In northeast Syria town, families say Turkey cut their water

A Syrian girl carries a pot filled with water from cisterns provided by humanitarian organisations during a water outage in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakah on August 22, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 26 August 2020

In northeast Syria town, families say Turkey cut their water

  • Ankara now held the “ability to cut water indefinitely to over half a million water-starved people” in Kurdish-held areas

HASAKAH, Syria: Outside her home in northeast Syria, Sheikha Majid said her life had become an endless quest for fresh water, three weeks into the latest supply cut by Turkish forces.

“I spend the whole time running after water trucks,” the 43-year-old grandmother said, amid an ongoing outage — one of many in recent months — in Hasakah, a city run by a semi-autonomous Kurdish administration.

As coronavirus spreads across northeastern Syria, residents in Hasakah have been caught up in spats between Turkish forces to the north and Syria’s Kurds, viewed by Ankara as “terrorists.”

In October last year, Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies occupied a 120-kilometer (75-mile) stretch of land inside the Syrian border, including the Alouk power station that supplies drinking water to Hasakah.

Kurdish officials say Turkey is now using the water station to pressure the local authorities into giving them more electricity in areas Ankara seized from them.

While Turkey claims the station has merely been under maintenance, aid organizations have warned against using water as a political or military tool to the detriment of civilians.

Majid said the latest supply cut had made it difficult to ensure basic hygiene for her seven children and two grandchildren.

“Most of the time we bathe in salty water” from wells instead, she said, adding that she used the brackish liquid for washing clothes too.

In the city’s narrow streets, women and children clutched empty jerrycans, waiting to fill them up from water deliveries, some from aid groups.

On a rooftop, a young girl held a gushing green pipe over a water tank, funnelling water from a truck below.

“This time it’s really dragged on,” elderly resident Muhammad Khatar told AFP on Saturday, referring to the latest supply cut.

“All we want is to eat and drink, and do our job. We have nothing to do with politics.”

The Kurds say there have been eight interruptions to the supply of water from the station near the town of Ras Al-Ain since last autumn.

The Turks “occupied our land and now they’re cutting off our water,” 45-year-old Saleh Fattah said.

The issue has sparked increasing concern at a time when confirmed coronavirus infections have risen to 362 cases including 25 deaths in Syria’s Kurdish-held northeast, according to data provided by the semi-autonomous administration. Dozens of those cases are in Hasakah.

In March, the UN warned one of the earlier water supply interruptions from Alouk was putting 460,000 people at risk in the Hasakah area, as the pandemic spread worldwide.

Kurdish forces spearheaded the US-backed battle against the Daesh group in Syria, but Ankara says they are linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry claimed on Aug. 6 the Alouk water facility was under maintenance but that Hasakah was still receiving water.

The Kurds say the water has been cut off, and the hashtag “Thirst is strangling Hasakah” has been trending online.

Damascus on Monday accused Ankara of using water as a “weapon against Syrian civilians.”

Kurdish officials say that, after Ankara’s military campaign in October, there was an initial deal for the Turks to ensure continued water supply from Alouk, in exchange for the Kurds providing electricity to newly taken areas.

But the Turks have been trying to exert pressure on the Kurds to give them more electricity, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor and a Kurdish official.

The Turks repeatedly “ask for more electricity,” said Suzdar Ahmad, the joint head of the Kurdish-run water authority.

Aheen Sweid, co-director of the energy authority, said the water cuts were nothing new.

“Since the Turks occupied Ras Al-Ain there have been endless rounds of negotiations over water interruptions from Alouk,” she said.

This time, around 10 days after the taps ran dry in Hasakah, on August 13 the Kurds cut off the electricity to the Ras Al-Ain area in retaliation, Sweid said.

Both sides then negotiated via Russia — an ally of Syria’s central government in the country’s complex civil war — and on Saturday they came to an agreement that envisaged water making its way back to Hasakah’s pipes from Monday.

But Syria analyst Nicholas Heras said the water cuts were likely to continue in areas controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Seizing the Alouk plant was one of Turkey’s key campaign goals” in October last year, he said, “exactly because Turkey wants to use water as a pressure point to turn local people in Hasakah against the SDF.”

Ankara now held the “ability to cut water indefinitely to over half a million water-starved people” in Kurdish-held areas, representing a far more effective weapon than retaliatory power cuts, he said.

Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

Iranian singer Omid Tootian, 46, gestures during an interview at a coffee shop in the UN-controlled buffer zone in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on September 23, 2020, where he's been stuck since mid-September. (AFP)
Updated 27 September 2020

Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

  • Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran

NICOSIA: Dissident Iranian singer Omid Tootian has for days been sleeping in a tent in the buffer zone of the world’s last divided capital, after being refused entry by the Republic of Cyprus.
“I can’t go to one side or the other,” the performer, in his mid-40s, whose songs speak out against Iranian authorities, told AFP. “I’m stuck living in the street.”
His tent is pitched between two checkpoints in western Nicosia, among the weeds outside an abandoned house in the quasi-“no man’s land” that separates the northern and southern parts of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974.
In early September, he traveled to the north of the Mediterranean island, controlled by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Ankara.
Two weeks later, Tootian, who had been living in Turkey for around three years, tried for the first time to seek asylum in the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the southern two-thirds of the island and is in the EU.  But once at the green line, the 180 -km buffer zone that traverses the island and is patrolled by UN peacekeepers, he was denied entry into the south.
Refusing to return to the TRNC, where he fears he would be in danger, Tootian found himself in limbo in the few hundred meters of land that divides the two territories.
“I don’t know why they haven’t approved my entry ... but I think it’s because of the coronavirus,” he said, speaking at the pro-unification Home for Cooperation community center in the buffer zone where he eats, grooms and spends most of his days.
“But I hope things will become clear because now I don’t know what will happen, and it’s a very difficult situation.”
Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran.

Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran.

Omid Tootian, Dissident Iranian singer

“Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran,” he said, adding that he had for the past six months been receiving anonymous “threats” from unknown callers using private phone numbers.
In July, three Iranians were sentenced to death by the Islamic republic. Two of them had initially fled to Turkey and, according to the non-governmental group the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Turkish authorities cooperated with Tehran to repatriate them.
Since arriving at the checkpoint, Tootian has tried “four or five times” in a week to enter, without success, despite the help of a migrant rights advocacy group known as KISA and the UN mission in the buffer zone.
According to European and international regulations, Cyprus cannot expel an asylum seeker until the application has been considered and a final decision issued.
The police said “they have restrictions not to let anybody in,” KISA member Doros Polycarpou told AFP.
Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou said “it is not the responsibility of the police” to decide who can enter the Republic of Cyprus.
They “follow the instructions of the Ministry of Interior,” put in place “because of the pandemic,” he added.
According to the ministry, “all persons who are willing to cross from a legal entry point to the area controlled by the Republic must present a negative COVID-19 test carried out within the last 72 hours” — a requirement Tootian said he had fulfilled.
Polycarpou charges that the Cypriot “government has used the pandemic to restrict basic human rights.”
A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Cyprus Emilia Strovolidou said “there are other means to protect asylum seekers and public health at the same time ... we can test people when they arrive or take quarantine measures.”
“We have someone who is seeking international protection, he should have access to the process,” she added.
Due to the closure of other migration routes to Europe, asylum applications have increased sixfold over the last five years in Cyprus — a country of fewer than 1 million inhabitants — from 2,265 in 2015 to 13,650 in 2019, according to Eurostat data.