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By Light of a Blood Moon, Life Returns to a Bombed-Out Syrian Landscape


By Rod Nordland

February 11, 2018

The blood moon rose over a scene of bombed-out buildings reduced to boulder-size rubble, with newly printed street signs noting the names of people who had died here in this little Syrian city of Kobani.

Soon dusk would draw its cloak over the sad tableau, in a neighborhood now called The Museum. For a few minutes between the setting of the wintry sun and the rising of the fattened moon, that twilit orange was the only illumination.

There are many devastated urban landscapes in Syria — Raqqa and Aleppo, for instance. Other countries’ civil wars have shorn cities of their downtowns with a similarly breathtaking savagery — Beirut in the 1980s; Sarajevo in the ’90s; Mogadishu in the new millennium.

But the half-square-mile of the old front-line area and business district of Kobani, population 40,000, is as bad as it gets anywhere, perhaps more shocking because the place is so small. Its moment of siege and destruction by the Islamic State from September 2014 to January 2015 is already forgotten abroad, as the Syrian war lumbers on elsewhere.

The area has been named The Museum because of plans by the local Kurdish government to make the destroyed downtown an open-air museum, preserving it for future generations.

The Islamic State fully subdued 80 percent of Kobani; it was in The Museum area that the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces eventually defeated the militant group.

But people still live in The Museum, and at night it comes oddly to life. In the gathering darkness, six boys kicked a football around a cleared patch of land. On another patch nearby, two rows of blocks had been stacked to make a wall around a garden, where winter vegetables grew; an older man tended them with a flashlight.

The neighborhood was soon inky black, as the full moon diminished in candlepower as it rose. It was the recent super blue blood moon.

Mostly the area was piled-up concrete chunks, building blocks and contorted reinforcing rods, with an intact piece of roof or upper floor here, a stairway to nowhere there. But among that, hard to discern in the darkness, a few houses and other buildings were partly preserved.

A light twitched on, yellow through a hole in an outhouse wall, illumining the corners of wreckage, shards of renewed life. Three boys played some sort of game under the mangled remains of a red sports car.

More lights came on; dark figures moved from one pool of white to another, disappearing between them.

Over one doorway in the wall of a destroyed house, the top of a water bottle had been made into a shade for a hanging bulb. A boy emerged into the circle of light, his fists clasped around small treasures; he uncurled them to show pumpkin seeds, which he pressed on two strangers, then ran off.

Fluorescent light fizzed and lit up the shop of Muhammed Noor, 40, the only place back in business, revealing fruit and vegetables, cabbages the size of basketballs as well as sweets, snacks and a shelf of light bulbs.

Mr. Noor had been shot three times and left for dead when the Islamic State, apparently seeking vengeance for its defeat here, infiltrated squads of fighters behind five suicide bombers crossing from Turkey in June 2015. They marauded in The Museum area, killing 250 civilians who had stayed, including Mr. Noor’s brother, sister-in-law and cousin.

After that massacre, the authorities cleared everyone out of this area. Six months ago residents began filtering back. Returnees number only a couple of hundred, a fraction of the former population, but only a fraction of homes are even remotely habitable.

Fatma Muhammed, 34, limped outside her lighted doorway on what is now called Serzan Bufa Street — after a martyr of the fight — five of her nine children, ages 2 to 15, at her skirts. Her husband had been killed in front of her, and she was shot so many times that she nearly died, losing a finger and the full use of one leg.

“Life is hard for us here,” she said.

A block from Ms. Muhammed’s house, the entire Armenian Quarter, once a warren of narrow twisting lanes, has been reduced to piles of concrete, no light anywhere, the old lanes filled in by dirt and rubble.

On what used to be 38th Street, Muhammed and Mustafa Muslim, with three of their brothers, once had five of the 10 houses in one block. Two are left, mostly destroyed, but the family has moved back.

“Land is land,” Mustafa said. “People need a place to stay, and I can’t stay in a refugee camp. I have small children.”

Now the street is renamed Bari-Baron Street, after brother and sister Kurdish fighters who died there.

A reinforced-concrete, three-story house on the street was pancaked. “Everyone in that house is dead now,” said Mustafa, a 40-year-old mechanic.

As the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces fought off the Islamic State, American warplanes from the international coalition fighting the militants bombed whatever houses the extremists were holed up in. On the ground, heavy weapons and tanks were used at close quarters by both the Islamic State and the Kurdish defenders; it all shows.

The Muslim brothers served tea and coffee in the one room of Muhammed’s house, a combination living room and bedroom for a family of six. It did not look like much, Muhammed, 43, an engineer, acknowledged. But it beat the camps, and there is a school within walking distance.

His son, Hamoudi, 12, blushed and laughed when recalling other schoolchildren asking him where he lives. “I tell them I live in The Museum.”

There’s not much to indicate the museum nature of the area, as yet. Anwar Muslim, the co-chairman of the civilian government, said the municipality had run out of funding to do much.

The martyrs’ street signs are a start; the authorities say they plan to have a placard for each of the estimated 1,300 to 1,400 Kurdish fighters who lost their lives here, said Arif Bali, a co-president of the Martyrs Institute of Kobani.

The authorities want everyone out of the area because they are worried about its safety; The Museum project would require stabilizing dozens of tottering ruins. To encourage them to leave, the authorities gave every family from the area a plot of land to build on in a desirable part of the city, the plots twice as big as their old ones.

But those who came back say they have no money to build on the new land. “We’re going to stay until they help us build a house,” Muhammed Muslim said. “We won’t leave otherwise.”

Not for love of place have they returned, though.

“Of course it’s depressing here,” Muhammed said. “In the hot weather we can’t even sleep, the flies are so bad.”

At night, wild dogs range through the ruins. In the summer, snakes and scorpions are a constant worry; one of the returnees was hospitalized with a scorpion sting.

One odd thing, though, many residents said: Despite the darkness between the pools of light, there are no rats.