BASHIQ, Iraqi Kurdistan – It is two kilometers to the nearest ISIS position here in northern Iraq and Peshmerga Gen. Bahram Yasin regularly welcomes journalists to his unit’s base camp of operations. An Iraqi news crew will stop by to video the general, following the progress of any liberated villages or welcomed refugees. A freelance photographer from Holland and a videographer from Brazil have stayed several nights at the camp. Two nights earlier, they were on hand to document Peshmerga receiving over 200 refugees, Iraqis fleeing their homes in villages close to Mosul as the days march closer to an offensive on Iraq’s second largest city, which has been under the control of ISIS since 2014.
Peshmerga (“Those Who Confront Death”) are the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The general – a 25-year Peshmerga veteran – still has a youthful appearance. He’s trim, but his edges are somewhat soft. He carries himself with quiet dignity, and the respect his men show him is enough proof of his power and stature.
Stationed northeast of Mosul, Yasin is in charge of a smattering of defensive firing positions manned by a combination of his own Peshmerga units, PAK (Kurdistan Freedom Party) Iranian Kurdish volunteers, and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) militia fighters. Further support is given by coalition air strikes – the general stresses the importance and efficacy of the air strikes – and Turkish artillery along the front line that routinely answer Islamic State mortar fire with tank shells. A Sunni militia is stationed nearby, its ranks made up of young refugee men from minority groups who fled Mosul – their own tragedy compounded by the fact that ISIS murdered their family members.
“The situation has changed because of our alliance with other Peshmerga forces,” the general explains through a translator. “The Peshmerga are ready to attack ISIS position because ISIS morale is very low.”
It’s World War I trench-style warfare and the Peshmerga are defending a 1,000 kilometer front line. In the valleys they shoot the enemy from earthen berms; they dig trenches laced with barbed wire in front of their positions to stop the enemy. In the hills and mountains – like Bashiq – the Peshmerga carve themselves into the hillside. They reinforce their positions with rock-filled sandbags; they sleep in concrete bunkers. But they take care not to forget what they’re fighting for. Pockets of beauty break up the monotony of the desert. At Yasin’s base, a water truck comes in every morning and soldiers take turns watering decorative plants and a small garden. Ivy creeps up the side of the general’s sleeping quarters.
The general’s position in northern Iraq is of great strategic importance. His units are embedded in the hillside, rising up at intervals, stretching toward the looming Bashiqa mountain. ISIS – stationed in the valley below – usually attacks with mortar fire, snipers, suicide bombings and cars laden with explosives.
The general laments his fighters’ lack of advanced weaponry. Many Peshmerga say that they bring or buy their own weapons, with the most popular being Soviet-era Kalashnikovs and, more rare, AK-47s or M16s. Many of the men under the general’s command are veterans of previous wars against the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein. They fought for survival for themselves and their people. Today is no different. Some of the more advanced American- made weapons are taken from killed ISIS fighters – these weapons were originally supplied to the Iraqi army and seized by ISIS during their 2014 blitz of the country.
However, on July 7, a significant step forward in supplying the Peshmerga took place with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the US and the Kurdistan Regional Government. This memorandum will allow the US to offer direct military and financial assistance to the Kurds without first going through Baghdad. The signing followed a surprise visit by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to Erbil, a significant show of support for the Kurds that is independent of the US support for Baghdad. The Kurdistan Regional Government maintains that Baghdad withholds military and financial aid meant for Kurdistan, yet a spokesman for the international coalition in Iraq said that international assistance is divided proportionally among the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army, and that all equipment is handed over after completion of an eight-week course; time that – while necessary – can bottleneck the supply of goods. The spokesman said 8,000 Peshmerga have already gone through the training course.
AS THE fight against ISIS marks its second year, all eyes are on Mosul. The Peshmerga defensive position extends in a wide semicircle surrounding the majority Sunni city, with a population of around 1.7 million. It’s the Islamic militant group’s de facto capital in Iraq (their Syrian capital is Raqqa). In December 2015, the Peshmerga secured a significant strategic and symbolic victory when they retook the western city of Sinjar, cutting off the main road from Raqqa to Mosul. Sinjar is also a testament to the extent of ISIS’s brutality; it committed genocide against the area’s Yazidi population. They murdered the men and kidnapped the women, selling them off as wives to ISIS fighters, routinely raping and torturing them.
The Peshmerga have been the most successful of Iraq’s fractured groups – Sunni and Shi’a militias and the Iraqi army – in pushing back ISIS. But it will take all parties involved, including help by coalition air strikes – to retake Mosul.
The groups are slowly and steadily making inroads. In the beginning of June, Peshmerga, in coordination with Kakai fighters (a minority group in Iraq), liberated nine Kakai villages from ISIS. These villages will help reinforce the next line of defense in the continued push for Mosul. Yet progress is tedious. ISIS both destroyed and rigged with explosives the majority of homes and the roads. Peshmerga need to painstakingly identify and defuse these improvised explosive devices. Peshmerga say that families, who tried to return to their homes to survey the damage and salvage any positions, were killed when IEDs rigged to a ceiling fan or in a refrigerator exploded. Peshmerga are dying as they try to clear the minefields left behind.
A FEW minutes’ drive down the road from General Yasin’s encampment, Peshmerga and PAK fighters overlook an ISIS outpost. At this point, the distance is only 800 meters to the enemy. Hajjar, 25, is the commander of a group of male and female PAK Iranian-Kurdish fighters volunteering with the Peshmerga. Almost all of them were born in the Kurdish-majority southern part of Iran and fled because of persecution or to avoid conscription in the Iranian military.
