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The Human Toll Of Turkey's Invasion Into Northern Syria


Vice President Pence today announced that Turkey has agreed to a cease-fire in northern Syria that will permit Kurdish forces to withdraw from the area. But the Turkish offensive has already taken a heavy toll on civilians in the region. More than 150,000 people have been driven from their homes in search of safety. That's according to the U.N. Dozens of others have been killed and hundreds wounded.

NPR's Jane Arraf is across the border from Syria in the Kurdistan region of Iraq where refugees are fleeing. Now, she spoke with us from the city of Dohuk about the scale of the humanitarian crisis.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This has come up so quickly, and it was already a remote part of the region that it's difficult to tell with any certainty things like numbers. But it's clear that it is dire. So Kurdish aid groups say 218 civilians, including 18 children, have been killed since the assault started a week ago. If you talk to international aid organizations, for instance, they put that number at much less - less than half.

But whatever it is, people will have been being killed both because of the shelling, the strikes and because they haven't been able to get to medical facilities. We spoke a short while ago to an ambulance driver with the Kurdish Red Crescent, operating in northeast Syria. And he said another ambulance was attacked today, with several medics and a driver killed.

There are also hundreds of thousands of people - possibly 200,000 people - on the move. These are people who have been displaced over and over, and they've now left their homes again. They're trying to get to safety. Some of them are trying to get across the border to Iraq. But in a lot of these places, there are very few facilities for them - not even drinking water. So that, again, is very grim.

CORNISH: Right. You've been speaking to some of these refugees as they've come across the border. What are you seeing? What do they tell you?

ARRAF: We were at the refugee camp where they've been taken to. And these are busloads of women and children, mostly, along with a few men, who were bussed from the borders.


ARRAF: So the buses roll into this refugee camp that has been here for some time 'cause there have been waves of refugees. And they arrive at this reception center, which is a big hangar. You can see tents in the distance that they'll be taken to. Now, a lot of these people have fled their homes many times, but this is the first time they've actually become refugees, leaving their own country to seek safety.

There's one woman, a schoolteacher from the city of Qamishli, who told us she left because she and her children were terrified by the shelling.

JAH HRASSO: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Jah Hrasso (ph) says they didn't think they'd see the sunrise. And she says they came to Iraq because she says, as she puts it, their Kurdish brothers here would take care of them. And that's true. There are Kurdish charities that are feeding them. The U.N. is housing them. But there are a lot of others who are still trying to get in.

CORNISH: Finally, Jane, what impact is this new deal likely to have on people who'd been living in the region?

ARRAF: Well, you know, when that announcement was made, there was celebratory gunfire in some of those cities. But not everybody is celebrating because basically, what it means is an agreement for a 30-mile-deep buffer zone. People have fled the towns and the villages in that buffer zone already, and they're having trouble finding places to stay. They're having trouble finding food and water. They're not expected to be able to go back.

So this is great that the cease-fire means - if the cease-fire holds, it means that there won't be active shelling, but it does mean that that crisis of lack of medical facilities, lack of food, lack of assistance, lack of international NGOs and almost 200,000 displaced people - that crisis persists.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Iraq.

Thank you for your reporting.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.