"Welcome to Stalingrad. Welcome to Kobane," said a Kurdish militant, starting his car. A mad dash across the closed Turkish border had just brought us into the majority Kurdish Syrian town, then nearing its 100th day of fighting off a brutal siege by the Islamic State. The jihadists have blitzed it since mid-September from the south, west, and east after taking over all the nearby towns, sending wave after wave of fighters for more than three months.
The Kurdish militia defending the city, the People's Protection Units (YPG), have made progress in pushing back the Islamic State back in recent weeks, but it was still necessary for the YPG fighter driving to keep the headlights off so as not to draw attention to the vehicle. All across the city, hardened YPG fighters are still on guard, defending against new Islamic State attacks daily and pushing forward, block by block and house by house.
When VICE News arrived in late December, the YPG had effectively pushed the Islamic State outside the city center. One YPG commander said they controlled 75 percent of the city, but that appeared an over-estimation, and a sizeable portion is changing hands regularly. Fierce street battles have mostly given way to mortar and rocket attacks, as well as constant sniper fights.
A walk along the eastern front shows the scale of devastation from more than three months of siege, mortars, airstrikes, and close-quarter street fighting. Half the town now lies in ruins. Since the US, faced with the black flag of the Islamic State fluttering on the doorstep of Europe, began to lead airstrikes on Kobane in September, it has become the area most heavily bombed by the alliance in all of Syria.
The attention on Kobane has come into question. The city holds little strategic interest in Syria's civil war. The Islamic State already controls border crossings to the east and west, and appears to operate in a tacit détente with Turkey. Tactically, it holds minimal value for Kurdish forces, as it is far from the other Kurdish Cantons of Cizire and Efrin.
And yet, despite the lack of Western journalists inside Kobane, the siege has captured international media attention and become the prime focus of the coalition bombing campaign. According to Central Command data, 76 percent of all airstrikes in Syria had been focused on Kobane.
Kobane has also become an international symbol of resistance against the Islamic State. An under-armed Kurdish force, known for its secular principles and gender equality, fought to push off the better-equipped Islamic State, which bulldozed its way through Syria and Iraq with few losses. Meanwhile, the battle of Kobane made its way to the forefront of the propaganda battle on social media. Analysts theorized about what it would mean if the Islamic State could take the city — even in the face of coalition airstrikes — or, on the converse, if the YPG could succeed in pushing the militants back.
The fight is now mostly a game of angles. Sniper screens — big tarps, blankets, sheets, anything that could be used to block vision — hang in almost any open space within hundreds of yards of the frontline. Perwer Ali Muhammad, a high school teacher turned Kurdish journalist and guide after he elected to stay in Kobane when most of its residents fled north to the Turkish border in September, advised those with him to cling to the walls, to be wary of mortars and stray bullets even in areas hundreds of meters from the front.
"The frontline is almost safer, because the mortars come anywhere at any time," he said. His home was recently damaged by a mortar, and he now stays in a house with several other local journalists.
YPG sources say that the Islamic State is launching between 10 and 200 mortars a day. Unexploded ordinance and shrapnel are everywhere, barely getting a second glance from locals, as are the remains of buildings blown out by explosions. On walks around town, Kurdish journalists point out where the businesses and houses of friends used to stand. Some of them haven't been able to get to their homes in months; they are located within territory controlled by the Islamic State.
The neighborhoods on the eastern side of the town, where the frontlines are still heavily active, are eerily empty of all normal activity except for a few people making their way through the rubble, or a bulldozer clearing debris. If there are civilians left, they are hiding inside their apartments.
YPG fighters, however, are everywhere. They materialize out of the shells of buildings, climbing through holes sledgehammered through walls or walking purposefully in small groups out of side doors. We spend hours following them, clambering over rubble, through apartments littered with debris of abandoned lives, stepping over mattresses, clothes, yearbook pictures, dresses, dishes, and family photos. We walk behind the huge blankets and tarps, sprinting and ducking when needed, traipsing in and around over blasted concrete.
