By Dr. #Hawzhin Azeez#
In early 2018, when Turkey’s dictator Erdoğan announced his intention to attack and invade the Kurdish canton of Afrin (Efrîn), one of the three liberated areas of Rojava (north Syria), many Kurds in the diaspora knew that another period of intense activism was going to be required.
Then, as the Turkish military began indiscriminately shelling schools, hospitals, aid trucks, and humanitarian convoys, many of us in the diaspora felt an intense sense of responsibility to speak out. And although there were large protests across the globe, they soon seemed inadequate, as images and videos emerged of the idyllic olive groves of Afrin filled with Turkish-backed jihadists, who were terrorizing civilians, looting stores, murdering old men on tractors, and kidnapping young girls to enact unspeakable horrors on them.
As expected, a mass exodus of 350,000 terrified Kurdish civilians occurred from Afrin, as the international community abandoned the YPG & YPJ forces who had fought so bravely for the preceding four years to eliminate the threat of ISIS. It seemed that those Kurdish forces were worthy of protecting the West from the savage terrorism of ISIS, but not important enough to help shield from the full onslaught of Turkey’s NATO military might (backed up by ex-ISIS fighters). Consequently, Turkey was allowed to occupy and ethnically cleanse Afrin, and have since used the brutality of their jihadist mercenaries to transform a prosperous city that was 96% Kurdish in 2018, to a lawless hellscape that is less than 25% Kurdish today.
At the time, I had just returned to Australia from almost three years of working as a member of the Kobanê Reconstruction Board, where we had endeavored to rebuild the now-iconic city following its total devastation in the fight against ISIS. This is where Mira Ibrahim comes in. Mira is one of those rare souls whose unwavering commitment and tireless efforts on behalf of the Kurdish community in Australia truly deserves recognition. As a Kurdish woman living in Australia but originating from Afrin, she soon took the incredibly visible and difficult position of leading the fight to raise awareness about the horrific human rights violations occurring in the place her family called home. This meant she was often tweeting images and updates – often in real time – from civilians on the ground. She also began speaking to Australian Parliamentarians, local councils, TV news channels, and organizing protests to be the voice of those suffering in Afrin who could not be heard. Mira truly led the way, and so she is worth hearing from now.
Especially, since on March 18th of this year, Kurds around the world somberly recognized the five-year anniversary of the ongoing occupation and de facto illegal annexation of Afrin by Turkey, and its horde of criminal lackeys who continue to kidnap, rape, torture, and murder the remaining Kurds there. Ankara has unleashed this inhumanity while also literally stealing anything that can be carried away (factories), dug up (historical artifacts), or cut down (thousands of olive trees).
As such, this interview was conducted with Mira to raise awareness of the very real human toll and impact that the ongoing occupation has on people from the region. Here she speaks candidly about her life in Afrin, her family’s trauma in fleeing the Turkish invasion, and subsequent life in Australia.
Mira, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you were born, grew up, and so on?
My name is Mira Ibrahim. I was born in Rojava and lived mostly in Damascus, though my family and I often visited Afrin, where our village and summer home were located. I completed my high school and applied for university into the law department. But unfortunately, I was unable to complete my degree as we fled the increasingly unstable Syria and migrated to Australia.
We have now been in Australia for almost 17 years, where I am currently working as an interpreter for the Australian Kurdish community. I am also active as a representative for the Kurdish community and often engage in public talks, presentations, and lobbying with local council members, members of parliament, and other communities about the current situation in Rojava, including most importantly raising awareness about the dire situation in Turkish occupied Afrin.
Tell us about your life and childhood in Afrin, and what challenges you faced as a Kurdish woman there before Turkey’s occupation?
My childhood was the most enjoyable and unforgettable period in my life. I can genuinely state that I had a gentle and idyllic childhood in Afrin, where many of my earliest and most valued memories were with my relatives, including dear uncles, aunts, and my beloved grandparents. Each year I could not wait for the summer period until I met with my cousins again.
Even today, many years later, I still remember every single precious day I spent in Afrin, where in my childhood innocence we used to play and sleep away lazy hot summer afternoons, or ride on a rope swing in the woods, and the endless visiting of cousins.
When I discuss my childhood and reflect on my city, I feel deeply painfully nostalgic. Especially, knowing that there can be no return to that Afrin which once existed, I am often filled with tears and my heart aches with profound sadness.
Afrin was once in a Kurdish majority region where women had far greater rights than elsewhere in Syria. Under Kurdish control, child marriage was banned, and domestic violence was an offence. My experiences there were ones of freedom and justice; where women and men were equal, and every official position was shared by a male and female co-chair. Women had also won the right to work and live a safe life both in the domestic and public sphere. Compared to the rest of the country at least, Afrin was truly an example of equality, multicultural peace, and freedom.
When the Syrian civil war broke out on March 15th, 2011, Afrin was one of the Kurdish cities in north and east Syria (Rojava) to peacefully win autonomy in 2012 – thanks to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). The YPG & YPJ would eventually become world famous for their courage and bravery in fighting and eventually defeating ISIS in 2019.
