This week Kurdish forces took full control of Kobani, a Syrian town near the Turkish border, after months of bombardment by Islamic State. Mona Mahmood speaks to four Kurdish families about the female fighters who died helping to wrest control of the town from Isis
Kurdish people hold a picture of dead fighter during a celebration rally near the Turkish-Syrian border at Suruç on Tuesday
Kurdish people hold a picture of dead fighter during a celebration rally near the Turkish-Syrian border at Suruç on Tuesday. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
Friday 30 January 2015 09.26 GMT
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Mustafa Taher, 30, a lawyer and Kurdish language teacher, on his sister
A few months after the revolution in Syria broke out, the Syrian regime permitted predominantly Kurdish towns in Syria to teach the Kurdish language in their schools. This included my home town, Kobani. My sister Shireen, then 19, was supposed to study English literature at Damascus University in autumn 2012, but it became inconceivable to travel between Kobani and the capital given the increase in violence throughout Syria. Shireen instead studied the Kurdish language in Kobani while waiting for the chance to join the university.
Of my 11 brothers and sisters, I was closest to Shireen. We were more like friends than sister and brother. She was sensitive, fond of parties and loved sport. We were great fans of Barcelona football team. When the World Cup final was held in Johannesburg in 2010, Shireen travelled to Damascus where I worked as a lawyer, so we could watch the matches which were screened in large parks.
Shireen was inspired by her female Kurdish language teacher, Vian, 29, a fighter with the Kurdistan Workers’ party, PKK. It was a sombre day for the locals of Kobani when Vian was killed in a fight against Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate and Syrian jihadi rebel group, in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad on 26 July 2012. At the funeral in Kobani to extol Vian’s martyrdom, my father gave his old gun to Shireen and told her to follow her teacher and be a fighter – despite my mother’s disagreement. Shireen vowed to join the People’s Protection units, YPG, to seek revenge for her teacher and defend Kobani. If Shireen had not volunteered, I would have done.
Shireen Taher had hoped to study English literature at university.
Shireen Taher had hoped to study English literature at university. Photograph: The Guardian
Shortly afterwards, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) launched attacks against Kobani. They were initiated by a car bomb at the Red Crescent centre on 11 November 2012. My father, 67, and his friend were nearby and were killed, alongside 12 other martyrs. During my father’s funeral, Shireen said: “I always thought that one day my father would be named as the father of martyrs, but I never thought that I would become the daughter of a martyr.”
Our father’s death gave Shireen an enormous jolt to adhere to his will and be an outstanding fighter. Especially after we went to the mortuary for his body. It was hard to identify given the massive damage caused by the explosion. Shireen was devastated by the martyrdom of several of her friends. She could hardly cope with the loss of her father and teacher. Life became meaningless for Shireen. She would spend days training in the military camp on weapons like the Kalashnikov, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades.
During her two years of training, Shireen would visit us. I could not believe how much her personality changed during her long embedding in the military camp in a Kobani suburb. She used to have a Barcelona flag around her neck and wore full makeup. I can’t remember her hands without rings or bracelets. Her bag, which was full of perfume and cosmetics, came to be loaded with bombs and bullets.
The day I decided to move my mother and sisters to Turkey, like most of the locals of Kobani, to escape the hellish Isis attack against our town, my mother insisted that I call Shireen. She told my mother: “If you leave Kobani, you won’t be my mother any longer.” But after three days, Shireen asked my mother to leave as soon as possible as Isis was getting closer to the city.
Shireen was camping west of Kobani when Isis militants were pushing forward towards the city with their heavy weapons and tanks. The Kurdish resistance was able to distract the progress of Isis with their light weapons but they could not stop it forever. Shireen was hiding in a trench near the Kurdish radio broadcast office. I rang her from Turkey five hours before her martyrdom to check on her. She said: “Do not worry, I’m still alive.” At 8pm, my other sister – who had stayed in Kobani working in the hospital as a nurse – called Shireen out of her fear for her safety. Shireen asked her not to contact her any more as the fight was getting worse and she could no longer speak on her mobile.
When my mother answered, the man told her to come and get her daughter’s head
Then we heard about a heavy fight launched by Isis against Kobani. At 10pm, we got a call from my sister’s mobile. It was a man’s voice. He asked if he was speaking to Shireen’s family. One of my sisters confirmed that we were, and he told her that Shireen was killed by Isis and she needed to collect Shireen’s head.
Before my sister could break the news of Shireen’s martyrdom to my mother, the Isis militant contacted my mother in Turkey and told her Shireen wanted to speak to her. When my mother answered, the man told her to come and get her daughter’s head. My mother lost consciousness , and was taken to hospital.
We called Shireen’s friends at the war front, who said Shireen and five other female fighters were ambushed on 30 September by an Isis tank that shelled them all to death. I returned to Kobani to get Shireen’s body for her funeral, but her friends told me her body was still with Isis and no one was able to go into the district where she had been killed. I returned to Turkey with my sister – she had a nervous breakdown and could not stay in Kobani any more.
