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Kurds Bury Kobani Dead in Makeshift Graves Over Border

Turkish Kurds watch as airstrikes hit Kobani, inside Syria, as fighting intensifies between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, in Mursitpinar, on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.
Turkish Kurds watch as airstrikes hit Kobani, inside Syria, as fighting intensifies between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, in Mursitpinar, on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.

They died after fighting to defend Kobani. But such is the control Islamic State group has around the Syrian Kurdish border town, their families have no idea when they might be able to get back to give them a proper burial there.

Instead, the Kurdish fighters have been laid to rest in hastily dug graves in Turkey, some 10 km over the border from the town they fought to save from the jihadists closing in.

Nine Kurdish fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) were buried on Thursday close to Suruc, where they had been rushed, wounded, from battles that have raged for three weeks.

Four more graves lay waiting. Monitors estimate that several hundred have died on each side as heavily armed Islamic State fighters have inexorably pushed home their advantage against out-gunned but determined Kurdish defenders.

“These are very difficult times,” said Bekir Sehahmed, 71, standing by the mounded earth. “I am a Muslim too. Why are they doing this?”

Around 300 mourners, mostly men, gathered near the graves, marked by stones and scattered with a few flowers. One Syrian Kurdish man delivered a eulogy through a megaphone, hailing the dead as martyrs and calling on others to sacrifice themselves.

Islamic State artillery has pounded Kobani for days, and both sides have resorted to suicide attacks in the town that is on an east-west highway running parallel to the Turkish border.

Islamic State group wants to take Kobani to consolidate a dramatic sweep across northern Iraq and Syria, in the name of an absolutist version of Sunni Islam, that has sent shockwaves through the Middle East.

U.S.-led coalition air strikes appear to have slowed, but not stopped, the militants' advance. Islamic State controls parts of eastern Kobani and the group's black flag flies on a hill overlooking the dusty streets of the town.

Dug trenches

An estimated 200,000 people have fled the Kobani bloodletting into Turkey, and Kurdish officials say some civilians remain trapped. Going in the opposition direction for any reason other than joining the fight has become impossible.

Ahmet, 35, dressed all in black, used to slip through the barbed wire of the border from Turkey into Kobani to see his relative Seydo Mehmet Cumo, a 40-year-old father of four.

Now he is burying him in a makeshift grave in Turkey.

“It tears us apart to see this. He died yesterday, the hospital told us,” said Ahmet, who did not give his family name.

Kurdish military commanders say they will fight until the last, raising fears of a massacre if Kobani finally falls and there being many more graves to fill.

“I went to Kobani last month and spent a night there. I helped them dig trenches around the town. All they need is weapons,” Ahmet said.

His comments show not only his grief, but hint at the frustration at what some see as an increasingly political dimension of a siege in a town that has highlighted the fractured alliances and rivalries of a complex landscape.

A short distance away from the graves of the Kurdish fighters, three youths, their faces masked, held aloft flags of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Ankara has fought a 30-year counter-insurgency battle against the PKK, who are demanding increased autonomy and have close links with the armed groups fighting Islamic State.

Ankara has offered humanitarian assistance, but Turkish officials have made it clear they are neither willing to help groups they see as terrorists, nor be dragged into a ground war in Syria, where fighting since March 2011 has already sent more than 1.2 million people fleeing over their border.

This week, 21 people were killed when Turkey's pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast was swept by some of the most violent demonstrations in years. There are fears a fragile peace process aimed at disarming the PKK could be threatened.

“These are our children. We don't want them to die. They are being killed viciously,” said Abdulkadir Dasdemir, 57, who traveled from Istanbul to Suruc show his solidarity with Kobani.

“Turkey and America could stop this (attack) in 24 hours if they wanted to ... (But) the Turkish Republic is allowing this to happen.”

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