After a 73-day fight to drive ISIS out of Manbij (Minbic) in northeastern Syria close to the Turkish border, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said in mid-August 2016 that they were in full control of the town, which had been held by ISIS since 2014.
Led by Kurds, the SDF is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious coalition in which the indigenous peoples of the region, including Arabs, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians and Turkmens have fought alongside Kurds to defend their homeland.
“When we entered Manbij, the stone where the people used to be beheaded during public executions were still covered with blood. Despite everything, the people of Manbij did not bow down. In the early phase of the revolution, Manbij was one of the first places, along with with Kobani, which stood up against the regime,” said Dicle Ehmed, a Hawar News Agency (ANHA) correspondent who was reporting from the field during the time when Manbij was liberated.
Talking to ANF on the anniversary of the liberation of Manbij, Ehmed said that witnessing the liberation of Manbij step by step as a journalist had been a unique experience in her professional and personal life.
“During the campaign to liberate Manbij, we witnessed how the fighters of the SDF, YPG [People’s Defence Units] and YPJ [Women’s Defence units] became the writers of a historical epic. We also witnessed countless tragic stories. We witnessed the inhumane barbarity of ISIS and the extreme persecution and psychological war techniques they adopted to maintain their tyranny.”
Ehmed stated that the people of Manbij had been under the influence of the regime even before ISIS took control of the town, and girls as young as 10 had not been allowed to walk in public without wearing hijab.
“With ISIS taking over, this repression of women and young girls was redoubled. The women had to wear all-black hijab. If a single hair or a flash of skin was seen by a man in public, the women were put in a cage and punished there for days.”
Ehmed recorded the testimonies of many women who had had mental breakdowns and even some who had tried to take their own lives due to such extreme pressure. “Women were stoned, women were raped, the voices of women held in dungeons were heard screaming during the night. We have heard many stories from people talking about such horrible incidents.”
In the end, it was up to the daughters and sons of Manbij to take a step against ISIS, she said. “The daughters and sons of Manbij formed the Şemsê Şemal and Suwar Minbic units. These units, were composed of the daughters and sons of Manbij, took part not only in the liberation of Manbij, but also fought in Kobani and Sirin. They did not close their eyes to the suffering of their own people, they resisted and they won.”
In the final days before the liberation, Ehmed related, the civilians were hunted down by ISIS if they took a single step ouside their homes. “The minute a civilian left their home, they were targeted. Some of the people who were trying to reach the defence fighters were killed stepping on the mines laid everywhere by ISIS. One mother with a new-born babe in her arms stepped on a mine as she was trying to escape.”
As Ehmed reached the centre of Manbij town with the defence forces, she witnessed many fighters losing their lives in sacrificial acts, running towards ISIS fighters and detonating bombs on their bodies.
“We witnessed the sacrificial acts of dozens of fighters, both male and female. ISIS members believed that if they were killed by a woman, they would not go to heaven, so whenever they heard the voices of the YPJ fighters they used to scream, ‘Allahu akbar’.”
The most memorable recollections of the liberation of Manbij for Ehmed are those of the reactions of the locals when they saw the YPG-YPJ fighters. “Moments when local people came out to hug the fighters were those which made the greatest impression on me. The women, the children, were shedding tears of happiness, hugging fighters and crying on their shoulders.”
“We witnessed such moments, we have documented these with our videos and photographs. Yet none of our recordings were enough to describe the feelings those moments engendered. No matter what I wrote, it was inadequate to convey those feelings.”
Ehmed mentioned Ronahi TV and how the locals were watching Ronahi TV clandestinely. She says that Ronahi TV reporter Mustafa used to report in Arabic, letting the locals know how close the YPG-YPJ fighters were to Manbij. Many people told her that by doing this he had lifted their hopes of living one more day to see the liberation, and that they were very much affected when he lost his life while reporting.
“As journalists we are lucky to have witnessed such a moment in history. None of the journalists stopped recording even for a day since the start of the Kobani resistance. Whenever the fighters pointed their arms at one direction, the journalist pointed their cameras in the same direction. Many of our colleagues fell as martyrs to their profession in the field, amidst war, trying to reveal the truth of ISIS.”
She said reporters of ANHA and many other journalists in the region are committed to reporting the facts of the ongoing war in Northeast Syria. “Just as in the old days when we mobilised all our efforts during the battle against ISIS, we will take the side of our people and the fighters defending them against the attacks of Turkey. This is our promise to all our comrades and colleagues who have lost their lives for the sake of the truth.”