At the 2 a.m. watch, gunshots aren’t far away. Automatic rifles trade fire in rounds that echo across the old buildings of Tel Tamer. At a compound adjoining the hospital, two watchmen with Free Burma Rangers stand guard, their faces framed between a glow of red lights coming from the emergency room and green lights of a minaret from the mosque across the way.
Unable to sleep, I join them, and ask whether this much shooting is normal.
“As long as the bread factory is going, we know we’re OK.”
Warm light and malty aromas emanate from the three-story factory. The gunfire makes it impossible to forget this town of Christians, Arabs, and Kurds is the front line for an ongoing assault by Turkey.
As the United States began its retreat from northeast Syria in October, these Americans moved in. Free Burma Rangers, led by Dave Eubank, is a Christian-based volunteer medic corps. In 27 days serving alongside Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria, its team members evacuated 149 wounded and 83 dead. One of their own also was killed. Burmese medic Zau Seng came under Turkish fire while the team treated the wounded in November. An Iraqi translator working with the group was wounded in the same attack.
Fighting in northeast Syria has fallen from headlines but hardly slowed. Turkey continues to violate terms of a cease-fire. It also breaks a separate agreement reached Oct. 22, confining military operations to a mapped buffer zone extending 19 miles into Syria from the Turkish border.
Tel Tamer sits outside that buffer zone but last month became the focus of attacks by Turkish artillery, airstrikes, and armed drones—all in airspace that remains under U.S. control. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has pulled back from the buffer zone but vows to fight Turkey outside it.
‘Pray, trust God, listen to the locals, put yourself under their authority, tell them the truth about everything, hide nothing, be willing to risk everything, and tell them every asset we have is theirs.’ —Code of the Free Burma Rangers
Tel Tamer’s hospital in November counted 170 dead and 600 wounded, most of them civilians. Hospital director Hassan Amin said he’s never seen these kinds of casualties. Most are wounded by airstrikes and rockets, arriving without limbs or with parts of their torsos missing.
Standing by the hospital with the thud of mortar rounds in the distance, I saw six wounded individuals arrive by ambulance. Overhead came the whine of a circling drone, unfazed by enormous plumes rising from tires set on fire to create a smokescreen.
Eubank has been making daily and nightly patrols with his team to rescue the wounded, often alongside the Kurdish Red Crescent and other overworked ambulances. The team has repeatedly come under fire, including from Turkish tanks. Despite the effort, they’ve watched a humanitarian crisis grow with little outside help.
Local officials say at least 150,000 people—and perhaps as many as 300,000—have fled their homes since October. Turkish assaults on the border towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad forced residents out and emptied surrounding villages. The locals report atrocities by forces Turkey launched into Syria starting Oct. 9, chiefly the Free Syrian Army (or Syrian National Army), an opposition force now made up of Islamic militants that fought under al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Pharmacist Rashid Sheikh Sulemon saw people burned and beheaded in Ras al-Ayn before he was forced to leave with his family. The Turkish-backed forces led men into the street, he said, tied their hands behind their backs, and tortured and killed them. He volunteered for days as a medic until it became too dangerous. Members of the Free Syrian Army bombed his car and set his house on fire.
“Executing individuals, pillaging property, and blocking displaced people from returning to their homes is damning evidence of why Turkey’s proposed ‘safe zones’ will not be safe,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Turkey’s proxy armies, she said, “are themselves committing abuses against civilians and discriminating on ethnic grounds.”