Homage to Rojava, Part One: Bakur, Chapter 1: “A Matter of Life and Death”
Chapter (1) One
“A matter of life and death.”
A flaming, low lying wreckage spreads out before us in every direction. The ruins of an all ready desolate land. Sprawling two story compounds along a mighty river. Pock marked with rifle rounds. Misery absolutely everywhere. Syria is now a bi-word for total warfare, over 600,000 have so far died. A Revolution in a Civil War. A Third World War using several dozen proxy armies is underway. Russia, Iran, China, America and Europe all have their boots on the ground. In Northern Syria, an unrecognized administration in three cantons protects 4 million civilians and internal refugees. A Kurdish lead project for democracy, ethnic pluralism, women’s empowerment and something called ‘social ecology’. The sun bakes you and the dust gets into, onto everything.
In Deir Ez-Zor Province, a wasteland along the North bank of the Euphrates, in a few hundred hamlets, from their ‘capitals’ in Raqqa and Mosul, Iraq the most hateful and radical of Islamic fascists rules over 10 million persons. Some happily embrace its Caliph Baghdadi as the fulfillment of prophecy. Over 50,000 Muslim Jihadists from around the world arrived to reinforce this effort. At its maximum the Islamic State occupied massive swaths of Eastern Syria and North western Iraq, it threatened to capture Baghdad and Damascus.
Deir Ez-Zor was one of the very first Syrian cities in 2011 to stage large scale demonstrations against the Assad Regime. In 2014 ISIS took over the city with little resistance leaving only a small pocket of pro-Assad military and perhaps over 100,000 civilian supporters cut off in an airbase and small section of the city. Supplied by helicopters and high altitude drop services the besieged garrison deep inside the ISIS control zone resisted capture for over 3 years and 2 months.
The siege of Deir Ez-Zor Airbase garrison lasted a very long time. ‘Daesh’ controlled everything except a small military airport which the Russians and Regime supplied by air for all of the war, but could not re-take, along with the city until just a month ago when it was “liberated” on 3rd November, 2017 by the SAA and the Russians.
At some point the Regime soldiers made the local women trade sex for basic rations of food. There were rarely sympathetic forces in the war, besides ours. But even the Y.P.G. conscripts children, forces Arabs off their land and dabbles in war crimes from time to time, to time. Now, on the South bank, Assad Regime forces, Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary guards and Russian special forces push south east down the southern bank of the River while Syrian Democratic Forces and United States lead coalition forces pushed rapidly south to the Euphrates North bank, both sides maneuvering to secure the majority of the Syrian oil fields. The S.D.F. capturing most of them. Now we slowly begin the final offensive to capture Isis’s last strongholds, moving down the river toward Hajin. Trying not to kick off World War Three.
“Perhaps I am not where I am supposed to be,” muses Heval Ciya, “Perhaps here, I will die for nothing at all. We can be killed so easily by anything, then they will dance about with my corpse making speeches in Kurmanji for a day, until my death takes on significance that it probably never had.”
Heval Ciya Zinar is the name they gave me. “Comrade Friend Mountain Rock”. I am a separatism minded Scottish Soldier. Although still a member of the British army, I voted for independence in our latest failed referendum. I am a gentleman by most accounts and a Y.P.G. International Volunteer. I have absolutely no political sympathies with the Kurdish lead formations, though I possess formal military training, making me more valuable than most of these preachy, useless ideologically motivated volunteers.
“There’s dust in my beard and men die all around me!”
As we grew closer to the Euphrates we can see fire in the sky and the night is lit up with heavy coalition airstrikes somewhere far away to the south. The convoy of nine trucks had left Al Hasakah, the largest rebel held city in the morning and drove about five hours south toward some forward operating base. The eight of us internationals had not been issued weapons until halfway to the front. We stopped of course several times for obligatory tea and some volleyball. The sport of ‘Apoist’ revolution. Sometimes we’d stop at what seemed like the same identical storefront kiosk, next to well stocked pharmacies. The road bodega of Kurdistan stocked with energy drinks, smokes and Turkish day to day items, never toilet paper. All the toilet paper in Syria was now gone. There we bought energy drinks and cigarettes of a more potent type, as the party issued Ardens were lights or ultra lights at best. There was tons of canned Pepsi, but no Coca-Cola throughout the liberated zones. Real freedom was not won yet.
In the first battle that I participated in during the Syrian Civil War five Arab soldiers in our S.D.F./ Y.P.G. Unit were blown to bits by mines and mortars as we stormed the river basin a little after midnight. Evidently, there were far more Daesh entrenched than we had thought. From a dirt sand trench I fired my AK-47 shiftlessly over the wall, peaking out I saw an Arab comrade ripped apart by gun fire and collapse in the sand.
