Journey inside a changing 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 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.
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.