As the bloody civil war raged across the rest of Syria, in the Kurdish north by January 2014, a federation of 3 autonomous cantons was declared, elections were held, and the Constitution of Rojava – now called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) – was approved. This constitution guaranteed the cultural, religious, and political freedom of all people and the equal rights and freedom of women. But this ended sadly with the Turkish-backed invasion of Afrin. Unfortunately, it was very devastating and heartbreaking when we realized that the Turkish government would utilize ex-ISIS fighters to invade and occupy Afrin, with the main goal of terrorizing the Kurdish civilians there and driving us out of the region.
How did the start of the Syrian Civil War, and the terror of ISIS at your doorstep affect you and your family in Afrin?
The Syrian civil war began as a protest against Assad’s regime in 2011, but quickly escalated into a full-scale war between the Syrian government and antigovernmental rebel groups. Before the invasion, Kurds were 96% of the population in Afrin. Now they are less than 25% according to a recent report to the UN by the Syrian Human Rights Observatory.
I don’t know what to say as no words can convey the fathomless pain in my heart. When I speak about the invasion of my city, I am often left speechless. Watching our once beautiful and peaceful Afrin fall into the hands of radical Islamists always creates mixed feelings of anger, bewilderment, and deep hurt. An overwhelming sense of hopelessness dominates. To say that we are intensely affected mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally would not even come close to the sense of loss and agony we feel.
My family owned a beautiful and large house and vast lands of olive groves in Berijma village, Afrin. Unfortunately, our house was bombed and destroyed during the 2018 invasion and our lands confiscated, so we have nothing left. I have been sent several photos of what remains of my family house, which was built lovingly, brick-by-brick by my family’s hands. My father and grandmother fortunately had left Berijma a day before to escape into Afrin city.
Afterwards, my father and grandmother were forced to escape Afrin city as well, and we lost contact with them for almost 20 days with no news. This was a terrifying, surreal period for my family as we wondered anxiously if they were even alive.
Other forms of devastation, destruction, and mass looting occurred by the jihadist forces now running Afrin. For example, I have been sent photographs which show a private school in Afrin (which was run by close family friends before the invasion), which has now been turned into a military base where people are often detained and tortured. Many more innocent family, neighbors, and friends were affected – from losing their children and having their homes destroyed. For many, their homes are now occupied by the families of the jihadists or communities that support the various Islamist groups running the region, which is an additional indignity. Horrific violations continue against the remaining Kurdish, Yezidi and Christian communities every day.
The day that Afrin fell to Turkey the hearts of Kurds stopped beating in unison at the horror of what we collectively knew was coming. Can you share with us your thoughts of that day?
My thoughts of that day were a dark cloud of fear and horror. I remember being intensely out of breath with anxiety. It was overwhelmingly devastating and heartbreaking. I was deeply sad, crying uncontrollably, and emotional for months – I’ve never really recovered, nor has my family. Not a day goes by where I do not think about my beautiful Afrin and about my people. How can words be enough to convey the immeasurable sense of loss and injustice – very few people knew how peaceful and beautiful pre-invasion Afrin was so its almost impossible to explain this sense of loss. It is truly paradise lost in every sense of the word.
I feared deeply for my people because the Turkish government has never been a friend of the Kurds and they will never be. My thoughts now are constantly centered on how the remaining Kurdish people can survive under Turkish control, since they are determined to complete the ethnic cleansing of Afrin. I knew then – and have since had my predictions confirmed – that the Kurds were going to face arbitrary killings, arrests, abductions, torture, and dispossession. I was especially worried about the situation of women and girls. By 2020, more than 173 women and girls have been kidnapped, 109 are still missing, and many have suffered torture, forced marriages, or sexual violence.
Turkish backed militias have turned life in Afrin into one of constant fear of torture, kidnapping, and death. We watch and read the news from afar every day to stay in touch with the reality of the remaining people, family, and friends in Afrin – but it is only horror after horror.
Mira Ibrahim’s family home in Afrin, before (left) and after (right) it was destroyed by Turkey’s invading military.
Tell us about the factors that resulted in your family’s need to flee Afrin. What was the biggest challenge they faced?
My family had to flee Afrin because their house was destroyed in the Turkish aerial bombing and there was nowhere safe to stay in the city. My father especially went through a traumatic time. He witnessed a lot of blood in the street flowing like a river, while he was running away with his elderly mother. He also saw one of his best friends murdered in the street. We all knew that anyone who stayed would be forced to follow ISIS or jihadist rules and live in constant fear.
Turkish occupied Afrin is now a hell on earth with no humanity left. The worst part is knowing that we can never go back so long as Afrin remains occupied under Turkey and its allied jihadists. There can be no peace or freedom for Kurds in such a place. We are left homeless and devastated, watching from afar, while mentally and emotionally affected by a daily terror that seems never ending.
What was your arrival to Australia like and how have you found yourself and your settlement in Australia so far?
