Our plan today was to drive the five hour journey west from Qamishli to the city of Kobanî.
To make the most of the day we left Qamishli just after 5am. To avoid the regime controlled neighbourhoods, we took a slightly longer route as we drove out of the city in the early morning.
On our way through Amuda, our driver, Mr. Fahad, stopped to buy some bread for breakfast for all of us at a local bakery. As we were going to be driving through some towns with possible ISIS sympathisers, we also picked up an Asayish officer to ride with us for security.
Up until 8 months prior, it was not possible to drive overland from Qamishli to Kobanî, with the territory between Kobanî and Jazira Cantons controlled by ISIS.
On the 31st of May 2015 however, YPG and FSA forces commenced the Tell Abyad offensive, to liberate the ISIS border town of Tell Abyad and to link the Kobanî and Jazira Cantons.
The town of Tell Abyad is situated on the border of Turkey, and is 80 kilometres north of Al-Raqqah, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State. Hence the town was a key supply route for ISIS for smuggling fighters, oil sales and other goods with their trade with Turkey.
At the conclusion of the offensive in July 2015, Tell Abyad was under YPG control and Kobanî and Jazira Cantons were successfully linked. The YPG forces also now controlled 400 km of uninterrupted Syrian-Turkish border, parts of which had previously been a key conduit for foreign fighters joining ISIS.
After driving for a few hours, we stopped off at a small town to refuel. A good time to have a cigarette too!
Unfortunately no forecourt or snacks for sale at this petrol station.
Our Asayish officer with his Kalashnikov at the ready. In the background in red, it is written Militia of Al-Jazeera Warriors (anti-government supporters), in black, Allah, Syria, Bashar and enough (government supporters), and in blue, Allah is the Greatest.
We then continued our drive west to Kobanî. After one of the many checkpoints we had to stop at, Jan recounted the time when as a teenager he was caught with Kurdish poetry at a regime checkpoint in his village in Afrin. He said he was tortured for seven days, and repeatedly asked about how to organise people and other questions about Kurdish resistance. He was just 15 years old at the time, and knew nothing about the intricacies of political activities etc. When he was returned to his family at the end of the seven days, the regime military officer told his father that his son was a smart boy for resisting and not telling them anything. Of course he knew nothing to tell them in the first place though!
Stopping in the town of Tell Abyad. The cage in the background was used to punish people who were caught smoking, which was banned under ISIS.
Five weeks prior to my visit, ISIS attacked Tell Abyad again. Their assault was repelled after 4 days by YPG forces with the help of Coalition airstrikes. YPG losses were 43-47 persons, while 120-291 ISIS militants were killed.
Just after 10am we arrived in Kobanî, and went to the Media Centre to get the necessary paperwork for our visit.
We then checked into the hotel for our two nights in Kobanî. Clean and tidy, and considering we were staying in a recent warzone it was very reasonable.
We then headed to a local restaurant for lunch, where we had a large mutton and tomato dish with tabbouleh and yogurt. Clockwise from left, our Asayish officer, Mr. Fahad our driver from Qamishli, Jan and Mr. Seyfedin from the Kobanî Media Centre.
An Arab gentleman also at the restaurant, who was happy for me to take his photograph.
The restaurant was well behind the main frontline within Kobanî when the town was attacked by ISIS in 2014, so the surrounding area was relatively unscathed from destruction that occurred in the rest of the town.
After lunch we bid farewell to Mr. Fahad as he began the journey back to Qamishli, and then Mr. Seyfedin from the Kobanî Media Centre took us to see the Berxwdan – Resistance Monument in the centre of Kobanî. The Statue was crafted by a Kurdish sculptor from Sulaymaniyah to honor the courage and sacrifice demonstrated by Kurdish women fighters in liberating their towns from ISIS. The female statue is wearing traditional baggy fatigue pants typically worn by Kurdish men, but also worn by Kurdish women in combat.
On either side of the monument were two ISIS tanks that were neutralised during the Siege of Kobanî.
Looking east, some of the destruction during the siege is clearly visible.
Mr. Seyfedin then took us to the main frontline where ISIS and YPG forces fought during the siege.
