Kobani residents in limbo as they wait to return to a destroyed city

Mohammed looks back towards his home in Kobani with his two young children, three-year-old Ali and two-year old Gulay. (Credit: UNHCR)
Credit: Ivor Prickett

SAYGIN, Turkey — While the fight for Kobani largely ended weeks ago, the Syrian town’s more than 40,000 residents remain scattered in neighboring Turkey and further abroad.

A handful have returned. But months of clashes and airstrikes that ultimately forced Islamic State (IS) militants out of Kobani also leveled much of the border town, depriving many of a home to return to.

Mohammed's family is just one of them. In September, he and his wife — then pregnant with their youngest, who's now two months old — and their two toddlers were forced to flee, becoming part of the largest influx of refugees into Turkey since the Syrian crisis began nearly four years ago.

At the border Mohammed asked a taxi driver if he knew of a nearby place where he and his family could stay, and was brought here to Saygin: a few dozen small mud-brick homes along a dirt road. Traditionally farmhouses, they now mostly serve as summer residences for Turkish families living in nearby urban areas. Just 10 kilometers south across tracts of agricultural fields lies the Syrian border.

Saygin village looks like a place from another time. Mohammed’s family lives in a small two-room home with a thatched roof and thick walls made of a mixture of mud and dried grass. Only recently wired with electricity, a single outlet hangs from a wall powering a small space heater in the main room.

Three-year-old Syrian refugee Ali plays outside the cottage where he lives with his family in the Turkish village of Saygin.

Desperate to return home now that active clashes have ended, Mohammed’s family has found themselves playing another waiting game. The border crossing from Turkey into Kobani has not yet fully reopened; some men have been allowed to cross, but not entire families.

Concerned by the lack of infrastructure and the possibility that as IS militants withdrew, they may have booby-trapped homes and buildings in the town, local authorities have so far refused to formally, fully open the border.

“Once we hear it’s okay to go back we will go the next day,” Mohammed says. He asks only to be identified by his first name out of concern for his family’s safety. “If there was a chance I could go back today I would.”

The long fight for Kobani that at times reached deep into its dense residential center destroyed an estimated 80 percent of the city’s buildings, according to local officials. The first images to emerge from Kobani in late January showed a town in ruins: entire blocks of houses leveled, and among them Mohammed’s family home.

For the past five months Mohammed says he watched the fight for Kobani unfold from just outside his door.

“We could see the smoke,” Mohammed explains, gesturing out the window where on the horizon the outskirts of his hometown are just visible. “When it turned black we knew our house was gone.”

The confirmation came weeks later. Mohammed’s brother returned to Kobani just days after the fighting ceased and reported back that the house had been destroyed. He sent Mohammed a photograph by text message. The house had been burned to the ground along with the rest of his neighborhood.

Building a life in Turkey, Mohammed says, is out of the question. Unable to speak Turkish, he can't find work and food is expensive. So far landowners in Saygin village have allowed families like Mohammed’s to stay rent-free. That combined with handouts and aid from local humanitarian groups has allowed them to survive.

“Sometimes I think I just want to kill myself,” Mohammed says flatly, “we should just die instead of living this miserable life.”

UNHCR together with its implementing partner ASAM deliver NFI’s (non food items) to Mohammed and his family who are living as refugees with other Syrian families in the Turkish village of Saygin.

From the main road that runs through Saygin village, neat rows of brand new white tents gleam in the sunlight on a far hillside. The newly opened Suruc refugee camp, operated by the Turkish government, has a capacity of over 30,000 and provides residents with free housing, food, medical care and schooling.

But despite the perks and encouragement from local officials to make the move, Mohammed and other Kobani families in Saygin say it’s out of the question. Expecting to go home any day now, Mohammed says relocating to a camp now is pointless.

Turkey’s southern countryside is littered with farming villages like this one. Once sleepy places inhabited by only a handful of families during the winter months, they’ve now become hives of activity, hosting dozens of Kobani families refusing to stray too far from home. Caught in between, these re seen their hometown liberated, but are still unable to return.

The waiting and uncertainty has taken a toll on Mohammed. He says no matter what the situation he’ll never flee his home again, that looking back he would have rather died staying in Kobani than be forced to endure the humiliation of life in exile.

“I will be honest, I can’t sleep at night,” he says, admitting that while he’s determined to return home, he’s also haunted by doubts. “I stay up until two or three in the morning, sometimes I can’t sleep until dawn.”

“I smoke a lot as a result,” he continues steadily. “I think about the situation, what will happen and how will we go back.” 

This reporting was funded by UNHCR. Susannah George is a freelance journalist who has worked regularly for GlobalPost.

Mohammed fled his home in Kobani more than four months ago with his wife Dozgeen, 24, and three young children.

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