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Islamic State attack puts Kobani reconstruction at risk

Syrian Kurdish refugees cross into Turkey from Syria, near the town of Kobani. Syria's conflict, which began in 2011, has turned the country into the world’s single largest driver of displacement.
Syrian Kurdish refugees flee Kobani (file photo) (I. Prickett/UNHCR)

For the past few months, Kobani and the surrounding area have been something of a sanctuary in Syria. Since the withdrawal of self-declared Islamic State from the northern town in January, it had been peaceful.

The threat of violence seemed low enough for reconstruction efforts to begin. Foreign aid workers started shuffling in and out. It was seen as a place of relative calm, where the future, at least, looked positive. Not any more. 

One attack has changed everything. Around 150 people were killed on Thursday when a large group of IS militants infiltrated the predominantly Kurdish city, carried out a series of bombings and fired indiscriminately on civilians.

Thousands of recently returned refugees have had to flee again, many of them now stranded on the Turkish border. Hundreds more civilians are being treated for their wounds in hospitals, either in Kobani or in Turkey.

The longer-term damage could be even more telling. It had taken months to build up confidence and to start getting international aid agencies heavily involved in the reconstruction effort. Their expertise is vital for clearing explosive ordnance out of the city so that basic amenities and systems can start functioning again.

The security situation now seems along way off allowing that to happen.

Small numbers of IS fighters remained in the city on Friday, but the majority had been killed, the Associated Press reported. 

Hakmat Ahmad, external relations officer at the health authority in Kobani, said that the hospitals in the city were full of civilians and children, with more than 100 people being treated for serious wounds.

“There are still clashes going on,” he told IRIN by telephone from Kobani on Friday afternoon.

A Turkish humanitarian official, who preferred not to be named as he was not allowed to speak to the media, said 165 people from Kobani were being treated in hospitals inside Turkey, while five died of their wounds on Friday. 

Border row

As thousands of Kobani residents rushed to the Syrian border, Ibrahim Ayhan, a Kurdish MP for the city of Urfa in southern Turkey, condemned the Turkish government’s decision to close one of the crossing points.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 people have been waiting at the Mürsitpinar border gate since yesterday. However, they are being denied access to Turkey,” he told IRIN.

Ayhan said a second border gate at Yumurtalik remained open and that Kurdish aid organisations had been able to deliver some aid to those fleeing the fighting.

This attack was a barbarity perpetrated entirely against civilians,” he added. “The majority of victims were women and children.”

The Turkish humanitarian official told IRIN that the Mürsitpinar border post would only open fully again when the security situation had improved. 

“We are committed to helping the people in Kobani,” he said, denying that Turkey was turning back legitimate refugees. “I would say that it is important to maintain a balance between security and the needs [of Kobani’s residents].”

Ahmed, a refugee from Kobani in Turkey whose family live near the border, confirmed that there were a large number of residents stranded near the border. “Many people have had no food or water for two days,” he said.

Reconstruction on hold 

Kobani was the site of one of the largest and fiercest battles against IS last year, with Kurdish forces – backed by US air strikes and Syrian rebel units – eventually prevailing after months of street by street fighting.

The victory came at a high price. In the process, the city was up to 70 percent destroyed, while both unexploded American bombs and IS booby traps pose major dangers for those returning.

Since IS’s withdrawal in January, plans have been developed for a major demining program with foreign backing.

A sense of growing security in recent months had been further strengthened by Kurdish gains over IS, with the militants driven out of the key city of Tal Abyad only 10 days ago.   

This gain was significant as it meant those in Kobani could travel freely to another Kurdish city of Hassekeh by road, vastly reducing prices of fuel and food.

Several NGOs had been in the process of shoring up financial deals for major demining operations, while others had been developing new systems in health and other sectors.

IRIN spoke to three international aid groups working inside Kobani, none of whom were willing to be identified for security reasons. All agreed that the impact of the Thursday’s attack on their work was likely to be significant.

While they all said they wanted to continue working in the city, they said they would first need to review their security policies.

The policy of sending foreign experts to advise on demining efforts in the city, one aid worker said, would likely be halted for the foreseeable future. Another called it a major “wake-up call.”

However, Ayhan, the MP, said he was confident the large number of Kurdish aid groups working in the city would carry on with the reconstruction no matter what.


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