On the 13th of September 2014, ISIS launched a massive offensive to take control of the Kobanî Canton and the city of Kobanî. Within days, ISIS were within several kilometres of the city and had it completely encircled. Fearing an ISIS takeover of the region, more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds streamed into Turkey.
An ISIS Hell cannon, or improvised artillery. Utilising gas cylinders packed with explosives, the mortar-like gun was used to shell Kobanî during the siege.
On the 27th September 2014, U.S. and Arab Coalition planes bombed the area around Kobanî for the first time. The delay in deploying airstrikes against ISIS near Kobanî was believed to be have been done to avoid upsetting Turkey, which does not favour an independent Kurdish State on its border.
Concrete rubble and reinforcing on the ISIS side of the frontline that was bombed by Coalition airstrikes.
Kurdish fighters who were martyred during the battle of Kobanî. The blue is for Asayish, green is for YPJ and yellow is for YPG.
Despite the Coalition airstrikes, ISIS continued its advance, and by October 1st 2014 was within one kilometer of the city's entrance. On October 5th they had captured the southern side of the strategic Mistanour Hill. ISIS militants, backed by snipers, heavy machine gun fire, and shelling from Mistanour Hill, crossed the open fields at the city's eastern edges and entered the city.
The main street where YPG and ISIS forces faced off. The scale of destruction was unimaginable and unlike anything I had ever seen before.
At the peak of the siege, ~3,000 Kurdish fighters were battling as many as 9,000 Islamic State militants supported by 30-50 tanks. By October 9th 2014, ISIS had succeeded in capturing more than a third of the city despite the Coalition air strikes.
A local man walking amongst the destroyed buildings.
US officials initally said that they were not concerned if Kobanî fell to ISIS and that their goals in Syria were not to save cities and towns, but to go after ISIS senior leadership, oil refineries and other infrastructure. However, with Kobanî's location on the Turkish border and the subsequent heavy media coverage of the siege on the city, Kobanî became too symbolically important to simply let it fall.
A large bomb crater from a Coalition air strike.
The US then stepped up efforts to save Kobanî and on the 19th October 2014, three US Air force C-130's airdropped 24 tons of small arms and ammunition and 10 tons of medical supplies into Kobanî. The US also increased the tempo and the intensity of their airstrikes. Previously the targeting of airstrikes was based largely on drone footage and satellite imagery. The US instead now started to work directly with the Kurdish forces on the ground, using their on the ground intelligence to pinpoint attacks with coordinates of Islamic State positions directly relayed by YPG forces in Kobanî.
A wild red poppy growing on the edge of a bomb crater.
A memorial sign showing the nom de guerre (in red) and name (in black) of a Kurdish fighter killed at this location during the battle.
On October 31st 2014, ~150 Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan in 20 vehicles and carrying heavy weaponry crossed the border from Turkey to support the defense of the city.
The town residents were slowly trying to clean up the rubble and destroyed buildings.
Kalashnikov ammo casings on the ground, left over from the battle, with children playing in the background.
The name of another Kurdish martyr on the bullet ridden wall who lost their life at this spot.
The tail-fin of an ISIS mortar that was fired into the city.
A tree that miraculously survived the intense airstrikes on the frontline. Also, on the ground floor of a half-destroyed building was a shop.
I ventured over to discover it was a barber shop and was by greeted the proprietor. He was trying to return to some sort of normality after the mayhem and horror that had descended on the city 18 months prior.
The total devasation seemed to never end.
It was very sobering to think of the extreme losses that the city had suffered, both in terms of lives and material destruction.
In total, ~70% of Kobanî city was destroyed during the battle with ISIS.
We then drove to the north of Kobanî. On the horizon is the Turkish border, with a large Turkish flag in the distance. Turkey enforces a virtual trade embargo with Kobanî, and the border is only opened two days a week to let Syrian refugees return from Turkey.
Two ladies walking by a destroyed building.
A building that was used by YPG/YPJ forces as a position, and was also hit by an ISIS suicide car bomb. Note the sign listing the name of the Kurdish martyrs who died during the attack.
