Life and Death in the Wake of an ISIS Siege

Life and Death in the Wake of an ISIS Siege

Inside the city of Kobani, which has weathered some of the worst fighting in the Syrian war.
June 22, 2016, 12:00am

Photographs by Giacomo Maria Sini

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

This essay is adapted from To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution, edited by Dilar Dirik et al, Autonomedia, Brooklyn, January 2016. These photographs are from Giacomo Maria Sini's series "On the Route to Kobani," taken between February 2015 and September 2015.


In Kobani, the battlefield dead are brought to the House of the Martyrs, the body washed, the wounds stitched. Then the family comes, and the corpse is buried.

The building consists of a high-ceilinged room the size of a small soccer field with nothing but a bare wooden table in the center for receiving bodies.

In the middle of this immense nothing is a plain wooden table, carrying the weight of all those who came before and those still to come.

There is an allowance of $200 for the families of the dead, paid every month, forever. Relatives and concerned people form support groups that meet every week. In addition, two women and two men from the house visit every home of the dead once a week, asking about problems, which they try to fix.

The 120-day siege of the city by the Islamic State, ending with its retreat in late February 2015, has been compared to the 1936 siege of Madrid by Fascists in the Spanish Civil War because of the David versus Goliath disproportion of forces and because of the startling principles involved. Kobani, pressed up against the border with Turkey, has since 2011 reportedly become a feminist, anti-patriarchal, and some say anarchist enclave along with two other cantons in Kurdish Syria that Kurds call Rojava, meaning "west" or "where the sun sets." This is an astonishing development in the Middle East, and it is quite incredible that it is not better known in the West.

After the siege, it was suggested that three heavily bombed areas of the city should be retained just as they are, and certain neighborhoods should be renamed after martyrs. The buildings and areas would be chosen for the heroism of the fighting there, not for aesthetics.

Terrifying and sublime, the ruins are indeed monumental. Yet it is strange, is it not, to deny the hand of the artist in favor of the hand of history?

But now the owners of those places want their property restored.

Then there are the dogs, anti-monuments that make your blood freeze.

They would come out of nowhere, we were told, these dogs of war, and eat the corpses. They got fat. They went crazy, and they were killed. They went wild.

People repeated this story. At times, it seemed like the only story. It was as if it was meant to sum up the siege, but in fact, it resisted interpretation. You scratched your head, wallowing in the pathos. It was overwhelming. Dogs. Man's best friend.

There was another monster story locals told. Desperate when faced with ISIS's armed vehicles and tanks, the Kobani combatants fashioned backhoes into attack vehicles by welding ¾-inch steel around them. Mad Max outfits. On their cellphones, they heard incredulous ISIS voices (as the story goes): "Something is coming!"

Locals said you could still smell the bodies of ISIS fighters coming from the ruins at night. But I never did, and I wondered, later on, rereading my notes, whether this expressed the convergence of political history with natural history that Walter Benjamin writes about in his essay "The Origin of German Tragic Drama"—a convergence that becomes supernatural along with death passing into the petrified, timeless landscape.


To get to Kobani, I waited at the border for Turkish clearance. It was May 2015. Although the Turkish government has allegedly allowed ISIS fighters through, the border is otherwise closed. Land mines dot no-man's-land, and smugglers are said to drive their donkeys in advance to test the route. As a foreigner, I could pass into Syria legally, but without permission from the Ankara-appointed governor of Suruc (a largely Kurdish border town), I would be refused reentry.

In the Suruc Cultural Center, a chain-smoking, ever-alert expert on smuggling laid out the risks of crossing illegally. There's a one in a 1,000 chance of getting arrested or shot on the way back into Turkey, he said. But then he made a phone call and revised his estimate. "No! It's one in a hundred." (Two months later, an ISIS suicide bomber targeted this cultural center and the volunteers inside, who were on their way to Kobani.)

While waiting for an audience with the governor, we drove out to the border and gazed across. Hundreds of Kurdish-Syrian refugees had watched the siege from here. Two old railway carriages stood in the distance on the Syrian side, reminders of the Ottoman railway built by Germans in the early 20th century to connect Baghdad with Berlin (imagine!). A spiffy tank stood guard along with a huge Turkish flag dwarfing a shepherd following black goats, while the harvesting of winter wheat proceeded on the Turkish side of the border at a leisurely pace oblivious to war.

