A British volunteer with Syria’s Kurds last night described the “horrifying experience” of pulling the victims of Turkish air strikes out of the rubble, as fighting continued along the Turkish-Syrian border despite a declared ceasefire.
Danielle Ellis, a 29-year-old Oxford University graduate from London, had been part of a civilian convoy attempting to deliver aid to residents of a village in the border town of Ras al-Ayn when they came across corpses buried in the ruins.
The group stopped before reaching the town after they were warned they were in firing range of gunmen from the Syrian National Army (SNA), which is fighting in northern Syria alongside Turkish forces.
“We passed a pile of rubble in the last village before Seri Kaniyê (the Kurdish name for Ras al-Ayn), part of it was still smouldering,” the former engineering student said by phone. “A few people decided to have a look.
“There were a lot of bodies. I counted 10, but there were other sites being worked on so there may have been more,” she said.
“It had been completely destroyed by airstrikes. They were all adults, I’m pretty sure men but it was impossible to say for sure because they were in a pretty bad way.”
She said she also could not be sure whether they had been fighters with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or civilians.
“One of the bodies I pulled out had a gun embedded in it – it could have been military but also many picked up arms to fight Turkey,” said Miss Ellis, who has been a civil defence volunteer with the Kurds for almost a year. “There were children’s things about, a family had been living in the house at some point.
“We got most of the bodies out but some of them we had to leave as they were under reinforced concrete,” she said, guessing from the smell that they had been there for several days.
“All my clothes smell of death. It’s under my fingernails,” she said. “It was horrifying.”
Both sides accused the other of violating the five-day ceasefire, negotiated by Turkey and the US. Ras al-Ayn seemed the immediate test of the truce. Before the deal’s announcement, Turkish-backed forces had encircled the town and were battling fierce resistance from Kurdish fighters inside.
After a brief lull, artillery fire and ground clashes were reported mid-morning. By the evening more than 14 Syrian civilians were reported to have been killed, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Syrian Kurds raised further uncertainty over a ceasefire deal, which was announced after Mike Pence, the US Vice President, held meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, that already was vague on key points and left significant questions unanswered.
The Kurdish administration said some provisions of the deal, which was favourable to Turkey, “need further discussion with the United States.” Under the terms of the agreement, there will be a five-day pause in fighting while Kurdish forces withdraw from the border, an arrangement that hands Turkey most of what it was looking to achieve with its military offensive.
However, the two sides appeared to have different interpretations of which areas Kurdish forces would withdraw from. Turkey said the Kurds must withdraw from all parts of the Turkish border, while the Kurds said the deal applied to only a 100-mile strip between Ras al-Aiy and Tal Abyad.