After losing one child on the battlefield, Bedia Gokguz might now lose another.
Her teenage daughter, a Kurdish rebel fighter, was killed two years ago in clashes with Turkish forces. Her 17-year-old son, Mazlum, has decided to follow a similar path as Islamic State militants pound the Syrian city of Kobani, a key Kurdish stronghold in the country.
“He said: ‘I’ll either die on the streets of Istanbul or in Kobani,’” Gokguz, 48, said on Oct. 11 as she paid her respects at a funeral of two Kurdish fighters killed as they defended Kobani. “I couldn’t stop him.”
As Kurds blame Turkey for failing to come to their aid as they cling on to the city, the stakes are getting raised. More than 30 people have been killed this month in clashes across southeast Turkey, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the protests are designed to undermine the government.
Kurdish fighters in Kobani are largely members of the YPG, an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the separatist group long viewed as Turkey’s top security threat and classified as terrorists by the U.S.
While Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, called for restraint among his supporters, there’s no guarantee that everybody will listen if Islamic State captured Kobani, said Faysal Sariyildiz, a Kurdish lawmaker in the Turkish Parliament.
“Everything will be upside down,” Sariyildiz said as he toured villages on the Turkish side of the border with Syria opposite Kobani two days ago.
Gokguz used to support peace talks with Turkish authorities to win more rights for the Kurds, a process advanced by Erdogan since 2012. If Kobani falls because of inaction to repel Islamic State, “each of us will become a bomb and explode,” she said, standing next to a freshly dug grave of a Kurdish fighter. “Everywhere in Turkey will become Kobani.”
Smoke rises following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition aircraft in Kobani, Syria during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of the Islamic State group as seen from the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, on Oct. 13, 2014.
The risk of the city’s collapse increased this week as Islamic State, formerly known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, pressed to capture a border crossing with Turkey to cut off Kobani’s only link with the outside world. Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have failed to bring an end to the group’s onslaught, which started last month.
“We have not received any weapons or munitions from anyone,” Dicle Kobani, a female Kurdish rebel commander, said as automatic gunfire and frantic radio conversations echoed on the phone. “Airstrikes only help to a certain degree. We have a few mortar rounds left.”
The fall of Kobani would deliver a blow to the autonomous administration that Syria’s Kurds established as the government of President Bashar al-Assad lost control of large swathes of land to rebels during three years of civil war.
The Turkish government has said its troops won’t participate in military operations in Syria unless they’re part of a plan to depose Assad. U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on Oct. 12 that Turkey will help train Syrian rebels and allow use of its military bases as part of the coalition campaign against Islamic State.
Kurdish leaders, including Ocalan, have also urged the government to accelerate peace talks to defuse Kurdish anger over Kobani, which Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu say is being used as a pretext to destabilize Turkey.
“What does Kobani have to do with Turkey?” Erdogan said in an Oct. 11 speech. “What does it have to do with Istanbul, with Ankara? What does Kobani have to do with Siirt, Diyarbakir or Bingol?” he said, naming several Kurdish-majority cities.
While Erdogan weathered repeated attacks over the past two years, including nationwide protest movements, the Kurdish backlash may present a tougher challenge, said Soner Cagaptay, author of “The Rise of Turkey: The 21st Century’s First Muslim Power” and a research director at the Washington Institute.
“The PKK is capable of executing more violence on the streets than any other organization,” Cagaptay said. “We didn’t hit rock bottom yet.”
Protesters throw stones at a police vehicle in Ankara, Turkey, on Oct. 7, 2014 during a demonstration against attacks launched by Islamic State insurgents targeting the Syrian city of Kobane and lack of action by the government.
Hundreds of Kurdish fighters have crossed the border to join the defense of Kobani, evading Turkey’s restrictions, said Ibrahim Kurdo, a local official in the town. Perihan Akbulut, who was also attending the funeral of the Kurdish fighters, said her 26-year-old daughter, Zilan, was one of them.
“She has been in the mountains for a decade,” Akbulut said of her daughter, a PKK rebel. Like Gokguz’s son, she called her mother to say that she’s unlikely to hear from her again.
Both mothers joined other standing mourners at the funeral, holding red, yellow and green PKK banners, to flash V-signs and chant a Kurdish rebel march in unison.
When a bulldozer began dumping soil on the graves, next to about 20 others buried over the past 10 days, the stench of rotting flesh filled the air. As the dust settled, a man wrote their names on makeshift grave stones with red paint.
“We are tired of holding funerals every day,” said Emine Arslan, as she sat next to the grave of her 26-year-old son, Deniz, who was shot above his left eyebrow by an Islamic State sniper near Kobani two months ago. “We’ve been screaming for help to stop this savagery but the world is deaf to our voice.”