After two days, the governor classified us as "human rights workers," and he gave us permission to cross. A police "stamp" was necessary. I dozed on a bench at the police station, waiting. A man came with a torn-off piece of paper the size of a finger asking me to write down the name of my father. He left. I slept some more. What seemed like hours passed. He returned with another tiny slip of paper wanting the name of my mother. Slept again. Suddenly it was done—allegedly punched into the cellphones of officialdom.


The eastern half of Kobani is a gigantic ruin shrouded in heat and silence. Thanks to ISIS and steady US bombing changing the tide of war, the buildings, all of concrete brick, were sepulchral. They drew you in with their silent suffering and untold stories. On finding out I was from the West, an elderly man tearfully thanked me.

Another man carried a pail of cement to fix a low wall surrounding what was left of his house; a patient man, he worked in Turkey a few months and with the money bought the cement. Reconstruction. At a snail's pace, brick by brick, with the scalding bright orange of pomegranate trees in full bloom. He wouldn't use the bricks scattered in the ruins around as they belonged to others. Thirty miles away, ISIS was fighting. Maybe closer. Rumors. Fifty thousand olive trees burned by ISIS that week. Kurdish combatants killed yesterday. Mines a huge problem. Water? An old pump for sucking water out of a well, powered by gasoline (smuggled in from Turkey at a large markup). A young man displayed his two billiard tables, the green felt saturated in the dust of destruction. ISIS had taken the balls.

Dependent on translators, and caught up in the fast-moving situations and the complexity of the ongoing wars, I scribbled furiously in my notebook, overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all—by the openness of people, their crazy generosity, and the splendor of their cause, a first in the Middle East, if not in world history.

When we met fighters, I saw that the men's insignia on the left upper arm of their camouflage uniform is a star on a yellow background; the women's, however, is green—"for the environment," a woman combatant told me. They're fighting, they say, for feminism, for ethnic pluralism, and for the land. Around the waist, female and male, there is often a traditional Kurdish eight-inch-high waistband of patterned material that, in a striking way, draws the body in. But there is also this narrow waistband over that, carrying grenades, each with its big loop of steel that I guess is the pin you pull to set it off. A serene woman aged about 30 with rimless glasses told us how they kill themselves when death from ISIS seems certain.


With her finger, she extracted a grenade from her belt.

I noted a lot of the "techniques of the body": the thinness of the men; how we slept, male and female separate; shoes off on entering a house; the toilet at floor level shaped like a large keyhole over which you had to squat (this is a "culture of the squat," such hips!); the food, especially the large rounds of wheat flatbread that serve as food, spoon, and plate (wheat and rye were first domesticated in eastern Turkey, meaning Kurdistan); eating on the floor with legs folded like the bread (ouch!); the insane number of cigarettes smoked by the visiting health workers and a Turkish surgeon (who was operating during the siege); the absence of alcohol and the absence of the call for prayer. But that wide waistband with or without grenades, together with that technique of the body known as celibacy, still sticks most in my mind.

Was I, a nice suburban boy from white Australia, seduced by these women fighters with their aura of celibacy and suicide?

Visitors have paid them much attention, inevitably so; for women warriors are, in this day and age, not exactly commonplace outside of salacious photo-ops. Indeed, female guerrilla units in any part of the world arouse all manner of questions, fear, adoration, and mythologies.

The women spoke of collective suicide when ISIS surrounded them. They spoke of lying down on the body of a comrade dying on the battlefield and awaiting death with them, of apologizing on one's phone when dying before disposing of one's cellphone, codes, and weapons.

The emphasis on self-immolation struck me as strange and made me anxious, all the more so because the women were so calm and confident.

They also spoke of ISIS fighters whom they hear on their cellphones, speaking mainly English or Russian (Chechen), not Arabic, and they related conversations with them. "We will behead you," they say. "You are infidels and pigs." Yet these women frighten ISIS. It's a visceral, mystical fear, like what Georges Bataille and Julia Kristeva call "abjection." "If killed by a woman," some ISIS members reportedly believe, "they will not go to heaven."


