Writer and journalist Tzur Shezaf traveled through no man’s land, where Syria and Iraq melded into one in the wake of the ruthless campaign of the Islamic State; he met with ISIS captives who told him that as a Jew he must be beheaded, and spoke with their Yazidi victims and the Kurdish men and women who bravely fight against them.
On Christmas Eve, I travelled between what used to be Iraq and what used to be Syria. A night drive through territories that are passed on from one hand to another. A lone car in the dark. Where is the border? Who is lurking in the dark? Does the vehicle coming in the other direction belong to the Kurds, or to ISIS? Some lone dogs, the only living things left in the abandoned villages, cross the road in the yellow headlights and disappear into the dark.
Something new was born that year. It’s common to think of anything “new” as something that brings hope. But this “new” thing only brings horror. “That thing” was born over 10 years ago, before being discovered, but only few noticed it.
This area of Mesopotamia, where the new Islamic caliphate was suddenly born, is one of the most ancient and rich areas in the world – rich in culture, agriculture, oil and history, but also in conquerors and conquered, nations and empires that rose and disappeared and were swallowed up within this vast area of land. More nations that later spread out to the east and west came from this area than any other part of the world. This has been the world’s maternity ward.
Out of the darkness, a roadblock pops up. It’s anyone’s guess whose roadblock this is. I was relieved when I saw Kurdish fighters there. They were standing by their posts, which were decorated with black ISIS slogans that were erased just the day before. We kept travelling towards what used to be the border between Iraq and Syria and is now just an abandoned anti-tank ditch and some barbed wire fence.
YPG roadblock north of Sinjar
In this no man’s land, the battle between good and evil is being waged. Both good and evil have a name and a face. The good are the Kurds. The evil ones are ISIS. Anyone who supports the Kurds is on the side of the good guys, and those who support ISIS – support the devil. But both the good and the devil are managed and manipulated by forces far greater than they are. Circles within circles that create a storm and a whirlpool of horrors, dreams, hopes and disasters.
The dark night through which we were traveling was the end of a long day of villages in ruins, shattered cars and battles. We drove in and out of puddles on the broken roads. We crossed the no-border in the dark. Syria and Iraq have melded into one.
Behind the wickedness and violence of the Islamic State, behind the religious ideology, military capabilities, economic greed and sophisticated propaganda, there’s a well polished and professional mechanism, forged and built over years of preparation, struggle, and contemplation. Everyone who fights ISIS – Shi’ite, Kurds, Yazidis, atheists, Christians and Muslims – believes that ISIS is the devil. And they have proof.
A scene of war and destruction
We drove through abandoned villages. Crossed what used to be a land border between Iraq and Syria, of which there is no longer any trace. We passed by roadblocks and Kurdish YPG units (People’s Defense Units), who were stationed at deserted villages, and arrived in Dahoula, Iraq, with the Sinjar Mountain range rising several kilometers south of us, high and arid.
The Yazidi town of Dahoula was abandoned, and as we turned east, the full scale of the destruction revealed itself to us. On either side of the street, there was not even one house that wasn’t in ruins. Men and children were digging through the rubble, trying to find anything that might be of use at the refugee camps. When we stopped and I got off the small minibus, a chill went through my body. I entered a scene of war and destruction. Of a place deliberately destroyed.
A balding Yazidi man, skinny and shocked, came out of the rubble and stood in what used to be a street. I followed him. He immediately started talking, and could not be stopped. “These sons of a bitch demolished our homes with bulldozers,” he said, furiously.
“Because they have no religion, they have no honor, and they are sons of a bitch. I’m not sad about the fact they demolished our homes, but what did our daughters and wives do to deserve such a fate? And what did they demolish the houses for?”
Did they kill many of the village’s people?
“Yes, a lot.”
A young man in a striped shirt came out of the wreckage. “Anyone who can help the Yazidi people, we’ll thank them and always remember them. We have nothing. And if they don’t help us, we’ll bring tents and live on the ruins. We’re a miserable people with a miserable religion. Islam always attacks us. We need the United States’ protection. We don’t care about the houses and the property. Our problems is the wives and daughters. I’d rather they destroyed the entire village to the ground and left no trace. It’s not that bad that they killed our men and children. I’d rather they killed hundreds of men, but not the women. I wish they’d come back to us. That anyone could help. European countries, the UN, the Kurdish government and the central Iraqi government, Arab states – anyone who can help. Bring them back to us.”
