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Women process mulukhiyah leaves at a workshop in Kobani. July 2019. Cameron Weymes

Hyperinflation, uncertainty and awakening from lockdown Life in the Syrian-Kurdish resistance city of Kobani

Today is World Refugee Day and Cameron Weymes and Nishtiman Haji Murad share the stories of the people living in this once besieged city.

Today is World Refugee Day, highlighting the displacement of millions of innocent people around the world. The UNHCR says the planet is now witnessing the largest displacement of people on record, with an estimated 70 million forced to leave their homes due to conflict and persecution. Around 30 million are living as refugees. 

Over five million of those have come from Syria, fleeing the horrendous violence and human rights abuses inflicted in the ten-year conflict there. One of the worst-hit areas in Syria is Kobani, a city ravaged by the so-called Islamic State group until recently. Today, as the people of Kobani try to put their lives back together, they face further uncertainty brought about by Covid-19 and currency in free-fall:

RESIDENTS OF SYRIA’S famous siege city of Kobani face an uncertain future as the Syrian Pound continues its dramatic decrease in value. The currency has plummeted by over 75% in the past year, meaning small wages are being squeezed further.

Syria’s recent hyperinflation has been the result of new US sanctions, a financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, Covid-19 and nine years of conflict. Officially, Syria has had just 177 confirmed Covid-19 cases and six deaths from the virus, but a lack of adequate testing and an underreporting of cases are likely factors accounting for these low numbers. However, preventative measures such as the early closure of border crossings mean the country has thus far been less affected by Covid-19 than originally feared. 

Kobani, which is located on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, is controlled by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration.image In September 2014, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group swept into Kobani at the height of their powers. They had taken Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in a matter of days just three months earlier.

IMG-20200611-WA0056 Kobani men and women celebrate Kurdish New Year, known as Newroz. Nishtiman Murad Nishtiman Murad

Few would have given Kobani’s defenders much hope at the time, but men and women of the Kurdish-led YPG and YPJ militias dug in, eventually liberating the city with the help of airstrikes from a US-led coalition.

As the tide of the war turned against IS, Kobani’s residents began to return from refugee camps in neighbouring Turkey, but further hardships lay ahead.

Kobani, the battleground

In October 2019, Turkish forces and their Syrian allies invaded Kurdish held territory in northern Syria, temporarily cutting off the M4 highway connecting Kobani with the east of the country and seizing Tal Abyad, 70 km away.

shehidxana The Kurds and their allies lost over 13,000 men and women in the Syrian Civil War. Cameron Weymes Cameron Weymes

In late March, Kobani’s residents went into partial lockdown as schools and non-essential businesses closed down due to Covid-19. As the city’s residents gradually emerge from lockdown, they face an additional problem: severe inflation has left salaries worth only a fraction of their former value.

Perishan Osman is a 32-year-old woman working for the local municipality. Her salary, which was once equivalent to $200 per month is now worth just $30:

I am financially responsible for ten people in my family, including my brother’s orphaned kids. My salary is not nearly enough to provide for one person, never mind ten. Life is really hard right now.

“It almost feels like a siege type situation. Resources are becoming more scarce and there is always the threat of renewed conflict. We are really worried about the future.“

IMG_0395 Perishan Osman visits her friend’s grave in Kobani, Syria. Nishtiman Murad Nishtiman Murad

For Mohammad Ahmad, who has been a shop owner in central Kobani for over 20 years, this crisis is one of the most difficult situations he has ever encountered.

“The recent hyperinflation has been a big shock to people here, myself included. In this shop, we have to import most of our goods according to the dollar exchange rate but we are getting paid in Syrian Pounds so it’s a big problem,” he said.

IMG_0448 Mohammed Ahmed at work in his shop in downtown Kobani. Recent hyperinflation has hurt his business. Nishtiman Murad Nishtiman Murad

“My business has been affected by inflation as customers can no longer afford the high prices. People were doing OK before this situation, but now their salary is not enough even for basic needs so they can’t buy things like before.”

“We are still better off than some other regions in Syria but the currency has led to a further deterioration of our situation.”

Another Kobani native Darwish Mohamed works at the office of a local political party and is one of the millions of Syrians facing financial uncertainty. “Despite working long hours, I’m currently earning about a dollar a day, I can’t effectively support my children like this - life has come to a standstill for us.”

IMG_0408 (1) Darwish Mohammed was held by Isis for 86 days. Nishtiman Murad Nishtiman Murad

“It’s only logical that hyperinflation will result in a higher crime rate, people are soon going to be forced to steal food and other essential goods, it’s going to harm the entire community.”

Experience of the war

For Darwish, the Syrian conflict has been particularly traumatic. In September 2014 himself, his brother and a number of his relatives were taken captive when IS took over his village, located to the south of Kobani. 

IS took us captive simply because we were Kurds. They held me for 86 days, but it felt like 86 years. At first I was in a prison with 200 others, but later I was taken to solitary confinement for 13 days, the cell was so small I had to eat and sleep standing up.

“Every day and hour I heard the voices of people who were being tortured and executed. One time I witnessed the execution of a lawyer from Manbij, they put his head in the water and killed him by electric shock. I won’t forget this for as long as I live.”

“After 86 days I was released, but I still don’t know why it was a mercy from God. My brother and relatives remain missing, we don’t know what happened to them.” After being released from captivity and with Kobani liberated, Mahmoud found his security fears were far from over. 

The sacrifice of the Kurds

As the threat of IS receded, Turkish president Erdogan became increasingly aggressive towards Kurdish-held Syria, where the ruling PYD party is claimed to have links with the PKK, a militant group that has been in conflict with the Turkish government since 1984.

Like many people in northern Syria, Mahmoud feels let down by the international community after President Trump gave the green light for a Turkish backed invasion of Kurdish held territory last October.

“We (Kurdish forces and their allies) lost over 13,000 men and women in this war, along with another 23,000 wounded,” he said.

Our sacrifice to defeat IS was not just for the people of Kobani or Rojava, but for the whole world. Despite this, our allies seemed to be willing to discard us once IS were defeated territorially.

“The silence of the international community on the crimes of Turkish-backed militias in areas they have seized from Kurdish control makes us afraid for our own future.”

“I can only hope that the Syrian regime and other international powers will bring an end to the war, this is the only thing that will lead to a stable future for us.”

Cameron Weymes is an MA Journalism student at TU Dublin. He has lived in Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan. He has photographed the Mosul Campaign and the Syrian Civil War. Nistiman Haji Murad is a journalist from Kobani Syria. She is fluent in four languages: Kurdish, Arabic, English and Turkish.

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Cameron Weymes & Nishtiman Haji Murad
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