Aid groups gear up to help more internally displaced persons
Christian aid groups were expecting to hear about the fate of some 150 Syrian Christian hostages today, but a promised ISIS announcement about the captives was not forthcoming.
According to activists and state-run media in Syria, however, Islamic State group militants moved the hostages to a city they control in northeastern Syria, while they continue to battle Kurdish and Christian militiamen for control of a chain of villages along the Khabur River, according to the Associated Press.
Hassakah province, which borders Turkey and Iraq, has become the latest battleground for the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. It is predominantly Kurdish but also has populations of Arabs and predominantly Christian Assyrians and Armenians.
In pre-dawn attacks, the group on Monday attacked communities nestled along the river, seizing at least 70 people, many of them women and children. Thousands of others fled to safer areas.
However, the state-run SANA news agency and the Assyrian Network for Human Rights in Syria said the hostages have been moved to the Islamic State-controlled city of Shaddadeh, south of the city of Hassakah. The United States and a coalition of regional partners are conducting a campaign of airstrikes against the group, and have on occasion struck Shaddadeh, a predominantly Arab town.
Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana of the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq told Aleteia partner Aid to the Church in Need that 24 families from Tel Gouran, 34 families from Tel Jazira, and 14 fighters from Tel Hormizd were captured and taken to the Arab Sunni village of Um Al-Masamier.
"Um Al-Masamier is another Syrian example of what we witnessed in Iraq on how the Arab Sunni joining and supporting IS to attack their long years Christian and Yezedian neighbors, Archimandrite Youkhana said.
He said that Assyrian Church of the East Bishop Aprem Athniel of Hasseke hasn’t left his city despite the difficulties and is doing its best to host and support the displaced. "However, due to the lack of resources and the long years of the disaster, there is an urgent need of action to support the displaced families through the Church,” the priest said.
Michel Constantin, regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt for Catholic Near East Welfare Association, has been coordinating efforts for emergency assistance to families in Iraqi Kurdistan. Speaking to Aleteia from Beirut Wednesday, he said his organization is arranging for food packages to reach the displaced families tomorrow.
What are you hearing about the Assyrian Christian villages that have been threatened by Islamic State militants?
I contacted the Assyrian bishop in Hassakah, whose name is Mar Arpem Athniel, and he informed me that already 700 families have been displaced from the Christian villages to Hassakah, and another 200 were displaced to Qamishli, and at present Catholic Near East Welfare Association is conveying funds to buy food packages for 900 families. It will be going through Iraq because you cannot convey the money straight to Syria.
The families are not in tents or camps; they are settled in homes of relatives, or in some cases Christian families have recently fled from Hassakah because of fear of the security situation. So the bishop opened individual houses, and families were settled in individual houses within the city. … Of course, they lack everything: they don’t have any food, heating fuel, medicines. They need many things. We will try to respond to the emergency by tomorrow to convey some money, and we will try to coordinate our efforts with other partners.
We expect another 200 families within a few days.
What can you tell me about those who were kidnapped?
There were around 150 persons who were kidnapped. We were expecting some announcement from the ISIS group today. Until now there hasn’t been any declaration about their fate. We are waiting to hear what ISIS will declare about these families. Among them, 14 or 15 are children and women. Others are elderly, and others are young persons. This is not very precise because the conflict is still going on. The situation is not clear yet. ISIS militants are still holding some of the villages; others are under attack, and the fighting is going on between local Christian fighters; they are helped by the Kurdish.
What’s the purpose of the kidnapping?
It seems to be for an exchange with some militants who are held by the Kurdish militants during the fight. All this started last Sunday: the Kurds were able to free 22 villages around Kobane. They are Kurdish villages. They were under the control of ISIS, but the Kurds were able to defeat ISIS, and to liberate these villages. So the response of ISIS was not toward the Kurds; they went toward the Christian villages, which were not very protected, and attacked them instead.
How does this fit in to ISIS’ larger goals?
The attention now is on the city of Hassakah itself. The city is surrounded by ISIS militants, and the rural area around the city is all occupied by those fanatics. The people inside Hassakah are afraid of a concentration of militants inside the city, so people are very afraid. The only way out is to go to Quamishli, a Kurdish town held by Kurdish militants. Nothing is clear yet how the battle will end and what will be the result on the ground. But until now we have 900 families who are still stuck in the villages. They are trying to get out, but the fighting is forbidding them from getting out. Hopefully they can get out somehow to Hassakah. …
Eventually we expect to have 1300 or 1400 families from 35 Assyrian villages.
What do we know about the ISIS forces in the area, such as their affiliations and numbers?
We have no idea about the numbers. ISIS is holding a large portion of northern Syria. They hold Raqqa, which is a large city. They are in control of the rural area of Hassakah as well. They hold 25% or 30% of Syria. People are joining them either by force or as volunteers. We don’t know the numbers. Maybe there are 2.5 million or 3 million Syrians under ISIS right now. We don’t know the number of militants. It’s a big number; they have modern weapons; they are very well organized, and they are very dangerous.
Is the Coalition conducting airstrikes in this area?
Yes, but the impact is very low. It’s not really affecting them. This will not stop them from attacking more areas and holding ground in more areas. They are not afraid of that, and they are continuing their plans.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition. The Associated Press contributed to this report.