Although Shireen’s martyrdom was heartbreaking for my family, we are all proud of her sacrifice and the sacrifice of all her friends killed defending Kobani.
Hameera Muhammed. Photograph: The Guardian
Muhammed Khashman, 45, a businessman who is a refugee in Turkey, remembers his sister’s adopted daughter, Hameera Muhammed
Hameera was born three months after her father was killed in a car accident in 1982. It was difficult for her mother to cope with the expense of four children on her own. My sister, a friend of Hameera’s mother, offered to adopt the baby and raise her with her eight children in Kobani. Hameera was cheerful with a sense of humour, and married a taxi driver from Kobani when she was 18.
On a trip to Aleppo two years ago, Hameera’s husband was killed by a sniper while she was giving birth to their youngest son. It took Hameera three days to get her husband’s body back to Kobani as a result of heavy fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels in Aleppo. It was hard for Hameera to cope with the expense of her five kids. She relied only on selling dairy products from a cow that had been owned by her husband and on subsidies from her parents. Her father-in-law offered Hameera and her children a room in his house but she refused to leave her home. After a series of quarrels, her father-in-law took Hameera’s five kids to his house and she went to live with her parents.
Hameera was devastated by the loss of her kids. She wanted to see her baby to breastfeed him but she was not allowed. All of Hameera’s mother’s attempts to repair the rift between her and her father-in-law did not work. Hameera’s depression and her yearning to be reunited with her kids became obvious. When the fight escalated in Kobani between Isis and Kobani’s fighters last September, Hameera’s family was one of thousands who crossed the border into Turkey. Driven by fear and horror, Hameera’s mother was unable to check whether she had all her nine children with her. It was only when she reached the refugee camp in Turkey that her eldest daughter told her Hameera had stayed in Kobani to fight Isis, and that she had joined the resistance.
After a week, Hameera contacted her mother asking for forgiveness. She said he thought joining the resistance in Kobani to fight against Isis would make her father-in-law treat her differently and let her see her children. She told her mother she had been wounded in her shoulder and hand during a fight against Isis. Hameera’s mother pleaded with her to come to Turkey. She said she was not well trained, that the war is not a joke and that it is for men not women.
It was the first day of observing Eid al-Adha in Turkey, so I visited my sister in the camp to check on her and her family. They were on the phone to Hameera, who told them she was getting better but she missed them and her kids. Hameera’s mother asked her to come back as the fight was getting tougher and she was worried about her. Hameera’s answer was that she wouldn’t be able to speak on the phone any more.
Ten days later, Hameera’s sister got a phone call from someone who said Hameera had been hiding in a building with a few other fighters when a mortar had shelled the building and killed them. The building was still occupied by Isis and Hameera’s body with others were inside.
Hameera’s mother insisted on giving her a funeral in the camp as a martyr. She hopes she will get Hameera’s body back so she can bury her in Kobani and her kids can visit her.
Wreckage left by fighting on a street in the centre of of Kobani on Wednesday Facebook Twitter Pinterest expand
Wreckage left by fighting on a street in the centre of Kobani. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
Ibrahiem Fadhil, 46, a shopkeeper and now a refugee in Turkey, recalls his sister
Berivan was a 22-year-old ordinary, smart, ambitious girl, trying to find her way in a wildly violent place like Syria. I never thought I would see the day when Berivan would be holding a gun to defend her town Kobani to her last drop of blood. Scenes of horror and brutality in Syria were highly affecting her. She could not sleep for a few nights after she watched the Isis military campaign against the Yazidi minority in Sinjar, and was frightened that Kobani would face the same fate. Berivan said to her mother: “I’m going to join Kobani’s fighters and no power on earth can stop me.”
Berivan was only two when her father was killed in a car accident in Aleppo, leaving behind a family of seven kids without any support. Despite the difficult circumstances, Berivan did really well in school, with the aim of fulfilling her dream of joining a college of medicine. It was only a few days before her final exam when the revolution broke out in Syria.This meant that she was not able to travel to Aleppo to do the test.
Berivan’s mother was terrified by the kidnapping of a number of Kurdish students by Isis militants while they were on their way to do the exam in Aleppo. It was a hard choice, but Berivan’s mother preferred that if her daughter were to be killed, it should be in defence of Kobani rather than from a kidnapping or murder by Isis. It would be a more honourable death for the family.
Most of the young Kobani locals had left their schools or jobs to focus on training
We had to leave Aleppo two years ago to escape the heavy shelling of the Syrian army planes that accompanied the clashes between factions and devastated the life of the locals. Being at home most of the time, Berivan’s dream of becoming a doctor was withering with the escalation of violence in Syria. She spent most of her time listening and watching news of the war in Syria and the rapid advance of Isis in Iraq.
We did not have many options. We headed to Riqa where we have a few relatives, seeking refuge and protection. But it was not long before Isis ravaged Riqa and turned it into its main base for the Islamic state, where military campaigns are waged against its enemies including the Kurds. All the Kurds were a target for Isis, under the accusation of being defectors and loyal to the Syrian regime.
