In the past week, the Turkish Air Force (TAF) has conducted a series of missile strikes in Iraq as part of their renewed military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government. The airstrikes targeted areas where members of the PKK and local affiliates are believed to reside — such as Makhmour, Sinjar, and the northern mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, which border Turkey. Although Turkey does not have authorization from the Iraqi government to conduct such operations in Iraqi territory, the TAF routinely carries out attacks, drawing condemnation from the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional authorities. Moreover, these recurrent military operations are putting civilians at risk and causing enormous psychological and emotional distress.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, at least five civilians were killed during operations last week, including a shepherd hit by an airstrike in Soran and another four civilians killed by a missile as they crossed a PKK-controlled checkpoint in Shilazde, in Dohuk governorate. Unfortunately, this is not the first time civilians have been killed or injured by Turkish airstrikes. These casualties highlight the dangers airstrikes can pose to civilians, especially when they target civilian-populated areas and roads regularly transited by civilians. Last week, eight villages close to the border town of Zakho were emptied out as their inhabitants fled, fearing Turkish airstrikes. While the Iraqi government and the Kurdish authorities have publicly condemned the military operations, Turkey has not acknowledged the harm to civilians.

Ongoing airstrikes have also negatively impacted the livelihoods of Iraqi civilians in affected areas. Villagers are unable to continue livelihood activities such as hunting, fishing, or beekeeping in the mountainous areas for fear of being hit by Turkish drones or airstrikes. On June 15th, Turkish airstrikes targeted areas of Sinjar believed to be harboring fighters from the Sinjar Defense Units (YBS), allegedly linked to the PKK. Several missiles hit in the proximity of civilian villages and some of the explosions set ablaze trees and pasture fields. “My whole house trembled and we are not even close to the mountain. My sisters were crying,” said a resident of one of the Yazidi towns over the telephone with CIVIC staff. Villagers tried to calm down their frightened children while putting out fires that threatened to engulf their homes, olive groves, and pasture fields. Several households lost livestock that ran away as a result of the strikes. Additionally, some of the missiles fell near the Sardeste camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which houses hundreds of Yazidi families who sought refuge after ISIS attacked their hometowns.

In areas like Sinjar, recent Turkish operations have had a deep psychological impact on the civilian population. Historically home to the Yazidi community in Iraq, Sinjar mountain became known worldwide for the atrocities committed against the Yazidi minority in August 2014 by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Now, the constant fear of Turkish airstrikes in the area is having a profound impact on a community that is still heavily traumatized from the events of 2014, when ISIS fighters attacked Yazidi towns, demanded their inhabitants convert to Islam, kidnapped and killed thousands, and abused thousands more Yazidi women who were forced into slavery. These crimes have been classified as acts of genocide by the United Nations and the international community.

During a visit to Sinjar by CIVIC staff in February 2020, civilians repeatedly mentioned fears of family members being harmed by an airstrike, and some even feared a potential land invasion. A civilian told CIVIC, “People in Sinjar are worried about the Turkish airstrikes. They are afraid their families will be hit by a missile, that’s also why a lot of families do not want to return to Sinjar. They don’t think it’s safe.” These fears exacerbate the collective experiences of trauma suffered by the Yazidi community, preventing them from healing past wounds, impacting the stabilization of the area, and prohibiting those still displaced from returning home.

CIVIC will soon publish a report on the current fragmentation of security in Sinjar district after the operations against ISIS ended in 2017, and will analyze its impact on the stabilization of the area and the return of civilians to their hometowns.

Image courtesy of CIVIC Photo/ Paula Garcia