In Kobane, a monument to lives lost and battles won against Daesh

Hundreds of identical tombs are arranged in rows, topped with planters holding yellow daisies and red roses that rise up to meet silvery headstones. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2018
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In Kobane, a monument to lives lost and battles won against Daesh

  • Each fighter’s name, place and date of birth are inscribed in Kurdish, followed by place and date of death, or ‘martyrdom’
  • The YPG, the leading Kurdish militia in Syria, has spearheaded offensives against Daesh across the country’s north and east, backed by a US-led coalition.

KOBANE, Syria: With a father’s tenderness, Adham Olaiki clears dried leaves and twigs from his son’s final resting place, a neat marble grave on the edge of Syria’s Kobane.

It is a gloomy morning and rain clouds are forming ominously overhead, but Olaiki cannot forego his daily ritual of visiting the imposing site known as the Martyrs’ Cemetery.

Hundreds of identical tombs are arranged in rows, topped with planters holding yellow daisies and red roses that rise up to meet silvery headstones.

Buried underneath are civilians and fighters who lost their lives in more than three years of battle against Daesh, including Olaiki’s 12-year-old son.

The boy died in 2015, during the final stages of the four-month fight to oust Daesh from Kobane, on Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

Olaiki, 54, has taken solace in daily visits ever since.

“This place has become more than a home for me. I feel at peace near my son’s grave,” he says.

Olaiki himself took up arms to defend his hometown, and was wounded fighting alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

“The shrapnel scars are still visible,” he says.

The YPG, the leading Kurdish militia in Syria, has spearheaded offensives against Daesh across the country’s north and east, backed by a US-led coalition.

Many of its fighters are buried in the Martyrs’ Cemetery, their graves identifiable by the militia’s triangular yellow flag.

Each fighter’s name, nom-de-guerre, place and date of birth are inscribed in Kurdish, followed by the place and date of death, or “martyrdom.”

Many were killed fighting Daesh in Kobane in 2015, some in the flashpoint town of Manbij to the southwest in 2016, and others still in the 2017 assault to oust Daesh from Raqqa. Their graves are both markers of loss and monuments to a string of victories by the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Now, the SDF is fighting the last dregs of Daesh in eastern Syria.

“Many of my fighter friends were buried here. We’re tired of war,” says Olaiki, gazing across the sea of graves around him.

“Peace must prevail and Daesh must be permanently eliminated, so we can feel we fought for stability and security, and actually achieved them both.”

The cemetery was set up in 2012, but graves began multiplying with the battle for Kobane. Today, 1,230 people are buried there, says Aref Bali, who heads a relief group for families of those killed.

Driving into Kobane, the graveyard is hard to miss: Five silvery pyramid-like structures are arranged in a semi-circle at the head of a large courtyard.

When the YPG or SDF lose a fighter, he or she is buried in a ceremony equal parts mournful and defiant. Speeches are delivered from the foot of the monument as friends, family, and Kobane residents chant: “Martyrs do not die.”

But most days, relatives quietly trickle into the cemetery to tend their loved ones’ graves, wiping dust from headstones and trimming the shrubs.

Toddler Layla gurgles innocently as she plays near the tomb of her father, a YPG fighter killed at the age of 26 by a mine last year in the city of Raqqa.

Her grandfather, 60-year-old Mohyeddin Hami, carries a framed portrait of his deceased son Mehmud in one hand, wiping away a tear with the other.

“Layla lost her father just 20 days after her birthday. He watched her turn one, and then died,” says Hami, dressed in a dark collared shirt.

Two of his other sons also fight for the YPG.

“We will pursue Daesh until not a single one of them is left in Kurdish lands in Syria. We will follow them until their demise,” he says.

“We did not bleed in vain — it’s all for the safety and stability of this country.”

Nearby, the Ibish family is paying respects to several of their sons lost in the fight against Daesh.

Hamad Ibish, 56, fought against Daesh in Kobane, shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother — but only one of them came out alive.

“We were constantly attacked and would hear voices saying: Oh infidels, we’re coming for you,” he recalls.

During a three-day assault on their position, Hamad’s brother was killed along with 12 other fighters. He also later lost his son and his nephew.

“We gave many lives. Every family has lost two or three people,” he says.

