Amid ruins of Kobani, Kurds relish victory over Islamic State

A Kurdish fighter walks through the wreckage of a building in the center of Kobani, Syria, on Jan. 28.
(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
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Men and women picked through the rubble of Kobani on Wednesday, taking stock of the cost of war after Kurdish fighters finally drove Islamic State militants out of the shattered Syrian city this week.

“The first step will be to generate electricity, provide running water and to clear the streets,” said Mohammed Sady, a municipal worker who will help oversee rebuilding the ruins around him. “Then we need to retrieve bodies from beneath the rubble and decide where to house civilians when they start to return.”

For four months the Islamic State launched ferocious assaults against this city just south of the Turkish frontier in one of Syria’s three semiautonomous Kurdish cantons.


A campaign of U.S.-led airstrikes, coupled with reinforcements from Iraqi Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga -- traditional rivals of Kobani’s Kurds -- helped the city’s outgunned defenders drive out the extremists.

“It is great to have beaten Daesh. We are not afraid of them,” said Habat Khalil, a 23-year-old Kurdish fighter, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “But it would not have been possible without America and the peshmerga.”

Bullet-riddled cars careened down streets and Kurdish flags fluttered from windows as fighters celebrated their victory over Islamic State, also often referred to as ISIS.

“I saw ISIS so many times, battling them house to house and on the eastern front,” said Rokan, a female fighter who asked that her last name not be used for security reasons. “They bought heavy weapons and shelled us constantly, but we never broke ranks.”

Rokan, who, like Khalil, is a member of a Syrian Kurdish militia called the People’s Protection Units, spent Wednesday keeping civilians out of the area. “There are a lot” of unexploded mines, she said.

The scale of destruction was massive. Along a street once bustling with markets, piles of rubble and steel stretched up in contorted shapes. Burned-out cars sat upended beside savaged buildings, their faces shorn clean off. Glass crunched underfoot. Distant explosions rang out.

The fight wasn’t over yet.

Clashes continued Wednesday throughout the farmlands and villages surrounding Kobani, notably in Sheran, about six miles east. From there, Islamic State militants had launched waves of attacks against the city.


The U.S.-led coalition’s warplanes still howled overhead, hammering Islamic State positions. One massive blast emanated from the countryside around sundown. The distant rattle of heavy gunfire rang out.

In a former car repair shop, men worked on fixing damaged antiaircraft guns. A fire burned in a small drum to ward off the winter chill.

A child rode a bike down a street, prompting two men standing on a balcony to clap and cheer.

The two men refused to leave Kobani even as Kurdish fighters engaged Islamic State extremists in running gun battles in the city center, a short walk from the house.

“This is our city, our homeland,” said one of the men, Shakat, 55, who declined to give his family name for security reasons. “We will not leave. My dog even stayed here with me the entire time.”

About 15,000 civilians remain in Kobani, most having dribbled back during the last month, local officials said.


“We are very happy to be back in our city,” said Adla, a 41-year-old woman, who also did not want her last name used. “At the same time it is a bitter victory.”

She puffed on a cigarette while gently dabbing a tissue to her eyes, a hijab wrapped loose about her face. She returned 10 days before, tired of living as a refugee in Turkey.

“We lost so much of our people’s blood,” she said. “My nephew was killed in the fighting.”

Yet across the frontier in Turkey, celebrations were in full swing. About 200,000 people fled Kobani for the safety of Turkish soil during the battle for the city.

In the town of Aligor, about six miles from the border, people clapped and cheered, throwing tires onto a massive bonfire while dancing into the night, music blaring from a stereo system. Celebratory gunfire rang out.

“This is a celebration for the Kurds. Kobani is a victory for all Kurds,” said Kemal Onay, a 28-year-old Kurd from Turkey who bakes bread in a local shop. “We have been divided for so long. Now the whole world knows that the Kurds are one.”

Johnson is a special correspondent.