Jour­ney in­side a chang­ing Syria

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - STORY BY LIZ SLY PHO­TOS BY ALICE MARTINS liz.sly@wash­post.com

For com­pli­cated rea­sons to do with war and pol­i­tics, the only way in and out of the en­clave con­trolled by Syria’s Kurds is on a rusty iron boat that fer­ries pas­sen­gers across the Ti­gris River from Iraq. Late last year, pho­tog­ra­pher Alice Martins and re­porter Liz Sly boarded one of those boats and headed for the front lines with the Is­lamic State, trav­el­ing along­side Syr­i­ans, like the fam­ily above.

man­bij, syria — For com­pli­cated rea­sons to do with war and pol­i­tics, the only way in and out of the en­clave con­trolled by Syria’s Kurds is on a rusty iron boat that fer­ries pas­sen­gers across the Ti­gris River from Iraq. Late last year, pho­tog­ra­pher Alice Martins and I boarded one of those boats to head for the front lines in the fight against the Is­lamic State.

The jour­ney took us more than 400 miles across the breadth of the newly emerg­ing Kur­dish re­gion in north­east­ern Syria, a re­mote stretch of mostly desert land that cov­ers as much as a third of the coun­try.

Here, the Kurds have taken ad­van­tage of the chaos of Syria’s war to forge what amounts to a func­tion­ing state within a state that has col­lapsed in many other parts of the coun­try. As they press ahead with their bat­tle against the Is­lamic State, aided by the U.S. mil­i­tary, they are also ex­pand­ing the fron­tiers of their re­gion, to the west and the south, into lands that are tra­di­tion­ally Arab. The Kurds ini­tially named their en­clave Ro­java, the Kur­dish name for the area, but they have since re­named it the North Syria Fed­er­a­tion, to re­flect the new de­mog­ra­phy.

These new fron­tiers were our des­ti­na­tion: the out­skirts of the city of Raqqa, the Is­lamic State’s self-pro­claimed cap­i­tal; and the town of Man­bij, which lies just to the west of the Euphrates River, both of them more than a day’s drive away.

The first few hours took us through some of the most peace­ful parts of Syria. In 2012, the Kurds took over a big swath of ter­ri­tory with­out a fight after the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment with­drew and handed over its po­si­tions. Spared the rav­ages of war, the towns and vil­lages of the far north­east are get­ting on with life. Shops and mar­kets are open, the streets are crowded. The yel­low-and-red flag of the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or YPG, the mil­i­tary force that con­trols the re­gion, flut­ters every­where, along­side pho­to­graphs of the fight­ers who have died. Also loom­ing over every vil­lage, town and gov­ern­ment build­ing are por­traits of the Turk­ish-Kur­dish leader Ab­dul­lah Ocalan, the leader of the mil­i­tant Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party, or PKK, and the in­spi­ra­tion for the Syr­ian Kurds.

As we moved far­ther west, ev­i­dence of the war that has raged for the out­ly­ing prov­inces of the en­clave be­gan to mount. De­stroyed, aban­doned vil­lages dot the des­o­late desert high­way. The bill­boards of the por­traits of the dead be­come more crowded with faces and names. These are ar­eas the Kurds have bat­tled fiercely to con­trol, first against the Free Syr­ian Army and later the Is­lamic State, and many fight­ers have died.

Even­tu­ally we ar­rived in Kobane, which was to be our base for the next week. Kobane be­came fa­mous in 2014 as the lit­tle town that stood up to the Is­lamic State — and in the process drew the United States into the fight. To­day it is re­build­ing and has the busy, de­ter­mined feel of a com­mu­nity try­ing to re­build. The mar­kets are open. There are more hours of elec­tric­ity every day than in most parts of Syria or Iraq. But the scale of the dam­age was vast; and the trauma, im­mense. In places, fam­i­lies are liv­ing in their wrecked homes, held to­gether by patched con­crete. Whole neigh­bor­hoods are eerily empty, still in ru­ins. Their res­i­dents have joined the flow of refugees across the bor­der to Turkey and, for many of them, to Eu­rope. It is go­ing to be years, if ever, be­fore nor­malcy re­turns.

