"We can forget everything, but not Afrin"
Former owners of olive groves and olive factories report from exile in the self-governing region of Shehba on the looting by Turkey in Afrin.
Turkey's occupation of the Afrin canton in Rojava (northern Syria) in spring 2018 marked the beginning of the systematic plundering and destruction of the once self-governing region. ANF has spoken with former residents of Afrin who found shelter in neighboring Shehba and are now self-organizing from there.
One of them is Necib Şêxo. He once lived in the village of Ruta in Mabeta district and owned an olive oil factory. Together with other entrepreneurs from the sector, he founded an interest group. "This body identified 280 fully functioning olive oil factories in Afrin. After more than three years of occupation, only about a hundred remain today. The rest have been plundered. The somewhat higher-quality equipment and machinery have been taken to Turkey, others to Idlib. Some militias stole them from each other and sold them to each other."
Şêxo reports 16 factories that produced soap from green olives. Their fate was similar to that of the oil factories. All the olive plantations were also confiscated. "I know the owners of many soap factories. These factories were all looted by the invaders and the machines were smuggled to Turkey. The owners of 50 of the 100 remaining olive oil factories in Afrin are in Shehba or Aleppo because of the occupation. Their factories were seized and are operated by jihadists. Each mercenary force controls its own territory."
"The invading forces have robbed everything"
Other sectors were also affected, Şêxo continues. In addition to the olive oil production plant, he himself operated a water factory. Its machinery was also stolen and taken to Turkey, he says. "Now they have turned my factory building into an MIT (Turkish secret service) headquarters. There were 60 houses in our village, inhabited exclusively by Kurds, with about 15,000 olive trees. All but three families had to flee because of the occupation. When the mercenaries invaded, there were about 15,000 bags of olives stored in Ruta. They robbed everything. Another olive oil factory in our village belonged to an elderly neighbor, his name was Suleyman Hasan. The factory was looted by Abu Jihad of the Samarkand Brigade (formerly part of the Syrian Turkmen Brigades)."
Şêxo reports the extortion methods used against the remaining population: "These mercenaries force the people in our village to deliver their olives to the factories run by the militias. People are afraid and do this." In the past, he said, two canisters of olive oil were produced from one bag of olives in the Mabeta area. Now, the production of the oil is completely non-transparent, with half disappearing in the production phase. When people collect the pressed oil from the factories, they are again "taxed" by mercenaries. About ten to 15 canisters of olive oil are pressed in this way by each family at the end of the season.
"Pressure for sale at ridiculous prices"
In the meantime, the occupying Turkish regime has had some of the looted or damaged olive oil factories repaired. Some of the oil is now pressed in Afrin and then taken to Turkey. Şêxo tells and continues, "They put pressure on the population and force them to sell the olive oil produced in Afrin at a very low price. It is collected at the Nûri Arap factory in the Jindires district. From there, it crosses the border into Turkey through the opposite crossing point in the village of Hamam in the Turkish province of Hatay. In 2017-2018, when we lived in Afrin, a canister of olive oil sold for 30,000 liras per season. At that time, the dollar was around 500 Syrian liras. Today, the dollar is around 4,000 liras. A canister of olive oil should cost 150,000 lira. We have some relatives in Germany. They say that olive oil from Afrin sells for 200 euros. Turkey has set up a system with its own councils, mercenaries and traders; a canister of olive oil is bought from people for 30 to 35,000 liras. This is nothing but robbery. They have already confiscated half, and they buy the other half at a ridiculous price. Not only olive oil is produced from the olives of Afrin, but also hundreds of thousands of tons of soap. This soap covered the needs of all of Syria before the invasion. The occupiers now bring all our resources to Turkey through the Hamam border crossing. They have left Afrin with nothing. Turkey sells the olives stolen from Afrin to countries like the United States, Spain, Germany."