The fire fight resumed immediately after a short re-calibration of the battle plan, after Heval Commander Dalil’s men were buried. A larger number of Kasadeh were trucked in, barely trained. Half or more might have fought for Daesh or the Regime at some point. Child soldiers all over the place. A major conscription drive happened, even some cadro tabors were moved in. This was a race to secure as much turf north of the Euphrates as we could as quickly as we could, creating a defensible buffer against the regime, Russians and Iranians to secure the oil fields. Of course, implicit in all that was to finish Daesh for good. Smash their final positions along 60 to 100 hamlets and miserable dust cake boney towns leading to Hajin, for the very last stand of the caliphate.
Very bad intelligence friends! The bandits were still very well dug in, refugee were swarming out and among them suicide bombers. Five so far. it was impossible to know anymore who was Daesh or not among the refugees flooding out. Some two dozen Arab Hevals were martyred the first night of operation. We were down the hardcore of the elite, the foreign fighter zealots, their families. Motorcycles with snipers affixed to reposition. Sleeper cell deployment, suicide bombers, booby traps, tunnel mines, the usual. Now they would in four battalions capture about fifty tiny key destitute towns working south in several prongs toward the river.
“If you see a helicopter, don’t shoot at it!” Dalal had said, it was our new resupply drop copters. We allegedly had a very, very small air force now. “Do not shoot at the helicopters in general,” was repeated several times in Arabic and Kurdish.
“Also, also! If the regime forces fire, return fire, but do not engage them. Unless they actually cross the river.” Declared Commander Heval Brusk, which means ‘commander lightning’. Commander lightning then personally presided over a few hours on conscript drills. None of these bearded partisans were trusted with grenades.
So the very next day, at early dawn, ten of the destitution ridden little seemingly strategic ISIS hamlets were again stormed.
There was chaotic gun fire erupting everywhere. There were utterly ransacked two story brown buildings all unfinished, all about the same shattered look. From several positions Takim commandos were firing endlessly from roof tops and sniper holes out toward where it was believed the enemy was hiding. A mosque about half a kilometer away. Well of course every Daesh position was in a mosque, hospital or granary since nothing else was defensible.
This was a mostly one sided AK-47 and mortar barrage. Much of the war had proceeded like this, pickup trucks dripping light infantry to storm abandoned Arab homes and light up anything that moved. Loot absolutely anything that wasn’t made of sand and carry it back north. One pipe, one water basin one carpet at a time.
A small child ran out into the road and was blown away. Briefly a pause, until he was clearly limp and dead. A day or two more of endless AK fire, sometimes at night too. Eventually the Americans were told to bomb the mosque. Spotters transmit grid coordinates. Soon, about 5 minutes later an airstrike rips apart the mosque. Battle won!
Many people have written at length about “how boring” it can be to be at war, but it is more terrifying than boring, actually Heval. You do your best to not think about how men and women far more prepared than yourself took a wrong turn and then just exploded. Or how a sniper cut them down. Or how they died in a Turkish airstrike. Or contracted hepatitis because of poor local appreciation of pooping with toilet paper and hand washing, then eating.
The boredom of war Heval is perhaps a cover for a sneaking debilitating fear, so that is what people write about. Being bored, instead of being afraid. And in a war such as this certainly you sit around quite a lot drinking tea, smoking weak Party issued cigarettes and standing guard. Or looking for strategic places to jerk off or poop without setting off a mine. But nothing for us was the same for very long and thus all the time you spent sitting around was better spent ‘conversating’ on the Revolution’s bleak future, or studying some Kurdish, or horsing around with the Arabs. Who loved to try and communicate actually. And also show you pornography and awkwardly try and steal, trade for or buy your hand grenades. Or ask you to bring them to America or Europe hidden in a bag. Jokes abound, but really it is only you who will be brought back to Europe or America in a bag.
While very few of us actually spoke any real Kurmanji Kurdish or Arabic, it seemed that the Arabs were far more interested in us than the Kurds though. I would call the Kurdish commanders attitude, begrudging appreciation and that of the rank and file borderline insulting. I would go so far as to say that at this stage in the war, being fought in majority Arab zones now by the Euphrates river that an increasing number of the front line fighters were Kasadeh, non Kurdish Arab S.D.F. fighters. The Assyrians too had a small group, less than a few hundred men, many little kids and old men. Many poorly trained and poorly paid semi conscripts. Many were not even very against the Islamic State, more eager to shoot at the Russians and regime forces on the other side of the river. With the Kadros being withheld in clear preparation for the impending defense of Afrin Canton.
