This arti­cle is based on a series of inter­views done in Kobanê in Jan­u­ary 2017.
The author, Mar­got Cassiers, is a staff mem­ber at the Kur­dish Insti­tute in Brus­sels (Bel­gium).

En français : Kobanê, deux ans après Daesh

We enter the city at night, but at a time when no dark­ness is allowed. It is the 26th of Jan­u­ary 2017, the night before Kobanê cel­e­brates the two year anniver­sary of its lib­er­a­tion from Daesh (IS). The Ceme­tery of Mar­tyrs, which was built after the lib­er­a­tion, is alive and alight. This evening is ded­i­cat­ed to the many com­bat­ants who lost their lives — and to those who con­tin­ue to do so — to pro­tect the city and the wider region of Roja­va from its many foes. At the ceme­tery entrance, com­bat­ants and their friends are danc­ing and singing to cel­e­brate vic­to­ry, no mat­ter the cost. But beyond the cheer­ing is intense mourn­ing and pray­ing: the ceme­tery itself is haunt­ing­ly lit with can­dles on every tomb­stone, a visu­al reminder of just how much this war has cost Kobanê.

In Jan­u­ary 2015, Kobanê became a world-wide sym­bol for resis­tance against Daesh and vic­to­ry against all odds. A small and poor­ly equipped group of YPG/YPJ fight­ers, backed by some allies from the Free Syr­i­an Army and Iraqi Kur­dish peshmerga’s and with US air sup­port, man­aged to take back the city from Daesh. Kobanê had been under siege since Octo­ber 2014, which had gen­er­at­ed a stream of almost half a mil­lion refugees towards the Turk­ish bor­der. Although most inhab­i­tants were able to flee in time when Daesh came, still about 500 civil­ians and 700 com­bat­ants lost their lives dur­ing the siege and the ensu­ing bat­tle. The parts of the city that were under Daesh con­trol were ful­ly recap­tured on 27 Jan­u­ary 2015. In the months fol­low­ing it, the rest of the can­ton was also recon­quered. This vic­to­ry proved to be a turn­ing point in the war against Daesh, and fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the view of YPG and YPJ fight­ers in the rest of the world.

Two years lat­er the war in Syr­ia is ongo­ing, with reg­u­lar new peaks of hor­ror and increas­ing­ly com­plex inter­na­tion­al involve­ment. In the midst of this grue­some war, the region known as Roja­va (since Decem­ber 2016 offi­cial­ly named ‘Demo­c­ra­t­ic Fed­er­al Sys­tem of North­ern Syr­ia’) has been rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble and has start­ed rebuild­ing its post war soci­ety, in the broad­est sense of the term. We vis­it­ed Kobanê, two years after its lib­er­a­tion, to wit­ness a city in ruins being rebuilt.

People here love their land

Kobanê has remained an impor­tant sym­bol of resilience and has become the van­guard of recon­struc­tion work in the area. This is painful­ly nec­es­sary, as the city was found 80 per­cent destroyed after the lib­er­a­tion, with dead bod­ies still scat­tered among the rubble.

Despite the enor­mous destruc­tion, peo­ple start­ed return­ing to the city very quick­ly after the lib­er­a­tion. Berivan (25), who works for the Kobanê can­ton admin­is­tra­tion, explains. She, like many oth­er Kobanê res­i­dents, fled to the Kur­dish region in Turkey dur­ing the Daesh siege. After the lib­er­a­tion she came back. ‘Every­thing was destroyed’, she remem­bers. ‘But most peo­ple imme­di­ate­ly came back, because peo­ple here love Kobanê. A lot of fam­i­lies had to live in destroyed hous­es. But they did it, because they love their land and they didn’t want to leave.’ She states that there are now 216.000 to 300.000 peo­ple liv­ing in the whole can­ton, 60.000 in the city alone.


Berivan at the lib­er­a­tion feast on 27 Jan­u­ary 2017

Two years after the lib­er­a­tion, the city is still large­ly destroyed, but buzzing with ini­tia­tives to rebuild and recon­struct. The dri­ving force behind these rebuild­ing efforts is Kobanê Recon­struc­tion Board (KRB). The orga­ni­za­tion coor­di­nates recon­struc­tion work in the city and cre­ates pub­lic build­ings such as hos­pi­tals, schools, etc.