At the beginning it was difficult, but my husband Bekes was a huge source of support. I began the difficult process of integrating into life in Australia and I faced many challenges, including language and cultural barriers, the struggle of continuing my education and finding employment. But I love living in Australia because we have many opportunities to achieves our goals, especially education wise – and most importantly, we are safe.
I started my education with learning English, and then completed many courses, including IT courses, gained a diploma in management, a diploma in HR, an advanced diploma in travel and tourism, and successfully completed an interpreter course at RMIT University specializing in Kurdish to English translations. Although Afrin has been taken from me, here I at least have the freedom to learn and possess my rights as a human and especially as a woman.
Since arriving in Australia, you have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the Kurdish issue and more recently the occupation of Afrin. Tell us about your work, what you’ve done, and how you’ve attempted to raise awareness?
As Kurdish women from Afrin especially, we are struggling deeply with ongoing concern about our family and communities there. Because of this, I have from the start worked to raise awareness about Afrin on behalf of the Democratic Kurdish Community Centre of NSW. I’m part of a Diplomatic and Representative Committee, and my colleagues Ismet Tastan and I attended many meetings with MPs across Australia to raise the awareness and take dossiers of gathered evidence to provide to the government. We also have a good relationship with Amnesty International, other major NGOs, and many MPs across Australia.
In 2021, we organized a meeting with 14 MPs at the Parliament in Canberra, where we attempted to raise awareness of the situation in Afrin and Rojava with governments around the world. More recently we’ve been raising awareness about the situation of fellow Kurds in the 2022 uprising in Iran (Rojhilat). There are always events, anniversaries, or new situations occurring that require awareness raising, information sharing, and protests on our behalf. My love for Kurdistan is endless and so is my efforts to support her and her freedom.
What has been the response of the Australian government and people to your work and that of the Kurdish community to raise awareness about Afrin?
We had a very good response from the Australian government, many of our MPs from different parties were listening to our issues and supporting us by sending emails to the Foreign Minister and updating us with his, and overall, responses.
In October 2022, the State Delegates Council, and the Greens NSW passed the following proposal:
“1. Kurds in Turkey still face discrimination in education, cultural and political life, and are denied the right to express their national culture through language, clothing and folklore;
2. the Turkish government has been using military drones, chemical weapons and heavy artillery to bombard Kurdish civilians in northern Syria and northern Iraq;”
You still have family and loved ones back in Afrin or displaced around Kurdistan. How are they fairing, what struggles and hardships are they facing?
Yes, I still have family and loved ones back in occupied Afrin. It is incredibly difficult to survive there with so many jihadist groups in control. In fact, you have to prove the property is yours and provide physical evidence and other nearly impossible papers if you want to try and reclaim your home or land. And even then, they may just decide to murder you for trying, since the situation is so lawless.
Every day, Kurdish women are at risk of kidnapping, sexual assault, and rape. People are frequently taken and held for ransom, for incredibly large amounts of money which the average person can never raise. The jihadists have been actively changing the demographics of the region by forcing the Kurdish people to leave and then bringing in foreign people from other parts of Syria.
They occupied the olive fields we own, and none of my relatives who stayed in Afrin are allowed to go collect their harvest. Hundreds of thousands of precious olive trees and other orchards and forests have been cut or deliberately burned. They took everything from the Kurdish people. There is nothing left except for the defiant courage of those who remain and struggle through this nightmare. Their bravery should be admired.
What are some things that the Kurds and allies in the diaspora can do to help the people of Afrin, both the ones still there or displaced across Kurdistan and the West?
Afrin is in a terrible condition. Currently we know that no one can get in or out of Afrin, unless it’s a very serious medical issue, or you have to pay a significant bribe. We need the international community and international governments to help our people in Afrin to regain their freedom and live in a peace.
Afrin’s people need international support for the following:
1. We desperately need international aid in the refugee camps, which are under attack from Turkey’s jihadis and Turkish killer drones. Such aid is not getting through to the Kurdish refugees from Afrin that are being helped by the AANES, because most international agencies will only work through the Assad regime or other hostile states in the region, such as Turkey.
2. We need urgent international support to free our abducted women and girls, and political prisoners who are facing torture in Afrin. Every single person must be accounted for.
3. We need international support for our demand that Turkey stops their policy of ethnic cleansing of Afrin and leaves all Syrian soil which they are illegally occupying according to international law.
4. The AANES needs international recognition and aid. The Kurdish freedom fighters of the YPG & YPJ defeated ISIS terrorists and sacrificed 12,000 lives in this struggle – so I believe the world owes them a debt of gratitude and their support.
“In conclusion, so long as my beloved Afrin remains occupied, I will always stand up, speak, and raise my voice for her. As a woman, I feel especially responsible. I dream of the day when we have returned to Afrin, rebuilt our house, and can replant our sacred olive and pomegranate trees again. On that day, I will hug and kiss every single branch and brick as if they were holy relics. Because to us they are.”
— Mira Ibrahim
Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.