Months after liberation from ISIS, Kobani still a ghost town
A Kurdish boy, centre background, walks between buildings that were destroyed during the battle between the U.S. backed Kurdish forces and the Islamic State fighters, in Kobani, north Syria, Saturday, April 18, 2015. (AP / Mehmet Shakir)
SURUC, Turkey -- The battle for the Syrian border town of Kobani was a watershed in the war against the Islamic State group - Syrian Kurdish forces fought the militants in rubble-strewn streets for months as U.S. aircraft pounded the extremists from the skies until ultimately expelling them from the town earlier this year.
It was the Islamic State's bloodiest defeat to date in Syria. But now, three months since Kobani was liberated, tens of thousands of its residents are still stranded in Turkey, reluctant to return to a wasteland of collapsed buildings and at a loss as to how and where to rebuild their lives.
The Kurdish town on the Turkish-Syrian border is still a haunting, apocalyptic vista of hollowed out facades and streets littered with unexploded ordnance - a testimony to the massive price that came with the victory over ISIS.
In this picture taken on Saturday, April 18, 2015, a house destroyed during the battle between the U.S. backed Kurdish forces and the Islamic State fighters, in Kobani, north Syria. (AP / Mehmet Shakir)
There is no electricity or clean water, nor any immediate plans to restore basic services and start rebuilding.
While grateful for the U.S. airstrikes that helped turn the tide in favor of the Kobani fighters and drive out ISIS militants, residents say their wretched situation underscores the lack of any serious follow-up by the international community in its war against ISIS.
"First, Islamic State fighters were holed up in our home and then the American planes bombed it," said Sabah Khalil, pointing from across the border in Suruc, Turkey, to where her family house in Kobani is now a pile of crumpled cement.
"Who is going to help us rebuild? That's what everyone is asking," she added, sitting on a stone outside her tent, soaking in the spring sun as children in tattered shoes played nearby.
For four ferocious months, Kobani was the focus of the international media after ISIS militants barreled into the town and surrounding villages, triggering an exodus of some 300,000 residents who poured across the border into Turkey.
The battle for Kobani became the centerpiece of the campaign against ISIS. Dozens of TV crews flocked to the Turkish side of the border and from a hill, trained their cameras on the besieged town, recording plumes of smoke rising from explosions as the U.S.-led coalition pounded IS hideouts inside the town.
In late January, the Kurdish fighters finally ousted the Islamic State from the town - a significant victory for both the Kurds and the U.S.-led coalition. For ISIS, which by some estimates lost around 2,000 fighters in Kobani, it was a defeat that punctured the group's image and sapped morale.
But the price was daunting.
Kurdish citizens walk over the rubble of their houses which was destroyed during the battle between the U.S. backed Kurdish forces and the Islamic State fighters, in Kobani, north Syria on April 18, 2015. (AP / Mehmet Shakir)
Today more than 70 per cent of Kobani lies in ruins. More than 560 Kurdish fighters died in the battles.
About 70,000 of the refugees have returned to the town and surrounding areas, some only to pitch tents outside their destroyed homes, according to Aisha Afandi, co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD.
With no outside help, the Kurdish fighters use primitive tools to dismantle mines and booby traps left behind by ISIS militants. The rotting bodies of dead fighters are still trapped under the rubble, and as the weather gets warmer, there are concerns of spreading disease.
Afandi said an appeal for international donors and Kurdish communities everywhere will be launched at a Kurdish conference on Kobani, due May 2 in the mainly Kurdish-populated city of Diyarbakir in Turkey. There are also plans to transform parts of the town centre into a museum, she added.
"It is important for future generations to remember the history th at was made here," she said over the telephone from Kobani.
Three times a week, when Turkish officials open the gate at the Mursitpinar border crossing for a few hours, refugees trickle back into Kobani.
In this picture taken on Monday, April 20, 2015, Kurdish refugees who fled from Kobani carry their belongings as they walk towards a border gate to return to their town. (AP / Hussein Malla)
On a recent day, a few dozen people carrying suitcases and bags were at the gate, waiting to cross. Vans loaded with mattresses and other belongings were lined up on a dirt road.
At the nearby Arin Mirxan camp in Suruc, named after a female Kurdish fighter in Kobani who is said to have carried out a suicide bombing against ISIS militants in October, the hopelessness is on full display.
Ali Hussein and his mother Zalikha Qader sit next to each other in the camp, eating roasted pumpkin seeds and wiling the time away.
In nearby "Tent Number 3," Shahin Tamo, 21, takes care of his 7-year-old brother Sarwan, a skeletal child with large eyes who suffers from a serious neurological condition. They are here with their parents, two brothers and two sisters. Their Kobani home was looted and burnt.
"Everything is gone. Our house, my education, my future," Tamo said. "Who will compensate that?"
In this picture taken on Monday April 20, 2015, a Kurdish refugee man Shahin Tamo, 21, left, carries his 7-year-old brother Sarwan, right, who suffers from a serious neurological condition, outside their tent at the Arin Mirxan refugee camp in Turkey. (AP / Hussein Malla)
Across the border in Syria, the fighting rages on.
U.S. coalition-led warplanes struck Islamic State targets near Kobani, and a coalition statement said at least six airstrikes between Thursday and Friday destroyed seven ISIS positions and one of its vehicles. But the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the airstrikes early Friday also hit civilians, killing at least 12 people, and wounding dozens.
The Observatory's director, Rami Abdurrahman, said the casualties were taken to nearby towns, including Manjib. It was not immediately possible to independently verify the report and there was no U.S. comment on civilian deaths.
But from Kobani, Shorsh Hassan, a spokesman for the main Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, said he was not aware of any civilian casualties because the airstrikes took place in an ISIS-controlled village, Bir Mahli, south of Kobani.
Three months since Kobani was liberated, tens of thousands of its residents are still stranded in Turkey, reluctant to return to a wasteland of collapsed buildings and at a loss as to how and where to rebuild their lives. (AP / Hussein Malla)
Hassan said the strikes followed clashes between his troops and Islamic State militants in the village, which had been emptied of civilians. But he added that ISIS may have brought back the villagers to use as human shields, adding that at least 10 vehicles arrived in the village before the fighting erupted.
Back at the camp in Suruc, residents go out at least once a day to the main street to greet a procession bringing in fallen Kurdish fighters from inside Syria.
The bodies, in simple wooden coffins draped in the Kurdish red, white and green-color flag, are the tragic toll of still ongoing fighting back home between the main Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, and ISIS militants in areas around Kobani.
"Your blood will not go in vain!" the refugees shouted in Kurdish.
Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Beirut.