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.
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.’
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.’