Kurds Scour Kobani for Bombs & Bodies

By AYLA ALBAYRAK – 29 Jan 2015 – WALLSTREET JOURNAL – KOBANI, Syria—For five months, Kurdish market trader Mahmud Ali defended the streets of this town on the Turkish border against Islamic State fighters who used artillery and suicide bombs. Now he is savoring his part in the liberation of Kobani, but also pondering the cost.

“This war has turned everybody’s lives upside down,” said Mr. Ali, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. His face was fatigued by battle and the stress of separation from his family. “We need a lot of help to rebuild now. Just look around you,” said Mr. Ali, who took up arms when the city came under attack four months ago.

A small number of refugees on Wednesday returned from Turkey, where most had fled, to inspect their homes a day after Syrian Kurdish fighters proclaimed they had ejected Islamic State militants from the town center.What they saw was a scene of destruction inflicted during a 134-day siege that left hundreds of people dead and forced almost 200,000 refugees to flee north across the border, the biggest human flight of the four-year conflict.

Block after block of homes has been hollowed out by shellfire, bombings and airstrikes. Contorted metal bars jut from the rubble like spears. There is no electricity, no water and few signs of life. On a central square once the thriving heart of this town before the siege, the Alushan Hospital is in ruins, destroyed by an Islamic State suicide truck bombing, according to two senior Kurdish officials and several fighters. The truck’s charred wheels remain across the street, fighters noted.

As the sun set over Kobani and the thud of exploding shells echoed in the distance, Kurdish fighters said their comrades, Peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan, were launching artillery attacks against insurgent strongholds in neighboring villages.

The victory of the Kurds at Kobani—assisted by hundreds of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition—has been hailed in Western capitals as evidence of the limits of jihadist military power and a way to hamper any expansion.

For Syria’s Kurds, Kobani has emerged as a beacon of Kurdish strength and is now referred to by many as the Kurds’ Stalingrad. The Syrian Kurdish PYD political party, an offshoot of a group listed as a terror organization by the U.S. and Turkey, has developed ties with Washington, spotting airstrikes for American fighter jets and gaining a seat in the coalition’s joint operations center.

Kobani’s proximity to the Turkish border allowed images of the fighting to be broadcast across the world. The sight of largely secular Kurdish recruits and all-female brigades taking the fight to Islamic State helped solidify the Kurds’ position as a Washington ally in the ground campaign to defeat the insurgents.

“The siege of Kobani has become a rallying cry for the Kurdish movement and resulted in more fervent calls for pan-Kurdish unity,” said Aaron Stein, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. “But the lasting impact may be political: Now the PYD is being hailed by high U.S. officials and calling in airstrikes directly to U.S. personnel…something unfathomable before Kobani,” he said.Beyond the spoils of war, Kurdish fighters and returning refugees are contemplating how they will rebuild this ravaged outpost, which is still largely surrounded by insurgent groups.

Many who have returned have been shocked by what they have found: destroyed homes with evidence of the jihadists who slept there during the battle. “The body of a jihadist was lying on my doorstep, shot dead….He must have been the last one trying to escape,” said Mohammed Bozan Ali, a 35-year-old from Kobani who returned to the refugee camp in Turkey after concluding it was impossible to bring his family home.“It’s hard to talk about any reconstruction at this stage. It will take a long time before people can safely move in, and we need help from the international community,” said Idres Nassan, a senior Kobani official, who is still operating from an office in Turkey.

On Wednesday, Kurdish militia fighters were trawling through the town in a bid to clear the remaining bodies of dead Islamic State fighters and defuse unexploded bombs buried in the rubble. “They had bombs even inside teapots,” said one resident.Another refugee said he had found medical pills and dozens of copies of the Quran in an apartment on the city outskirts that appeared to have been used as a base.

For now, tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees are waiting on the Turkish side of the border, where officials have just completed construction of the country’s largest refugee camp, with a capacity of 35,000. Some Kobani residents say they will return if they are allowed to do so by Kurdish officials, even if their homes are just a crushed pile of concrete. “As soon as we get the sign, we will just go back and erect a tent near our house. We can’t stay in somebody else’s land much longer,” said Semse Muhammed, a 60-year-old who has lived in a tent in the Turkish border town of Suruç for five months.“This battle has meant so much to us that we Kurds started naming our babies Peshmerga, Obama and Rojava,” she said, referring to the name Kurds use for the Kurdish self-governing enclaves in Syria. Write to Ayla Albayrak at