We then stopped at a local shop, again situated in a half-destroyed building, to get a drink. We could choose any flavour soft-drink as long as it was Pepsi! Due to the trade embargo by both Turkey and Iraq, most goods have to be clandestinely smuggled into Rojava.
A shepherd and his flock.
The remains of an ISIS tank that was destroyed by a Coalition airstrike.
After over three months of street to street fighting, ISIS suicide attacks and airstrikes, on the 31st of January 2015, it was declared that the city of Kobanî had been fully cleared of ISIS forces. ISIS also admitted defeat but vowed to return to attack the city again, and which it did 5 months later with horrific results.
We then ventured up a hill to the east of Kobanî. In the foregound is a trench for defense and the city of Kobanî in the background. On the left is Mistanour Hill and on the right is the Turkish border with the flagpole in the distance. ISIS had taken the hill during the siege and killed YPJ and YPG fighters that were defending it.
We then met with the local YPG commander on the hill top and they invited us to join them for some çay.
During our chat, the commander had said that Turkey had started to increase security on the border (visible from the hill top) and was positioning tanks at regular intervals.
After the interesting discussion with the YPG commander we drove back into the city to the border crossing point with Turkey. In the early morning darkness on 25th June 2015, ISIS, following up on their promise to attack the city again, detonated three car bombs in Kobanî, one of which was at the Turkish border crossing.
An estimated 80–100 ISIS militants entered the city disguised as Kurdish security forces and began going from door-to-door, killing indescriminately. The battle in Kobanî city continued for another 3 days, after which 223+ civilians were killed.
Back in the city, a front end loader that had been converted by the YPG into an armoured fighting vehicle.
With a bullet proof window to look out.
The remains of a destoyed ISIS Humvee.
Over 2,000 Iraqi Army Humvee's were captured by ISIS after the fall of the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014 and many were taken for their operations into Syria.
We then met up with the Deputy Defense Minister of Kobanî, Mr. Ojalan Iso. We talked about the current situation on the frontline to the south and west of Kobanî. He said that attacks by ISIS were still frequent, especially on the Tishrin Dam, which ISIS were trying to recapture. The previous night, ISIS had again attacked, firing several Katyusha rockets.
He said that the YPG forces were continuing to co-ordinate with US forces, and utilising Coalition air strikes to bomb and decimate ISIS. The strategy of ISIS of using human shields demonstrated that they were getting weaker, and showed their desperation.
He reiterated the desire for Kurdish forces to push westwards, and that as well as destroying and displacing ISIS, it would benefit Western countries through the sealing of the border with Turkey and hampering the ability of militants to move in and out of Syria.
He also joked about the ISIS town of Manbij to the south-west of Kobanî, and how the Kurdish forces now referred to it as 'London' due to the large number of British jihadi's there.
We then walked back to our Kobanî hotel in the late afternoon.
And enjoyed some coffee and then some dinner in the hotel restaurant before retiring after the long but very interesting day.
Breakfast at the hotel with hummus, yoghurt, tomatoes and omelette together with a copy of the Syrian-Kurdish newspaper, Ronahi. Inside was an article with US Senator, Ted Cruz, calling for the US to directly arm the YPG. As Turkey believes that the YPG is linked with its own Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK, the US has had to manage both it's alliance with NATO member Turkey and with the Kurdish YPG forces in Syria.
We then drove up Mistanour Hill to the YPG Media Office. Looking north from the top of the hill with Kobanî and the border with Turkey in the distance.
Over coffee we chatted with the YPG Media officer, and asked if we could visit the frontlines with ISIS to the south and west, along the Euphrates river. He said that he was happy for us to visit, but it would depend on if they could obtain necessary clearance from the YPG commanders in the field and to confirm that it was safe for us to visit.
We then drove back down into Kobanî to await an update and clearance to proceed south. The Flag of Rojava in the street. On the left also is two portraits of a YPJ and a YPG martyr from the Siege of Kobanî.
While waiting for word on clearance to head to the frontlines, we were unfortunately told that due to some clashes it was not safe to go today. Our Plan B instead was to go to some other places in Kobanî.
We then went to a graveyard for martyrs who had been killed defending the city during the siege. The green flag of the YPJ fluttering in the breeze and families in the background tending to the graves of their lost loved ones.
