Archive for November 6th, 2014

Makeshift schools for Syrian refugee children

November 04, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — It’s only a blue tent at the back of a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc. But for dozens of children who study in the makeshift school, it’s a glimmer of hope.

Inside, brightly colored drawings are pinned to the plastic walls, and wooden desks stand in two neat rows. For some of the Kurdish kids who fled with their families from the besieged Syrian town of Kobani, this is the only school they’ve known.

“The whole world was collapsing, how could they go to school,” said Ghazi Mammo Darwesh, father of 7-year-old Diyala. The shy, brown-eyed girl says she like learning Kurdish writing and drawing pictures of flowers and girls.

Her father is overjoyed that, at last, she is learning something. “How can I not like it? I can fly for happiness. I hope that my children will study abroad,” said Darwesh, who has seven children. School also provides some psychological support for traumatized youngsters, who have lost their homes and often family members during a ferocious onslaught by Islamic State militants on Kobani that began in mid-September. The lessons are basic — only reading and writing in Kurdish is taught, and only for the ages of 7-10. But children, parents and teachers agree it’s better than nothing.

“It’s very important for the children to be in school and concentrated on education instead of having flashbacks to the war,” said Rukan Sheikh Mohammed, a 19-year-old teacher who is a refugee from Kobani herself. The war, she said, had deeply affected the children. “We teach the students to try to provide some confidence, motivating them and telling them they will go home one day and all will be well.”

The school where Mohammed teaches was set up about three weeks ago. In a nearby camp, volunteers initially began organizing simple activities to keep the refugee children occupied, but soon decided to try a more formal education. The Viyan Amara school, named after a woman killed fighting in Kobani, started classes a few days ago.

Volunteer teacher Fidan Kanlibas said the school is funded solely by charitable donations. For now, she said, they only have enough materials for rudimentary lessons. “In the beginning we were doing activities and getting the children to do drawings,” Kanlibas said as she carried newly donated desks into the tent-school, with some of the camp’s older children rushing over to help.

“They were doing drawings of beheadings and weapons. The fear they saw was reflected in their drawings,” she said. “Now, you can see they are smiling and recovering from the things they saw and the pressure of war.”

Diyala’s friend, 7-year-old Shirin Ahmad, had been registered to go to school in Kobani, but the war broke out and she never made it to first grade. Now, she has started school in the camp where she lives with her two younger brothers and parents.

“This school isn’t enough, of course,” said Shirin’s mother, Warda Ahmad. “But at least having this is better than illiteracy.”

Kurdish fighters killed in Syria buried in Turkey

October 22, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Hundreds of supporters chanting slogans turned out to accompany three Kurdish fighters — two men and a woman barely out of her teens — to their final resting place in a dusty cemetery on the edge of the Turkish town of Suruc, within view of the Syrian border and the besieged town of Kobani. But there was one notable absence: their families.

The flag-draped coffin bearing the body of 20-year-old Hanim Dabaan was carried to her grave Tuesday by women who didn’t know her, but wanted to show their support for those killed fighting the Islamic State group extremists. Idris Ahmad, 30, and Mohammed Mustafa, 25, were laid to rest beside her, also carried by volunteers.

The three fighters of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, died in fierce clashes in Kobani, which has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. IS still surrounds the town and holds parts of it despite Kurdish resistance and repeated U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

In the chaos of Syria’s multifaceted war, with a multitude of groups fighting each other as well as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and it’s not always possible to locate the families of those killed in fighting. Turkey alone has seen an estimated 1.6 million refugees cross its borders in the four years of the Syrian war, according to U.N. officials.

“Our house has been demolished in Kobani and we are living in tents. … At least we can support our martyrs and we will accompany them to their graves,” said Fatma Muslim, one of dozens of women who turned up at the Suruc hospital morgue for the funeral procession to the nearby cemetery.

It was volunteers — rather than family members, as is the Islamic tradition — who helped wash and shroud the fighters’ bodies in preparation for burial. “There is nobody to wash them,” said Akeed Hamad, 21, who came to the morgue with a friend and offered to help. “There is only one doctor who can wash them, and the rest are volunteers.”

It wasn’t immediately clear where the families of Dabaan, Ahmad and Mustafa were — or even whether they knew their loved ones were dead. At one point a rumor rippled through the crowd that the young woman’s parents were on their way. But if they were, they never made it.

Yet in Suruc’s cemetery, in a part set aside for Syrian Kurds killed across the border, they aren’t the only ones buried without their relatives. Out of about 30 graves there so far, only five of them have known families, said Wahida Kushta, one of the volunteers who helped prepare Dabaan’s body for burial.

