KURDISH FRONT LINE, ONE KILOMETER FROM BASHIQA – “This is for France” Alan Duncan says as he fires several bullets towards ISIS through a small hole between sandbags. His Dragunov sniper rifle is covered with camouflage, and the UK-born marksman seems in his element.
Our position overlooks ISIS-held Bashiqa, which is only 17km from Mosul. This is the closest you can get to Iraq’s second-largest city, for this is the heartland of ISIS.
It is a bitingly hot 44 degrees on the front line, where Kurds have been fighting ISIS for two years. In that time, ISIS grew from unleashing massacres on people in Syria and northern Iraq to threatening the whole world. This war has brought together numerous Kurdish groups and minorities who were persecuted, all to the same front line. For Kurds and foreign volunteers like Duncan, what they do here can save the world from terrorism.
An unpaid volunteer who fund-raises for night vision equipment and binoculars to aid the Kurds in their war, Duncan – who fought in the first Gulf War and in Northern Ireland – says his daily life here as a sniper is devoted to standing beside all the victims of ISIS.
But this little corner of the conflict that symbolizes the international commitment to fight ISIS also reveals the lack of basic resources available to those who are doing most of the fighting: the Kurds. Some of these men – who haven’t been paid in months – are hoping a new US agreement with the KRG will bring them more financial and weapon support.
It appears as if this little group of Kurdish men and their lone foreign volunteer are located at the end of the world.
These fighters who volunteered with the Peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government, discuss their family life while sipping tea and smoking. Food consists of rice and a bit of tomato puree, and is made in a small concrete bunker to protect against mortars. Some HESCO barriers abut the rear of the trench line. Nearby, a unit of Iranian-Kurdish men with the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) man a second part of the position, with a giant ditch in front to prevent attacks by ISIS-built vehicles laden with explosives.
Conversations here are interrupted by mortar fire from ISIS. A distant boom signals incoming fire. A few of the men duck their heads under a concrete enclosure for protection, but most stand close to the sandbags and await the impact.
A few minutes’ drive from the exposed front-line position is the local brigade headquarters. At night the drivers turn the lights off so as not to attract ISIS snipers and mortars. It’s unsettling driving out of the trenches and thinking some Chechen sniper with ISIS is looking through his scope at you. Hopefully that’s not the case tonight.
The commander of this front is much loved by his soldiers and admired in Kurdistan. An imposing, tall figure, he doesn’t wear any rank on his sleeve – like so many here in the war on ISIS, lack of heavy weapons, military pay and standardized uniforms is balanced by camaraderie and devotion to defending the land.
“This is our Kurdish land, and we won’t go anywhere,” says the general. “I was a refugee for 20 years in Iran after 1975, so I wouldn’t ever leave.”
A soldier for 25 years, his life is tied to the Kurdish struggle.
“There are many who sacrificed for this country,” he says. “We have a right to our home like all peoples. Iraq violated the rules, it broke the contract. Now Iraq will be three parts: Shia, one for Sunni [Arabs] and [one part] Kurdish. We cannot live together.”
This is the view of most men serving here. When ISIS is defeated, Kurdistan will have carved its way through war and stand one step closer to sovereignty.
On one wall of the headquarters greeting tent is a scale model of the battle. Kurdish forces are represented by toy action-figures and little signs, ISIS by the black flag. A large plastic jet plane is stuck to a hillside indicating the coalition air support. Eventually these Kurdish forces intend to sweep down from these hills, take Bashiqa, and move towards Mosul. The commander says he is just awaiting orders to do so.
But there are pressing concerns here about day to day life.
Jonathan Rieth, 39, a medic who was trained as an EMT and served in the Michigan State Guard, came here to provide medical assistance to the Kurds. Refugees, some walking for 45 kilometers at a time, keep coming through the Kurdish lines. Those receiving them tell stories of people escaping ISIS and tearing up at seeing the Kurdish tricolor flag that represents freedom from the Jihadists. Reith has provided aid to some of these people, but he says that whether it is treating bullet wounds from battle or helping elderly people, basic medical training and equipment is missing here and in the rear areas. He shows photos of a hospital in Bardarash, a town 20 minutes away, with basic items such as IVs being in short supply.
With news from France and the attempted coup in Turkey making its way to the front lines, there is a feeling of normalcy here. A water truck delivers water. Breakfast and dinner comes and goes. Mountains of cigarettes and gallons of tea are consumed. Guns are hung up or laid gingerly on the floor in one of the few air conditioned caravans. One Kurdish man has caught a bunch of wasps in a bottle, and Rieth is busy explaining how large camel spiders can grow. With ISIS kept in check by vigilance, these vicious creatures sometimes seem of greater concern.
For Duncan, the moments of peace here – watching a sunset or having tea, or looking out over the flickering lights of Mosul and ISIS – are surreal. There is no other word to describe it.