, or the government of Bashar al-Assad? Either military might arrest us, he worried, and we wouldn't know we were in danger until we pulled up to present our papers.

We waited for the wounded until hospital officials told us the ambulances were splitting up, taking patients to several of northeastern Syria's meager hospitals. They said five of the patients were already dead.

Wounded

In another border city, Qameshli, on Sunday, we caught up with some of the patients who had been evacuated from the underground clinic in the basement of the Ras al-Ayn hospital.

"I was afraid that we would not get out," said 18-year-old Youseff, who was injured by shrapnel from an airstrike last week. "But then [the rescuers] came. They didn't say anything, they just put me on a gurney and took me out."

Other young men said they thought families were still inside, with nowhere to run.

"They are poor, where would they go?" asked Abdullah Majid, 20. He had deep burn marks on his face and an arm rendered unusable by shrapnel.

In the hallway, we met a 57-year-old doctor named Abu Hozan. He said his and other hospitals in northeastern Syria are short of personnel and equipment. International health care workers have mostly fled, he added, leaving the region short on vaccines, antibiotics and other medicines needed to prevent outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and polio.

Abu Hozan said he had not left the hospital in 10 days and was sleeping only a few hours a night in an office.

"Look what this war is doing to me," he said, joking about his gray hair and glasses. "I'm actually 22 years old."

Withdrawal

On Sunday evening, we heard that another convoy had made its way to Ras al-Ayn. This time, journalists were specifically asked not to follow. By nightfall, their mission had become clear. The convoy returned with the Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers who had been stationed in Ras al-Ayn.

"Today, we have evacuated the city of Ras al-Ayn from all SDF fighters," read a SDF statement released later that night. "We don't have any more fighters in the city."

Even before the Turkish incursion began, the SDF said they would withdraw from some border towns and villages to allow for a buffer zone between their forces and Turkey, in a deal brokered by the United States.

In late August, they started pulling down their reinforcements and removing their weapons. The SDF may have been a U.S. ally, but Turkey also considers it a branch of a designated terrorist group that has been conducting attacks for decades.

Early last week, the U.S. suddenly announced plans to remove its troops from Syria, and Turkey began military operations. "Betrayal" was the word Kurdish military leaders used to describe the U.S. withdrawal.

Now, Turkey appears to have gained control of that original "safe zone," and hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes. But Turkey has said it wants to control the Syrian side of its entire border with the Kurdish-governed northeast. This includes larger cities like Kobane and Qameshli, protected now by Syrian government forces backed by Russia.

By Monday, it was clear that the not-entirely-successful cease-fire had at least resulted in a cooling of the violence. We met Nasreen Ali, 25, a teachers' union administrator, at a funeral for a Syrian security officer near the town of Tal Tamer. Things had been quieter over the weekend, she said, but the situation continues to be terrifying.

"The situation is miserable," she added. "So many people are displaced, and while high-level politicians make deals, no one here knows what's going on."

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