Several days later I met Laith Ahmad Mohammed, a 23-year-old ISIS fighter, who was captured by the Kurds. He was a young man, with curly dark hair and brown eyes, from the Sunni tribes of Iraq. “Did you fight in Sinjar?” I asked.
And did you take girls from there?
How many women did you take?
“A lot, it’s hard to count.”
What did you do to the Yazidi women?
“They were put on vehicles and taken away.”
And you didn’t take them away?
“The sheikhs and the amirs who are above us took them. It wasn’t our job. We, the soldiers, don’t interfere with that.”
He was lying. In the days after the Islamic State’s fighters attacked the Yazidi areas, videos appeared online showing them celebrate their victory and dividing up their plunder. The Yazidi women became a reward, booty whose blood and body are free for the taking.
Yohan and the Kurdish women
A barbed wire fence, a muddy ditch filled with water, and a dirt road filled with roadblocks manned by both male and female YPG fighters. The Kurds were in the midst of the attack on Sinjar, which is located at the southern side of the mountain. All around us were the abandoned Yazidi villages.
We stopped in one of the villages and went into a yard surrounded by a wall of clay. A fire was burning on the other side of the yard, with a large pot of tea boiling on top of it. Several female fighters and a bearded guy, with a mischievous spark in his eyes, welcomed us. His English was slow and hesitant with a French accent.
Are you Kurdish?
“Syriac. My family is originally from Midyat in Turkey. I was born in Switzerland and arrived in the Middle East two and a half years ago.”
In Hebrew, the Syriacs are known as Assyrian Christians. It’s one of the most ancient Christian groups of the area. Most of the Christians in Syria, about three million people, are Syriac Christians.
So you’re Swiss?
“Yes, I am Swiss of the Free Syriac Forces who are fighting with the Kurdish YPG against the Islamic State.”
And what were you doing before you came here?
“I was a sergeant in the Swiss army for five and a half years.”
“I’m the commander of the Syriac forces.”
That’s how I met Yohan, or Captain Mehmet, the commander of the Syriac forces, who has 2,000 of the ancient Assyrian Christian fighters under his command, and fights against the Islamic State and the Syrian regime in coordination with the Kurds.
Tzur Shezaf talking to Yohan, the commander of the Syriac forces.
“In 2012,” he said, “after I travelled all over Syria, I came here and realized the war will come here soon as well. I saw that a lot of people had weapons, but they weren’t organized. I joined them and started giving them advice and organize them, and then I moved from advice and random training to proper training and forming the organization.
“We fight not just for the military need to defend ourselves. We fight for our identity and our rights as a religious minority. After wandering around this area, I realized that we, like the Kurds, have a chance of reclaiming the historic identity we lost 2,000 years ago. The Syriacs no longer believe the regime, which is only taking care of the Alawites. This is our land – Mesopotamia, which is Kurdistan for the Kurds. That’s why we went to war.”
Are ISIS good fighters?
“Yes. They are well trained, but you have to remember they weren’t born yesterday and not a year or two ago, they’ve been fighting since 2003. They fought against the United States in Iraq for ten years.”
Did you kill Islamic State fighters?
He smiled. “I won’t say: ‘I killed,’ I’ll say we defended ourselves, but it’s obvious you have to shoot him before he shoots you. This is a civil war, and we have to protect our land, our villages, our history and our identity.”
I turned to talk to the female fighters. In a sane world, these young women in uniforms would be studying at university or thinking about love stories. In the reality created by the ruthlessness of the Islamic State, they each have a reason and a story of why and how they joined the fight against the forces of darkness.
Britta is a 20-year-old Arab fighter from Al-Qamishli. ISIS militants murdered her father, who wasn’t religious enough for them. She decided to leave home and volunteer with the YPG. Next to her was Kurdish fighter Rose Daar, a beautiful 20 year old with a heavy braid resting on her shoulder. She was in combat uniforms and wearing a wide-brimmed hat. On the lapel of her shirt was a pin with the photo of a young man. I asked her who it was and she said it was a friend who was killed in battle.