"System of plunder"
Şêxo also addresses assimilation policies and the destruction of Kurdish culture: "The occupiers are enemies of Kurds. They say there will be no self-government, no Kurdish and no Kurds here anymore. They want to end all Kurdish existence in Afrin. Again and again they say, 'The mercenaries are looting and murdering.' But who are these mercenaries? They all belong to the MIT, they have all become Turkish soldiers. They do whatever the Turkish government orders them to do. I used to live in Aleppo and work as a car dealer. I knew many people from Idlib who are in the pay of the occupiers. I talked to some of them on the phone and expressed my desire to return to my country. They said, 'Uncle, if you came, we would behead you. We don't want to kill you, but we are followers of orders. We do what Turkey says. We barely did 20 percent of what Turkey ordered us to do.' Turkey's goal is to drive the Kurds out of Afrin."
Kurdish collaborators of the occupiers
Not only Turkish troops, jihadist and far-right mercenaries participated in the invasion, but also Kurdish collaborators of the so-called Kurdish National Council (ENKS). The ENKS is an extension of South Kurdistan’s ruling party KDP and has little political base in Rojava and Syria. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, ENKS is repeatedly called by governments as an international interlocutor for the Kurds in northern Syria, and financially supported.
"ENKS participated in invasion of Afrin with six militias"
The people of northern Syria are angry because of ENKS' close cooperation with MIT and its permanent attempts to destabilize the region of northern Syria. Necib Şêxo, for example, says: "The whole world should know that the ENKS, even though it presents itself like this, is not our representative. The ENKS participated in the invasion of Afrin with six militias. These militias, together with Turkey and its mercenaries, looted our homes and property. Today they are also participating in the process. They show the Turkish troops and their mercenaries the ways and the things they are not aware of. They denounce patriotic Kurds and have them killed."
"Our village was turned into a military base"
Zuheyr Muhammed Ali comes from the village of Tilfe in Afrin city. Both his machinery manufacturing company for olive oil production, his workshop and his olive oil factory were looted. He reports, "Since I supplied and repaired the machines for olive oil production, I know the olive oil factories in the region very well. There were a total of 315 olive oil production facilities in Afrin. Of these, 280 were active. When Afrin was attacked, we had to leave the region. We couldn't take anything with us. The mercenaries looted our houses, our factories, they looted everything. After my factory was looted, it was bombed from the air. The village of Tilfe is known for its hill. Turkey has established a military camp in our village. I denounce the Erdoğan regime to the world. They did not let anyone into the village for eight months. Now they are carrying out attacks on Shehba and Sherawa from there."
Ali's house and factory were close to each other. The occupation forces painted a Turkish flag on the residential building and smeared it with phrases in Turkish. Meanwhile, the cleared-out factory is being used as a cattle shed. Another house has been converted into a mosque, and mercenaries now live in his son's house. "If I just calculate what they stole from the factories, my loss is a seven-figure sum in U.S. dollars. My property was also confiscated. At least 25,000 canisters of olive oil were produced in each olive oil factory in Afrin. This olive oil is all taken to Turkey now."
"I will never forget my father's grave"
That is a lot of money, Ali emphasizes. "We can forget everything, but not Afrin. Our history is there, our father's grave, our memories are there. Our olive trees are there. I can forget the money I lost, but I can never forget my father's grave, my memories, my land, my olive trees. I think about it every day. Not everything can be compensated with money. Everything was looted and burned."
Zuheyr Muhammed Ali tells that he lived "in peace and quiet" like the rest of the population when Afrin was protected by the YPG under the Autonomous Administration. "We did our work, no one interfered, stole anything or put pressure on us. I appeal to the world: How can it be that we are experiencing this injustice in the 21st century? We were driven out of our homes and land by Turkey, and everything was looted. Our childhood memories are in Afrin. Bring me the photo of a stone in Afrin and I will recognize it. We can forget our financial losses, but we will never forget this injustice and Afrin."