Some fighters decide to accompany us and lead us through apartment complexes or streets turned into improvised bases, while others man checkpoints at roads blocked off with burnt out cars and trucks. There are sniper holes at some; they insist we glance through and take a look at Islamic State positions. Others give us chocolate bars, sunflower seeds, and cigarettes and insist we join them for tea, no matter the proximity of the jihadis.
On the northern side of Kobane lies the border with Turkey. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled across it over the past few months, the biggest wave in mid-September when it appeared the town's fall was a foregone conclusion. The Turkish government is wary of the YPG because of its affiliation with the Turkish Kurdish militant group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a 30-year separatist insurgency. Turkey has done little to alleviate the siege and even arrested and imprisoned some Kurdish civilians fleeing the battle.
Kurds in Syria and Turkey have in turn accused the Turkish government of condoning the Islamic State attack, even being complicit in it, for their lack of action, and for making it difficult for civilians, reinforcements, and aid to cross across the border despite a previous relatively lax control policy regarding jihadi groups.
The YPG have received some help: airdrops of aid and weapons accompanied the start of US-led airstrikes, and the Turkish government agreed to allow in a small force of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga equipped with heavy artillery. Yet they are still underarmed against the Islamic State's tanks, artillery, and copious mortars. Electricity, heating, medicine, food, water, and gas are in short supply. They have no radars, no bulletproof vests, and no night-vision goggles. They must be on guard across the town at all times, yet many appear relaxed. At one base, a female fighter — from the YPG's Women's Protection Units (YPJ) — jokes around with a toy snake, scaring her comrades as another one informs us that the Islamic State is located only 150 feet away.
One YPG guide stops to point out graffiti — the names of three Islamic State fighters scrawled on a wall. Across a courtyard is a base formerly held by the group, leveled by an airstrike. In areas retaken from the extremists, the charred bodies of Islamic State fighters lay strewn about. Some have been burned by their fellow militants to avoid being identified, others by the aerial attacks. The stench of corpses wafts from rubble.
The airstrikes come mostly at night. Locals scream out "Obama!" whenever one shakes the ground. The YPG says they help, but more are needed. An officer who gives his name as Commander Bilnk said that the YPG are advancing, but without heavy weapons they can only move slowly. "If they (the US) coordinated with us very precisely on the ground, we could clear Kobane in a week," he added.
Even so, morale is astonishingly high among the mostly young fighters. They are usually smiling when encountered, and display little fear or anxiety. Many have already stayed their ground when it seems like the Islamic State would overrun their positions; now, with the militants pushed back and losing more ground every day, their confidence is evident.
The standard talking points spouted by Kurdish fighting groups, especially within the YPG, have become particularly clichéd. Fighters typically won't answer questions without the permission of their superiors, and when they receive permission they only speak in well-rehearsed phrases often repeated in every interview: "We fight for equality, we are not scared of IS, we will die for our land and our freedom, until the last drop of blood."
In other situations, these words can sometimes ring hollow, but in Kobane, they are undoubtedly true.
Many of the fighters holding Kobane were born and raised in the city, and know every street, every alley. Other fighters are from Efrin, another Kurdish city in Syria, or Turkey. Some have joined the YPG specifically to defend their home; others have been fighting with the group — or with the PKK — for years, driven by ideology or their notion of Kurdish identity.
At a building near the Turkish border, a young YPJ fighter said she used to be a geography student, but left her studies five months earlier. Her parents still think she is in Turkey. She was living in the Turkish city of Izmir and didn't know how to speak Kurdish. She was "away from the culture" and suffered anti-Kurdish discrimination.
She began reading the words of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, and was heavily influenced by them, she said. Feeling the need to rediscover her identity, she decided to come to Kobane.
Asked why she chose a place under attack from the Islamic State, rather than safer Kurdish towns in southern Turkey like Diyarbakir or Derik, the fighter said she came because her people needed her. "If need be, I will go to other places to fight," she added.