The Guardian newspaper published a sombre but very moving article on some of the YPJ women who had died defending Kobani against ISIS:
Hameera Muhammed, the mother of five children that had been taken away from her when she struggled after husband was killed by a sniper in Aleppo. Hameera was killed when an ISIS mortar hit a building that she and other fighters had been hiding in.
22-year-old Berivan Fadhil, who spent 8 months training in a military camp to become a YPJ figher, was killed by a suicide car bomb while advancing towards ISIS positions.
22-year-old Shireen Taher, who joined the YPJ after her father had been killed by an ISIS car bomb. During the siege, her family received a phone call from an ISIS militant calling from her cellphone. After asking to speak to Shireen's mother, the miltant told her mother that she needed to come and collect her daughter’s head.
19-year-old, Ruhan Hassan, who had been at the western front with three other YPJ fighters, firing against ISIS until they ran out of ammunition. Not wanting to be taken prisoners by ISIS and the certain horrors that would result, they used their last hand grenades to kill themselves.
A portrait on the grave of a YPJ fighter killed during the siege. It was quite a sobering moment to see the graves of so many people who had been martyred just over a year ago in the prime of their lives, while defending their city from the evil that is ISIS. They had given so much and made the ultimate sacrifice for a just and righteous cause against infidels who represented only extreme hate, violence and intolerance.
We then drove to the outskirts of Kobanî to a refugee camp.
Alot of the people in the camp were from villages and towns still under the control of ISIS.
Some Arab ladies from the city of Manbij we chatted to. Their husbands and brothers had been detained for being suspected ISIS militants and were asking for help to get them released.
We then drove back into the city, stopping on the way at a graveyard for some of the 200+ civilian victims of the Kobanî massacre, committed by ISIS 10 months prior when they re-entered the town dressed as Kurdish security forces.
Men and women singing songs in the street in support of the Kurdish resistance movement across the border in Turkey.
Our driver in front of a photo of his brother, an Asayish commander who was martyred during the siege.
Mr. Seyfedin from the Kobanî media office was very apologectic we could not visit the frontlines today, so invited us to dinner at his house.
His house was right on the frontline when the YPG was fighting ISIS in Kobanî. One YPJ fighter and one YPG fighter were martyred while using his house as cover while battling ISIS.
Mr. Seyfedin's mother, who graciously allowed to take her photo. On her chin is a 'Deq' or facial tattoo. The tradition of facial tattoos in the Kurdish region of Syria and southern Turkey is becoming increasingly rare. It is believed that they were used as tribal identifiers with symbolic meaning.
And Mr. Seyfedin's daughter and son.
Unfortunately I didn't get meet his wife, but she cooked us up a delicious dinner though. Apart from some çay, we hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was a perfect end to the day.
A couple of Arab gentlemen who happily allowed me to take their photo before we headed back to the hotel at the end of day 5.
After breakfast we walked down to the Kobanî Media Centre. Thankfully the frontlines south and west of the city were quieter today, and after waiting for our YPG escort, we headed south out of the city.
Today's plan was to make our way south to the town of Sarrin, liberated from ISIS 8 months prior, and then to the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates river.
Apart from a small area around Tishrin, ISIS maintained control of the territory west of the Euphrates. The eventual aim of YPG was to capture this territory so that the Kobani and Jazira Cantons are linked up with the Afrin Canton, creating one contiguous Kurdish region in Syria.
Doing so however would result in the YPG controlling almost the entire Syria-Turkey border. Hence Turkey has declared that the area west of the Euphrates a 'red line', threatening Turkish military action on the YPG. Hence the YPG have crossed the Euphrates river at Tishrin, away from the border and out of the range of Turkish artillery.
After driving for a while, we stopped to check in with the local SDF commander.
The SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces, was established on the 10th of October 2015. The SDF is an US supported alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen and Chechen/Circassian militias fighting against ISIS and Al-Nusra Front. As the fight against ISIS begun to extend beyond Kurdish-majority areas, it was imperative that other ethnicities were included in the fighting ahead. The majority of fighters in the SDF remain Kurdish though, and the SDF has been described as a 'subsidiary' of the YPG.
