YUMURTALIK, TURKEY (TIP): Khaled Baki phones the number of a fellow Kurdish fighter and gets through to the Islamic State militants who say they beheaded her.
Baki’s friend, one of the Kurdish forces’ many female soldiers, disappeared as she fought to try and stop the Islamist militants’ push on Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish settlement in northern Syria close to the Turkish border.
More than 180,000 people have fled ahead of Islamic State’s advance, alarmed by accounts of the jihadists’ ruthless tactics – reports that have been fuelled by taunting phone messages from the militants themselves describing gruesome deaths meted out to Kurdish comrades and loved ones.
“We call her, someone else answers and says, ‘We cut off your friend’s head. Now we’re coming for your head,'” Baki said at Yumurtalik, just over the border from Kobani in Turkey.
“She was just 21 years old, and they cut off her head,” added Baki, a builder before he became a fighter. On Friday he called the Islamists back and spat insults down the line.
The Islamist fighters have pressed on in the face of US air strikes on their positions. Kurdish fighters warned on Friday they now faced a massacre as the insurgents encircled Kobani with tanks and bombarded its outskirts with artillery fire.
Other Kurdish fighters have had calls from IS fighters vowing to take the town within days, using the mobile connections as a kind of psychological warfare. One said he was told: “We will be praying in your mosques by Eid,” an Islamic festival which starts on Saturday.
Fears of what is in store if the defence fails have been exacerbated by reports of Kurdish fighters finding headless corpses lining roads and bodies strung up on electricity poles.
Syrian-Kurds who fled into Turkey say IS fighters have advanced through largely deserted villages.
Residents reported IS militants arriving on motorbikes before the main force, spreading tales of horror to scare civilians into leaving, followed by pick-up trucks flying the group’s black flag. On some occasions, one person would be beheaded to spread the panic still further, they added.
“They are looting what they want and burning the rest. They are killing people,” said Maslum Bergaden, who fled with his family to Yumurtalik.
“Two of my brothers have been captured. They’re trying to delete our culture, wipe out our nation.”
Cevdet Katash pulled down the metal shutters on his three shops and fled to Turkey with his two wives and children.
“They are taking the women and selling them to brothels …(IS) is making money out of the sale of Kurdish and Yazidi women,” the 50-year-old said, referring to a Kurdish minority group that has been repeatedly targeted by the militants.
“They say that the Kurds are heathens,” he added. Kobani was once seen as a relative safe haven from the savagery of Syria’s three year civil war, but the town has largely emptied of civilians since Islamic State shells began slamming into residential areas earlier this week. Fleeing residents say Kobani has been left to lightly armed Kurdish fighters who patrolled the empty streets, or constructed defensive positions in preparation for an onslaught.
One 35-year-old woman who gave her name as Midya said a neighbour’s house was hit by a shell, killing two people.
“Everyone in our area of town has come to Turkey,” she said, at the Turkish border, with the dull thud of IS artillery audible behind her. Islamic State’s use of heavy weapons, including tanks, to bombard the town from positions several kilometres away has highlighted the mismatch in armaments between the two sides.
One young Turkish Kurd, Ayhan, said hundreds of people, mainly young men, have headed back to defend Kobani, vowing to battle street by street even though there are not enough guns for all of them.
“They’re happy, they’re not worried about the war, they won’t give up Kobani to IS,” he said.But Kurdish forces are still struggling to compete with the jihadists, who are toting American-made arms seized from forces in neighbouring Iraq in a series of lightning advances since June.
Kurdish leaders have made repeated appeals for Turkey to help. On Thursday jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan warned that peace talks between his PKK group and the Turkish state to resolve a three decades long insurgency against the Turkish government would end if there was a massacre in Kobani.
But Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said this week that calls for Turkey and western partners to provide arms had been ignored.