Like many of the others, she insists that she doesn't miss her family and no longer thinks about them. Her family is conservative and wanted her to lead a more traditional life, she said. One of the reasons she joined the YPJ is to fight "to get rid of masculine mentality."
Three stories above her, Zozan and Avashin crouch behind sandbags on a roof, clutching their rifles. A flock of pigeons flutters whenever a shot from a sniper cracks nearby. Both in their early 20s, they were students prior to the fighting — "normal girls," they say.
They too think not of their loved ones but of how to protect "their" civilians, they insist. "They are our family now," Avashin said. "Many journalists come, just taking pictures of women holding weapons, but we are holding weapons for our own rights, for rights of Kurds, for rights of women," she added.
The fight for Kobane has had a silver lining for their people, the young women say. "Almost four years ago no one knew about Kurdish suffering. Now with the Islamic State attack, the whole world is paying attention to us," Avashin said.
Many, however, have died. A Swedish journalist, one of the last to leave Kobane months earlier when it looked like the town was about to fall, shows the women a magazine that published some of his previous photographs. He is searching for a YPJ fighter he photographed, trying to find out if she is still alive. Avashin and Zozan flip through the images, pointing out everyone they know. Nearly all have been killed. It is hard to find anyone in Kobane that has not lost a family member during the Islamic State siege.
Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs, are of most concern to many of the YPG fighters on the frontlines. The Islamic State has sent dozens of the car bombs towards them, sometimes multiple vehicles at once. All the fighters can do is fire rounds at the car, hoping they hit the driver or the explosives.
A few weeks earlier, three car bombs had struck right near the Mursitpinar gate, the official crossing with Turkey. A massive crater lay next to a destroyed building where one had hit and a single bulldozer cleared rubble nearby. Kurds took the bombings as evidence that the Turkish border guards were helping the Islamic State, insisting there was no way that the cars could have come from anywhere but Turkey.
A few blocks away, an Islamic State VBIED leveled one of Kobane's hospitals. The group regularly targets medical facilities, forcing doctors to keep moving their clinics and the main hospital is now operating underground. It consists of two rooms, one stacked with boxes of supplies, and another that contains nothing but a table with a stethoscope laid on it. This is the operating room.
"We need so much equipment and medicine," said Manaf Kitkani, a pharmacist turned medic, as fighters filter in and out of the room. "This is not enough."
Kitkani now finds himself serving a doctor's role. The city currently has 10 doctors, two pharmacists, and three nurses. Some are able to go to Turkey for an occasional, brief rest. Kitkani's family is there, but he elected to stay in Kobane, against some of his relatives' wishes, because he felt an obligation to his town.
Kitkani said that the only way to get more medicine in is with people who are smuggled across the border, carrying small amounts. There is no international aid effort in Kobane, and while many requests for humanitarian assistance have been made, most of its support comes only from Kurdish civilians and political parties in the Turkish border town of Suruc. Suruc itself is already stretched to capacity, with refugee tent camps dotted along the sides of its roads.
Inside Kobane, the familiar rhythms of town life have disappeared. There are no shops open, no heat, no power, and the winter cold and rain have only stretched what little resources are left even further. The YPG provides basic food and water to civilians, but even those staples are said to be running low.
In the familiar narrative of the Syrian war, everyone in Kobane now has a new role. Students turned fighters, bakers turned aid workers, teenagers turned transportation experts, gas and cigarette smugglers turned people traffickers. The entire town is geared toward the fight.
Mahmoud, a 36-year-old iron-worker turned frontline fighter, sat in a backroom of the first floor of an apartment complex, wood and mattresses propped up against open windows and holes in the wall. He repeated the familiar refrain of needing heavy weapons to clear out the Islamic State. His family is living in Turkey and he hasn't seen them in months but said that in some moments, he no longer missed them.
He soon tired of questions about the war effort. "We're normal human beings," he said. "We don't like clashes, we like peace. We're not war lovers."
He clutched his AK-47. "This weapon kills a human," he said, holding up the gun. "We don't want to use this thing."
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