In retrospect I assume that Heval Fermander Dalil probably saved our lives by abandoning us in a rear fox hole in the dead of night. The ten internationalists that I was aware of were placed further back in the rear, but Heval Shervan ‘the crazed Irish gypsy’ commandeered a Humvee and caught us up, without any invitation to the troops of “Fermander Dalil”.
I remember freezing out in the dunes all night long while the Arab fighters shared neither bedding nor blanket. It was so bitterly god damn cold!
Sometimes Heval Kawa the idealistic New Yorker and I talk about the girls back home. I talk about my Ms. Ashley. He talks about his Daria. Some escort Russian he has some arty muse thing with. Pretty much this is what men at war do. Although in my case, I motorboated my female best friend. In his case it seems a bit more fucking dark and tragic.
“Sometimes I close my eyes and remember your lips. Late into the long trip back to Brighton to your so-called home. I have no home, only ugly little flats around Brooklyn soviet which I rent out of poverty, artless and shared. Decorated with trinkets. I’ll never go back! To you or to Russia, or Haiti, nor to Mehanata the tavern or even dear Cuba! All these things are a form of slavery now. Your lingering Daria, it takes the form of ruminations on WhatsApp messages telling me to “come home”. But to what? To nothing. Life here is hard, but it is free life as they say.” Kawa, the American, is more a poet than a medic in his heart of hearts. Me? I am simply a Scottish warrior. I long for the fight and I got some.
I was deployed into the Deir Ez-Zor Province wastelands about ten days ago to the front near Omar, Daesh is nearly completely defeated they say, but everyday we are taking martyr bodies back to Al-Hasake. Assigned briefly to the Tabor Shahid Lawrence; we lost fifty men in the first few battles to advance south on the mighty Euphrates river. After all that initial death it seems they aim to break up our group of internationalists into different places. They do not want us all to die at once. They do not really seem to have achieved consensus or a plan on where we should be or when and if we should die, or what we are actually even good for. Or what to do when ISIS is finished, and America abandons them and the Turkish Army rolls over the border to kill us all. A heated internal debate is constantly held in both Turkish and Kurdish. Sometimes also in Arabic. Which always ends inconclusively. Well its a complex matter anyway. So many ways to die out here for the greatest cause of our time.
On this matter Kawa and I agree, that whatever motives brought us all to this wasteland, this place of dying and suffering over made up Gods and ideologies, invented ethnicities and world war three style great power politics; this was the resistance of the age. This was a battle good men, bad men and crazy men could not sit out. Because when the smoke clears there will be a different Middle East, a different world. I am no ideologue. I am no dreamer or religious fanatic. I am a professional soldier. While it is not unreasonable to say the Assad Regime backed by Russia and Iran, the Turks, Al Qaeda and of course the Daesh, are unequivocal forces of religious fanatical reaction, of fascism, or totalitarianism and death, well they are. While the Kurds and Arabs of Y.P.G./Y.P.J./S.D.F. are not saints of course. We are not angels here to help do some God’s work. We are fighting for democracy, feminism, ecology and tolerance in the heart of the Middle East. As opposed to all the other groups that are fighting for radical Islam, chauvinism, fascism and the right to impose the will of the minority on the majority.
Did you know that when you take off a person’s uniform to bury them, you cannot tell a fascist corpse, from a democratic corpse, from a Daesh corpse not even from the length of the beard? Those three and letter affiliations, they don’t matter anyway. It matters more, the stuff inside a person’s heart. Their moral compass. Not the length of the beard or who they pray to. Not the historic struggle of their people or their claim to the rivers. When true warriors die, they might not end up anywhere glorious. They might just be dead. The “immortality” we are achieving in our death here is thus rooted in the way the story is framed. Which is to say, who ever wins the war. But can you really win a revolution inside a civil war, inside a World War? I see absolutely no good end in sight. Most likely, we will all get killed ingloriously. But there is of course a timeless epic glory for young men of all cultures to join a seemingly impossible battle, risk their lives and join a pantheon of immortal heroes. Of course, the Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Turks, Checehens, Turkmen, Persians and all the other micro-ethnic tribes gathered here to make war, well they sadly all have no choices. These are the oil rich, strategic holy lands and mountains they were cursed perhaps by their gods to be born in.
And how did we even get here? How did this motley group of around 600 Western foreigners take up the cause of Kurdistan? Well it began with a letter of introduction. As well as four pamphlets written by the Uncle Leaders himself, while serving twenty years in solitary confinement on the Turkish prison island of Imrali.