“The internal situation is very bad… the government of Iran are like terrorists,” Hajjar says. All of these PAK fighters are at least 10 or 15 years younger than the Iraqi-Peshmerga fighters that fight under Gen. Yasin. Hajjar points to the soldiers, “They can never go back to Iran. Iran’s government is run by a dictator; they help terrorism all over the world. They are the enemy of humanity… Iran and ISIS are the same.”
When they’re not standing at attention, the soldiers sling their rifles over their shoulders and those peering through the sandbag blinds scope out movement of ISIS fighters. Laid out in one area are collectibles from ISIS: exploded mortars, RPGs and improvised Katyusha rockets. Better, a PAK female fighter mans an ISIS-captured up-armored truck, a Soviet made DShK heavy machine gun mounted on its bed.
This unit of PAK arrived in 2014, shortly after ISIS started its sweep through Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. They wear two patches on their uniforms, insignia of their PAK unit, and the Iraqi-Kurdish flag, the red, white, green tricolor with a yellow sun. Eight members of their unit – one woman and seven men – were killed fighting ISIS. Their portraits hang in their bunker.
In broken English, Hajjar explains that PAK are Kurdish nationalists first, and it makes sense for them to volunteer in the fight against ISIS. “My party is nationalistic, we’re liberal. Daesh [ISIS] is not democratic and against humans all over the world.”
Hajjar says they will continue to align themselves with the Peshmerga even after the fall of ISIS because “all of Kurdistan should be united. We came here to support Peshmerga and kill the enemy, we want Kurdistan to be one part and not four,” he says referring to Kurdish populations spread out over Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Hajjar’s commanding officer, Erdelan Xosrewi, comes over to meet us. He smiles when he meets my colleague, Seth Frantzman, because he recognizes him from Twitter. Xosrewi says he follows both Facebook and Twitter because the Islamic Republic of Iran changes which social network it blocks at any given time. We post a photo of his soldiers on the social network and tag him in the post. Later, I’ll see that he retweeted the post.
THE SUN is setting and artillery salvos are increasing. ISIS fires a mortar towards the Peshmerga. A Turkish tank-shell responds and the Peshmerga shoot off a round of ammunition. The PAK women fighters are ushered into a cement bunker to wait out the fighting. Despite the socialist nature of the PAK and its integration of female fighters, their participation in fighting is infrequent. Inside the bunker, the only light source comes from the open doorway; they pass around tea and sugar cubes, gossip in excited voices and sing a song to pass the time. They are maybe a dozen women, mostly below the age of 25. They carry Kalashnikovs and wear sneakers without socks, better to slip on and off going in and out of the carpeted bunker. A mortar explodes in the distance. “Over to Daesh,” one woman mimes. Another mortar explosion – too close – vibrates the bunker. “Daesh to Peshmerga,” she reverses her hand motion.
THE SKY has turned a deep, dark blue. Constellations take form, despite the bright light of the moon. Slightly above the PAK camp, Peshmerga fighters recline on thin sheets of plywood covered by polyester blankets. They make patrols, but more than that, they wait for time to pass.
Everyone present has been serving in this position for a full two years. With the slow pace of war, long stretches of nothing interrupted by short bursts of excitement, it’s an incredibly long time to have this be someone’s life. Almost all of the fighters have families – wives, husbands and children. They pass around their cell phones and share photos of their loved ones. The standard rotations here are 20 days on duty, 10 days off; but some volunteer more time at the front line. Their salaries are sporadic, going for months on end without pay. Yet, they’re bolstered by their sense of duty. The mantra is: “If we don’t fight for our land, where are we supposed to go?”
Around 4 a.m. the dark blue of night is beginning to recede. A “pop pop pop” of artillery can be heard in the distance. A Peshmerga fighter standing guard at the sandbag fence is relieved from his post. He’ll go catch a few hours of sleep. Somewhere in the compound the journalists stir – rumors of refugees arriving in the night had us sleeping in shifts. If refugees came, one journalist would go wake the others; someone else goes to boil a pot of tea.
A “boom” is heard in the distance. A few minutes later, a mortar explodes nearby.
The day starts again.
IT’S AROUND 10 a.m. when the rest of the camp wakes up. Even at this hour the heat is steadily climbing over 40º. The men gather in the dining tent for breakfast – flat bread, yogurt and sugary tea. The camp is outfitted with Wi- Fi, although the signal isn’t strong, and Kurdish news plays on a flat screen TV hung from the roof of the tent.
It’s on this TV we follow the news of the terrorist attack in Nice, France, that took place the night before. On the promenade of the seaside city, a Tunisian man – allegedly inspired by Islamic State – mowed down revelers and tourists with a refrigerator truck. He murdered 84 people and wounded over 300. Just minutes before, these people were enjoying a firework display in celebration of Bastille Day.
Back at the dining table, with mortar rounds from ISIS as background noise, we are all horrified at the news. One year earlier I strolled along that same promenade visiting my friend who lives in Nice. It was a beautiful, peaceful and relaxing day.
But now I’m frantically trying to get Internet on my phone, to send off an email to check if my friend is safe. I run out of the tent trying to find a signal and I survey my surroundings. How is it here, at a military outpost in Iraqi-Kurdistan facing off against Islamic State, that the safety of my friends, thousands of kilometers away, is more in question than mine?
We can turn our heads and see the enemy, and we curse them for what they’ve done to the world.