There was no other escape but to go back to Kobani, which we did a few months ago. The town was relatively secure under the control of the Kurdish labour party, despite the shortage of water and power as a result of the tough siege imposed by Isis on all entrances to the city. Most food products and fuels were smuggled into Kobani, business was dead, and we relied on our savings to maintain our life.
When the danger of Isis was creeping back towards the Kobani suburbs six months ago, lots of Kurdish men and women volunteered to join the Kurdish People’s Protection forces in preparation for a showdown. It was the moment Berivan had been yearning for. She did not wait to get her family’s approval and enrolled with the force. She embedded in military camps for training on light weapons with her cousins and friends. The military camp was in the Kobani suburbs and Berivan could only come home once a week. I used to go and see her in the camp when she could not make it home. I could see that she was mainly talking about politics and human rights abuses. She said she would not stand a second in Kobani under the Isis command.
Inside ravaged Kobani: months of fighting have left a town in ruins – in pictures
As a family we could not object to Berivan’s decision as most of the young Kobani locals had left their schools or jobs to focus on training for the protection of Kobani. It was a big relief for my mother that Berivan stopped asking to go to Aleppo to do her final exam – this put an end to the ongoing nightmare of Isis kidnapping Berivan and selling her as a slave, as they had done with Yazidi women. As a man with three kids, I could not join in with the training out of fear for my kids’ future if I were to be killed.
In the eighth months Berivani spent in the military camp, I tried in my visits to her to warn her of the risks of being killed as she was young and not used to military life. But she would not let me finish. Her morale was high and she would not reconsider.
Although we were swamped with fear and worry about Berivan getting killed in a fight, she was still haunted by the dream of completing her studies. She used to spend long hours reviewing her school books when she was allowed home. But the security situation deterioration rapidly. Isis increased the intensity of their attacks against Kobani villages with mortars, artillery and car bombs.
Most of the villagers ran to the centre of Kobani, fearing Isis attacks. We were worried about our family and about the kids who were terrified by the mortars that would fall randomly on the city. I rang Berivan to say: “We are all leaving to Turkey, what are you going to do?” She replied: “I’m not coming with you, it has become a matter of life and death to defend Kobani.”
We became really worried on 18 Octobe. Berivan’s mobile had been switched off for days. It was difficult to reach the military camp or to know where, until my mobile rang. It was Berivan’s friend. He said: “I’m sorry to let you know that Berivan was killed by a car bomb as she was advancing towards Isis positions.”
I’m so proud of her martyrdom – I refuse to get consolation for her loss and would rather be congratulated for her heroic death.
Ruhan Hassan, right, with a fellow fighter. Facebook Twitter Pinterest expand
Ruhan Hassan, right, with a fellow fighter. Photograph: The Guardian
Adnan Hassan, 50, a refugee in Turkey, talks about his niece
Ruhan, 19, wanted to know more about the political rights of the Kurdish people in Syria. She was keen to attend all the national activities organised by the different political movements in Kobani. She was the youngest child of a family with seven kids and limited financial resources, and they could not afford to send her to the city to complete her secondary schooling.
Ruhan read a lot about the Kurdish labour party leader, Abdullah Öcalan, co-founder of the PKK, who has been in jail in Turkey for more than 15 years. Ruhan was inspired by his books about Kurdish women and their rights. She joined the women’s protection force in Kobani and in 2013. Ruhan proved to have good skills in fighting against the terrorists, and she encouraged her cousin to join the fight too.
All the fighting forces in Kobani were on alert after the massive attack launched by Isis against Kobani last September. Ruhan’s father asked her to come home and leave the fight to men. She said she preferred to be dead rather than live under the control of Isis and be taken as a slave.
The situation was worsening in Kobani with the flooding in of more Isis fighters. Ruhan’s family struggled to stay to be close to her, but Isis militants started to shell the city centre. There was no way they could stay in Kobani – even their Arab neighbours became a risk after collaborating with Isis against the Kurds. Ruhan’s father told her she needed to flee with them to Turkey. Ruhan said she had decided to die in Kobani.
Like most of the Kurdish families in Turkey, Ruhan’s family watched Kurdish TV to keep up with the news of the fighting and the names of wounded and martyrs among the Kurdish fighters in Kobani.
Then the TV announcer read the names of the martyrs. Ruhan’s mother jumped out of her chair when she heard Ruhan’s name. It was a terrible and sad day. The family ran to the Turkish border to go back to Kobani to find out what had happened to Ruhan. Getting back to Kobani was impossible under the non-stop fight with Isis and the military siege imposed by the Turkish police.
Ruhan’s father kept trying her cousin and other friends for any news of his daughter. Her cousin said Ruhan had been at the western front of Kobani with three other female fighters firing against Isis until they ran out of ammunition. They did not want to be taken as prisoners by Isis so they used their last hand grenades to kill themselves.
This article was amended on 30 January 2015. The original caption on the picture of Ruhan Hassan was incorrect. This has been changed.