One day, we were sitting around a table, ten of us, four women and six men under a tree in the garden of a two-story, concrete-brick farmhouse about 20 miles from Kobani, as close to the front with ISIS as was deemed safe. Orchards and fields full of thistles hiding ISIS mines and booby traps surrounded us. To get there, we'd passed through a deserted town called Sexlere, which freaked me out more than the ruins of Kobani. I wondered why. Was it the absence of people? Was it because there were no ruins? Was it because "the front" is so indeterminate?

There was a stationary cart loaded with a mattress and furniture. The windows throughout Sexlere were shattered. Doors flapped in the wind. A shadow moved. A slender guerrilla fighter detached him- or herself from a doorway and waved on our pencil-thin driver with his black hair combed forward over his forehead. (I never saw a female driver.) Our chauffeur was 19, very serious, with a pistol in his shoulder holster, a Kalashnikov on his lap, and an M-16 by the gear stick. He drove like the wind. The Kalashnikov is for bursts of fire, a Kurdish friend of mine, Ismet, had told me. The M-16 is the sniper's weapon.

At the farmhouse, a wood fire was boiling the water for tea, its smoke blending with the smoke of endless cigarettes. A minaret—the first I had seen in Kurdish Syria—poked above a wall against which were stacked a bunch of car tires. An astonishing sheep lay as if dead to the world in the corner, its wool orange-tinted and black, a creature from another world.

This was one of the rather rare "mixed" groups of male and female combatants. They were in their 30s, all in fatigues. The women did all the talking, dressed in baggy pants called salvar. One woman spoke English and had two brothers studying electrical engineering in Ivy League universities in the US. "What do they think of their crazy sister?" I asked. But before she answered, Nazan, my Turkish colleague, had a more pointed question, addressed to one of the silent men whose face I drew because of its deep furrows, more furrows than face, you could say. Lines of history. Lines of sun. Lines of questioning.

"How have women affected your morale?" Nazan asked him, direct and feisty, as is her way, and the response, in abbreviated shorthand-translation (which must make his answer seem like a bunch of slogans), was to the effect that: The men are trying to see the world through women's eyes, to be like them. Women see the world differently. We feel stronger with them. We always fight together. Sometimes we have a woman commander. They can be badass cruel. Other times a man. Everyday tasks are carried out equally. Women are half of society. They are no longer slaves to men.

Slogans? Maybe. But not the kind you hear elsewhere.

They expressed sadness at their losses, joy at the return of the farmers all around, hampered nevertheless by mines. It would be at least a year before they could cultivate.

Obviously there was a huge need for mine-detection experts. I could not understand why there were not some at work and why all the people with whom I spoke seemed unconcerned. It was as if mines had become part of nature, commonplace and inevitable.

But later, after we returned to Kobani, I bumped into four bewildered, hump-backed figures, stout of build with huge backpacks, just-arrived ex-army demolition experts from New Zealand, the UK, and France, commissioned by a Danish NGO. They worried about the homemade booby traps, they said. Still, four seemed woefully insufficient. It was a relief to hear them say that they also planned to teach demolition to the locals.


I got the feeling in Kobani that I was in the midst not so much of an ideological as a cosmological shift, something seismic.

I asked myself, But what of ISIS? Is that not seismic, too?

Are we facing a "Hegelian moment" in which two symmetrically opposed contenders have erupted onto the stage of history? Is the Hegelian Aufhebung being replayed with the Middle East at the center of history's great drama?

As for anarchism and feminism, the words sympathetic outsiders have applied to Rojava, I want so much to place quotation marks around these terms in a vain effort to reinvigorate their power and strangeness. I want to ask how far these ideas spread to "ordinary" people in Kobani or in the other two cantons in free (Kurdish) Syria. But it's hard for me to know or make claims, especially on account of the trauma of the siege.

