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Kobani's resistance

Hermione Gee, Kobani, SyriaDecember 22, 2014

The battle for the Syrian town of Kobani has been raging for over three months. Though outgunned by "Islamic State" militants, Kurdish forces are gaining ground - but it's a dangerous task, as Hermione Gee discovered.

Image: DW/H. Gee

Keeping the night watch at a border outpost at the edge of Kobani earlier this month, one member of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, stood surveying the surrounding area, despite the near total darkness of the city's wartime blackout.

"IS are over there," he said, pointing southwards, "less than a kilometer away."

Cupping a cigarette in his hands to prevent it being seen by enemy snipers, he said that coalition airstrikes were giving YPG fighters some much-needed breathing space at a crucial moment.

"We only had one or two days left when they started bombing," he explained. "We were out of ammunition, everything."

Before the strikes began in early October, the YPG had been fighting "Islamic State" (IS) militants alone for 45 days. Outgunned and outnumbered, with Turkey preventing additional Kurdish fighters from crossing the border, no one expected the town to survive.

"The bravery and courage of our forces stopped IS," says Anwar Muslim, prime minister of the Canton of Kobani. "Then the coalition airstrikes began and the [Iraqi Kurdish] peshmerga also offered support, and our forces gained the initiative. Practically and psychologically, [IS] are now broken."

Man walking through mud copyright: Hermione Gee
Kobani resembles a ghost town, but the fighting spirit remainsImage: DW/H. Gee

Surge of optimism

The people of Kobani, on the other hand, are increasingly optimistic, buoyed by the recent steady success of the YPG. According to Kobani's defense minister, Ismat Sheikh Hasan, by mid-December, Kurdish forces had retaken control of 70 percent of the town.

"Planes hit the IS positions inside Kobani and are also targeting the reinforcements they try to send here," he says. "But no matter how hard the fighter jets hit them, without an effective force on the ground, it wouldn't change anything."

The YPG still needs more heavy weapons, and more air strikes, particularly on IS supply lines, Hasan says, if they are to be defeated.

But, predicts Prime Minister Muslim, "we are going to succeed. IS can no longer control Kobani. We know we will win this battle but we need to be patient."

Surviving the conditions inside Kobani, particularly as winter sets in and temperatures plummet, takes determination as well as patience.

Tough conditions

On a chilly December afternoon, 30-year-old Letfiya Aberkali Zelema is huddled around a small campfire outside her home in western Kobani. "We have no heat and no fuel," she explains. "We have to make fires outside and cook here."

Letfiya is one of hundreds of civilians still living in Kobani. While thousands of others fled across the border to Turkey when the fighting started, Letfiya's family decided to stay.

Women sitting around fire copyright: Hermione Gee
Coping as best they can: Letfiya and her friends around their campfireImage: DW/H. Gee

"We don't want to leave," she says. "What would we do in another country? In Turkey they treat us like gypsies. This is our land. Why should we leave it for others? It's better to die here."

Although there are no shops left in the town, the local authority, run by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, organizes daily distributions of basic supplies to all local residents, including food, clothes and medicine. Even garbage collection continues, the garbage man tossing bags into the back of a small truck, shovel in one hand and a rifle strapped to his back.

Other than fuel, Letfiya says her biggest concern is her five children, who range in age from 18 months to 12-years-old. "They are afraid. We try to tell them everything is fine but if there's a mortar shell they get scared."

Today, however, the children are running around a large patch of wasteland in front of the house, laughing and taking turns on a small bicycle, occasionally coming back to the fire to warm up. Even the sound of a nearby mortar strike and intermittent gunfire doesn't interrupt their game.

"Somehow we're used to it now," Letfiya says. "This has been our life for months."

Fighting families

While Letfiya spends her days taking care of her family, most civilians are actively participating in the war effort.

"It's been three years that our people - even small children - know how to fight," says 22-year-old Ahmed Ismael. "Everyone has learned how to use a weapon."

A former carpenter, Ahmed joined the resistance four months ago.

Based in a small house in the now destroyed market area of Kobani, he helps provide support to the front line, bringing food and ammunition to fighters, or transporting injured soldiers to hospital.

Members of the local resistance have knocked holes in the walls between the terraced houses so they can cross the town under the somewhat safer cover of the buildings. Large sheets are hung across the entrance of some streets to protect people from nearby IS snipers.

"We are fighting for our freedom," he says. "We are fighting so that our lives can go back to normal."

Mahmoud Salih, 50, and his wife Khadija Yusef, 40, have also remained. They initially tried to flee to nearby Turkey when the fighting started, but soon turned back.

Small town, big heart

woman sitting on ground copyright: Hermione Gee
Staying put: The people of Kobani are determined to see off "IS"Image: DW/H. Gee

"When we were at the border area, IS would shell the area and the Turkish army did not do anything. So, we decided it was more honorable to go back," Mahmoud explains, sitting on the sidewalk outside his house, making tea over a small gas ring for himself and his neighbors. Disabled since birth, he's unable to walk unassisted.

"I told my wife to go to Turkey where she would be safe. But she said, 'I'll stay with you; if you die, I'll die with you. IS has already destroyed too many lives.'"

"It's difficult but we are coping," Mahmoud says. "Kobani might be a small town but we have a big heart."

Over the course of the conflict, it has also developed a fierce and hard-won pride.

"Of all the areas in Syria, it was only the people of Kobani who wouldn't surrender to IS," says Prime Minister Anwar Muslim. "People said we will fight, and many became refugees, but we refuse to live with IS and its ideology. We showed that if people fight and resist, IS can be defeated."