I heard the 12.7mm gunshots reverberate across the abandoned buildings throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Shot after shot rang out from the lot outside the abandoned warehouse next to the apartment building I stayed in with the YPG. Eventually, curiosity got the best of me. It did not appear to be one of the YPJ or YPG sniper units doing the shooting, because I was staying with them.

We were right next to what had once been the border between Syria and Iraq. Now, that border was irrelevant. It was part of Rojava now, since the YPG had captured Rabbia from Daash months prior. Making my way from what had been luxury apartment buildings, through some rubble, and to the abandoned industrial park, I was overcome by a creepy vibe, as if I had entered some kind of post-apocalyptic world.

When I got to the shooters, I found about seven of them firing locally manufactured 12.7mm sniper rifles. They were made using DShK barrels and an action and trigger mechanism built in one of Rojava’s weapons factories. I walked up to the group and began shaking their hands. One of them was about six foot five and built like a brick shit house.

When I shook his hand and said hello, he just grunted something and moved along, clearly trying to disguise what he clearly was—a European foreign fighter who had volunteered to fight with the Kurds. He was joined by another European-looking troop who I didn’t get to meet. I was later told that they had been overheard speaking in what sounded like a Scandinavian language.

What struck me as odd was that they were spending the morning and afternoon shooting large-caliber sniper rifles at the side of a warehouse only 50 or so meters away. After taking a few shots to zero the rifle, there was next to no training value in shooting a target at 50 meters. With a 12.7mm rifle, you can’t miss at that range. It was either a total clown show or they were testing the rifles and scopes for reliability.

The abandoned warehouse where I encountered some foreign snipers on "special assignment." They quickly drove away after I tried to talk to them.
The abandoned warehouse where I encountered some foreign snipers on “special assignment.” They quickly drove away after I tried to talk to them.

Another member of the group approached me, an English-speaking Kurd with a mole on one cheek near his eye and shoulder-length black hair. The first thing he told me was “no pictures” as he noticed the camera I had around my neck.  After agreeing, he then told me that he and his team were on a “special assignment.” I struggled to remain professional and not laugh. He than asked me to leave, which I also agreed to. He escorted me away, asking about who I was and if I had met Jordan, another foreign volunteer with the YPG.

At the time, I hadn’t met him. But I would soon.

Rojava’s Foreign Fighters

Arriving at a training compound, I walked up to the fourth floor of one of the buildings where I was told I could find American and other foreign fighters. Knocking on some doors, I quickly found the three foreigners I was looking for. All were very polite and welcomed me inside. They offered me the ultra-light cigarettes that are as ubiquitous as the AK-47 in Rojava. We all joked that we would die from lung cancer before Daash ever got the chance to shoot us.