Walking through the dust of the wind-blown ruins one day, I was greeted enthusiastically like the Pied Piper by well-dressed, well-fed, happy kids attached to a woman in her 40s in a long yellow gown, who spoke effusively about resistance to the siege without once pausing for breath. It seemed like she really wanted to—had to—talk, and the kids hung on every word. One ten-year-old had a toy camera with which, held upside down and back to front, he would photograph us photographing Kobani. The woman related stories, dry and factual (at least in translation), like Herodotus or Heidegger on "the plenitude and particularity of facts." This girl always slept with her shoes on, the woman told me. Over there was a splendid store of gold jewelry torn apart by ISIS. When the owner saw that, he went crazy. On and on.

But once we met up with her wounded husband in their half-shattered large concrete-brick home, she sat silent as a clam in the corner with the girls on the balcony surrounded by pink oleander flowers while he spoke all the time until a ten-year-old girl sang wildly beautiful Kurdish revolutionary war songs with that pealing cry like wind through high-tension wires.

The minister of foreign affairs drove up in a modest car and joined our conversation. He sat quietly, a handsome, elegant man of thoughtful mien in his early 50s who had had investments in Somalia, I believe, in oil, but he abandoned or sold all that to return to his hometown of Kobani to fight ISIS.

The political officials are called vezir, an Arabic word used by Kurds to mean "minister." While all administrative positions in Kurdish Syria are said to have bi-gendered and rotating representation, and although I met confident, smiling women combatants, I never met a woman co-president in Kobani, though I did encounter one woman English translator (not that skillful) and women secretaries. There were no women in the black luxury car full of Kobani ministers being whisked through the border on their way to Turkey when we went through. And for all the celebration of women, it is always a man, Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader, whose portrait adorns "official" spaces. Ocalan insists on feminism and confederalism. Of course, it's a feminism that means more than a focus on women; it is underlined as remaking men.


In conversation with a man crossing the border, whose two daughters were combatants, I wondered what it must be like "losing" your daughters to the guerrillas. They say when someone joins the defense forces of the Syrian Kurds or the Turkish PKK guerrillas, they are unlikely to see their family again and have to be celibate, which means, among other things, not having children, and I assume this applies as much to men as to women.

The justification of celibacy proffered is that it eases the anxieties of the women's families, the honor of their girls is intact, romantic involvements get in the way of doing your job, and your capacity for love gets transmuted into love for the group.

Do the Kurdish guerrillas therefore provide its women and men with a new "family," merging something like a nation-state that is also an anti-state with something like a family that is not a family but an anti-family?

Are the guerrilla forces castes of beings serenely distant from the flesh, like nuns and monks in the Christian Church, but with M-16s and rocket launchers?

Is celibacy the initiation rite into the secret society of warriors, female or male, parallel to what the anthropologist Pierre Clastres saw as the role of torture among the Mandan Indians of Missouri, this torture (if that's the right word) instituting a protection, if not a guarantee, against the coagulation of power and the formation of a state?

In any event, the formation of female guerrilla combatants (some 40 percent of the Kurdish guerrillas) is a unique phenomenon in both the Middle East and the world at large. In Israel, much cited in regard to female soldiers, the corresponding figure for women in combat roles is 3 percent, the majority of women in the IDF serving in traditional female roles as clerks, nurses, and drivers—alongside attractive women cuddling machine guns in photographs on the internet.

All guerrilla armies, hidden in forests and mountains and the cities of the Middle East, exist physically but not spiritually outside of society and are endowed with great mystical potential (with which the epithet "terrorist" unwittingly connives). But here in Kurdistan, their aura is augmented with sexual characteristics that stem from the negative magical power long associated with women under patriarchy as "the second sex"—the sex of the left hand and evil eye, of the horror of menstruation and black magic—and therefore hedged in by taboos (honor, the veil, etc.). Not for nothing did one of the pioneer thinkers of ethnology, the great Marcel Mauss, single out women and death as the outstanding sources of highly dangerous magical power in human history.

The genius move, the alchemical move, is to flip this from a negative to a positive, while retaining the negative as a threatening, hidden power (that becomes overt with the gun and grenade). In Kobani, patriarchy trembles, so to speak, as the demon it has created rises from the ashes, and ISIS fears more than anything else to be killed by a woman.

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.