We then drove south to the town of Sarrin.
Sarrin was taken over by ISIS in September 2013. In March 2015, Sarrin was the last stronghold that ISIS controlled in the countryside of Kobanî. YPG and FSA forces then advanced on the town to liberate it.
Finally on July 27th, 2015, the besieged town was under the control of Kurdish YPG forces. The capture of the town was deemed a major defeat for ISIS with the town's capture severing their main access to parts of Aleppo Governorate.
An ISIS prison in Sarrin by the main road.
We then continued the drive south, stopping at an abandoned and destroyed village. Looking west we could see the Euphrates river. The western side of the river is ISIS-controlled territory.
One a damaged wall in the village is the words, Islamic Movement for the Freedom of the Levant or Ahrar al-Sham. Ahrar al-Sham is an Islamist militia that is supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
The village was extensively damaged with no residents remaining. Due to the risk of explosive mines and traps left by ISIS we had to stick to the tarmac road only.
A school used for shelter by ISIS but now destroyed by a Coalition airstrike.
We then continued the drive to Tishrin Dam. In the background is the village of Tishrin. The surrounding hills are controlled by SDF forces, but beyond is ISIS territory.
The dam was constructed from 1991-1999 and has a installed capacity of 630 MW. It was first taken over by Syrian rebels in November 2012. When the dam was captured by ISIS in November 2014 they immediately cut off Kurdish territories from its power supply.
On December 23rd 2015, SDF forces begun an offensive to liberate the area around the dam from ISIS. The SDF were supported by a number of US special forces on the ground.
During the four-day offensive, as well as capturing the dam, the SDF forces liberated over 100 villages and hamlets, an area of ~640 km² and killed 219 ISIS fighters.
The electricity supply in Rojava is dependent on diesel power generators. After the capture of the dam, they are now attempting to utilise it to supply power to their electricity grid. Unfortunately the previous day though a worker was killed in an industrial accident at the dam during work to re-establish power generation.
We then crossed over to the western side of the Euprhates, but as there was a SDF commanders meeting in the village, we were not able to enter Tishrin itself. We then began the drive back to Kobanî.
On the drive back we stopped to meet some YPG forces stationed in a strategically located water tower.
One of the YPG soldiers with his Kalashnikov and wearing a bandana in the colours of Rojava.
Another of the soldiers by the protective berm built around the base of the tower. I had wanted to take some portraits of these fearsome warriors and it was a great opportunity to do so.
Walking up to the top of the tower.
The tower had a strategic view over to the Euphrates river and into ISIS territory.
A group portrait of the four YPG fighters at the top of the tower. We could hear the gentle rumble of a Coalition jet high above us, ready to drop a bomb at a moments notice on an unsuspecting Jihadi. It was oddly a very reassuring and comforting sound to hear.
One of the soldiers wearing a patch of Abdullah Öcalan.
With a Russian PK machine gun.
Although much had been achieved by the Kurdish forces, the expanse of ISIS territory over the Euphrates in the background showed that many more battles against their evil and uncomprising enemy lay ahead.
Walking back down. The YPG fighters invited us to join them for some çay, but unfortunately we had to head back to Kobanî, and then head back to Qamishli before nightfall. As some of the villages on the way back to Qamishli still had ISIS sympathisers, it was important that we not leave too late and avoid travel in the darkness.
Back in Kobanî where we settled our hotel bill. All of $12 per night.
We then walked down to the Kobanî Media centre. There was some rain and thunder in the dark clouds above the city.
At the media centre to get the necessary paperwork for our travel back to Qamishli.
And driving past the Berxwdan – Resistance Monument and its two destroyed ISIS tanks on our way out through the city.
Before leaving Kobanî we stopped at a restaurant for some falafel. Only 600 Syrian pounds ($1.20) for the three sandwiches and four bottles of water.
Stopping for petrol as we neared Qamishli. The pump attendant was a Kurd from Turkey. He formerly worked as a journalist, but after harassment and persecution from the Turkish Police, escaped over the border to Rojava.
And back at the Assia hotel in Qamishli some time after 9pm. After a dinner of a kebab I got some sleep before one more full day in Syria.