Kurdish Syria, Where the Fallen Find Fame
Posted February 19, 2018 5:14 p.m. EST
KOBANI, Syria — Soldiers wear pictures of them on their shoulder patches. Museums in every city in northern Syria fill halls with their portraits. Streets are named after them, and billboards commemorate them.
They are the war dead of the Kurds’ participation in Syria’s six years of conflict: Syrian Democratic Force fighters, especially from Kurdish units, who were killed in battle — and they are everywhere.
In a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died, honoring those killed has become a potent recruiting tool, one that all sides use. The Kurds have institutionalized it, lavishing resources on both the dead and their survivors.
Veneration of the war dead is a potent morale booster, especially among the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey condemns as terrorists. The Americans consider the Kurdish units as the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is vital in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
Do not call her a bereaved mother, said Aisha Affendi, a co-president of the Movement for a Democratic Society in Kobani, whose son Shervan was killed in an ambush at 19. “I am the mother of a martyr,” she said, a phrase habitually uttered with defiance, and one that confers instant credibility in Kurdish society.
One of the officials at the Martyrs Institute in Manbij is named Darwish Salahudin, but when people introduce him to a stranger, they will not use his name, they will say, “This is the brother of the martyred Comrade Botan.”
He brightened, relating that. “We see it as an honor to be the relative of a martyr; everybody knows who we are.”
The well-funded martyrs institutes in every northern Syrian city hand out pensions to parents, spouses and children of fighters killed in battle, and in some cases of civilian victims as well. They also host museums with galleries of hundreds of enlarged photographs of the local fallen; finance signs and billboards with faces of groups of the dead; print off likenesses of all shapes and sizes to distribute to homes, offices and public spaces; and stage public memorial events, with marches and speeches on anniversary days. No public office in Kurdish areas is without at least one and usually many photographs of the fallen.
Then there are the cemeteries. Every major city now has a section for the mostly Kurdish fighters from the YPG, as well as the Women’s Protection Units, YPJ. They are well tended, with permanent staff and no expense spared, usually in striking contrast with the much shabbier civilian graveyards.
The cemetery for war dead outside Kobani, on the border with Turkey, has a towering marble altar pavilion, elaborate and decorative, and a massive rotunda is under construction. Inside the rotunda, officials plan to put keepsakes from many of the dead fighters — relics like the wristwatches they were wearing when killed, or a notebook, a piece of clothing or even just a lock of hair. All have been gathered and carefully cataloged, waiting for the rotunda museum to be finished. The graves in Kobani, more than 1,200 so far, are each two-tiered marble-clad tombs with earthen planters on top. Many are decorated with a mix of plastic flowers and live plants, and festooned with photographs of the dead.
“People wish they could be buried here, and I would love to be buried here myself,” said Muhammad Keno, whose niece and nephew, both militia members, are buried in the Kobani cemetery.
Similar martyrs institutes and cemeteries have sprung up all over the Kurdish areas in northern Syria, which the Kurds call Rojava, and even in Arabic areas like Manbij under their control.
Ibrahim Qaleif, an Arab and vice president of the Manbij Martyrs Institute, said he saw nothing strange about such expansive veneration of the dead.
“As much as we give the martyrs, it doesn’t compare to the lives they gave for us,” he said. Staff members at the institutes are continually looking for new ways to make displays for the fallen, he said, ranging from billboards with a hundred of their pictures, to wallet cards the size of baseball cards, with the vital statistics of each war dead.
Kobani not only has its cemetery rotunda museum under construction, but at least two other museums dedicated to the war dead. In addition, the authorities have designated the city’s destroyed downtown as The Museum, and plan to make it an open-air exhibit: Displays would show each of the 1,300 who died defending the city from an Islamic State offensive, placed at the spots where they fell.
The hall for war dead in Kobani is the size of an indoor basketball court, and its four walls are nearly full now with photographs of the dead. Most were killed in 2014 and 2015, battling the Islamic State in Kobani, but there are many from the past two years, as fighters from the city joined the Americans in the onslaught against the Islamic State elsewhere.
In the midst of all those, as with most displays of multiple dead fighters, is a photograph of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. A quotation from him reads, “We don’t bury our martyrs in the dirt, but in our hearts.”
Plans are underway, said the co-president, Arif Bali, to begin hanging photographs of the dead from the hall’s ceiling once they run out of wall.
“In our history, we carry a very heavy burden, a debt to our martyrs,” Bali said. “Our martyrs gave us the right to speak in our own language. They are like flowers in our gardens.”
That is more than just talk. Babies are given the names of the war dead; friends change their names to those of famous fighters who have been killed, or just of fallen friends.
Some Kurds even seem to invite death in war, which their U.S. advisers say makes them formidable in battle — though likely to take considerable casualties. The Americans have expressed consternation that the Kurds will seldom wear body armor or helmets, even when they have the equipment.
“We have a lot of that stuff here, somewhere in storage,” said Haqi Kobani, the deputy commander in charge of administration for the Syrian Democratic Forces, at the militia’s headquarters in northern Syria. “No one ever wants to wear them.”
Of female fighters, suicide attackers are the most highly praised, and pictures of them are displayed especially prominently, as with the recent case of Avesta Khabur, who blew herself up to destroy a Turkish tank in Afrin. Within two days, her face was everywhere in northern Syria. In the cemetery for war dead in Qamishli, a city in northern Syria, Farhan Ebid, his son and a friend were planting an olive tree this month in front of the grave of another son, Orhan Qamislo, who died fighting with the Syrian Democratic Forces in Manbij at age 21.
Ebid’s son Abdulrazaq, 19, then joined the YPG to replace his brother, taking his brother’s backpack, his rifle — and his name. So he is now also called Orhan Qamislo; even his father addresses him as Orhan.
“When he took his name, it was like my son the martyr had never died,” Ebid said.