SYRIA: Raising Among Ruins, Dancing Amid Bullets

The Syrian Civil War has torn apart homes, families, and entire cities.

From September 2014 to January 2015, the Syrian city of Kobanî, on the northern border with Turkey, and more than 350 villages in the Kobanî district, were held under siege by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh). The fighting left the city utterly destroyed and by January more than 400,000 displaced Kurds had fled the region for neighbouring Turkey.

Yet the courageous women fighters of the Kurdish YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) stayed behind, taking up arms alongside their male comrades in the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), as part of an ongoing and dedicated effort to overcome the Islamic State militants in the region, and to rebuild and reclaim their lives.

Serda, a YPJ fighter, with her fellow male comrade from YPG, in Baghdak village, near Kobanî. 

Serda, a YPJ fighter, with her fellow male comrade from YPG, in Baghdak village, near Kobanî. 

Finally, on 26th January 2015, the Kurdish fighters — alongside reinforcements from the Free Syrian Army and supported by US-led airstrikes — began to retake the city, driving ISIS into a steady retreat. The following day, on 27th January 2015, in a historic and strategic defeat that was reported around the world, the city of Kobanî was fully recaptured. The flag of the Kurdish resistance flew once again on the hill above the city.
 

A destroyed tank stands amid the rubble in the devastated city of Kobanî. 

A destroyed tank stands amid the rubble in the devastated city of Kobanî. 

In the weeks and months following the liberation of Kobanî, and as the Kurdish fighters continued to advance, taking back many of the villages ISIS had captured during the siege, the families of Kobanî have begun to return to what was left of their homes. With hopes of rebuilding their lives, their homes, and their city, the people cleared the streets of dead bodies and buried the fighters who lost their lives.
 

Travelling to the Kobanî region in March 2015, less than eight weeks after the city had been recaptured from the Islamic State, I lived with a group of Kurdish fighters for almost a month.

I was able to witness their pain and their sorrow, their joy and their triumphs, as they continued to fight for their freedom.

In part, this trip was a continuation of my ongoing project documenting the lives and experiences of Kurdish women fighters, which began back in 2012, when I spent time with the female soldiers living in military camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. I realized that these women are fighting more than one battle. Not only are they fighting the oppression and violence of the Islamic State, they are also determined to prove their role as women in a male-dominated society — a difficult yet promising battle.

After the liberation of Kobanî, the world’s attention was finally focused, for a time, on this region, and many cameras were pointed towards the women who had fought alongside their male comrades. Sadly I realized that not many people knew about the long history of female fighters’ involvement in previous battles — as if during the war in Syria, they had picked up a gun for the first time!
 

Portrait of a young Kurdish YPJ fighter. 

Portrait of a young Kurdish YPJ fighter. 

To reach what was left of Kobanî, I had to cross illegally through the Turkish border like many other journalists and activists. We passed through the city of Suruç on the Turkish side of the border, where I spent a week waiting. A few months later, on July 20th 2015, an ISIS suicide bomber, identified as a 20-year-old student, killed more than 30 people and wounded more than 100 at a Turkish cultural centre in Suruç.

Finally one night we crossed the border and entered Kobanî. On the same way back a month or so later, I was arrested by the Turkish police and after a few hours was released. Since it was my first time, they let me go with the promise of not making this “mistake” again.

While in Kobanî I stayed part of the time at a house for journalists or often with people from Kobanî whom I met and got to know. The 35 days I spent in and around this shattered city was an unforgettable and moving experience. Seeing the people returning to what little was left of their homes was sobering, but encouraging as well.

The story of Kobanî is not only about war and its horrific consequences, it is also about the power of humanity, courage, and solidarity.
 

Having returned to the city, Kurdish men walk through the destroyed buildings in Kobanî. 

Having returned to the city, Kurdish men walk through the destroyed buildings in Kobanî. 

Kobanî is in fact part of Rojava, or Western Kurdistan — a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. The region gained its autonomy during November 2013, as part of the ongoing Rojava Revolution, and aims to establish a society based on the principles of direct democracy, gender equality, and sustainability.

And while Kurdish women have gained some equality in recent years, for most of these women, fighting with the military forces is their first opportunity for independence and empowerment in their traditionally male-dominated society. The more I spent time with women of different ages and backgrounds, the more I realized the significance of this story.
 

26 March 2015, Roonahit, a YPJ fighter prepares dinner for the fighters in Baghdak village.

26 March 2015, Roonahit, a YPJ fighter prepares dinner for the fighters in Baghdak village.

27 March 2015, newly joined YPJ fighter writes her diary by gas light in Baghdak village. 

27 March 2015, newly joined YPJ fighter writes her diary by gas light in Baghdak village. 

Too many images of people fighting create an “us” and “them” dynamic in the mainstream media. Portraits of daily life, or times of great emotion, give us moments that we can feel and relate to, perhaps opening the doors of understanding. There were some moments of joy, too.

Below you see a group of young YPG and YPJ fighters dancing in the village of Baghdak, outside the city. Each day a truck passed by, bringing food and other basic supplies for the fighters. During the few minutes while the truck unloaded, they took advantage of the music coming from the radio. Such moments were seized with abandon, bringing momentary relief and release from the hard reality of the ongoing fight.
 

I can only hope that each reader will be able to put themselves in the place of the women, and men, in these images, remember their faces and surroundings, and understand the plight of these brave people.
 

