Photos by Andy Spyra and Younes Mohammad. Text by Andy Spyra.
In early October this year Younes and I left Erbil, the Kurdish capital of northern Iraq, heading straight to the border crossing at Fish Khabour, located in the triangle between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Six hours later we arrived to see dozens of Syrian refugees standing at the checkpoint on the Iraqi side, waiting for approval to cross back into Syria. They were from Syrian refugee camps like Domiz or Kawargosk, where they sought shelter, along with another approximately two hundred thousand Syrian-Kurdish refugees, when the fighting intensified between the Kurdish YPG militia and Islamist groups like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front.
Now, about two months after the fighting saw its zenith, the rebels of the YPG were able to establish a situation of relative stability that allowed the Syrian-Kurds to return to their homes. After having spent months in the dusty refugee camps on the Iraqi side, people were happy to be able to return.
Two month earlier, Younes and I had been photographing these very refugees who had fled the fighting and crossed into Iraq. At that time we were documenting (at the same Syrian-Iraqi border we now used ourselves to cross into Syria) the influx of tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees into Iraqi-Kurdistan. As we followed them into the camps to document their new life in exile, we also wanted to see for ourselves what it was that had made them leave their homes and what was now left of Rojava, the Kurdish name for the Kurdish territories of Syria.
After crossing the border river Tigris, the first place we reached was Derek, or al-Malikiyah (its Arabic name). Derek is a small town, tucked away in Syria’s far northeastern corner, almost too isolated to be reached by the war raging in other parts of the country.
We were given a tour around town by some local youth. We passed the churches, stopped at Christian liquor stores with bottles of Jack Daniels on the shelves, and finally went to a Syrian restaurant where we had the best dinner in months. War, it seemed, was far, far away.
That changed drastically the next day. Early in the morning, we set off to Qamishli, driven by a member of the new formed Asayish, the Syrian-Kurdish police force, whose AK-47 was with him, and us, all the time.
After passing dozens of checkpoints manned by the YPG, we finally reached Qamishli, where we were not allowed to photograph, let alone get out of the car. The situation was tense, since in Qamishli there are still Assad forces and we had entered Syria, in the eyes of the regime, illegally.
But de-facto control over most parts of the city was in the hands of the Asayish, and as their “guests” we were given free passage. We reached our temporary destination, the so called “media office” of the PYD, the most powerful Kurdish political party in Syria.
We were watched as we smoked our cigarettes on the balcony. Surely Assad’s forces were no longer controlling the city, but for sure the mukhabarat did know quite well who was in town and why.
Leaving Qamishli, we set off to Ra’s al-‘Ayn, the frontline city at that time. The place was taken from the Islamists only a month before and signs of open warfare were everywhere. Ra’s al-‘Ayn was in rubble, churches were desecrated by the Islamists, bullet and shrapnel holes everywhere. Still, people were cautiously reopening their shops while the refugees, and with them life itself, were slowly returning.
We followed a group of YPG fighters to the actual frontline, which happened to be located just parallel to the Syrian-Turkish border. We crouched along the trenches photographing exchanges of heavy machine gun fire between the rebels and al-Nusra. We could not help but think how surreal this situation felt. A two-meter border fence between Syria and Turkey, only ten meters to our right, was the division between war and peace.
The fighting eventually subsided and we spent the night in the command center of the YPG rebels in Ra’s al-‘Ayn. Tea, chat, cigarettes, eat, sleep. The rebel-treat.
The next day we set off to some other frontlines around Ra’s al-‘Ayn. We were led out into an open field, where the dead bodies of two al-Nusra fighters were rotting in the open sun. They had been lying there for about ten days already and the stench of decomposing flesh was almost unbearable. They had been killed in the fighting and for reasons unknown to us, were not included in the usual dead-bodies exchange between the YPG and the Islamists, which happens to be facilitated by local, neutral, Arab families.
Continuing our frontline tour, we saw more destruction, more checkpoints, and made more stops at rebel bases for tea, chat, and cigarettes. We found most of the YPG militia to be pretty young, most of them barely twenty years old. Many of those we met came straight from their university campuses to the frontline. The reasons we heard for joining the YPG militia were all the same: to defend their land and the Kurdish idea. Coming from a society that is driven by individualistic and material interests, I found the thought of giving your life for an idea bigger than yourself, in its anachronistic manner, a quite remarkable and impressive point of view.
With these impressions we left the western end of Rojava and went back to Derek, where we spent the last night before crossing back into Iraq the next morning.