Ras Al-Ain, Asharq Al-Awsat—His name was Mahmoud, but to his friends he was known as Shaheen. They gathered in their dozens on a November morning, huddled in small, subdued clusters under clouds that threatened to spill rain. Yesterday Shaheen was their comrade, just another young man who had taken up arms to fight for his homeland. Today, he was at the center of his very own ceremony, the latest Kurdish martyr in Ras Al-Ain.
“We have buried so many here in the past few weeks,” said Bashir, a dark-haired and good-looking young man in khaki fatigues and trainers. He stared out over a scene that illustrated his black words: freshly dug graves spilling out beyond the fence that used to mark the perimeter of the cemetery, before it became too small to contain the death in this community. “Twenty-five dead in the past two months,” Bashir told us. And every town has its own cemetery like this one.
Shaheen was a fighter, but he did not die on the front line. The day before his funeral at the Martyrs’ Cemetery, he had triggered a land mine as he walked through the streets of Tel Halaf, a small town to the west of Ras Al-Ain. “There was a trip wire threaded between two mines,” said Bashir. “We have found around 60 of them so far; they were laid by the Islamist groups.”
Until one month ago Ras Al-Ain was a divided town, like so many others throughout Syria. The front line that ran through it marked the frontier between territory controlled by Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the jihadist group that now dominates much of rebel-held Syria, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia that controls most of the Kurdish territory in the north. For a year Tel Halaf was not a town but a battlefield, populated by men—outsiders—carrying light weapons, and abandoned by most of its residents.
“Jabhat Al-Nusra, Tawhid, they are all the same,” said Bashir. Like most people Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to in the Kurdish region of Syria, he made no distinction between the Liwa Al-Tawhid, the Free Syrian Army brigade that had originally captured the town from the regime, and the radical Islamist groups that followed them just a few days later. To him they were all invaders, not freedom fighters—a hostile force in Kurdish territory that had to be driven out at any cost.
Guran, an eloquent 24-year-old fighter with the Kurdish women’s unit, the YPJ, echoed his words. “They are thieves and terrorists from outside,” she said. “All they want to do is damage and destroy. If they want to fight the regime, why don’t they go to Damascus?”
In November, the YPG pushed westwards, forcing the Islamists out of Ras Al-Ain and back beyond Tel Halaf. But the town’s unwanted occupiers left a deadly legacy behind them: streets littered with mines and incendiaries that do not discriminate between one side and another, or between civilians and combatants. “He was not the first to die from a landmine,” Bashir told us. He didn’t know whether the Islamists had laid the mine that killed Shaheen while they still occupied Tel Halaf, or whether they had booby-trapped the town as they retreated. In the end, it made no difference.
In Ras Al-Ain, the civilians have returned to the street that used to be the front line, bringing with them the signs of everyday normality. Crudely drawn Brazilian flags decorate the neighborhood’s whitewashed walls. “They are looking forward to the World Cup,” our fixer told us.
Outside a corner shop hung with brightly colored silk scarves we met Kesay, a 40-year-old businesswoman whose cheerfulness and resilience seemed to have been barely dented by the terrible year she just had. As we sat and drank coffee on the pavement outside, she pointed out the bullet holes that studded her shop’s shutters. She had only been in business for two months when the Islamists entered Ras Al-Ain in November 2012. Like all of the other residents of the street, she fled.
“I went to Turkey because I have relatives there,” she said. “First I left when the regime’s planes started bombing us, and then I came back. But the fighting started again, so I went back to Turkey.”
For ten months she lived a back and forth life: retreating to Turkey when the fighting flared, and coming back to check on her home and her business in the periods when it eased to a state of tense calm. Her sick and elderly mother is still in Turkey, waiting until she is sure that the Islamists have gone for good before she returns home. “She always watches the television to see what is happening here,” Kesay said with a smile.
The street showed few visible traces of its year under Islamist rule. But there were glimpses of it elsewhere in Ras Al-Ain: in a wedding venue that had been smashed and then gutted because it served alcohol, and in a black-and-white Al-Qaeda logo that had been crudely scrubbed out and scrawled over with ‘YPG.’
We found the Islamists’ former base in an abandoned agricultural factory just outside the town. It had been heavily damaged during the YPG’s offensive, but the graffiti on the walls was still clear. “Jabhat Al-Nusra 2013,” read one inscription. “Before you commit a sin, remember that Allah sees you.”
This was not the liberation that Kesay had hoped for. She told us that she was one of the few women who had joined the early anti-regime protests in Ras Al-Ain, before revolution turned to armed conflict, and armed conflict to fractured sectarianism. “At the beginning, I thought it was the Free Syrian Army versus the regime,” she said. “But now I think that the Free Syrian Army are thugs and radical Muslims. We all want the fall of the regime, but if the choice is between Bashar and the jihadists, I would choose Bashar.”
The Kurds say that they will push on to Ain Al-Arab, 50 miles (80 kilometers) further west of Ras Al-Ain. If they continue advancing at the pace they have gathered over the past few weeks, they could do that in a matter of months. But in between here and there, there are dozens more towns like Tel Halaf, and thousands more civilians trapped in the way—and the pendulum of fortune in Syria’s war leaves a tidemark of grief and chaos each time it swings back and forth.
“As long as there are enemies, there will always be martyrs,” said Guran, as Shaheen’s coffin was lowered into the ground.