Kurdish boy severely burned during Turkish offensive arrives in France for treatment

A woman assists Syrians fleeing the Turkish invasion at the Bardarash camp, near Dohuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, on October 16, 2019.
A woman assists Syrians fleeing the Turkish invasion at the Bardarash camp, near Dohuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, on October 16, 2019. Safin HAMED / AFP

A Syrian Kurdish boy who was severely burned during the Turkish incursion was evacuated Tuesday from Iraqi Kurdistan to France for medical treatment amid accusations that Turkey used chemical weapons in a Syrian border region.


Strapped to a stretcher, his body secured in protective covering, the young boy emerged from an ambulance on Tuesday onto the tarmac of Duhok airport in northern Iraq, where a local journalist on a live feed covered a medical evacuation that was being closely followed in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.

Mohammed Hamid, a 13-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy from Ras al-Ayn, a town on the Syria-Turkey border, suffered severe burns last week as a Turkish military incursion pushed into northern Syria. After an ordeal spanning days and hundreds of miles of cross-border travel, Hamid was finally making his way to France for treatment.

Hamid’s father initially took his injured son to a Syrian Kurdish hospital south of his hometown, where medics struggled to treat the little boy suffering from hellish, mysterious burns. The young boy was then transported across Syria’s eastern border into the Iraqi Kurdish city of Duhok. On Tuesday, Hamid was medevaced from Duhok to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, for the final lap of his journey to France.

A French diplomatic source on Wednesday confirmed to FRANCE 24 that, “a young boy from northeastern Syria, a victim of severe and multiple burns, was transferred last night to France from Erbil in order to benefit from treatment adapted to the gravity of his case. This medical transfer was organised at the request and in close cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq.”

The source however declined to provide details of Hamid’s condition or of the medical care he is receiving in France.

In a cryptic message posted on Twitter Tuesday night, veteran Iraqi Kurdish politician Massoud Barzani thanked French President Emmanuel Macron and “the people of France,” leading some journalists on social media to, “wonder where this comes from?”

An hour later, it was confirmed that the gratitude was for helping Hamid come to France for treatment.

It was not long before Kurdish experts began to surmise the reasons for Barzani’s enigmatic acknowledgment. “Erbil was under a lot of pressure from Turkey behind closed doors regarding the Syrian kurdish [sic] boy who was taken to KRG for treatment,” tweeted London-based Kurdish researcher Abdulla Hawez, referring to the Kurdistan Regional Government administering Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. “Macron has apparently personally intervened to fly him to France for treatment.”

UN experts investigate chemical weapons allegation

Hamid’s evacuation comes as UN chemical weapons inspectors are investigating reports that Turkish forces used chemical weapons, possibly munitions loaded with white phosphorus, during their military campaign in Kurdish-dominated northeastern Syria.

The Kurdish Red Crescent said at least six Kurds, including children and combatants, were admitted to hospital last week with first-and-second-degree burns from an unknown substance following the Turkish assault on Ras al-Ayn.

Turkey has denied the accusations, with Defence Minister Hulusi Akar telling reporters: “It is a fact known by everyone that there are no chemical weapons in the inventory of the Turkish armed forces.”

White phosphorus however is part of routine military stockpiles since it can be used legally in combat as a smokescreen in daytime and as an incendiary to light up an area at night. But it is illegal to use it against civilians, because it causes serious and exceptionally painful burns on contact with skin.

For the Kurds – the world’s largest stateless ethnic group that has been historically betrayed by colonial and postcolonial superpowers – chemical weapons have a particularly terrifying symbolism following a 1988 chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein on Halabja, which killed thousands in the Iraqi Kurdish city.

‘Dad, Dad, stop the burning’

Iraqi Kurdish officials and aid workers have been careful not to make assumptions or draw any conclusions about Hamid’s case. “His body was very badly burned, we don’t know what caused the burns. But doctors said he had more than 53 percent burns in some parts and more than 70 percent burns in others. One hand is so badly burned, he can’t use it. He needs professionals to find out the reasons for the burns and what is the treatment,” said Rawaj Haji from the Erbil-based Barzani Charity Foundation, which handled the boy’s case, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.

But Hamid’s ordeal was witnessed by a Times of London journalist last week shortly after the burn victim was brought to a hospital in Tal Amr, around 40 kilometres south of Hamid’s hometown of Ras al-Ayn. The boy’s family had made an all-night, 12-hour journey through a conflict zone and little Hamid had been without morphine or painkillers for half-a-day by the time he was admitted into the hospital.

Times journalist Anthony Loyd reported how people moaning from war injuries at the hospital fell silent with Hamid’s bloodcurdling cries of “Dad, Dad, stop the burning!” until a nurse managed to pump morphine into the screaming child.

The UK daily showed photographs of the injured boy to a chemical weapons expert who said it “very much looks like it was caused by white phosphorus". Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a British chemical weapons expert, told the Times that: “White phosphorus is a horrific weapon, which can be delivered by aircraft or artillery. It reacts to the moisture in the skin in a way that intensifies its burning, so that water cannot put it out.”

Syrian Kurdish exodus into Iraqi Kurdistan

Hamid may be safely in France now but he and his family are unlikely to return anytime soon to their Syrian hometown, Ras al-Ayn.

As Russian military police began patrols on the Syria-Turkey border following an agreement between Moscow and Ankara, Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters unfurled the flags of their forces and Turkey on a building that had reportedly been the Kurdish fighters' headquarters, according to footage aired on Turkish channel NTV.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey would not resume its offensive if Kurdish fighters stayed out of the border area.

But that has not stopped a mass exodus of Syrian Kurds into Iraqi Kurdistan, where thousands of traumatised civilians are being housed in a camp that was set up in 2014 for Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State (IS) group.

“The refugees come hungry, tired, traumatised after walking for hours to cross the border,” said Ravinder Singh, founder of the UK-based NGO, Khalsa Aid, speaking to FRANCE 24 in a phone interview from near the Sihelah border crossing from Syria to Iraq.

Despite the ceasefire, Haji from the Barzani Charity Fund said the numbers of refugees have been increasing in recent days. Shortly after the Turkish incursion began on October 9, around 500 to 700 Syrian Kurds crossed the border into Iraqi Kurdistan, said Haji. But the numbers soon climbed to the thousands as civilians began to take advantage of the ceasefire to flee their homes, villages and farms which have been taken over by Turkish-backed hardline Islamist fighters who are sworn enemies of the largely leftist Kurds.

“These people have seen war, firing, conflict, they have been displaced before, this situation is so sad,” sighed Haji. “We are asking for more international support because if it goes on like this, we are going to need help.”

For now, Hamid is getting the medical care he needs. But the one thing the little boy, his family and his people will not enjoy is the luxury of not asking for help. For a historically oppressed people on the move again, self-sufficiency or self-determination are not in their cards anytime soon.

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