Know Our Cities: Kobane

This report was published by Syrian Democratic Times on 24 February, 2020

Kobane, the city that began the fall of ISIS – “As a global symbol of the Kurdish resistance against ISIS, the city of Kobane has become an important site for artistic and cultural work that tells the story of this struggle and puts it in historical context.”

Historical Origins

The town and city that became Kobane was formed as a settlement in 1892 during the Ottoman period, and later morphed into a small town in 1912, following the construction of a railroad and railway station there. The train station was part of the Baghdad Railway project launched by the Ottoman government to connect Baghdad with Berlin and the name of the city “Kobane” was merely a Kurdish mispronunciation of the English word “company”. German engineers staying in the area in 1912 described the town as a “small Kurdish village comprising a small cluster of square mud-brick huts, many with domed roofs”.

A few years later in 1915, refugees fleeing the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian Genocide fled to Kobane and settled in the newly built town, however many of them were eventually forcefully moved south by the Ottomans and scattered between Qamishli and Deir el-Zor. Then in 1921, the town of Kobane was split arbitrarily by the newly created borders of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal (i.e. Ataturk), who decided that the border between Turkey and what would later be Syria, should be the railway line, since no geographic demarcation point existed. As a result, the original town was split in two, with the northern area in Turkey now known as Mursitpinar.

Kobane following the victory over ISIS in February of 2015. Over the rubble, the people of the city emerged victorious. (Photo: Dr. Thoreau Redcrow)

The Battle of Kobane

Kobane is the most well-known city in North and East Syria because of its heroic resistance against ISIS, which took place on the world stage in front of a global audience. It was also the beginning of the successful coalition between the United States military and what would become the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to defeat the ISIS caliphate.

The Battle of Kobane began on September 16, 2014, when thousands of ISIS militants invaded the villages around the town, and over the next five months, more than 70% of the city would be destroyed. Kobane had been guarded by The People’s Protection Units (YPG) since July of 2012, which made it a prime target for ISIS who wanted to destroy the model of democratic governance and gender equality being established there. However, the YPG had vowed to never retreat from the city, with spokesman Polat Can declaring, “We will resist to our last drop of blood together.”

During the siege of Kobane, around 2,000 mostly Kurdish fighters from the YPG & YPJ along with 150 Peshmerga reinforcements from the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, held off over 9,000 attacking ISIS militants. By the time it was all over, over 500 Kurdish fighters had fallen, and ISIS retreated after losing over 3,000 attackers. The battle itself came to be known as the “Kurdish Stalingrad” (in reference to the Red Army’s legendary WWII victory against Nazism in that Russian city), as it became a similar street by street, building by building struggle for survival amidst mostly rubble.

In fact, it was the heroism of Kobane’s resistance that convinced the US military to assist with air strikes and by air dropping weapons, as up until this time, other cities attacked by ISIS had fallen fairly easily. As one YPG fighter Mahmud remarked at the time, “We are gaining our rights with our blood”. In victory, the YPG issued the statement, “The battle for Kobane was not only a fight between the YPG and Daesh [ISIS], it was a battle between humanity and barbarity, a battle between freedom and tyranny, it was a battle between all human values and the enemies of humanity.”

As Harvey Morris of Time Magazine observed at the time: “The Kurds promoted their struggle as one of freedom and democracy and specifically highlighted the role of unveiled women fighters as a symbol of egalitarian secularity in the face of the [ISIS] jihadists’ perceived misogyny. ‘Save Kobane’ became an internationally popularized slogan in the anti-ISIS struggle and dozens of Western volunteers traveled to join the Kurds.” Accompanying the victory were hashtag campaigns of #SaveKobane, which captured global attention, as the city of Kobane became a symbol for the first defeat of ISIS and the commitment to construct a new Middle East despite their reign of terror.

The Kobane Martyr’s Cemetery. (Photo: Dr. Thoreau Redcrow)

As the dust settled, the bombed out buildings and streets lined with wreckage and burned cars served as a poignant reminder of the heavy toll the people of Kobane paid to repel ISIS. However, in the years since, the cities proud residents have moved back and rebuilt their homes, reopened their stores, and constructed a bustling and thriving city that has arisen from the rubble like a sunflower.

Cultural Significance

As a global symbol of the Kurdish resistance against ISIS, the city of Kobane has become an important site for artistic and cultural work that tells the story of this struggle and puts it in historical context.

The transformation of a roundabout in the city that was once controlled by the jihadist group into a public space dedicated to the women who defeated it, is one example of this. The Free Woman Square is a common gathering space for celebrating the victory in the war against ISIS, and other public events. Its architecture pays homage to both the future North and East Syria (commonly called “Rojava”) is seeking to build, and the deadly past it survived.

The statue honoring Arin Mirkan. (Photo: Dr. Thoreau Redcrow)

A statue of Arin Mirkan, a YPJ fighter who gave her own life to destroy an ISIS position and save her comrades during the siege of Kobane, serves as its centerpiece. The statue portrays Mirkan with angel-like wings and one arm outstretched to the sky. It is surrounded by destroyed ISIS tanks, left in place as a reminder of the siege and the deadly odds that resistance fighters like Mirkan faced.

Kobane has also played a role in North and East Syria’s emerging film culture. The End Will Be Spectacular, which tells the story of a group of Kurdish youth who defended their hometown from the Turkish army for 100 days, was filmed in the city. The actors and filmmakers were not able to film in the town of Sur, where the events took place, due to ongoing crackdowns in the aftermath of the conflict and a state-enforced media blackout on those who try to show its consequences. Producer Diyar Hesso said that the scale of the devastation in Kobane allowed the filmmakers to create a more authentic set despite this. “The destruction [in Kobane] is actually very similar to that by the Turkish state.”

The city’s “war museum,” a neighborhood that faced some of the heaviest fighting of the siege, preserves this destruction for future generations to remember. Local authorities do not plan to rebuild it, in order to create a living monument to those who lost their lives there and the sacrifices that the people of North and East Syria made for their freedom. Rather than glorify war, a monument like this one memorializes its costs.

These examples show a concentrated effort underway in North and East Syria to not only survive the day-to-day hardships of war, but respond to suffering and uncertainty with artistic and cultural resistance. As Turkish forces and their jihadist militia allies destroy cultural sites in areas that they occupy, the people of Kobane fight to build a culture that represents their history and their values, and tells the story of their heroic struggle to the world.