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The Stakes
of Kobani

It’s midnight and bitterly cold when Muhammed Sik’s corpse arrives from the border. Mourners stand at a petrol station 15km outside Diyarbakir, Turkey’s unofficial Kurdish capital, rubbing their hands together to keep warm. When the coffin arrives, they lead the way to the city’s morgue accompanied by the wail of the siren: another ‘martyr’ has arrived.

Sik was killed by ISIS militants in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in late October. He had left his home near Diyarbakir to defend neighboring Kurds from the tightening ISIS siege, but was trapped by the jihadists. His body was found riddled with bullet wounds to the neck, sides and leg.

In Diyarbakir, a city of 1.5 million in the southeast of the country, funerals for young fighters killed in Kobani are now common. It’s a pain that brings back memories of the worst days of Turkey’s war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). During the thirty-year conflict, around 40,000 were killed on both sides as the Kurdish group fought for rights and self-rule. This time though, the bodies are coming from the spreading civil war across the border in Syria.

The hearse carrying Sik’s body snakes its way through the cool night and arrives at the morgue. His coffin is carried inside amid shouts of “Martyrs never die” from the crowd of mourners who have gathered to welcome him home. They stand with red-ringed eyes, pulling hard on cigarettes, embers flickering. Inside, Sik’s corpse is washed by his cousin and a local Imam. The close intimacy of a cry ripples through the crowd as one of Sik’s sisters has to be held up.

Last year, the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan announced a ceasefire with the Turkish government and the rebels retreated to bases in Northern Iraq. But the fight for Kobani has now become a war cry for Kurds, and young men and women from across Turkey’s Kurdish southeast are flocking to Syria to join the PKK-linked fighters defending the town from Islamic extremists, angry that the Turkish government isn’t doing enough to help. Some, like 22-year-old Muhammed Sik, are buried as heroes of the Kurdish cause, stoking anger within communities who thought the war was coming to an end but find themselves burying their young again.

The next morning, vans arrive from Diyarbakir to Kocakoy, bringing hundreds of mourners to the red-earthed village for Sik’s burial. He is laid to rest on the side of a hill in his home town under heavy clouds. Women huddle on nearby roofs to watch, with the flat backdrop of south-eastern Anatolia behind them. Onlookers clap and cheer, shouting “we will take revenge” and “long live Öcalan, long live Kurdistan.” Chickens roam the streets between farm houses and on a narrow lane, a donkey chews on a clump of grass. At the centre of the crowd, men use spades to pack earth into Sik’s grave.

Two hearses lead a vehicle convoy, carrying the bodies of ‘martyrs’ who died fighting ISIS in Kobani. Photo by Jodi Hilton.

Muhammed Sik’s family are being cared for today by friends and family, but also by the human rights organization Meya-der (Mesopotamia Solidarity Organisation), which help to arrange burials of the fallen fighters. Kassam Pervane, the general secretary of Meya-Der, knows the grieving process. “I can feel what the martyr’s children, wife and mother are going through, but especially the children,” he tells me as we clamber up the hill for the wake after the burial. Meya-der helped to provide the food. Pervane’s father and two of his older brothers were killed during the worst days of the war in the 90s. The organization was started by a group of volunteers in 2008, driven by their personal experiences of losing loved ones to conflict.

When a Kurdish fighter dies, Meya-der transports the body to the burial site, and helps to provide food for the three days of mourning that follow. The organization also hunts for the corpses of those who disappeared during the war. “We call them ‘killers unknown’,” he tells me. “In Turkey still there are people that are lost, we can’t even find their bones,” adds Fatima Arshinet, a Diyarbakir official and member of Meya-der.

At the wake, Besra Sik’s eyes are milky with tears as she talks about her brother. “He was a hero, he fought to save the Kurdistan,” she tells me as mourners start to disperse. She sits in a tea shop on the town’s main street and is comforted by a group of close female friends who stand protectively over her as she eulogizes her dead brother.

“One of the last times we spoke, he was working in a refugee camp looking after the Yazidis [a minority religious group who escaped ISIS in Iraq]. Our father told him he wanted to buy him some new clothes but he refused. He said, ‘the Yazidis wear torn clothes so I will too’.” 

One of the Muhammed Sik’s sisters cries on his portrait, attached to the funeral hearse. Photo by Jodi Hilton.

***

At the start of October, anger amongst Turkey’s Kurds at their government’s response to the ISIS attack on Kobani boiled over. Many accused the Turkish government of blocking the border and not allowing fighters and weapons to move across, though after weeks of protests, Turkey shifted its position and announced it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross over in defense of the Syrian town.

Demonstrations turned violent in early October across Turkey when more than 30 people were killed at Kobani solidarity marches. By mid October, Turkish planes were bombing the PKK in Hakkari province in the first major attack since peace talks started. Three Turkish soldiers were gunned down in cities in the southeast. The International Crisis Group released a report calling on the two sides not to lose the momentum that had been building and to recommit to the peace process.

Abdullah Demirbas is the normally buoyant former Mayor of Diyarbakir’s central district, but his face looks stony when we meet in Diyarbakir’s old city. “The people here are afraid that we are going back to the old days,” he says. “I am worried about this.” Demirbas has reason to worry; in 2007, he was removed from his job, and in 2009 jailed for using the Kurdish language in office, as part of a sweep of Kurdish officials with links to the PKK. Recent reforms have allowed Kurdish private language courses in Turkey, but activists say this is not enough.

In Diyarbakir, local political leaders led a march in solidarity with the besieged Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Photo by Jodi Hilton.

***

The day after Sik’s funeral I meet Turkan Biler in Diyarbakir’s PKK cemetery. She shreds a tissue in salt-wet hands and won’t let me leave until I’ve heard what she has to say. She is part delirious with fresh pain, two children gone; her son Ur died last year, Yakob died four days ago in Kobani.

“Kobani is our land; we just want to defend our land. My son is a hero of all of Kurdistan,” she gasps. “They say they (ISIS) are Muslims but they kill us with Turkey’s support, kill and rape us and we are 15 million Kurds.”

Through her pain, she has a clear sense of why he died and what he was fighting for. But Meya-Der’s secretary Kassam Pervane says this is not always the case, “The hardest part of my job is talking to families of martyrs who don’t agree with the PKK,” he says. “It doesn’t happen so often, it is rare that they don’t like the [PKK or affiliated Syrian fighters], but when we take the bodies back to them we have to bear what they say and accept it. It is difficult, but it is our mission.”

Some families have accused the PKK of kidnapping their children to the mountains to fight, an idea rejected by Kurdish politicians. Pervane says that since the siege of Kobani, no families have expressed anger towards the PKK or their sister parties as he takes care of the dead – the crisis has made the idea of martyrdom powerful again. “Now that ISIS are trying to divide us, all Kurds want to save Kobani, that’s why there have been so many protests – life has stopped in all Kurdish lands.”

Despite the strong renewed solidarity between Kurds, resurgent violence is not what anyone here wants. In Diyarbakir’s PKK cemetery, Biler adds: “We must hold our heads up; we must be strong; we want peace” she says running out of air between breaths, “but we must also defend our land.”

Cathy Otten and Jodi Hilton
Cathy Otten and Jodi Hilton Otten is a British journalist based in Iraq. Follow her at @cathyotten. Hilton is an American photojournalist who covers Turkey and the Balkans. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Italy and more. She is currently based in Sofia, Bulgaria.
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