Did you kill ISIS fighters?
“Yes,” she answered.
I asked her if she lost any other friends. “Some of my friends were captured by the Islamic State and some were killed. One of the girls was fighting and was cut off from the rest of the force. When she was surrounded by ISIS fighters, she pulled out a grenade and blew herself up with them.”
Are you afraid of them?
And are they afraid of you?
She thought about it for a moment and smiled. “Yes, we strike fear in them.”
Tzur Shezaf talking to female Kurdish fighters.
The Islamic State militants are trying to avoid fighting the female Kurdish fighters because they believe that if they are killed by a woman, they won’t get to paradise.
The YPG girls, the women brigades fighting shoulder to shoulder with the male fighters, are mostly made up of young women, sometimes 16 or 17 years old when they join. Most of them come from poor homes. This is the revolution within the Kurdish revolution. In the conservative Kurdish society, women belong at home. In poor families, the daughters are married off young so they are not a burden on their parents. Joining the Kurdish People’s Defense Units gives these women meaning, freedom, strength and female empowerment, which could serve them in the future. Under fire, the Kurdish men are being reeducated.
One afternoon, I went to visit the jail where the Kurds hold the prisoners they take captive. A car was parking under the high concrete ceiling in the yard of the prison, and a masked Kurdish soldier was leading two blindfolded captives out of it.
The first was Salah Abdullah Fatah, a skinny man with big eyes and straight hair, 21 years old. The Kurdish guard took off his blindfold. He was an Iraqi from Mosul.
How long have you been part of ISIS?
“Since they entered Mosul.”
Why did you join them?
“Because the Islamic State entered Mosul and everyone started joining it to support Islam, and because they’re doing the right thing.”
How many mercenaries are there in Mosul?
“Thousands arrive every day,” he said. “They’re being split into divisions. They say: ‘Allahu Akbar’ and go out to fight. The fighters we joined while I was there were against the oppressing West and against the countries of Europe. We aspire to annihilate them, leave no one alive. Islam alone will rule over the entire Earth. We’re against the Christians and the Jews and against anyone who is against Islam.”
What countries did they come from?
“Egypt, Saudi, Kuwait, and some from Europe as well. There are doctors and medical specialists. There are attackers and snipers.”
Where did you fight?
“In Mosul, Tal Afar and Sinjar.”
Did you kill people?
“Yes, this is what we’ve been taught. That anyone who fights against you and tries to divert you from the path of the faith is a ‘murtad’ and has strayed from Islam.”
And will you kill a Christian or a Jew?
“Sure, we need to slaughter every Christian. Either he becomes a Muslim, or he is slaughtered.”
And a Jew as well?
“A Jew as well.”
And what if I tell you I was Jewish?
Yes, I’m Jewish.
“If you are part of the Khawarij (non-Muslims) and you don’t convert to Islam – I’ll slaughter you.”
You fought in Sinjar?
Did you take girls from there?
“Yes, we did.”
“Women. Prisoners of war.”
Why? Because they’re Yazidi?
“Yes, from the Yazidis.”
Tzur Shezaf interviews ISIS captive Laith Ahmad Mohammed.
The air in the room was so dark and stifling. Heavy. The second captive was sitting blindfolded on a chair to the side and listening to the conversation. He was blinking when the Kurdish guard removed his blindfold. His name was Laith Ahmad Mohammed. I asked him where he fought. “In Mosul, Jazaa and Al-Mashirfa.”
Did you kill anyone?
“Yes, I killed 17 people.”
What did you use?
“Just a sword. Ten in Iraq and seven in al-Jalaa. Kurds, Christians. All infidels. We say ‘Allahu Akbar’ and yalla, we behead. The sheikhs (religious clerics) came with us. They told us: This area is a Kurdish area, and it’s all filled with infidels, and there, that area of the Islamic State, is Al-Ard Al-Muqaddasah, holy land.”
