As the SUV bounced down the rocky slope towards the Tigris river, the truck’s headlights illuminated a small inflatable boat churning through the current towards us. I dumped my bags on the ground and waited for my turn to make the clandestine river crossing from Iraqi Kurdistan into the newly liberated region of Kurdish Syria called Rojava.
I was surrounded by teenage kids, the next generation of Kurdish freedom fighters. The previous generation had been wiped out by the ISIS meat grinder in places like Rabbia, Jezza, and Kobani. Hardcore guerrillas who had fought in the Turkish mountains for 12 years were sent to Rojava and killed within a year. Rojava is running out of fighters and ISIS, referred to as the Daash, are not. The teenagers are being sent up the front to fight and die for a country which does not yet exist.
These boy soldiers are not conscripted. They volunteered to fight.
Climbing into the raft, I crossed the river and found myself in a surreal new land. Some of this land had only been ridden of Daash a month or two prior. This region was now a part of Rojava, a place that did not really exist as an idea much less as a country until a few years ago as the Syria civil war opened up a front for Kurdish nationalism in what had been northern Syria.
This war is nothing like what I saw in Iraq in 2005 or 2009. The combat is conventional, armed forces squared off in mostly urban centers where they have reached stalemates. This has become a status quo battlefield, occasionally broken by US airstrikes or bold offensives. Urban combat is vicious and often house to house. Snipers and heavy machine guns duel with each other and casualty rates are astronomically high on both sides.
Driving down the road with a YPG (People’s Protection Unit) commander the next morning, he comments on the school children smiling and waving at him from the streets.
“The people here love us,” he says referring to the YPG. “Because we fought for every single inch of this.”
In Rojava, Muslims, Christians, Yezidi, and the socialists of YPG and YPJ co-exist with each other peacefully. They also fight a ruthless war against the Daash, a war in which female snipers wearing US Marine Corps camouflage kill Daash fighters who refuse to die as they have been injecting a combination of heroin and morphine. After racking up impressive kill counts they hang up their Dragonov rifles to read books about philosophy and politics.
They are fighting and dying for a dream called Rojava, an ancient dream of Kurdish autonomy blended with socialist ideology.
The sacrifices the Kurds are making for Rojava is impossible to calculate and as much as it hurts to says this, I’m not sure if they can win.