The bodies of nine Islamic State fighters lie on the roadside in the village of Khamlici south of Kobane, the strategic Syrian town recaptured from the jihadists a week ago.
A Kurdish sniper, Musa, points at them proudly.
“I killed this one with a bullet to the head while he was trying to run away,” he boasts. “The others were easier because they could not run very fast.”
The fighter from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) says he shot the IS combattants in the final hours of last Monday’s battle that drove the jihadists out of Kobane after more than four months of fighting.
With a cap pulled down tightly on his head, his face covered by a thick black beard, the 25-year-old Kurdish fighter originally from Iran offers details of his part in the combat that observers say left at least 1,800 people dead — two-thirds of them jihadists.
“I shot them from a distance of 400 metres (yards). They were about to run for it, out in the open, to hook back up with their forces, but they did not make it,” Musa says, proudly brandishing the Russian-made Kanas precision rifle that he is never without.
Speaking in perfect Turkish he learned as a smuggler running contraband between Turkey and Iran, Musa describes how a mobile phone on the corpse of a Turkish Islamist fighter began ringing several hours after its owner had been killed.
On the other end of the line was the militant’s family, desperately seeking news from him.
“We told them their son was here, but that he was dead,” Musa says.
“They begged us to conserve the body so they could at least bury it back home in Turkey. That is why it is still here,” he says, adding that jihadist cadavers are usually burned to prevent the spread of disease.
Based in the majority-Kurd region of Rojava in western Syria for the past three years, Musa came to the Kobane front to combat the IS offensive last year.
What he encountered there was four months of unending combat, day and night, against a formidable enemy that had no scruples or limits.
‘NOT A NORMAL WAR’
“It was not a normal war. In war, there are ethics, a culture, even rules. But Daesh respects no rules, and all they had in mind was the idea of dying as martyrs and going to paradise,” Musa says, using the Arabic acronym for the extremist militia.
The young Kurdish fighter heads back towards central Kobane, which is safer than the outskirts — beyond which the jihadist enemy still roams.
At the southern entrance of town, Kurdish YPG forces keep watch and try to stay warm around a heater. A cold rain pelts the gutted buildings around, as the unit’s smiling chief steps up to welcome arriving journalists.
In a fleeting moment of discreet post-combat vanity, the camouflage-clad woman fixes her hair, and resists Musa’s prodding to describe her experience in battle.
“I have work to do,” she declines.
Musa does not share his chief’s reservations, and resumes his story without even being asked.
“The war was very hard, against an extraordinary enemy that does not stop decapitating civilians and enemy fighters alike,” he says.
Around him, silence and desolation reign among the razed buildings, rubbled-choked streets, and bullet-riddled vehicles.
Farther off, occasional gunfire or explosions sporadically ring out, as a fellow fighter sidles up to join Musa and discuss combat against an exceptionally motivated enemy.
“We would kill them, but they would keep coming back at us in greater numbers,” recalled Dijwan Geven, barely 20 years of age, who says he is nevertheless certain victory freeing Kobane for good is at hand.
“The surrounding villages will be liberated soon,” he promises.
But his optimism dims when Geven discusses the return of the nearly 200,000 mostly Kurdish residents of Kobane, who fled to Turkey to escape the violence.
“They’ll return — one day,” he mutters when asked about when the town’s population may start filing back home.
Musa is also aware that reconstruction and restoration of Kobane will take time, once the unexploded mortars and rockets can be cleared from the streets.
“It will come,” he promises. “We still need a bit of time to settle back down after so many months of war.”