More than three years after ISIS, Syrian Kurds rebuild Kobane alone
KOBANE, Syria - After giving up on getting help from Syrian Kurdish authorities, Ahmed Saleh relied on relatives abroad to repair his home in Kobane after it was heavily damaged in a battle against jihadists.
Much of the border town along Syria’s northern frontier with Turkey was left in ruins after US-backed Kurdish forces ousted the Islamic State (ISIS) in early 2015.
Saleh fled to Turkey in the battle’s early stages and returned a year later, finding two of his home’s three rooms were destroyed.
“We returned to Kobane after the battles had stopped and were shocked by the huge destruction in the town,” said Saleh, 45.
The one-time shoe repairman said he hoped authorities would step in but added that he eventually “lost hope.”
“We had to live in these homes and we weren’t going to wait for these empty promises,” he said.
Instead, he turned to family members abroad, who sent remittances.
“My son in Germany and my brother in Iraqi Kurdistan helped me so my children and I could return home,” he said.
Saleh has spent the equivalent of $1,150 fixing up his house, little by little. All it needs now is a final coat of paint.
Other homes in his eastern neighbourhood of Butan have been roughly restored. Bullet holes are still visible but many walls have been rebuilt and painted.
Mohammad Naesan, who lives in the nearby Martyr Kawa district, repaired his one-storey house by hand and with his own savings.
“Our home was completely destroyed by ISIS,” said Naesan, 76, while clutching a Quran and sitting on his front stoop with his wife and children. “The municipality came and recorded all the damage to the buildings but then they didn’t do a thing.
“No one helped us. Rebuilding was so expensive and it cost me a lot.”
Central government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria in 2012, leaving local authorities to set up semi-autonomous institutions. As ISIS grabbed large parts of northern Syria, it attacked Kobane in late 2014.
The four months of fighting it took to push the jihadists out pulverised about half the city, mostly in its north and east, said Anwar Muslim, the town’s top official. He said 5,000 homes were destroyed, about 70% of which have been rebuilt.
He said remittances were crucial for rebuilding individual homes as authorities did not have the budget to help. They focused instead on rehabilitating the gutted infrastructure, getting water and electricity to residents and rebuilding a dozen schools. Power cuts and water shortages are still rampant, however, and Muslim said he felt disappointed by the lack of support from the US-led coalition, the Kurds’ key partner in the anti-ISIS fight.
“So far, the coalition hasn’t provided any support despite us speaking dozens of times about the fact that, as we beat ISIS together, we should rebuild together,” he said.
The coalition provided funds to several areas recaptured from ISIS to demine and rehabilitate infrastructure like bridges and water networks.
Today, Kobane’s population stands at 250,000, down from 400,000 before the start of Syria’s war in 2011, Muslim said.
“We’re trying to create jobs, increase services and open universities so people come back,” he said.
While some have scrapped together the cash to revamp their homes, others say it is prohibitively expensive.
“We can’t afford to rebuild,” said Muslim Nabu, 32, a Kurdish language teacher who instead is renting a house.
Not only have authorities not helped, he said, but “the municipality collected money from people under the pretext it was for a building licence.”
In the most heavily damaged section of Kobane, officials intentionally refrained from rebuilding. Authorities want to leave the northern sector as an open-air museum, a testament to their hard-fought battle against ISIS.
A row of scorched cars practically sizzle beneath the sun against a backdrop of gutted homes, which officials want to keep empty.
Muslim said compensation has been handed out for 258 of 500 affected homes but residents say those plans are out of touch with their own painstaking efforts to clear rubble by hand and rebuild with their own funds.
Faydan Khaleel, who lives there with her husband and mother-in-law, said she had only just finished restoring their home.
“My husband worked for daily wages until we were able to rebuild and return to live here,” said the 45-year-old, sitting cross-legged in the shade, a purple scarf pulling her hair back, “but now they’re saying they’re turning it into a museum and we have to leave.
“They said they’d give us land as compensation but we don’t have the cash to build a home a third time.”