Kobane’s grim life amid hopes and fears
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
It is early morning in Kobane, Syria, and Soran from Iran is frying eggs that a few of us journalists would share for breakfast.
Our food supplies are minimal: tea, sugar, jam, canned beans, eggs and bread. We haven’t had electricity for hours on end and sometimes no water comes out of the taps.
“I’ve never been in the military, but this is what it must feel like,” I say to the others in the kitchen.
“You learn how to survive,” offers Soran.
“I don’t want to kill someone to learn how to survive,” I reply.
Rasim from Turkey doesn’t understand much English. The conversation is lost on him.
It has been three days since I’ve had a shower. Agastino from Italy complains that he hasn’t had a shower in nine days.
“It could be worse,” I offer. “You could be dead.”
“Fuck you,” he laughs.
“Come on, I was trying to make you feel better.”
The media centre where we are based in Kobane is a meeting place for journalists, photographers and filmmakers from around the world. We are a crew from places including Algeria, Brazil, Greece, Iran, Italy, Spain and Turkey.
Mustafa al-Ali, a local Kurdish journalist, tells me: “You’re the first South African journalist we have hosted in Kobane”.
We are all in the demolished city to report on the international humanitarian disaster before our unbelieving eyes.
Another local journalist, Perwer Ali, takes us around the city where he stayed throughout the conflict.
It is overwhelming, in retrospect, to think about what we had seen. In fact, it is traumatic and unsettling to revisit Kobane while writing this.
It is also frustrating because the international community has not responded to assist in rebuilding this city.
The United States led a coalition of airstrikes that assisted the Kurdish fighters push back ISIS. It remains to be seen whether this coalition supports rebuilding a city that lost 80% of its infrastructure in the process of liberating it from ISIS.
The politics of the matter is that Turkey has blocked international NGOs from entering Kobane via its border. This had been confirmed numerous times from various NGOs as well as officials in Turkey.
At the heart of the matter is that Turkey has for decades fought off a Kurdish militant group seeking self-rule in its east where mostly Kurds live. Supporting Kurds in neighbouring Kobane does not suit the Turkish agenda.
Ali shows us street after street of demolished buildings, blown up cars, shops and lives that have been destroyed.
“This is the school where I was teaching English. That was the municipal building. ISIS snipers hid in those buildings,” Ali points out as we walk.
Then he calls us to look over a wall. On the other side is the burnt body of an ISIS fighter. It is not the only one that we came across.
“We have found so many of their bodies in Kobane. We will still find many under these buildings,” says Ali.
Along the way we interview families that have returned to Kobane from Turkey. This is despite the risk that ISIS has planted explosives in their homes.
We see men cleaning up rubble and others rebuilding walls.
Ali tells us that Kurdish fighters are still battling ISIS on the outskirts of Kobane. It becomes apparent that we are in an uncertain situation. With access to only Facebook on my cell phone, I decide to contact a few friends to set up a lifeline.
“If you don’t hear from me in 12 hours, call my family and the South African government,” I write.
One friend responds: “Please be careful. I like your head on your shoulders.”
This is in reference to beheadings that ISIS had carried out in places where it had seized control.
My phone goes on only every few hours, to save battery power, as we do not have regular access to electricity.
Armed Kurdish fighters stationed in central Kobane greet us with peace signs when we pass them. Countless others battle ISIS on the frontlines further afield.
We don’t sleep easy on the mattresses on the floor at the media centre. It is cold in Kobane and our comforts are non-existent.
Kobane’s residents who have returned from Turkish refugee camps are happy to see us. It seems our being there is much needed moral support in a world that has made them feel discarded and forgotten.
Back at the media centre, it is scarily apparent that the house we are staying in belongs to a family that had fled the conflict zone. Under a glass top counter are photos of the people who used to live in this house.
In the room where I’ve found a mattress is a bookshelf with children’s toys and storybooks. In the kitchen, baby food is still on the kitchen counter. The windows in the kitchen and other parts of the house had been knocked out, likely a result of the impact of airstrikes.
We make it out of Kobane, leaving behind some journalists who have just arrived or who choose to spend more time in the city.
Now, the memories remain. And it is painful.