KOBANI, Syria: The men and women of Kobani call one another “heval”—Kurdish for ‘comrade’—and fight with revolutionary conviction, vowing to liberate what they regard as Kurdish land from Islamic State group militants.
Amid the wasteland and destroyed buildings, a sense of camaraderie has developed among the town’s defenders who have for more than two months doggedly fought off the advances by the extremists.
Often, members of the same family can be found on the front lines.
Nineteen-year-old Shida’s father was a fighter before her. After he was killed, she gave up hopes of becoming an artist and decided she must follow in his footsteps to honor his example. She says her mother supports her decision. One of her six brothers is also fighting, the rest of her siblings are living in Turkey.
“I will not allow the enemy to take away my land and its soil,” she said. “I will not leave my land.”
An exclusive report shot by videojournalist Jake Simkin who spent a week inside Kobani late last month offered a rare, in-depth glimpse of the men and women fighting to expel the IS extremists from Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish town in northern Syria by the Turkish border.
Backed by small numbers of Iraqi peshmerga forces and Free Syrian Army rebels, the Kurdish fighters, whose political founders espouse a firm left-wing ideology, are locked in fierce battles to push back the Islamic State group, which swept into the town in mid-September.
In a surprising display of resilience, the Kurdish fighters in the frontier town have held out against the more experienced jihadis more than two months into the militants’ offensive, hanging on to their territory against all expectations.
“We are fighting for freedom,” said a Kurdish sniper who goes under the nickname Zinar, Kurdish for “The Rock.”
“Freedom isn’t something you can easily get or something that someone just gives to you,” he said. “Freedom is only achieved when you go out and get it yourself.”
The militants’ advance was part of the Islamic State group’s blitz this year that overran large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq. Kobani, once a town of about 50,000 people but now virtually deserted except for the fighters, has seen some of the fiercest urban warfare in the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year.
Abu Layla, commander of a Free Syrian Army-linked group in Kobani called Shams al-Shamal (Sun of the North) Brigade, said he is proud of what the FSA and the Kurdish fighters have achieved together in Kobani so far.
Their alliance is called “Burkhan al Furat,” which translates as Volcano of the Euphrates.
Abu Layla’s group has over a hundred fighters, mostly ethnic Arabs and Turkmens from Abu Layla’s hometown of Minbej.
He said he is not fighting for the Kurds, Arabs or Turkmens, or for Christians or Muslims.
“I’m fighting for a free democratic Syria, not an Islamic Syria but a free democratic Syria,” he said.
He has not lost sight of the real goal of the rebels, which is toppling President Bashar Assad. But he says the priority now is to get rid of the Islamic State group.
After that, taking down Assad “will be easy for us, if we have support.”