But, he adds, “we can hold our heads up high because of our martyrs. I’m happy Daesh is finished — people can rest in northern Syria without that brutal injustice.”


Sudan protests rumble on as Bashir remains defiant

Updated 17 January 2019
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Sudan protests rumble on as Bashir remains defiant

  • Rights group Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 40, including children and medical staff
  • Bashir has remained steadfast in rejecting calls for him to resign

KHARTOUM: One month after protests erupted across Sudan against rising bread prices, anti-government demonstrations have turned into daily rallies against a defiant President Omar al-Bashir who has rejected calls to resign.
Protest organisers have called for a march on the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum on Thursday, along with simultaneous demonstrations in several other cities.
Authorities say at least 24 people have died since the protests first broke out on December 19 after a government decision to triple the price of bread.
Rights group Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 40, including children and medical staff.
The protests have escalated into nationwide anti-government demonstrations that experts say pose the biggest challenge to Bashir since he took power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.
"I have been demonstrating and will continue to demonstrate until this regime is overthrown," vowed Adel Ibrahim, 28, who has participated in demonstrations in Khartoum.
"We are protesting to save our future and the future of our homeland."
Protests initially broke out in the eastern town of Atbara, which has a history of anti-government sentiment, and within days spread to other provinces and then to Khartoum.
Cities like Port Sudan, Gadaref, Kassala and agricultural regions that previously backed Bashir saw protests calling for him to step down, while the western region of Darfur too witnessed rallies against the 75-year-old veteran leader.
Using social media networks to mobilise crowds, most protesters have marched chanting "Peace, freedom, justice", while some have even adopted the 2011 Arab Spring slogan -- "the people want the fall of the regime".
Crowds of demonstrators, whistling and clapping, have braved volleys of tear gas whenever they have taken to the streets, witnesses said.
"There's a momentum now and people are coming out daily," said prominent Sudanese columnist Faisal Mohamed Salih.
"Even the authorities are astonished."
Although the unrest was triggered by the cut in a vital bread subsidy, Sudan has faced a mounting economic crisis in the past year, including an acute shortage of foreign currency.
Repeated shortages of food and fuel have been reported across cities, including in Khartoum, while the cost of food and medicine has more than doubled.
Officials have blamed Washington for Sudan's economic woes.
The US imposed a trade embargo on Khartoum in 1997 that was lifted only in October 2017. It restricted Sudan from conducting international business and financial transactions.
But critics of Bashir say his government's mismanagement of key sectors and its huge spending on fighting ethnic minority rebellions in Darfur and in areas near the South Sudan border has been stoking economic trouble for years.
"If this regime continues like this, we will soon lose our country, which is why we have to fight," said Ibrahim, who has been looking for a job for years.
An umbrella group of unions of doctors, teachers and engineers calling itself the Sudanese Professionals' Association has spearheaded the campaign, calling this week the "Week of Uprising".
"Protesters don't even know the organisers by names, but they still trust them," said Salih.
Sudanese authorities led by the feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have cracked down on protesters, drawing international criticism.
More than 1,000 people, including protesters, activists, opposition leaders and journalists have been arrested so far, rights groups say.
Bashir has remained steadfast in rejecting calls for him to resign.
"Demonstrations will not change the government," he told a rally in Darfur on Monday as supporters chanted "Stay, stay".
"There's only one road to power and that is through the ballot box. The Sudanese people will decide in 2020 who will govern them," said Bashir, who is planning to run for the presidency for the third time in elections to be held next year.
Two uprisings in Sudan in 1964 and 1985 saw regimes change within days, but experts say this time protesters have a long road ahead.
"At the moment, Bashir appears to have the majority of the security services on his side," said Willow Berridge, a lecturer at Britain's Newcastle University.
Bashir's ruling National Congress Party has dismissed the demonstrations.
"There are some gatherings, but they are isolated and not big," party spokesman Ibrahim al-Siddiq told AFP.
The International Crisis Group think-tank said Bashir might well weather the unrest.
"But if he does, it will almost certainly be at the cost of further economic decline, greater popular anger, more protests and even tougher crackdowns," it said in a report.
Salih said protesters appeared to be determined.
"But the one who tires first will lose," he said.