At KRB offices on the out­skirts of town, we meet some of the women who are work­ing hard to real­ize the efforts being made here. Rosa (25) is a civ­il engi­neer, Evin (21) does finan­cial man­age­ment and Fati­ma (40) does house­hold work. The three women have been work­ing for KRB since the very start and recall how far Kobanê has come in those two years: ‘In Feb­ru­ary 2015 there was absolute­ly noth­ing here. There were still bod­ies lying under the debris. There were no schools, there was not enough food, no water, no elec­tric­i­ty…’ Now most hous­es in the city have elec­tric­i­ty twelve to thir­teen hours a day. ‘There’s always water now. Two years ago there were no veg­eta­bles avail­able, now almost every­one has them.’


From left to right: Rosa, Fati­ma and Evin

How­ev­er, many dif­fi­cul­ties remain that ham­per recon­struc­tion efforts. Access to the region is blocked from four sides: Daesh, the Syr­i­an regime, the bor­der with the Kur­dish region in Iraq and the Turk­ish border.

Anna (not her real name) is a for­eign archi­tect who vol­un­teers for KRB. She spent about five months in Kobanê in 2016 and has just returned to work here again for a few months. She explains that KRB was cre­at­ed just after the war, by some engi­neers from Bakur, the Kur­dish region in Turkey. Back then there was easy access to Kobanê from Turkey, a sit­u­a­tion that has unfor­tu­nate­ly com­plete­ly changed at this point. (In ear­ly June 2017, Turk­ish author­i­ties had fin­ished a 700 km long wall across the Syr­i­an-Turk­ish border.)

Anna clar­i­fies that KRB exists of six engi­neers, two coor­di­na­tors, four finan­cial man­agers and about 400 work­ers. While talk­ing about the work the orga­ni­za­tion does, she says that in its dai­ly func­tion­ing, man­age­ment is even more impor­tant than design. ‘This is because we have to han­dle the sit­u­a­tion with very lim­it­ed resources. We are in a war zone, so we can’t waste any­thing, as that could mean a lack of mate­r­i­al for oth­er projects.’

Despite the work that has been done, Anna knows the recon­struc­tion of Kobanê will take time. ‘We aren’t just deal­ing with a lack of resources. All the infra­struc­ture is ruined and because of the embar­go we can’t import any­thing. How­ev­er, despite these dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, the work is going good.’ Anna vis­it­ed Kobanê for the first time in March 2015 and she is tru­ly impressed to see how much has been done since then.

The recon­struc­tion work that is going on in Kobanê isn’t just tech­ni­cal work, but also has an impor­tant ide­o­log­i­cal dimen­sion. The city, like the rest of Roja­va, is being rebuilt accord­ing to prin­ci­ples of basic democ­ra­cy, gen­der equal­i­ty, eco­log­i­cal respect and alter­na­tive econ­o­my – based on the writ­ings of impris­oned PKK leader Abdul­lah Öcalan about demo­c­ra­t­ic con­fed­er­al­ism. This in par­tic­u­lar attract­ed Anna to par­tic­i­pate in recon­struc­tion efforts. She is from a Mid­dle East­ern coun­try her­self and she believes that the efforts to fun­da­men­tal­ly rebuild soci­ety that are being made here, could inspire the rest of the region. That is why Anna want­ed to take part in what is going on in Roja­va and sup­port the wider move­ment that is orga­niz­ing recon­struc­tion efforts here – and she is not alone. Anna has sev­er­al oth­er inter­na­tion­al friends who came to the region to help where they can, which for some meant mil­i­tary ser­vice. For Anna, this meant using her archi­tec­tur­al skills to help rebuild Kobanê.

What she likes in par­tic­u­lar about KRB is that ‘there is a deep belief not to lim­it work to aca­d­e­m­ic or bureau­crat­ic stan­dards and not to behave like tech­nocrats. Rather, there should be an eth­i­cal approach to every­thing. For instance, if an engi­neer doesn’t have a good rela­tion­ship with the work­ers, he or she won’t be accept­ed. The whole sys­tem is based on ques­tions such as how can we work togeth­er and cre­ate some­thing togeth­er instead of just doing what an intel­lec­tu­al elite class tells you to do.’

How­ev­er, work­ing as a young female archi­tect and project coor­di­na­tor isn’t an easy thing in Kobanê’s cul­tur­al con­text. For Anna, that’s pre­cise­ly why work­ing at KRB is so inter­est­ing: ‘Here you have to be involved in every­thing, you can’t just sit in your office, regard­less if you’re a man or a woman. In the begin­ning it was dif­fi­cult for the work­ers, to do a project lead by a young woman. But this is pre­cise­ly the goal of the rev­o­lu­tion: to get women active­ly involved in every­thing. And after two months the two female engi­neers at KRB had their own projects.’

