KOBANI, Syria — It was a sunny day in late November when Ahmed Ismael, 22, went with a group of seven other fighters to ambush militants from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, on the eastern flank of this besieged town.
Then the plan went terribly wrong. The would-be ambushers were themselves ambushed. Two car bombs exploded and a group of jihadists blocked their way from behind, cutting off their exit route. During the intense firefight that followed, four Kurdish fighters died, including three of Ahmed's cousins.
"They had heavy weapons but we only had AK-47s,” says Ahmed, his voice still shaky as he recounts the details. “It was my first real fight. We stayed there for four hours. We ran out of ammunition. I was next to my cousins when they died."
As the fight raged on, Ahmed and the three women fighters who were part of the mission, sent out calls for help. Finally, a squad of reinforcements arrived and they were able to retreat.
Since then, there have been many other skirmishes, so many that war has come to seem a ways of life for Ahmed and his older brother Nusin. But neither had ever thought before that they were destined to become fighters. They had led a quiet life in this otherwise rural and peripheral town in northern Syria that, until a few months ago, few people had ever heard of outside the region. They were carpenters making chairs, beds and other rudimentary pieces of furniture for the locals.
But when the jihadists from ISIS launched a large-scale assault on Kobani in September, the two brothers had to make a choice. "We wondered what to do," says 24-year-old Nushin. "We sent our family to Turkey,” he says, “But this is our town. The two of us did not want to leave. Where could we go? We decided to stay here and defend our home."
One afternoon in mid-December, with AK-47 machine guns hanging from their shoulders, the two brothers wandered around the area near their partially damaged home in central Kobani,
Some of the streets in this part of the town have seen large scale-destruction. More than three months of intense combat between the jihadist attackers and the Kurdish defenders, backed by jet fighters from the U.S.-led coalition, has left many homes and businesses in fractured or flattened.
This day is weirdly tranquil. But the two brothers know better. They are cautious. They keep their heads low while running behind a large curtain covering the opening between two housing blocks. Such large sheets are common in Kobani, meant to protect fighters and civilians from the ever gazing eyes of ISIS snipers. This is a town, if not of ghosts, of shadows.
Despite the fact it is under siege from all sides and suffering a shortage of basic needs, the local fighters here say their policy is to not take things from the abandoned shops and homes. And they are pretty serious about that. Many of the stores the two brothers pass by still have their goods on the shelves, from food, to medicine, shoes and clothes.
While Kurdish forces have advanced on some fronts in Iraq, the fight here in Syria seems far from over yet. The town, known in Arabic as Ayn al-Arab, is so significant to ISIS that the group calls it Ayn al-Islam. But it was here in Kobani that ISIS ran into the first major hurdle in its brutal campaign to establish a caliphate across Syria and Iraq.
Like other locals here, the Ismael brothers are quick to point out the town would have likely fallen had it not been for the timely airstrikes by the international coalition. The deployment of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces armed with heavy weapons also has been helpful in boosting up the resistance here.
But that makes the Ismael brothers no less proud of the resistance that they and other fellow fighters have put up. While the jihadists swept over large parts of four provinces in Iraq in a matter of days in June, their attempt to take Kobani hit a wall. And even as the bloody siege continues, so, too, do signs of life. Adults prepare food and drink dark sweet tea on the doorsteps of their homes as they watch their children playing.
The Ismael brothers even make an effort to look cool, if not fashionable, by local standards. They both wear tight dark jeans. Nushin has put on a light green T-shirt complete with a black rain jacket while Ahmed has a sweater, a vest and a striped dark pink and black turban.
For these Kobani natives, the fight is about holding on to their roots in place that has been the home of their family and their traditions.
"We have lived here all our life; in every corner of this place, we have a memory," says Nushin, his eyes shining with restrained tears as he speaks. "We do not leave our home behind. We would rather die here with honor and dignity. Leaving means we have turned our back on our home."
Surrender is not an option.