“I do it to help. Let’s support them now at least.” Just a day later, another five fighters were buried beside them in Suruc’s cemetery. Wounded in Kobani, they had died in hospitals and their bodies were transferred to Suruc morgue Wednesday.

Like the three before them, their families weren’t present. One hadn’t even been fully identified. His rough tombstone will bear his nom de guerre, the name he was known to his fellow fighters with: Tamhat Kobani.

Kurds help Islamic militants in battle for Kobani

November 04, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Ethnic Kurds are helping members of the Islamic State group in the battle for the key Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, sharing their knowledge of the local terrain and language with the extremists, according to Iraqi and Kurdish officials.

It is not clear how many Kurds are aiding the estimated 3,000 Islamic State militants in the Kobani area — and fighting against their own Kurdish brethren — but activists say they are playing a major role in the 7-week-old conflict near the Turkish border.

A top military commander for the extremists in the town is an Iraqi Kurd, known by the nom de guerre of Abu Khattab al-Kurdi, helping them in the battle against fellow Kurds. Officials with the main Syrian Kurdish force known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, say they became aware of the Kurds among the mostly Sunni Muslim extremists early in the fighting.

As Kurdish fighters were defending the nearby Syrian village of Shiran in September, two Kurdish men with different accents and wearing YPG uniforms infiltrated their ranks, Kurdish officials said. Upon questioning, however, they were captured and admitted to fighting for the Islamic State group, the officials added.

Iraqi and Kurdish officials say many of the Kurdish fighters with the Islamic State group are from the northeastern Iraqi town of Halabja, which was bombed with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988, killing some 5,000 people.

Shorsh Hassan, a YPG spokesman in Kobani, said although most of the Kurdish jihadi fighters come from Iraq, some are from Syrian regions such as Kobani, Afrin and Jazeera. He added that the number of Syrian Kurds is small compared with the dozens of Iraqis fighting with the IS group.

“The fighter who is from Kobani is not like someone who hails from Chechnya with no idea about tracks and roads,” Hassan said. Thousands of militants from all over the world — including north Africans, Asians and some Westerners — have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of the Islamic State group. Turkish nationals are among them, but it is unknown if any are fighting in Kobani.

Hassan said many of the Iraqi fighters were from Halabja, including al-Kurdi. Websites affiliated with the Islamic State group recently published several photographs of the young, bearded man, including some of him wearing the traditional Kurdish garb of baggy pants, and others of him standing in front of Kurds killed in Kobani.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi security official said al-Kurdi was a member of Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni militant group with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who was active in the early 2000s. Al-Kurdi later joined the Islamic State group, the official said.

The Iraqi official said al-Kurdi is also from Halabja and is wanted by Iraqi authorities. He refused to give the man’s real name when pressed by The Associated Press. “Our latest information is that he is in Syria fighting in the Kobani area. He is an expert in mountainous areas,” the Iraqi official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

“He is commanding the Kurdish group within Daesh because he is a Kurd,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. Halabja was known as a secular village and the home of Abdullah Goran, one of the best-known Kurdish poets in the 20th century and a member of the Iraqi Communist Party. But in the past three decades, Muslim preachers have become active and have turned it into one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most religiously conservative areas.

Still, most of the Kurds are moderate and secular-leaning Muslims. Many Kurds in Iraq were stunned when they learned that Kiwan Mohammed, the 25-year-old goalkeeper of Halabja’s soccer team, was killed last month in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State group in Kobani. Mohammed was identified by jihadi websites as Abu Walid al-Kurdi.

Dana Jalal, an Iraqi journalist who follows jihadi groups, said the Iraqi athlete left Syria in July 2013 and had not been heard of until his death. Some 70 Iraqi Kurds, mostly from Halabja, went to fight in Syria with the Islamic State group, Jalal said. Most go through Turkey where they say they are going for tourism, but theu then they cross into Syria, and “some even take their wives with them,” Jalal added.

Nawaf Khalil, the Europe-based spokesman for Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, said Kurdish fighters within the Islamic State group are invaluable in the Kobani battle because they know the geography, as well as the language and the mentality of fellow Kurds.

“A main part of their work is tapping (electronic surveillance) and intelligence-gathering. They might be also using some from the Kobani area to benefit from the geographical knowledge of the area,” he said.

Mustafa Bali, a Kurdish activist in Kobani, said that by having Kurdish fighters, Islamic State extremists are trying to win the hearts and minds of Syrian Kurds in the area. “Daesh is trying to tell the people of Kobani that it does not consider them enemies and its fighters include Kurds,” Bali said.

Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad.