Kobane (Syria) (AFP) – After giving up on getting help from Syrian Kurdish authorities, Ahmed Saleh relied on relatives abroad to repair his home in Kobane after it was heavily damaged in a battle against jihadists.
Much of the border town along Syria’s northern frontier with Turkey was left in ruins after US-backed Kurdish forces ousted the Islamic State group from it in early 2015.
Saleh fled to Turkey in the battle’s early stages and came back a year later to find two of his home’s three rooms destroyed.
“We returned to Kobane after the battles had stopped and were shocked by the huge destruction in the town,” Saleh said.
The one-time shoe repairman hoped authorities would step in, but said he eventually “lost hope”.
“We had to live in these homes and we weren’t going to wait for these empty promises,” said the 45-year-old.
Instead, he turned to family members abroad, who sent remittances.
“My son in Germany and my brother in Iraqi Kurdistan helped me so my children and I could return home,” he said.
So far Saleh has spent the equivalent of $1,150 fixing up his house, little by little. All it needs now is a final coat of paint.
Other homes in his eastern neighbourhood of Butan have also been roughly restored. Bullet holes are still visible, but many walls have been re-erected and painted.
– ‘No one helped us’ –
Mohammad Naesan, who lives in the nearby Martyr Kawa district, repaired his one-storey house by hand and with his own savings.
“Our home was completely destroyed by IS,” the 76-year-old Naesan told AFP, clutching a Koran and sitting on his front stoop with his wife and children.
“The municipality came and recorded all the damage to the buildings. But then they didn’t do a thing,” he said.
“No one helped us. Rebuilding was so expensive, and it cost me a lot.”
Central government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria in 2012, leaving local authorities to set up semi-autonomous institutions.
As IS began grabbing swathes of northern Syria it attacked Kobane in late 2014.
The four months of fighting it took to push the jihadists out pulverised about half the city, mostly in its north and east, said Anwar Muslim, the town’s top official.
“Five thousand homes were destroyed in Kobane, about 70 percent of which have been rebuilt,” Muslim told AFP.
He said remittances were crucial for rebuilding individual homes as authorities did not have the budget to help.
They focused instead on rehabilitating the gutted infrastructure, bringing water and electricity to residents, and rebuilding a dozen schools.
But power cuts and water shortages remain rampant and Muslim said he felt disappointed by the lack of support from the US-led coalition, the Kurds’ key partner in the anti-IS fight.
“So far, the coalition hasn’t provided any support despite us speaking dozens of times about the fact that, as we beat IS together, we should rebuild together,” he said.
The coalition has provided funds to several areas recaptured from IS after Kobane to demine and rehabilitate infrastructure like bridges and water networks.
– ‘Can’t afford’ it –
Today, Kobane’s population stands at 250,000, down from 400,000 before the start of Syria’s seven-year war, Muslim said.
“We’re trying to create jobs, increase services, and open universities so people come back,” he said.
While some have scrapped together the cash to revamp their homes, others say it is prohibitively expensive.
“We can’t afford to rebuild,” said Muslim Nabu, 32, a Kurdish language teacher who instead is renting a house.
Not only have authorities not helped, he said, but “the municipality collected money from people under the pretext it was for a building licence”.
In one section of Kobane, the most heavily damaged, officials are intentionally refraining from rebuilding.
Authorities want to leave the northern sector as an open-air museum, a testament to their hard-fought battle against IS.
A row of scorched cars practically sizzle beneath the sun against a backdrop of gutted homes, which officials want to keep empty.
Muslim said compensation has been handed out for 258 of 500 affected homes.
But residents say those plans are out of touch with their own painstaking efforts to clear rubble by hand and rebuild on their own dime.
Faydan Khaleel, who lives there with her husband and mother-in-law, said she had only just finished restoring their home.
“My husband worked for daily wages until we were able to rebuild and return to live here,” said the 45-year-old, sitting cross-legged in the shade, a purple scarf pulling her hair back.
“But now they’re saying they’re turning it into a museum and we have to leave.”
“They said they’d give us land as compensation, but we don’t have the cash to build a home a third time.”