We have woken up and we can’t go back

When asked which project touched her the most, Anna imme­di­ate­ly thinks of a Women’s House that’ll be man­aged by Kon­gra Star. She explains that ‘The heart of the rev­o­lu­tion is there. They are the most impor­tant motor of change, as they are mak­ing new rules and active­ly chang­ing society.’

Kon­gra Star is a con­fed­er­a­tion of women and women’s orga­ni­za­tions in the whole of Roja­va. A meet­ing a few days lat­er with six women who coor­di­nate Kon­gra Star’s work in Kobanê, sheds some light on the fem­i­nist rev­o­lu­tion that has come to sym­bol­ize the soci­etal changes going on in Roja­va. The women explain that Kon­gra Star includes 26 orga­ni­za­tions, who each hold meet­ings every month. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from these orga­ni­za­tions also reg­u­lar­ly meet and the coor­di­na­tors from Kon­gra Star Kobanê even see each oth­er every week. Every neigh­bor­hood has a women’s orga­ni­za­tion and they are all rep­re­sent­ed at the cen­tral office of Kon­gra Star in Kobanê. Here they orga­nize meet­ings and work­shops and this is where peo­ple come when they have prob­lems. They fur­ther explain that all women in orga­ni­za­tions, but also women who work for the can­ton admin­is­tra­tion etc., must be approved by Kon­gra Star. No man can decide for women whether some­one is good or not – they can for­mu­late cri­tique, but they can­not decide for them.

One of the most impor­tant goals of Kon­gra Star is to change the men­tal­i­ty of the peo­ple in Roja­va, which is still large­ly a patri­ar­chal soci­ety based on trib­al struc­tures. That’s why Kon­gra Star orga­nizes manda­to­ry work­shops about var­i­ous top­ics, includ­ing the his­to­ry of Kur­dis­tan, the his­to­ry of women, the his­to­ry of the Mid­dle East, self-defense, jine­olo­ji (Kur­dish women’s stud­ies), hygiene, alter­na­tive econ­o­my, demo­c­ra­t­ic con­fed­er­al­ism, etc.

At the basis of these efforts, is a list of 28 prin­ci­ples that dis­cuss­es top­ics such as mar­riage, divorce, domes­tic vio­lence, women’s rights, chil­dren, fam­i­ly rela­tions, etc. The prin­ci­ples state, for instance, that child mar­riages or forced mar­riages are not allowed and that all orga­ni­za­tions should include women. The list was cre­at­ed based on propo­si­tions by women in 2014, which were then dis­cussed in the three can­tons in 2015 and changed and for­mu­lat­ed over the course of many meet­ings. The prin­ci­ples were put into prac­tice in 2016.

These prin­ci­ples are pre­sent­ed and taught dur­ing train­ing ses­sions. It’s impor­tant to note that these train­ing ses­sions are also for men, because ‘if you want to change some­thing, you need to change the whole of soci­ety’, as one of the women explains. When asked whether this was dif­fi­cult for men, the women stat­ed: ‘We talked to soci­ety about these prin­ci­ples. Not every­one has to accept them at first. That’s why we orga­nize train­ing ses­sions, to help peo­ple grad­u­al­ly change the old views they have.’ One of them adds: ‘When we dis­cussed these top­ics with dif­fer­ent groups in soci­ety, some men told us that maybe these prin­ci­ples should have been writ­ten 10 years ago. They said that they learnt their own ways of view­ing things from their fathers.’

When asked whether these changes will last, the women are firm: ‘We women used to always be con­fined to our hous­es. Now we sur­vived a war, now we have wok­en up and now we can’t go back.’

Five doctors remained

Despite the ide­o­log­i­cal work that is being done to change Kobanê’s soci­ety towards the future, it is still very much plagued by what is hap­pen­ing today. The grave toll the wider sit­u­a­tion in Roja­va con­tin­ues to have on the peo­ple in Kobanê becomes painful­ly clear when we meet a group of doc­tors from the Health Ministry.