Three fighters from the YPJ walk through fields on the western front-line near the city of Kobanî on April 7, 2015. 

Three fighters from the YPJ walk through fields on the western front-line near the city of Kobanî on April 7, 2015. 

Even though Kobanî had been liberated, every two days during my stay, there was a funeral for more of the fighters on the front-lines who were still defending the city. At the time of my visit the Kurdish fighters had reclaimed 160 villages, and by late April 2015, ISIS had lost almost all of the villages it had captured during the siege. During May and June of 2015, the YPG, along with allied reinforcements, continued to fight and captured huge swaths of territory in northern Syria, linking the district of Kobanî with another Kurdish region, Jazira.

Below, in a cemetery in Kobanî, you see family and fellow fighters sit by the graves as they mourn their loved ones, YPG and YPJ fighters, who were killed during clashes with ISIS on these front-lines outside the city.
 

And here, you see a group of YPJ and YPG fighters carrying coffins and mourning their fellow Kurdish fighters, one of whom was called Ageri, killed during fierce clashes with ISIS on eastern front-line near Kobanî.
 

During the siege of Kobanî, in times of heavy fighting with ISIS who still controlled part of the city, the bodies of Kurdish fighters who were killed in action were buried between the houses in a part of the city that was under Kurdish control. Below you see a family, who have just returned to the city to rebuild their lives, passing by this temporary cemetery.
 

Even now, before and after their victories defending the villages and regions outside the city, there is a constant threat of death or serious injury to the Kurdish fighters, especially during firefights and patrols. They must be constantly on the move, setting up makeshift camps in old structures, like this abandoned school you see below, in Baghdak.
 

At the time of my visit, two hospitals were open inside the city, but the lack of medicine and equipment made it extremely difficult for even the most trained nurse or doctor to provide basic treatment. Just a few days before I crossed back over the border to Turkey, some of the first small shops began to open again, allowing people to purchase basic necessities.  

With only two schools open in Kobanî, there was little access to proper education, and no psychological support for the children of returning families, who have suffered immensely during the war. Instead, they were spending much of their time playing in the rubble. Below you see a young Kurdish boy going through some books left in a destroyed building in Azadi (Liberation) Square, during April 2015.
 

During recent months, although more progress is slowly being made towards rebuilding life in the city — for instance, in March 2016, electricity returned to Kobanî and some surrounding villages after three years of outage, due to ISIS control of the Tishreen dam and main power station — the civilians who have returned are still struggling with difficult living conditions. Food prices are escalating and there are very few opportunities for work, so that they can support their families.

While I was in Kobanî, the Turkish government had only opened the border one way, allowing families who want to go back to Kobanî to pass through, but for international organizations and people who wish to help with rebuilding Kobanî, the only way to reach the city was to cross over illegally. Today, Turkey continues control the border tightly, allowing only some materials to reach the city. For instance, in January 2016, Turkish border guards prevented an aid convoy from entering the city, confiscating its contents, and arresting aid workers. Returning to Kobanî again last month, in May 2016, I found the border still officially closed.
 

Kurdish children play by a fire in the streets of Kobanî. 

Kurdish children play by a fire in the streets of Kobanî. 

And still, the battle is not over. The women fighters of the YPJ, and their male comrades, continue to defend the slowly regenerating city from ISIS attacks, and engage in mutual bombardment and fierce clashes, as they protect other villages and towns in the Kobanî region. At the end of March 2016, ISIS militants launched an offensive ahead of the important Kurdish celebration of ‘Newroz’. Shelling areas in western Kobanî with homemade rockets, they targeted residential buildings in the village of al-Qibba, killing and injuring civilians, including women and children. This brought back memories of the devastating massacre carried out by ISIS suicide bombers a few months after my visit, who infiltrated Kobanî on 25-26th June 2015, killing over 500 civilians and few Kurdish fighters.
 

Notwithstanding the recent attacks, with the border to Turkey still tightly controlled, and international aid struggling to pass through, the people of Kobanî are left isolated, facing both the psychological trauma of conflict and the challenge of rebuilding their houses alone. Many also remain at risk from the explosive remnants of war, such as the hidden handmade bombs and landmines left behind by ISIS militants.

The lengthy after effects of war on the innocent civilian population are often quickly forgotten by those of us living in a safer world.
 

At some point, I could not help but feel angry when I saw the amount of suffering these women fighters, and their male comrades, are enduring in Northern Syria, and the little aid and support they are receiving from the outside world. It was an incredibly frustrating experience to witness so much suffering and yet not enough help getting through. The Turkish government is threatened by the independence of the Kurdish people, and so the fighters face threats on both sides of their borders, from the Islamic State and Turkey. In many ways, they are alone and vulnerable.
 

A group of YPJ and YPG fighters crossing the Euphrates‎ river on the western front-line near Kobanî.

A group of YPJ and YPG fighters crossing the Euphrates‎ river on the western front-line near Kobanî.

Below you see Chiman, a member of the YPJ and one of the Kurdish female fighters I got to know, walking through the wreckage in the parts of the city where she and her fellow fighters battled and eventually overcame ISIS, following the siege. Chiman, who is originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, was one of the commanders during this fight. Looking back over those hard times, she tries to keep the memory of those who passed away alive, and continues their important work protecting the city.

For Chiman and her fellow fighters, defending Kobanî is not just a matter of defending a city and its people, but of defending humanity.