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'There's no mercy': Kurdish Red Crescent perseveres in northern Syria

Heyva Sor a Kurdistane, the Kurdish Red Crescent, has been doggedly rescuing the wounded and attending to the sick in northeastern Syria since 2012.

Heyva Sor a Kurdistane, the Kurdish Red Crescent, has been on the frontlines of the Syrian civil war for the past eight years, emerging as the primary provider of medical care and aid for civilians wounded during battles and for the waves of displaced people fleeing fighting in the northeast. 

“You can’t imagine how it feels to be near a wounded person who is bleeding and not be able to go anywhere because the drones and missiles are falling between you and that wounded person,” Jamila Hemê, co-founder and co-president of Heyva Sor a Kurdistane said, describing moments in Ras al-Ain/Sari Kani and Tell Tamer during Turkey's Operation Peace Spring. “The only thing you can imagine is that they want to prevent us from rescuing [people], or they simply want to kill us as well.”

Heyva Sor, the largest Kurdish humanitarian organization in northeastern Syria, is not affiliated with the International Red Cross because the Kurdish area in northeast Syria is not recognized as an independent state. That said, the two organizations sometimes cooperate on the ground as a practical matter. In recent months Heyva Sor and other medical organizations operating in Syria have faced one of their biggest challenges: rescuing their own members and volunteers after attacks.

“It’s incredible to have to drive the ambulance toward injured civilians and return to the hospital with wounded doctors,” said Dildar Abdelkarim, a volunteer and ambulance driver for Heyva Sor. “There’s no mercy, not even for the rescuers.”

As Hemê and Abdelkarim testified, ambulances were targeted during the latest Turkish offensive, leaving at least five medics dead and another seven injured. “Isn't an attack on medical personnel and health facilities a war crime?” Hemê asked rhetorically. “Why has no country reacted?” 

Hemê has served as medical coordinator for the Kurdish branch of Heyva Sor since its establishment in 2012. The parent organization was founded in Germany in 1993. From 2014 until 2019, during the battle to dislodge the Islamic State (IS) from territories it controlled in the Kurdish region, was a particularly intense period for Heme and Heyva Sor.

Originally from Qamishli, Heme was elected co-president of the organization in 2018 together with Sherwan Beri, a Syrian Yazidi also from Qamishli. Beri had studied in Damascus to become a dentist and went on to help co-found Heyva Sor with a small group of volunteers, including Heme. Co-leadership of an organization by a man and a woman, as with Heme and Beri, reflects the governing philosophy of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which seeks to empower women by ensuring them political, social, military, cultural and decision-making responsibilities.

Hemê also coordinated the team working in Tell Tamer’s Legerin Hospital, named after Alina Sanchez, an Argentinian doctor who died in a car accident in Syria in March 2018 while volunteering as a medic. Sanchez had been given the Kurdish name Legerin Ciya.

“We started with very few means with which to respond to the crisis, especially medical care and ambulances,” Beri told Al-Monitor. “Civilians are always left on their own in the midst of the conflict, and the national health system gradually collapsed. At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, we hoped that there would be more justice and freedom, but instead it became a nightmare. We witnessed comrades from universities joining jihadist groups and an endless war.”

In August 2014 when IS attacked the Iraqi province of Sinjar, along the Syrian border, killing and kidnapping Yazidis and taking control of territory, Hemê and Beri were in the first line of an emergency corridor opened by the Syrian Kurdish forces to rescue Yazidis escaping what has been described as a genocide against their people.

As fighting decreased in northeastern Syria in past weeks, with only occasional clashes, the people of Idlib province, in the northwest, came under intense attack by government forces, prompting large waves of internal displacement. Heyva Sor teams have been active in schools in the northeast under the control of the autonomous administration where internally displaced people have been provided shelter. They also visit IDP camps to provide medical assistance for those suffering in the cold weather. Meanwhile, the organization also continues to train volunteers.

One of the schools Heyva Sor visits often to offer psycho-social support, among other things, is the Mahmood Darwish School in Hasakah, where displaced families have settled into classrooms. “Our students are attending three-hour shifts at schools since displaced people now live in 64 schools in the city,” said Farhade Mohammed, a Kurdish geography teacher from Hasakah who is currently responsible for Mahmood Darwish.

Heyva Sor nurses attend weekly funerals of fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) killed in battle, walking in the processions to Qamishli’s Shahid Dalil Sarukhan Cemetery and providing aid and comfort to those who faint as a result of their sorrow and grief. Heyva Sor ambulances follow at the rear of the processions, which can include hundreds of people.

“After the military defeat of IS, we thought we would have rested a bit,” Hemê said. “We were wrong. It never ended.” In late 2019, Heyva Sor engaged in pushing the United Nations to investigate the suspected use of chemical weapons in October 2019 by Turkey during Operation Peace Spring. Ankara has denied the allegation.

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