He described the Islamic State whose land is holy. Everything within its borders is pure and holy – and anyone that’s outside of it – is an infidel.
Did you kill the infidels?
“Yes, I slaughtered them, beheaded them. Those who convert to Islam are not harmed.”
“Everyone is infidels.”
And the Jews?
“Infidels. The sheikhs said all of the Western countries belong to the Jews. They said ‘we’ll finish with Syria and then go to foreign countries and annihilate them.’ We won’t leave any Christians or Jews alive.”
How many were you?
“Countless. Thousands. Every day, about a thousand people would come from Western countries and from all over the world. Each in a unit from their country, calling out ‘Infidels! Infidels!’ and going out to battle.”
Where is the Islamic State getting its money?
“From Saudi Arabia, Turkey.”
And weapons as well?
“It’s all coming from abroad – support, equipment, money and weapons. Everything. We take pills and go to battle.”
“Yes. The sheikhs told us that these are pills against fear, and said: ‘You should know this blocks your brain.’ But after you take the pill, you go into battle and you don’t feel anything. They gave us money, weapons, cars, everything we asked for. But the YPG, despite the fact we took pills, beat us. The YPG fight like crazy, we had a few fights against them…”
“The guy who’s talking to you is Jewish,” said Rosan, a Kurdish journalist traveling with me.
“A Jew?” Laith Mohammed’s eyes open up.
“A Jew,” Rosan said.
“The orders about him were very clear. They told us: ‘If you catch a Jew, immediately behead him with a sword. Call out Allahu Akbar and behead him.'”
Do you want to slaughter me?
But Laith Mohammed refused to make this personal. “According to the orders of the Islamic State, those who don’t convert to Islam are beheaded with a sword, and those who do convert are not harmed.”
“They’ll be killed, they won’t live long,” Rosan said after the captives were taken back to their cells.
We returned in the dark, driving to Al-Qamishli on the narrow and cracked roads. Meeting the young captives has depressed me. I was depressed by the world they came from, which exists within the borders of the holy Islamic State, where fighters swarm to from all over the world. In the dark, I thought to myself that perhaps they have no hope and need to be killed.
For a free Kurdistan
The bodies of the fallen were laid in coffins at the mosque. Behind them was an honor guard – the men in black-and-red scarves, and the women with their heads uncovered. The fighters’ eyes were red with exhaustion and sadness. They were wearing photos of the fallen on the lapels of their shirts.
An old woman was kneeling next to one of the coffins. She wasn’t crying; just sat there with two photos of her martyred son and talked to herself, and to the coffin. “Tell the whole world that my son gave his life for the flag of Kurdistan,” she said, raising her head and looking around with eyes that did not really see anyone. “Let my enemies see that I’m proud of you, that you died a martyr’s death for Kurdistan.”
She looked up and down the crammed row of people and said: “You are all my sons. I’m not sorry that my son died a martyr’s death,” she said, hitting her chest. “Alhamdulillah! I’m proud of you, you’re full of bravery.”
Mother mourns her martyr son.
And then a voice called out through the mosque’s speakers: “Nobody shoot bullets in the air, save your bullets for your enemies.”
“Kill these dogs with your bullets!” the mother said. “I swear to God,” she told the audience without really seeing anyone, “if I wasn’t old, I’d take a rifle and go out to fight the dogs. They say we fight for the land, but we are fighting for freedom!”
The fighters lifted the coffins and carried them outside on their shoulders, cramming through the narrow iron gate. Outside, thousands were waiting.
When the funeral procession turned from the alley to a wider street, someone went up on a roof and fired a volley in salute. Along the way, people were standing and roaring: “Shahid! Shahid!” (martyr) and the funeral procession turned into a show of force for the independent Kurdish state on the way.
ISIS, the Islamic State that is trying to form a worldwide Islamic caliphate, has managed to shatter the state borders from the Sykes–Picot Agreement.
This no-border is also the rebirth of the Kurdish nation, and the Kurds are building their state based on freedom, secularity, liberty and equality. The opposite of the Islamic State. The Islamic State has turned into the liberator of the Kurds. It didn’t mean to do this, but as the Yiddish proverb says – man plans, and God laughs.