KOBANI, Syria (AP) — From a small, backwater tucked in northern Syria, the Kurdish town of Kobani was thrown onto the world stage in September when Islamic State militants stormed in and captured almost half the town, triggering a surge of tens of thousands of refugees.
Nearly three months of devastating fighting later, the Kurdish men and women of Kobani are still stubbornly defending the town, slowly clawing back territory from the militants on several fronts. Although far from over, the extremists' blunted drive to capture the town on the Turkish broder has come to symbolize their limits as they fight enemies on multiple fronts in both Iraq and Syria.
The Kurdish fighters of Kobani have been aided by U.S. airstrikes hitting militants in and around the town — more than 310 since mid-September — and a group of Kurdish peshmerga forces from Iraq who came to Kobani with more advanced weapons. A second battalion of peshmerga forces crossed into Kobani this week, replacing the first wave.
Perhaps in an attempt to cut its losses, IS appears to be shifting its attention away from Kobani, launching a major attack this week on a key military air base in eastern Syria.
An exclusive series of reports shot by videojournalist Jake Simkin, who spent a week inside Kobani late last month, offered a rare, in-depth glimpse of the horrendous destruction inflicted on the town and the lives of the fighters and civilians left behind.
Here's the series of stories:
INSIDE KOBANI: Devastation mixed with optimism
Blocks of low-rise buildings with hollow facades, shattered concrete, streets strewn with rubble and overturned, crumpled remains of cars and trucks. Such is the landscape in Kobani, where the sounds of rifle and mortar fire resonate all day long in fighting between Islamic State extremists and the Syrian town's Kurdish defenders.
Kurdish fighters peek through sand-bagged positions, firing at suspected militant positions. Female fighters in trenches move quickly behind sheets strung up to block the view of snipers. Foreign jets circle overhead.
The fighters, backed by small numbers of Iraqi peshmerga forces and Syrian rebels, are locked in what they see as an existential battle against the militants, who swept into their town in mid-September as part of a summer blitz after the Islamic State group overran large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
Several fighters with the the People's Protection Units, or YPG, the main Kurdish fighting force, spoke confidently of a coming victory. Jamil Marzuka, a senior commander, said the fighting has "entered a new phase" in the last week.
"We can tell everyone, not just those on the front lines, that we are drawing up the necessary tactics and plans to liberate the city," he said.
A YPG fighter, who identified himself only by his first name, Pozul, said only small pockets of militants remain. Still, he said he and other fighters must remain wary as they move around because Islamic State snipers lurk amid the ruins and the militants have booby-trapped buildings they left behind.
"They are scattered so as to give us the impression that there are a lot of them, but there are not," he said.
The Kurds' claims of imminent victory may be overly ambitious. But the AP's reporting has found that the Islamic State group's drive has at least been blunted. Hundreds of militants have been killed, most of them by airstrikes.
On Friday, activists said IS militants withdrew from large parts of the so-called Kurdish security quarter, an eastern district where Kurdish militiamen maintain security buildings and offices. Militants had seized the area last month.
Zardasht Kobani, a 26-year-old YPG unit commander, has been fighting day and night for weeks. Often he and his fellow fighters were short on ammunition and sleep, he said. Now he feels an important victory at is at hand. The battle of Kobani has had a crucial symbolism for both sides.
He said the militants have failed in Kobani and are looking for a way out.
"But IS knows that escaping from Kobani will spell their downfall," he said.
INSIDE KOBANI: Kurdish civilians endure IS fight
One of the few signs of life in this border town is the old bakery, revived by Kurdish fighters.
Closed down for some 20 years, the production line now bakes two tons of doughy bread every day to energize the fighters and feed the spatter of civilians left behind.
"We came and fixed up (the bakery) for use in these difficult times," said Fathi Misiro, a YPG fighter who works in the bakery. "Ten days ago ... it was worse here. We've been helping people and sending bread to them daily."
Outside the bakery, children playfully jump in and out of foxholes, barely fazed by the thunderous explosions nearby. Kobani as it was has been virtually erased. Rubble is all that remains of people's homes and their memories. Shops are gutted. Schools are flattened.
The battle with the Islamic State group comes at a heavy price for the town's remaining residents. While most of Kobani's population of 50,000 managed to flee across the nearby border with Turkey, some 2,000 Kurdish civilians opted to stay with the hope that fighting will soon subside.
They sleep in their cars or makeshift tents on the outskirts of the town, where barbed wire and land mines mark the Turkish border. Militant-fired mortars rain down on them regularly.
Some farmers escaped with their machinery and livestock. Others lost everything.
"My sheep were taken. I lost my cow, for God's sake, my hens, my bedding, our sacks of wheat were stolen," said one woman interviewed in the video report, expressing gratitude for the bread the YPG fighters are providing.
Then, there are those who lost loved ones as the militants moved in. Another woman named Parvin had to carry her two injured daughters to safety after they were hit by mortar fire. Her 7-year-old was then sent to Turkey and died there.
"We brought her body back and buried her here in Kobani," said Parvin, her heartache written on her face. She and the other farmer spoke on condition they remain anonymous or be identified only by first name for fear of reprisals.
INSIDE KOBANI: Kurdish women on the frontline
On the front lines of the battle for Kobani, Kurdish female fighters have been playing a major role in helping defend the Syrian town from the onslaught by the Islamic State extremist group.
Pervin Kobani, the 19-year-old daughter of a farmer, is one of them.
She is part of a team holding an eastern front-line position that comes under regular attack from the extremist fighters, who have been trying to seize the town since mid-September.
