I woke up early in the morning and pushed the heavy blankets off of me, trying to use the cold to wake myself up a bit. The Kurdish fighter I had met the night before had already left, but his AK-47 was still propped in the corner of the room. I began the daily ritual that the PKK members who live in the camp had probably repeated every day for the past 10 or 20 years.
Hobbling uphill a bit, I made my way to the latrine. It was a basin set into a cement foundation under a leaky roof. Because I’m taller than most Kurds, I had to hunch over while relieving myself, or my forehead would be pushing up the cardboard and plastic sheets that served as a ceiling. Next, I headed down to the hut that served as a commons area and chow hall.
I sat down next to a PKK fighter who greeted me warmly. He told me his name was Haider, which means “lion.” It is a common war name for the Kurdish fighters. He was a radio operator and repairman who described himself as a “freedom soldier.” Soon, a few more PKK soldiers stepped into the mess hall and we shook hands. I have to say, they struck me as pretty bad-ass dudes. They were tall and rugged, with giant bushy mustaches. The skill sets that PKK soldiers have are very interesting. They are trained to conduct guerilla warfare, or as we would call it, unconventional warfare. However, they are also trained to cook, indoctrinated with political ideology, and, as this PKK member showed me as he fixed our satellite television, know about electronics.
In a sense, they struck me as more well-rounded soldiers than American troops who receive highly specific military occupational specialties (MOS). That said, I’m glad that American troops don’t receive political training, as that just isn’t our way. Of course, direct comparisons between American soldiers and PKK fighters will always fall short. In so many ways, there is no comparison. U.S. soldiers serve the national interests of their country and are a reflection of American culture. PKK members consider themselves to be part of a socialist revolution, which is also deeply steeped in Kurdish nationalism.
As I prepared to make the trip from Kurdistan to Syria, a young woman sat down with me to write out my visa for my entry to Rojava. It was done on a small piece of notebook paper and was written with a ballpoint pen. I was also given a war name—“jakdaw”— basically meaning rifle. Like the other PKK members, she asked me if I was going to Rojava to fight. I kept having to clarify that I was just a writer. Suffice to say that I was taking a highly unusual route into Rojava, as all the journalists simply cross the bridge while traveling on their passports. I was on the underground railroad.
The visa was to be flown across the border via pigeon. No, really.
That night we were driven out to the border crossing. On the way, we picked up an American named Peter Douglass. He was a 66-year-old Canadian who had lived in Germany for 10 years and had worked an assortment of odd jobs. He was quite adamant about wanting to fight ISIS, figuring that he only had another 10 years or so before he had a stroke or developed dementia, so he had to go get his licks in before it was too late.
Also with me in the car were four teenagers who had been turned into refugees when ISIS took over Kobani. Without any hope or future living in Kurdistan as refugees, they had decided to go and fight with the YPG to take back their hometown. The driver played patriotic Kurdish music from the tape deck during the entire ride, which kept the young men amped up. They really wanted to go and mix it up. Sadly, I’m sure they are all dead now.
Driving down some dusty roads, we finally made it to the river crossing. As we approached, the headlights illuminated a small inflatable raft already crossing the Tigris. We were near the tri-border region between several actual states and non-states. Kurdistan, Rojava (formerly Syria), and Turkey. We unloaded, and I was on the first “lift” across the river. Tossing my rucksack inside the raft, I sat on the side as we pushed off into the cold waters. I knew enough from Ranger School to never wear my ruck during maritime operations. If you fall over the side, your ruck will drag you straight to the bottom if it is not waterproofed.
The small electric engine purred, and we churned our way across the river to a new country, one with new possibilities and a very uncertain future.