World·CBC IN SYRIA

Turkey 'outsourcing war crimes' to armed groups, Amnesty says after Kurdish politician's murder

Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf was killed, and her body mutilated, in the early days of Turkey's military incursion in northern Syria. A human rights group says her death is an example of war crimes carried out by Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups.

Hevrin Khalaf, an advocate for peace, brutally executed inside Syria

Souad Mohammed holds a photo of her daughter, Hevrin Khalaf, in the home they shared in the Syrian town of Derik, in the Kurdish enclave known as Rojava. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Souad Mohammed sat in her dead daughter's bedroom in the home they shared in the Syrian town of Derik in the northeastern corner of the Kurdish enclave known as Rojava.

She was sifting through the chapters of her daughter's life, turning the pages of a small photo album open on the bed in front of her.

When she came to what looked like a graduation photo she stopped and pointed to her daughter's long dark hair. Her killers had pulled that same hair so hard, she said, that it had come away with bits of her scalp.

Hevrin Khalaf is the Kurdish politician who was brutally murdered on a stretch of the M4 highway on Oct. 12 when suspected members of a Syrian rebel militia linked to Turkey stopped her car, dragged her from it and killed her.

Her driver and another passenger in the car were also killed.

It was just four days days after Turkey had launched its incursion into Northern Syria to create what it calls a "safe-zone" along its southern border.

"They could not even show her body to me," said her mother. "There was not any part of it without bullets."

Khalaf's friend Samira Abdel Aziz offers sweets to mourners at her funeral. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

An autopsy report made public lists multiple gunshot wounds to Khalaf's body along with fractures to her legs, face and head.

The 34-year-old civil engineer was the secretary general of the recently formed Future Syria Party. She had travelled to attend a funeral the night before and was returning home, according to her mother.

Khalaf's execution-style killing cast an immediate spotlight on the militias unleashed by Turkey as proxy ground forces and the nature of those fighters.

"Turkey is responsible for the actions of the Syrian armed groups it supports, arms and directs," said Amnesty International in a statement.

"Turkey cannot evade responsibility by outsourcing war crimes to armed groups," it said.

Amnesty launched an investigation into Khalaf's death and laid blame for it at the feet of an Islamist group called Ahrar al-Sharqiya, one of the groups fighting under a Turkish-backed coalition calling itself the Syrian National Army.

Killers apparently filmed aftermath

Amnesty also verified video footage apparently taken by Khalaf's killers that showed her body on the ground with a foot pushing at it and calling it the "corpse of a pig."

The knowledge of how Khalaf died added another layer of suffering to those mourning her death. The horror of it was cemented on to the faces of friends and family who came to visit Mohammed last Thursday.

It was a day when the family had planned to visit Khalaf's grave at the cemetery just outside of Derik, but an airstrike near it the evening before convinced them to change their plans.

Friends and family gather in Derik, Syria to remember Hevrin Khalaf. Armed men had ambushed her car and then killed her and her bodyguards on Oct. 12. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Instead, they set up plastic chairs outside the family home in a circle around pictures of Khalaf, and the driver who was killed with her.

One group arrived in a procession, carrying flowers and chanting "Martyrs Never Die." People lit candles and friends of the family handed out sweets to the guests.

When the ceremony was over, Mohammed made a point of thanking "our president, Apo."

Apo is the nickname of Abdullah Öcalon, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, a guerrilla group that has waged a decade's long and bloody war against the Turkish state.

Had never carried a gun

Turkey accuses the main Kurdish militia in Northern Syria, the People's Protection Units (YPG), of links to the PKK.

Khalaf's family clearly supports the PKK, as do many Kurds in northern Syria who see the group as a defender of Kurdish identity across a region where it has long been suppressed.

Khalaf's older sister Zozan was a PKK fighter, killed at the age of 25 in the 1990s.

But Khalaf had never carried a gun, her mother insisted, more interested in the political struggle than fighting.

The Future Syria party, of which Khalaf was the secretary-general, preached conciliation between Arabs and Kurds according to friends and family.

Abdel Aziz spoke to CBC during a gathering for friends and family held last Thursday in Derik, Syria, to honour Khalaf. She said her friend didn't differentiate between people and 'wanted communities in Syria to be united.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"She liked everything good in this world. She was very emotional and had a very good heart," said Samira Abdel Aziz, who spoke about her friend at the Thursday gathering.

"She didn't differentiate between people. She wanted communities in Syria to be united."

Abdel Aziz, an Arab, points to her friendship with Khalaf as proof of that. The two met while working on women's issues in and around Raqqa, after the city that was capital of the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was liberated by Syrian Kurdish forces helped by U.S. troops.

Kurds express sense of betrayal

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces lost more than 10,000 fighters in the struggle against ISIS.

Watch: The personal toll of broken promises in Syria

Residents of a town in Syria are feeling the personal toll from what they say are broken promises that led to the recent violence in the country. CBC’s Margaret Evans spent the day in northern Syria. 2:01

The sense of betrayal felt by the Kurds in light of  Washington's perceived green-lighting of the Turkish incursion is impossible to overstate.

"I'm very, very angry," said Shepal Mustapha, one of Khalaf's cousins. "Why all of this happens to us? Only just because we are Kurdish?" 

Outgunned by the Turks, the Kurds reluctantly invited the government forces of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the region.

But few Kurds believe al-Assad will leave them with their lands or autonomy intact in the long run.

"We don't trust anyone," said Mustapha. "Not [the Turkish president], not Assad, not America. Because all of them gives us and gave us a lot of promises but they went back."

And they want the world to know the devastating cost to families like Khalaf's.

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