Life in a Kurdish-Held Town

 If you walk around the town of Kobani, you will see the flags of Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party, and the Syrian revolution. The symbols of the Syrian regime have disappeared since the government withdrew its security forces and senior public servants from Kurdish-majority areas of Aleppo governorate in July.

PYD flag raised over the cultural centre in Kobani.

“Since the beginning of the revolution, I have dreamed that Syria, and Kobani especially, would be in the hands of its people,” agricultural worker Mustafa Habib, 57, said as he pointed out the old Baath Party headquarters in Kobani, which the Syrian authorities officially renamed Ain Al-Arab.

The building was turned into a centre for distributing schoolbooks shortly before security forces were evacuated, and is now in the hands of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria, KDPS. The party shares control of government buildings with other Kurdish parties.

Gueilo Issaa, 42, a local KDPS official, described the takeover.

“All the security forces were expelled from Kobani. That didn’t happen because the regime handed over control, as it was rumoured to have done. It was the result of pressure by Kobani’s citizens because of what was happening to our Syrian brothers in other cities.”

When the opposition gained control of the town, it avoided destroying government buildings.

“During the March 2004 uprising, we made a big mistake by burning down government headquarters. In order not to fall into the same trap again, we tried to control things after the evacuation of the security forces,” Issa said.

Fighters from the Yekiti Party guarding the previous headquarters of Political Security.

Officials from other parties say they too have tried to keep state institutions and services running.

“During the liberation, we expelled all Baathists except for the staff of government-run services, so life in Kobani continues as normal,” Ismail Kanjo, a member of the political bureau of the Kurdish Leftist Party in Syria, said. “We even allowed those who had come from other regions to stay here, apart from members of the security forces and the police, who left Kobani.”

Creating a new administration was not entirely problem-free. There are still tensions between Democratic Union Party or PYD and other Kurdish groups, which Issa said accused it of “flirting with the regime.” But Issa noted that the PYD – with strong ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK in Turkey – was also the best organized and armed of the Syrian Kurdish groups.

PYD activists have clashed with pacifists over how demonstrations should be run. One eyewitness who gave his name as Zana said both sides threw stones at each other and used “sharp objects”.

He said this kind of problem began to diminish after the Supreme Kurdish Committee was formed in July 2012, bringing together the PYD and the Kurdish National Council, a coalition of most of the other Syrian Kurdish parties.

“Now there is a kind of truce,” Zana said. “We’re organising demonstrations separately. We try to avoid confrontations with them, in order to maintain peace in Kobani.”

The PYD maintains a conspicuous presence in the town of Kobani. It controls the new Baath Party headquarters, the prison, from which all the prisoners were evacuated, Air Force Security and State Security headquarters, as well as the officers’ housing complex.

Border crossing outside Kobani. The post was evacuated by Syrian security forces and closed.

Lawyer Mohammed Ali Tamo, 43, says that when PYD fighters took over the courthouse and raised their flag above it, the judges went on strike.

When the PYD agreed to take the flag down, the judges went back to work. No trials actually take place in the courthouse now, according to Tamo, who says the PYD has now taken the law into its own hands and is holding trials in conjunction with other parties.

The absence of a judiciary and government security services has had another side-effect – a resurgence in cannabis cultivation, which already existed in Kobani and in surrounding villages. Kanjo said political parties had set up rural committees to campaign against cannabis cultivation.

“The Kurdish parties have tried to eradicate cultivation, but it’s been difficult as it requires military forces that the parties do not have,” Ismael Kanjo. “In addition, many people had already finished harvesting their crops.”

He added, “Ironically, after Political Security headquarters was liberated, cannabis plants were seen growing within its grounds.”

Empty Shelves

The rise of cannabis production might well be due to the economic hardship facing Kobani. Almost all essential items are in short supply. Freight transport is impeded because the border crossing with Turkey just outside Kobani is closed, and also because fighting continues in the countryside outside Aleppo.

Turkish tanks across the border from Kobani

“The shop is almost empty,” Samer, 25, said as he sat in the electrical appliance shop where he works, anxiously watching the news. “We depend on the few items we can get from Turkey through the border crossing at Jarablus, which is controlled by the Free Syrian Army. We don’t know what the future holds for us.”

Foodstuffs are just as hard to come by. Hamza, 40, stands idly in his grocery store. The shelves are all but empty, with just a few tins of tuna and sardines and boxes of napkins.

“Unfortunately, we no longer receive supplies from Aleppo, which we used to rely on. Kobani doesn’t have factories… We are now relying on the stocks we have in the warehouses, but we don’t know how long these will last, or whether the situation in Aleppo will stay the same,” he said. “Prices are spiralling as well. If the situation stays the same for a few more months, we will run out of everything.”

Najmeddin Kayat, 48, a member of the service committee set up by the Supreme Kurdish Committee to tackle the shortages, warns that as winter approaches, Kobani faces a crisis with the closure of the Aleppo road.

“We’ve received some aid from the province of Raqqa [in the northeast], but the population has increased by 25 per cent as displaced people move here,” Kayat said.

Kayat said the Free Syrian Army was sending limited amounts of wheat flour from the border crossing at Jarablus, while the Supreme Kurdish Council and local civil society organisations were trying to get food and medical supplies from the Syrian Red Crescent.

Conditions are similar in Afrin, a PYD-controlled town near the Turkish border, about 200 kilometres west of Kobani.

“Medicines and flour are running out. People are trying to build mills and use wheat from Afrin to get a constant supply of bread,” a 23-year-old member of the Kurdish Brotherhood Committee said.

In Al-Hasakah province, another area with a strong Kurdish presence, people are facing similar problems. Government security forces are still in the main provincial city, Qamishli, but the situation has remained relatively calm, except for an explosion on September 30.

Residents are suffering shortages because of the closure of the Nusaybin-Qamishli crossing with Turkey.

“Prices are spiralling and there’s a shortage of basic supplies,” a 27-year-old activist from Qamishli said. “The Supreme Kurdish Council is looking for an alternative source of essential supplies, possibly Iraqi Kurdistan.”