The Raqqa front lies about an hour-and-a-half drive away to the south, down more empty desert roads, past more smashed homes and vil­lages, past vast con­crete si­los that once stored grain and have been turned into closely guarded mil­i­tary bases. This was once the bread­bas­ket of Syria and pro­duced most of the coun­try’s wheat, wa­tered by a net­work of ir­ri­ga­tion canals drawn from the nearby Euphrates River. Now it’s a war zone, with Kur­dish fight­ers, aided by lo­cal Arab re­cruits, still wag­ing an of­fen­sive to en­cir­cle and iso­late Raqqa.

When we vis­ited, the fight­ing had paused at an aban­doned, heav­ily mined town called Tal Sa­man about 17 miles north of the city. Nearby, civil­ians flee­ing ar­eas that were ex­pected to be tar­geted next by the ad­vance were head­ing north in trucks and cars piled high with pos­ses­sions. Peo­ple whose vil­lages had been freed from Is­lamic State con­trol were haul­ing their pos­ses­sions back. Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers milled around, re­in­forc­ing their po­si­tions and es­tab­lish­ing new bases ahead of the next push for­ward.

For the last leg of our jour­ney, we headed far­ther west, across the Euphrates, to the town of Man­bij. After days of driv­ing through the monotony of the desert land­scape, it was star­tling to come across the vast ex­panse of wa­ter, sparkling in the bright win­ter sun, flocks of birds cir­cling over­head.

Man­bij brings more re­minders of the enor­mity of the toll of Syria’s war, not just here but all over the coun­try. The Kurds and their Arab al­lies cap­tured the town from the Is­lamic State last sum­mer after a bit­ter, two-month fight, and in the process much of it was de­stroyed. The dam­age isn’t ex­ten­sive as in Kobane, but there are few signs of at­tempts at re­con­struc­tion or clean­ing up. Col­lapsed ma­sonry spills onto the streets. The Is­lamic State’s trade­mark black-and-white iconog­ra­phy still adorns build­ings, parks and traf­fic cir­cles.

We vis­ited one neigh­bor­hood where a U.S. airstrike knocked out what ap­peared to be an en­tire block. The tar­get was an Is­lamic State fight­ing po­si­tion in a fourstory build­ing that no longer ex­ists. Nei­ther do any of the sur­round­ing homes. One house col­lapsed on a fam­ily tak­ing shel­ter there, killing nine of them, the fam­ily’s neigh­bors said. Peo­ple sim­ply clam­ber over the wreck­age as they move around the neigh­bor­hood.

Res­i­dents said they are glad the Is­lamic State has gone, but they were fear­ful of talk­ing too much about the new cir­cum­stances. The town has changed hands four times since 2011, from the gov­ern­ment, to rebels, to the Is­lamic State and now to the U.S.- and Kur­dishal­lied Arabs.

Who knows who will come next, mused a phar­ma­cist in his shop in one of the down­town streets that have come back to life since the bat­tle.

The war isn’t very far away. About 30 mem­bers of an ex­tended fam­ily who had tried to es­cape a nearby front line by tak­ing a de­tour across farm­land had in­ad­ver­tently crossed into a mine­field. Half of them were blown up, and the hos­pi­tal’s sparse rooms were filled with bleed­ing, maimed peo­ple. A girl named Aya who could have been no more than 4 or 5 lay on a grubby sheet, her body rid­dled with shrap­nel from the waist down. Doc­tors said she was ex­pected to lose both of her legs. On a nearby bed was her fa­ther, un­con­scious un­der a blood­specked blan­ket. When we re­turned two days later, he had died.

ALICE MARTINS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Build­ings de­stroyed in airstrikes dur­ing the bat­tle for Kobane. ABOVE: Haya holds the hand of her sis­ter Aya after their fam­ily’s car hit a land mine as they tried to es­cape fight­ing in Arema, out­side of Man­bij. Aya later had one of her legs am­pu­tated. Their fa­ther later died. LEFT: Chil­dren look at build­ings de­stroyed in a U.S. airstrike that tar­geted Is­lamic State mil­i­tants but also killed nine mem­bers of the same fam­ily in Man­bij.

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