A protest march organized by Arab residents of one Hasakah village ended abruptly this weekend when Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) opened fire on demonstrators, killing a 15-year-old and wounding dozens of others, an activist in the Hasakah countryside told Syria Direct.
The 3,000 protesters marched three kilometers on Saturday morning from a makeshift camp in the Hasakah desert to their village of al-Hawl “demanding to be allowed to return to their homes,” Siraj al-Hasakawi, a citizen journalist in the Hasakah countryside, told Syria Direct's Alaa Nassar.
The villagers originally fled al-Hawl, 34km southeast of Hasakah city, in February 2014 when Islamic State (IS) forces captured the village from the Free Syrian Army and Ahrar a-Sham. The town served as a waystation for the Islamic State between Iraq and Syria.
Last November, SDF forces, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes, took back al-Hawl, Syria Direct reported at the time. The SDF, a multi-ethnic coalition of Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian militias, has militarily occupied al-Hawl since November.
Since then al-Hawl's former residents, now living in tents in a settlement called Umm Hajira on the road to Hasakah city, have already organized seven protests, to no avail, calling on the SDF to grant them the “right to return,” says al-Hasakawi.
As in previous protests, SDF forces initially met Saturday's demonstrators with water hoses on the road leading into the city, says al-Hasakawi, but “then opened fire with live ammunition," killing a 15-year-old and reportedly “injuring dozens of others.”
The SDF acknowledged that an “incident” occurred in al-Hawl on Saturday.
“We heard of this incident and are preparing an investigation into the issue,” SDF spokesman Major Talal Silo told Syria Direct on Monday. The SDF is not allowing villagers to return “for their own safety... given that the area is full of mines and explosives.”
In October 2015, Amnesty International released a report documenting a “wave of forced displacement and home demolitions amounting to war crimes carried out by the [Kurdish] Self-Administration,” of which the YPG is the military wing.
Q: What happened on Saturday afternoon during the protest march from Umm Hajira to al-Hawl?
About 3,000 former residents of al-Hawl, including women and children, walked from Umm Hajira to al-Hawl in a peaceful protest. These people fled al-Hawl during Islamic State rule and have not been allowed to return since the SDF took the village from the Islamic State on November 14, 2015. They are living in handmade tents in the village of Umm Hajira on the outskirts of Hasakah city, and were demanding to be allowed to return to their homes in al-Hawl.
The protest called for the right to return and was totally peaceful, but the SDF forces broke it up by firing water hoses and pushing dirt onto the road using tractors.
Then the police opened fire on the protesters with live ammunition, killing 15-year-old Bilal Mijham al-Tla. His body is still with the SDF forces, who have refused to hand it over to his family. Dozens of protesters were also injured and carried to the hospital in Hasakah to receive treatment.
Following the protest, the SDF began arresting leaders from the Khawatinah tribe.
[Ed.: The majority of the villagers currently living in al-Hawl belong to the Khawatinah tribe, one of the largest Arab tribes in Hasakah province.]
Now the families who participated in the protest are back in Umm Hajira where more than 10,000 people are living without access to food, potable water, health care or housing to protect them from the harsh conditions.
Q: How have the families living in Umm Hajira reacted following the death of the child Bilal and the arrest of several of their relatives?
The families are incapable of doing anything. They only want to return to their homes. These people are living in tents and broken-down houses.
As for those who were arrested, we still don't know what has become of them.
But the people in Umm Hajira are determined to continue with their demands and they will take to the streets in future protests until they return to their homes and their relatives are released. All they have left is their self-respect.