Syrian fighter Iskandar makes a homecooked mulukhiyah stew during a day off from the frontlines as he and his comrades from the US-backed SDF battle the Islamic State group in Raqa
Syrian fighter Iskandar makes a homecooked mulukhiyah stew during a day off from the frontlines as he and his comrades from the US-backed SDF battle the Islamic State group in Raqa © - AFP
Syrian fighter Iskandar makes a homecooked mulukhiyah stew during a day off from the frontlines as he and his comrades from the US-backed SDF battle the Islamic State group in Raqa
Rouba El-Husseini, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Homecooked meals, ice cream offer relief from Syria Raqa fight

On a day off from the Raqa front line, Syrian fighter Iskandar was busy chopping up chicken and garlic cloves for a steaming pot of homecooked mulukhiyah stew.

He stirred the ingredients for the dish into a large pot perched atop a gas canister, set up in an abandoned home in Jazra, a western suburb of Raqa.

"I used to love going into the kitchen with my mum so I learned from her. This is the first meal I'm cooking on the front," the 28-year-old fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said excitedly.

He and comrades from the US-backed SDF have been battling Islamic State group jihadists for control of Raqa, the de facto capital of IS's Syrian territory since 2014.

The SDF has spent months encircling the city and finally broke into it in early June.

After long stretches away from home, Iskandar and his comrades have grown nostalgic for a traditional meal.

"We got bored of the food that we get every day. It's not that we don't like it, but we're sick of eggplant, kebab and grilled meat," he told AFP.

Fellow fighters requested an old favourite: mulukhiyah, an aromatic stew made with bitter green leaves, lemon juice, a heavy dose of garlic and chicken, and typically served over white rice.

Iskandar got to work, finding dried mulukhiyah leaves in an abandoned Jazra home and venturing to nearby shops to buy the other ingredients.

"I hope they forgive us. We picked them so we could eat," said Iskandar of the green leaves.

- Chicken, beans, meat pies -

"If there's any other dish they want, I'm ready: stuffed vegetables, oven-roasted chicken, beans," Iskandar said proudly.

He flipped a yellow towel behind his neck to dab at the sweat gathering on his skin as his colleagues hovered nearby, impatient for the mouthwatering meal.

Some were spread out under the shade of a grapevine while others sat inside, where a sputtering air conditioning unit provided the only reprieve from the heat.

A refrigerator inside was stacked with bottles of water, ice cubes and a plate of chopped cucumbers that Iskandar would toss into some refreshing yoghurt.

Typically, meals for fighters on the western front are prepared in the village of Hawi al-Hawa, less than two kilometres (one mile) from Raqa.

The meals are usually made by a team of chefs the previous day so that they can be speedily delivered to hungry fighters on the front lines.

"Every day, we deliver 5,000 lunches and 5,000 dinners," said Hoghar, a kitchen logistics coordinator wearing fatigues and eyeglasses.

Outside, SDF members loaded plastic bags filled with bread loaves and cubed white cheese as rows of massive pots lay drying in the sun.

"We get requests from the fighters and we try to fill them as much as we can. They mostly ask for vegetables and fruit," Hoghar said.

Recently, fighters have been saying they crave meat pies, which the chefs plan to prepare in Kobane -- a three-hour drive away -- because there are no bakeries in Hawi al-Hawa, Hoghar said.

"We'll transport them in refrigerated trucks, then we'll distribute them from here."

- Ice-cold -

Nearby, the SDF has been churning out another key commodity: ice.

With temperatures rising above 45 degrees Celsius (112 Fahrenheit) across northern Syria, fighters have been struggling to stay cool and hydrated.

The militia has struck a deal with the owner of a small ice factory on the outskirts of Hawi al-Hawa, allowing them to freeze water there if they pay for the materials and diesel.

"Our forces are getting exhausted and they needed something to cool them down," said SDF fighter Mohiyddin Mohammad, 38, as the machine produced blocks of ice.

The blocks are transported to fighters closer to the front, who say they are indispensable.

"The most important thing for us is to get ice so that the water can stay cold," said 22-year-old militiaman Matay.

"In this heat, it's not enough to be in the shade, to shower, or to pour bottles of water on our heads."

Near the factory, fighters were savouring vanilla ice cream distributed from a truck.

During lulls in the fighting, Matay said he and other fighters in the Arab-Kurdish force rush to a small creek north of the village for a refreshing dip.

"We go to the river so we can swim, shower or even wash our clothes and take a break from this heat."

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