“ISIS destroyed all my dreams,” the 20-year old Medya tells me at the ‘Rojava’ refugee camp in Suruç, where several thousand refugees have found shelter in hundreds of tents and inside an abandoned factory. Together with her family she arrived here ten days ago, as part of the major exodus of Kobanê’s population, which saw tens of thousands of people leaving their homes behind and crossing the border into Turkey.
“Two men came to our village on a motorbike, they were covered in blood and shouted that ISIS had overrun their village and killed everyone,” one of the locals in the camp recounts. Panic broke out, and everyone left in a hurry, bringing with them only what they could carry with their own hands. “Later, we realized that this was a tactic of ISIS, and that the two men who came by motorbike where part of the gang.” Apparently ISIS pulled the same trick in most of the villages surrounding Kobanê, scaring thousands out of their houses in a move that can be considered a form of psychological warfare.
The flood of refugees obstructed the resistance of the People’s Defense Forces and Women’s Defense Forces (YPG/YPJ) against ISIS’ advance, and while the eyes of the world were fixed on the humanitarian disaster unfolding at the border with Turkey, ISIS easily took control over the majority of villages in the Kobanê canton.
Now, as a result, Medya lives in a tent in the refugee camp, where she spends the nights huddled together with twenty others in a space smaller than the average bedroom of a European home. She lost her dream of once becoming a football player for the Syrian national team and now just hopes that she and her family can make their way to Istanbul to look for some work there.
Situation in the camps
By a stroke of luck I meet with Murat, a journalist from Istanbul who is originally from the region and who has been here for the past three weeks, writing daily updates for Sendika.org and providing aid wherever he can. The fact that besides Turkish he also speaks English and Kurdish makes him an invaluable contact for me, and I quickly decide to bind myself to him, opening many doors that otherwise would have remained closed for an outsider like myself.
In the Rojava camp, at the edge of the terrain, we meet with a Syrian Kurdish family who have built makeshift shelters for themselves from blankets and mattresses. Despite the fact that they have been here for two weeks already, they are still waiting to be appointed a tent. A couple sits with a handful of children on the ground, in the shade of a blanket they have fastened to some empty crates and oil drums to protect them from the burning sun. They just sit and stare, because there is little else to do, waiting for ISIS to be defeated so they can return to their homes — and simply not knowing what will happen to them otherwise.
One young girl with light blond hair and bright blue eyes lies motionless between the blankets, her watery eyes staring at us, but she doesn’t respond to our greetings. Murat tells me that he met this girl just two weeks ago in Kobanê, when the city was still under full control of the People’s and Women’s Defense Forces, and that he had just found her again a few days ago.
“For me she symbolizes the suffering of the people here. I can’t explain, but this girl is special to me.” Murat admits that he couldn’t control himself and started crying when he saw her in the refugee camp in Suruç for the second time. Sometimes the pain and suffering of one single person can have more impact than the woe and misery of a faceless mass.
In the hands of ISIS
A while later, outside of town we meet with the 15-year-old Orhan (not his real name), who was one of the 153 Kurdish children who were kidnapped on May 29, 2014 by ISIS while they were on their way back home after year-end exams in the city of Aleppo. For four months Orhan remained in captivity of ISIS, during which he was forced to study Sharia and was taught jihadist ideology and several times every week the children were forced to watch videos of beheadings and suicide bombings by ISIS.
After four months, Orhan and the others had to take an exam; those who passed were released and those who did not remain with ISIS. Luckily, the majority of the children, including Orhan, passed the test and were set free, but of the fate of the two or three dozen that failed, little is known. Even though Orhan is now once again reunited with his family, the time spent in captivity has presumably changed him forever. “It is like he is brainwashed,” his father tells us. “He still prays five times a day and when we try to stop him he tells us he fears he won’t go to heaven if he quits.”
Despite the fact that religion and tradition still play a very important role in the lives of many Kurds, I have rarely met a less dogmatic people. Amongst the Kurds one can find Sunnis, Shias, Sufis and Alevis, as well as Yarsanis, Yazidis and Zoroastrians, together with an ever-growing group of secular Kurds. Time and again the local people go out of their way to make clear that to them it doesn’t matter to which religion one adheres, while the more politicized KCK-members convey to me that in their opinion “nothing good has ever come out of religion.”
Later that day, we receive a ride from a man named Yusuf, a Kurd from Mardin who has come here together with a friend out of solidarity with the people of Kobanê. “I didn’t come here as a member of any political party or religious group, not even as Kurd,” he tells me as we’re driving back from the border into town. “I’m here as a human.”
Yusuf is eager to share his views on the Kurdish people: “At home I have a parchment that lists all my forefathers, going back 21 generations. Every head of the family has written his name on this parchment for over five hundred years. This shows that the Kurdish people have a strong historical connection with this land. No Turk living here will be able to show you anything similar.”
More importantly, Yusuf explains, the Kurds have never tried to conquer other nations, kingdoms or colonize any other people. “This is our land, and we have lived here as long as anyone can remember. We were here before the Ottoman Empire and the Arab kingdoms. We live in peace with the other ethnic and religious groups. In my hometown Kurds, Yezidis, Armenians and Syriacs have been living together in peace for centuries. Where else in the Middle East can you find something like this?”
Resisting against all odds
Now the land of the Kurds is once again under attack. As the evening falls we sit on a hill overlooking the border crossing at Mursitpinar, with a panoramic view of Kobanê. Smoke rises from the eastern part of the city where coalition jets have targeted ISIS positions and the sound of gunfire and heavy artillery can be heard non-stop. It is a very surreal situation: mere kilometers away people are fighting for their lives. The heroic men and women of the YPG/YPJ empty their ammunition clips at the ISIS fighters, while the jihadists keep shelling the city from strategic hills around the city center.
On the hill right next to us around two dozen tanks of the Turkish army are positioned. If they decided to do so, the Turkish army could destroy ISIS in a matter of days. But rather than attacking the Islamists they are paying them friendly visits, and allegedly provide them with intelligence and satellite imagery identifying the positions of Kurdish weapons and ammunition storage facilities.
When darkness sets in, we descend from the hill and return to Suruç, where thousands of refugees are readying themselves for yet another night in this foreign land. Winter will come soon to these parts, and the few clothes and goods people managed to bring with them when they left their homes will not suffice to help them through the cold winter months.
These people need solidarity, both in the form of Western citizens pressuring their governments into ending their inaction — which can be considered a crime against humanity in itself — and in the form of financial and material support for the Kurdish fighters and the local population. The world urgently needs stand with the Kurds as they sacrifice their lives to battle one of the most barbaric organizations that have ever roamed this earth.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/syrian-refugees-kobane-turkey/