The doc­tors explain that there are three orga­ni­za­tions that work on health issues in Kobanê: the Health Min­istry at Kobanê can­ton, Hey­va Sor (the Kur­dish Red Cres­cent) and the assem­bly of medics. The Health Min­istry does offi­cial work and fol­lows up on phar­ma­cies and hos­pi­tals. Hey­va Sor does prac­ti­cal and orga­ni­za­tion­al work and makes reports every month with an overview of all sick peo­ple. The assem­bly exists of thir­teen orga­ni­za­tions, as well as the munic­i­pal­i­ty and vol­un­teers, and makes assess­ments of the people’s health needs.

There are two hos­pi­tals in Kobanê: one gen­er­al and one for women and chil­dren. Remark­ably, both hos­pi­tals func­tion with­out fund­ing: get­ting help there is free and the doc­tors work with­out wages. They explain that every­one who works in the hos­pi­tals works for Hey­va Sor and that they don’t accept a salary, just what they need to sur­vive. One of the doc­tors explains that dur­ing the resis­tance, when Daesh was in Kobane, only five doc­tors remained. At the moment there are 53 doc­tors in the whole of the canton.

When asked whether the sit­u­a­tion has improved since two years ago, the doc­tors state that it has actu­al­ly got­ten worse. ‘The prob­lem is that the hos­pi­tals in Kobanê are the only ones that are free from Man­bij to Raqqa, so a lot of peo­ple come here, even from out­side the can­ton and even for baby deliv­er­ies.’ As as result, Kobanê has sort of become an emer­gency cen­ter for health care in the region.

How­ev­er, like all things in Kobanê, the work of the health orga­ni­za­tions is severe­ly lim­it­ed because of the ongo­ing block­ade and embar­go. As one of the doc­tors explains: ‘We are in a zone that is sur­round­ed by war on four sides. The war has spread and now Bakur is under attack as well.’ As a result, there is a chron­ic lack of med­i­cine. For instance, there are many dia­bet­ics in Kobanê who need med­i­cine, but there are only sup­plies for the most urgent conditions.

The prob­lem isn’t just that med­i­cine can’t be brought into the region, they also can’t send any sick peo­ple across the bor­der to get bet­ter med­ical treat­ment. And, most impor­tant­ly, there is an urgent need for machines and oth­er med­ical struc­tures and sup­plies. Many forms of equip­ment that are ready to be sent are blocked at the bor­der, includ­ing ambu­lances. Machines that are need­ed in Kobanê, include: dial­y­sis machines, CT-scans and ECG/EKG ‑machines. One of the doc­tors explains: ‘Some­times peo­ple get par­a­lyzed because of, for exam­ple, a bul­let wound. It’s pos­si­ble we could help them quite eas­i­ly, but because we have no scans, we can’t even prop­er­ly locate the bul­let. If we were to get some of these machines, we’d be able to save more lives and help peo­ple that are doomed to suf­fer now.’

When asked about the main health prob­lems and ill­ness­es, the doc­tors state that most peo­ple still suf­fer injuries because of the war, such as bul­let wounds or mine injuries. How­ev­er, the fact that it’s win­ter at the time of the inter­view also caus­es many prob­lems. The doc­tors recall that two chil­dren already died that win­ter in one of the refugee camps, due to the cold. There are many refugees from oth­er parts of Syr­ia in the area, who most­ly stay in camps and vil­lages near Kobanê. Hey­va Sor tries to get help for the camps from peo­ple in Kobanê, but as these peo­ple there have noth­ing them­selves, they try to avoid being anoth­er bur­den to a city that is still being rebuilt itself.

In the midst of all these prob­lems, there is lit­tle or no help from inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions. Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders is the only for­eign med­ical orga­ni­za­tion that is present in the area, but they don’t have med­ical staff there, they just sup­ply med­i­cine to one hos­pi­tal. The prob­lem, accord­ing to the doc­tors, is that often inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions that want to help the region, are afraid to set­tle in the area itself and instead use Istan­bul or Gaziantep as a point of ref­er­ence. This means that they are high­ly influ­enced by Turk­ish polit­i­cal view­points. Fur­ther­more it is said, that the groups these orga­ni­za­tions work with, to get help across in Roja­va, in real­i­ty take things them­selves, which means that they often end up with Daesh. One of the doc­tors even esti­mates that, of all the help that is sent to the region, only about eight per­cent arrives. The doc­tors there­for urge inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions to have the courage to estab­lish direct seats in the region, because any aid that is sent via oth­er ways just doesn’t arrive where it’s sup­posed to. They empha­size the impor­tance of direct access to help : ‘We’ve always asked to open a human­i­tar­i­an cor­ri­dor, and con­tin­ue to do so, because this is essen­tial for our survival.’