The Islamic State group has declared a self-styled caliphate in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria, governing it according to its violent interpretation of Shariah law. The Kurdish men and women fighting in Kobani are determined not to lose the town to the extremists.
Pervin says she doesn't really have dreams beyond the present.
"We must save our love for Apo, and Kurdistan and our martyrs," she said, referring to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose group has been fighting Turkey for Kurdish autonomy.
Nearby, one of Pervin's comrades saw something moving amid the destroyed remains of central Kobani and opened fire.
Pervin left home and took up arms two years ago as the overstretched forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad withdrew from Kurdish areas in northern Syria. She joined the Syrian Kurdish women's self-defense force, known by its Kurdish acronym YPJ. The female YPJ fighters are now integrated with the men's units, the YPG.
"I didn't really have any other ambitions. I just wanted to live a free life, as a woman, (to) be able to see our reality, and have our rights and just live," she said.
Aided by a small Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga force and Syrian rebels, they have been stubbornly defending the town since mid-September, aided by airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
"We won't allow the terrorist groups in until the last drop of our blood," Pervin said.
After half a year serving away from her hometown, she returned with Kurdish forces two months ago to Kobani.
Most fighting happens at night. The fighters can only sleep during the day, with a rotating two-hour sentry watch.
Three weeks ago, Pervin bumped into her father on a street corner.
She was surprised to see him holding a gun. She didn't know that he too had decided to fight. Her mother is a refugee in Turkey, her only brother studying in Algeria.
"Honestly when I heard my father is fighting on the western front with the YPG I was so proud of him, and it made me want to fight more," she said.
Her father, Farouk Kobani, was delighted to see his daughter that day three weeks ago, after months without news.
Last week, videojournalist Simkin traveled with Pervin to the western front, to see her father once again.
She says he is now her comrade first — but she hugs him like a father anyway.
INSIDE KOBANI: War clinic treats anti-IS fighters
Like much of the battered town, most of Kobani's hospitals and clinics now lie in ruins. Only one is still working but its location is kept secret for fear it could be targeted by the militants.
Inside the tiny field clinic, saving lives and dealing with horrifying wounds of war comes first, and concerns such as keeping operating rooms sterile and cleaning up after surgery are on the back burner.
Blood is splattered across most of the beds and floors, and a small team of only three doctors and five nurses are providing the only remaining medical services in the town. They are sometimes forced to operate by torchlight since power generators regularly fail.
They treat a seemingly unending flood of wounded Kurdish fighters and members of the Free Syrian Army, just meters (yards) away from the front lines.
The Spartan clinic only has the very basic equipment and regularly runs out of supplies. Those with more critical wounds must make a mad dash for the border with Turkey, and wait there for a transport to a better hospital in the neighboring country.
But losing precious time in the perilous journey often diminishes their chances for survival.
"If we had a mobile operating unit, we wouldn't have to leave our wounded at the Turkish border to wait for six or 10 hours where they sometimes die," said Mohammed Aref, a doctor at the Kobani clinic.
Kobani, which once had a population of about 50,000, has seen some of the fiercest urban warfare in Syria's civil war, now in its fourth year, and has paid a heavy price for battling the Islamic State extremists.
Aref and the others at the Kobani clinic say the immobility of their facility slows them down, since they cannot venture far outside and treat the wounded at the scene as medics elsewhere do in combat situations.
Still, Aref is dedicated to saving Kobani's wounded as best he can and dreams of someday rebuilding the town clinics and working in a safe operating theater.
"We know that the number (of wounded) will increase and more injured will come so we have to be ready," said Aref. "The most important thing for us is having an operating room."
INSIDE KOBANI: Kurds doggedly defend town from IS
The men and women of Kobani call one another "heval" — Kurdish for "comrade" — and fight with revolutionary conviction, vowing to liberate what they regard as Kurdish land from Islamic State group militants.
Amid the wasteland and destroyed buildings, a sense of camaraderie has developed among the town's defenders who have for more than two months doggedly fought off the advances by the extremists.
Often, members of the same family can be found on the front lines.
Nineteen-year-old Shida's father was a fighter before her. After he was killed, she gave up hopes of becoming an artist and decided she must follow in his footsteps to honor his example. She says her mother supports her decision. One of her six brothers is also fighting, the rest of her siblings are living in Turkey.
"I will not allow the enemy to take away my land and its soil," she said. "I will not leave my land."
That determination — along with the airstrikes and fighters from outside — has enabled the town's defenders to hold out against the more experienced jihadis, against all expectations.
"We are fighting for freedom," said a Kurdish sniper who goes under the nickname Zinar, Kurdish for "The Rock."
"Freedom isn't something you can easily get or something that someone just gives to you," he said. "Freedom is only achieved when you go out and get it yourself."
Abu Layla, commander of a Free Syrian Army-linked group in Kobani called Shams al-Shamal (Sun of the North) Brigade, said he is proud of what the FSA and the Kurdish fighters have achieved together in Kobani so far.
Their alliance is called "Burkan al-Furat," Arabic for Volcano of the Euphrates.
Abu Layla's group has over a hundred fighters, mostly ethnic Arabs and Turkmens from his hometown of Minbej.
He said he is not fighting for the Kurds, Arabs or Turkmens, or for Christians or Muslims.
"I'm fighting for a free democratic Syria, not an Islamic Syria but a free democratic Syria," he said.
He has not lost sight of the real goal of the rebels, toppling President Bashar Assad. But he says the priority now is to get rid of the Islamic State group.
After that, taking down Assad "will be easy for us, if we have support."