Karkamis, Turkey – Al-Qaeda fighters have struck a bloody blow in scenes of medieval violence in Syria’s northern border-town of Jarabulus. Fighting came to a head on January 17, between rebel groups Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the town, when reinforcements arrived from Raqqa and reclaimed the city in a brutal four-hour battle.
By nightfall, at least 10 men had been beheaded, their heads mounted on spikes, and more than 1,000 refugees fled the 3kms across the border to Turkey.
It’s a shocking turn of events for residents and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters alike, who just a week ago believed they were hours away from expelling the al-Qaeda group from their city altogether after surrounding the last 40 fighters in the city’s cultural centre.
But when an ISIL car bomb killed 33 people – all women and children – the FSA brigade called for backup. Instead, what arrived was a 70-car ISIL convoy from Raqqa, an ISIL stronghold 160kms to the south-east. Fighters say half of the militants wore their usual black uniform and half wore camouflage like the FSA, and were uncharacteristically clean-shaven. The disguised fighters tied white bands around their arms to distinguish themselves from the real FSA.
More than 100 men were taken from their homes and escorted to the main square for what turned into a bloodbath.
Muhammad Jader, 22, and his uncle Ali, 35, were among those arrested.
“They lined us up against the wall,” Jader told Al Jazeera, “and the emir told them not to waste bullets. Suddenly they grabbed one guy and pinned him down on his stomach. Then one man from ISIL put his knee on his back, shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and cut off his head with a knife.”
“They chose people at random to kill,” he said. “There was no logic.”
One was beheaded because they found cigarettes in his pocket.
Approximately 40 men were mowed down by a spray of automatic gunfire in a show of reckless and wanton violence.
The surviving men were then questioned about their connections to the FSA – even giving the rebels a glass of water earned the person a death sentence.
Shocked and shaking, the two men could barely believe they had survived, but despite being released, they knew they were still being hunted, so they made a break for the border.
Six of the beheaded were from the Jader family, one of the first to rise up against ISIL in the city. Contrary to initial reports, the men were not leaders of the battalion, but were targeted for their family ties.
They have been identified as Hussein Jader, 18; Ahmad Jader, 20, a soldier who had defected from Bashar al-Assad’s army; Murat Kirkez Jader, 25; Amar Jader, 40; Ibrahim Jader, 55; and Abdo Jader, 60.
In addition to the Jader family, the Jubanat clan was also targeted in the revenge killing. Ali told Al Jazeera that 12 women and children, including a two-year-old, were found slaughtered in their house. Neighbours say ISIL came for the men but massacred the family in their absence.
Al-Qaeda’s extreme tactics goes a long way to explain how they have reclaimed much of the territory in northern Syria. Despite being fewer in number than the opposing rebel factions, their use of terror and increasing use of attacks on civilians is winning out.
Now controlling the entirety of Jarabulus, ISIL has called upon international NGOs previously active in the area to restart their operations.
However since the violence began, streams of civilians have crossed the border into Turkey.
Aid organisations say more than 1,000 people have arrived in the past few days, with many more fleeing to neighbouring towns in Syria.
‘They killed everyone’
Most of the refugees are from the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps that surround Jarabulus.
|A Syrian refugee looks at his home in Jarabulus from Karkamis camp in Turkey[Al Jazeera]|
UK-based Christian NGO World Vision, works in the four IDP camps in the city. Response Leader and Country Director Michael Butt said people started to leave after the car bomb on January 15. He said, “25 percent of the IDPs from Youth Camp have left, 75 percent from the ‘Agricultural Bank’ Camp and 50 percent from Stadium Camp [have left].”
In a small, makeshift community centre across the border in Karkamis, approximately 250 men, women and children await help.
Women and children sleep in the cramped, sparse but warm space, while the men stay outside in the street and all share just two toilets.
Mohammed Sulaiby carried his 75-year-old mother, Suad, on his back from Jarabulus because she is too weak to walk. A diabetic, Suad hasn’t had insulin for days – her blood sugar level has reached dangerous levels, her son said.
“People don’t have money and it’s expensive here,” he told Al Jazeera. “We’ve been here for three days and no one has helped us. The children are sick and everyone is hungry.”
A spokeswoman from AFAD, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Committee, said it is the responsibility of the refugees to register themselves with the organisation.
She said, “We are dealing with the problem, but they need to apply to us. Karkamis Camp may be full, but then we can bus them to other camps.”
But this does little for 20-year-old Wafa Turkmani, who is a mother of one, four months pregnant, and has no idea where to go next.
Like many of the families who have crossed the border, all she wants is to get into a Turkish government camp, but said she has been told to fend for herself. “We went to Nizip at first,” she said, “but the Turkish official there said we had to come back to Karkamis. He told us we had two options – either go back to Syria, or stay with relatives or friends in Turkey because the camp is full.”
“We are here alone with no food and no money, and why would we go back to Jarabulus? They killed everyone and put their heads on spikes. We’re terrified.”