How do the doc­tors see Kobanê’s med­ical future? Can and will med­ical help stay free? One of them explains that mon­ey isn’t the issue, med­ical sup­plies are. ‘Besides, on moral grounds, we can’t ask mon­ey from peo­ple who don’t have any­thing. All the doc­tors here work for free, because they know what the sit­u­a­tion is like. Health is a fun­da­men­tal human right and human rights are cen­tral to us, so they have no cost.’

He con­tin­ues about what is real­ly at stake here: ‘We don’t need any­thing, like new clothes or some­thing, we have every­thing we need to sur­vive. How­ev­er, what we do want is to live hon­or­ably. That is why we fought and why we do what we do: to help build a sys­tem, where every­one can get the help they need for free. We hope that what we are build­ing will sur­vive and con­tin­ue to thrive.’

The city celebrates, but the scars remain

On Fri­day 27 Jan­u­ary 2017, hun­dreds of peo­ple gath­er in the cen­ter of Kobanê to cel­e­brate the sec­ond anniver­sary of the lib­er­a­tion from Daesh and to remem­ber the sac­ri­fices it took. The fes­ti­val is orga­nized by the local Self-Admin­is­tra­tion and includes music and dance, as well as speech­es by polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­ers. The hun­dreds of peo­ple present include fam­i­lies with chil­dren, fight­ers, local young­sters and town elders. Peo­ple dance, cel­e­brate and reunite with loved ones. All around the cel­e­bra­tion are snipers and armed guards on top of the build­ings, look­ing at the scene of the fes­tiv­i­ties and keep­ing a watch­ful eye on its surroundings.

The liberation celebration • Photographies Margot Cassiers

The con­tin­u­ing cost of the war becomes clear the day after the lib­er­a­tion cel­e­bra­tion, when we attend the funer­al of five fight­ers at the Ceme­tery of Mar­tyrs. The five were orig­i­nal­ly from Kobanê and died in a bat­tle near Raqqa two days ear­li­er. It seems that the whole town is present at the ceme­tery that morn­ing, where five coffins are lined up on a big stage in the cen­tral part of the ceme­tery. Behind them are ban­ners and por­traits of oth­er mar­tyrs, while vic­to­ri­ous slo­gans and songs are being played.

The con­trast is strong between the grand cer­e­mo­ny at the cen­tral square and the image at the bur­ial field itself, where weep­ing moth­ers and silent young­sters are gath­ered around tombs of their loved ones. A lone­ly fight­er in uni­form saun­ters around a few graves, paus­ing at names he rec­og­nizes. Many go to the ceme­tery dur­ing cer­e­monies such as this one, to mourn their own per­son­al loss­es. This field holds many young peo­ple, many sac­ri­fices. And yet the day after the funer­al, con­struc­tion machines are already work­ing again to make the ceme­tery big­ger, for the new tomb­stones that are expect­ed to fol­low. It is a stark reminder that the war in the region is ongo­ing and will con­tin­ue to exact losses.

The funeral of five fighters • Photos Margot Cassiers

Real­iz­ing these dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances makes the rebuild­ing efforts in Kobanê all the more impres­sive and impor­tant. The Kobanê res­i­dents who returned to their homes in ear­ly 2015, found a city reduced to rub­ble. Two years lat­er, Kobanê remains scarred by the toll of an inhu­mane war, but has become a sym­bol of hope and inspi­ra­tion for peo­ple in the region and beyond. We wit­nessed a soci­ety rebuild­ing its infra­struc­ture, ide­ol­o­gy and health, despite many obsta­cles and in an almost impos­si­bly dif­fi­cult con­text. But what is going on in Kobanê and Roja­va is frail and remains con­front­ed with adver­si­ty at every lev­el. Kobanê’s peo­ple will need inter­na­tion­al sup­port and col­lab­o­ra­tion to sur­vive amidst the chaos of Syria’s increas­ing­ly com­plex battlefields.

The 21-year old Evin, who does finan­cial man­age­ment at Kobane Recon­struc­tion Board, is preg­nant. When asked if she has any wish­es for her unborn child, she answers the fol­low­ing: ‘We just want a safe place, where chil­dren can grow. I want my son to grow up in free­dom. Peo­ple here don’t care about par­tic­u­lar places, they aren’t sen­ti­men­tal about things such as build­ings. They just want to see their chil­dren grow up and live.’


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