Terrorism |

Manbij families flee anti-ISIL military offensive

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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Mashta al-Nour camp near Kobani is sheltering families who fled Manbij due to ongoing battles with the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant'. [Photo courtesy of Mohammed Hissou]

Residents of the northern Syrian city of Manbij moving out of the path of the military offensive to drive the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) from their city have been heading for the relative safety of Kobani and Afrin.

Kobani and Afrin civil administrations have been receiving internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the Manbij area and distributing them among camps and private homes until they are able to return.

The number of IDPs fleeing combat zones around Manbij where the liberating forces are battling ISIL "is growing daily", Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) co-head Ilham Ahmed told Al-Mashareq earlier this week.

"Families see no choice but to take refuge in areas near the combat zones controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)," she said.

The Robar camp near Afrin received more than 600 families and has reached maximum capacity, she said, so IDPs are now being distributed among nearby communities until the materials for constructing new camps are made available.

The SDF and other forces in the region are facing difficulties procuring the necessary aid, she added, noting that the UN has delivered aid only once.

A field survey has been conducted in the Afrin area for a new camp that will eventually accommodate the majority of the displaced, she said, adding that a delegation of the Afrin canton executive council and members of its committees met with al-Shahba region officials to co-ordinate its establishment.

"The latest figures indicate that from May 25th through July 4th, 38,052 IDPs arrived in Afrin alone, and they were provided with everything they need," Ahmed said.

Civilians used as 'human shields'

The SDF on Thursday (July 21st) announced it was giving ISIL 48 hours to leave Manbij, AFP reported.

The Arab-Kurd opposition alliance said the ultimatum was intended to "protect civilian lives" in Manbij, and urged civilians to try to leave the city or distance themselves from areas where clashes are taking place.

"We took this decision now after ISIL used residents as human shields […] and to protect whatever civilians are left in the town," an SDF commander told AFP.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that at least 56 civilians who apparently had been mistaken for extremists were killed in coalition strikes as they fled al-Tukhar near Manbij.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Wednesday pledged openness on coalition accountability.

"We will conduct an investigation on any possible civilian casualties in this matter, as we always do, and we will be transparent about that," Carter said.

Civilians in and around Manbij have only two escape routes, Manbij Military Council (MMC) platoon commander Ghassan Ibrahim told Al-Mashareq.

These lead to Kobani and Afrin, he said, noting that "both routes are fraught with danger as ISIL elements open fire on anyone they suspect intends to flee".

"Units of the forces deployed on the outskirts of Manbij protect the civilians and transport them through humanitarian corridors dedicated to the transport of civilians towards safe areas," Ibrahim said.

Food, clothing and first aid

The Kobani Organisation for Relief and Development is working with the Manbij local council to secure the needs of residents displaced from the city, said Mohammed Hissou, who works with the organisation.

The organisation distributes food, clothing and other materials to the camps and villages sheltering IDPs, such as Kharbit al-Rus and Abu Qalqal, he said.

Medical care is provided by the Kurdish Red Crescent, which is touring the areas where displaced persons have congregated, he told Al-Mashareq.

The Red Crescent has set up a new centre in Abu Qalqal to serve civilians, he said, noting that a number doctors and nurses in the region have volunteered to work at the centre.

The Red Crescent also administers first aid, Hissou said, while more difficult cases are transported to Kobani hospitals for treatment.

Hissou estimated that at least 15,000 people have fled to the Kobani region, "while 5,000 others are scattered in the villages and towns that have been liberated".

When Mishtenur camp reached maximum capacity, Kobani's autonomous administration set up a new camp next to it to receive more IDPs from the Manbij region, he said.

Families flee the battlefront

Manbij native Mohsen Khafaja arrived in Kobani at the end of June with his family, telling Al-Mashareq he chose to risk fleeing Manbij to escape the ongoing battles between SDF and MMC forces on one side and ISIL on the other.

"The exit journey took two full days until we reached the liberated area," he said. "My family was cared for by a unit of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces in the area who, at my request, transported us to the city of Kobani where I have many friends."

"In Kobani, I was greeted at the house of a friend of mine who had vacated his house and moved his family to his brother’s house so that my family and I could stay there, after I refused to go to an IDP camp," he said.

"In Kobani, no one asks the refugee about his sect or ethnicity, but rather asks about the number of family members and their ages in order to care for them," he said.

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