"We needed to escape before they slaughtered our girls"

Danielle Spencer
Newly arrived refugee children from Syria

On 16 September, the northern Syrian town of Kobane, a town predominantly populated with Kurdish people on the border with Turkey, came under siege. Since then, reports state that more than 150,000 refugees have flooded into Turkey. CARE International UK’s Danielle Spencer was part of the CARE Emergency assessment team on the ground.

I can see the homes of Kobane from the camp. White houses glinting in the sunlight which looked like I could reach out and touch them. The clouds of smoke which had billowed from the city days before have stopped and the town looks peaceful now – from a distance.

Women and men look over the Turkey/Syria border at their home: sitting there is a constant reminder of why they can’t go back. The sound of a nearby explosion echoes around us as the woman I am sitting with tells me about her life and the recent death of her two children.

They are living the headlines we see everyday

A man overhears this conversation, comes over to us, and the conversation turns to politics – as it inevitably does here. The geopolitical issues we hear on TV news are very real for the people here, they are living and breathing the headlines we see on a daily basis. The man’s eyes well up and before long he is telling me about his cousin who was killed brutally, tied to the back of a car and dragged around town as a warning to others.

Later, as I walked into the school, the searing heat of the Middle Eastern sun hits me. Next came the smell. The sour, acrid smell of people who have not been able to wash for days on end and of women who have resorted to washing their clothes in the toilet bowl to try and prevent infection. They wash their clothes in fear, and hesitate to use the toilet to relieve themselves, as they are afraid and embarrassed of using the latrine in front of the men who are using the bathroom to shave.

Children have nightmares about being kidnapped

Men and boys reported feeling anxious that sexual violence could occur here against women and girls – there were no reports of this actually occurring – but given the brutality they have fled from at home, it is easy to understand why they are scared. They told me, through tearful eyes, about their children being unable to sleep, of their young sons and daughters having nightmares about being kidnapped and torrid dreams that their mothers and sisters will be raped.

They fled their homes because of these fears, because they had a small taste of the violence to come. They told me stories of girls sold in markets in Kurdish parts of Iraq, of intimidation, and their fears that their sons will be kidnapped never to be seen again.

As one man told me: “We needed to escape before they slaughtered our girls before our eyes.”

We have a responsibility to respond

Humanitarian agencies have a responsibility to respond to the complete inhumane misery endured by this besieged people. Women and girls have endured heinous acts of sexual violence, while men and boys have faced unbearable, physical cruelty.

I was therefore heartened that the CARE emergency gender and protection assessment team worked alongside a number of other humanitarian agencies – because none of us can respond appropriately to this alone. I hope we can work together to ensure that the former residents of Kobane are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, and receive the psychosocial support they desperately need after suffering some of the most stressful and traumatic experiences I have ever come across in my career in aid work.  

This article first appeared in the New Statesman 30/09/2014

Danielle Spencer's picture

Danielle Spencer is Senior Humanitarian Advisor (Gender and Protection) for CARE International UK – Read her blog posts