“I have never seen Japanese person here. I think you are the first Japanese journalist to cross this border,” a female officer said. I was at the Iraqi-Syrian border control in Faysh Khabur on 15 March. Although I do not believe I was actually the first Japanese person to reach there, people in a rural area in Iraqi Kurdistan looked at me as if I were, well, I was indeed, an alien. As she escorted me to a small boat with Kurdish flag flying, I left my last footprint in Iraqi Kurdistan. Most of the border between Iraq and Syria is a straight line drew on the lands, but a small part of border is separated by the Tigris River. She said I should come back before 21st March if I would go back to Iraqi Kurdistan because Newroz, the Kurdish New Year’s Day, would begin on that day. I nodded and said bye to her without knowing the life is not that simple.
The engine of the small boat roared and it finally departed. The Tigris River is famous for its importance in the world history and its length; you might think I got sick by a lengthy voyage. However, the grand old river at Faysh Khabur was just like any other normal river. This is why some Kurdish soldiers illegally cross the border so easily. In one minute or so, I reached to Syrian Kurdistan, also known as Rojava. The facility of border control was still under construction while the operation was conducted in another building next to a new one. On the hill, which those who visit Rojava would see the first, was decorated with a slogan which praises YPG and YPJ. And I will later know it is just a beginning of admiration for YPG, YPJ and Abdullah Ocalan by the Kurds in Rojava. First trip in Rojava was from Semalka, a border town with Iraqi Kurdistan, to Amude, where the media centre in Cizre Canton is located. This road trip was free of charge for journalists and I saw hundreds of signs and plates on the street which show the portraits of YPG and YPJ martyrs, soldiers and of course, Abdullah Ocalan. A political party called PYD is a Syrian branch of PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party); as YPG and YPJ are the military sections of the PYD, they also admire Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of PKK.
The Media Centre at Amude is supposed to take care of journalists, and they actually do it well. They provide interpreters for free of charge since they are paid by Rojava government; they also fix journalists up with drivers while you have to pay for the drivers as they are not officers but chosen from civilians. Over all, Rojava is very friendly to the journalists—because it wants the world to know the situation of the region and spread its propaganda. It is nearly a tour agency for foreign journalists; I would call it a propaganda tour though. The administration office in Amude issued me a one-month visa in Rojava and other permission documents, and I ended up in a hotel on this day.
On the next day, a YPG colonel, translator, driver and I went to Shaddadi, where the ISIS had its control just one month ago. Most buildings in the city were either completely destroyed or had severe damages due to the coalition air strikes, ground operations and car bomb attacks; every shutter of remaining shopping arcades was sprayed with the emblem of ISIS and bullet scars. The former religious police headquarters of ISIS left nothing but its gate; the rest was all in debris; in addition, amazingly, it still smelt something burning even though the collapse and fire of the building was at latest one month ago. In the rocks and sands, there was considerable amount of equipment left by the terrorists: flags, RPGs, helmets, gas masks, tactical vests, backpacks and so on. Something worth mentioning is a gas mask; we found one of the strong evidences of the fact that ISIS uses chemical weapons. Meanwhile, there were some small jails for prisoners. All eight of them stank because of poor management of toilets inside. Each of them has a space of around 20 to 30 square metres while we do not know how many persons were imprisoned per room.
Just five-minute walking from the ruin of ISIS religious police station, there used to be a bakery factory which was mistakenly bombed and destroyed by the Russian air strikes with dozens killed. One wall was completely collapsed and the building formed distorted triangle. Ahmad, one of the locals, explained that the factory had nothing to do with ISIS but the coalition air strike bombed it and killed more than ten employees working there. “Even now, there is a body under the debris,” he added. They showed us a part of a dead body from a relatively small hole and Ahmad said, “since the liberation of this city just one month ago, the Rojava government has not yet given us helps. We have no means to take this body out only with manpower. Shaddadi needs support, support from the world.” The faces of the locals were covered with grief and despair.
There were some houses in front of the factory. Ismail, a YPG colonel attending us, told me that these houses were supposed to be homes of civilians from the Central Asia like Chechnya, but ISIS expelled them and formed one of these houses to home-made bomb factory to hide from the coalition air strikes. We passed through the gate of the former ISIS home-made bomb factory, which exactly looked like a normal civilian’s home. “See,” the colonel said and I looked back. “That’s a booby trap. Don’t you ever touch it, it does still work as an explosive device,” he warned us. A black plastic bag coiled around with gummed tapes was put against the gate with a prop taken off from the door. It was designed to explode when some poor guy open the door without notice, but fortunately, someone who entered here first seems wise enough to check the traps before. Even though the appearance of the house was totally normal, the scene inside the house was far from normal. The room was filled with gasoline cans, other blue canisters with label reading “flammable liquid”, flashing paper, small steel pellets, bags of sawdust, and so on. On a shelf, there were loads of various chemicals in bottles. The colonel explained me that terrorists made TNT explosives in this house. However, judging from the variety and amount of chemicals and other explosives or flammable materials at the site, it is natural to assume that the terrorists produced various bombs. “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t smoke here,” I said to an interpreter who lit a cigarette in the middle of house. “Yallah, let’s get out of here.” Sometimes, nicotine is more important than life for smokers. We left the underground bomb factory while smoking.
The next place we headed was a former prison of ISIS, which was often used for Yazidis. Currently, the facility is being reformed into a police station of Asayish (police organisation in Rojava) and it strongly smelt of paint due to redecoration. The floor space of each room was only approximately ten square metres; and yet at most five persons were put within a room, according to an Asayish officer there. The windows were so small it did not really take in sunlight and were not openable; the atmosphere inside prison was extremely heavy and musty. My camera had to open its shutter for almost one second to take a sharp picture. The place was supposed to be a prison, but it did not have many cells; the reason why there were only a few rooms was because most prisoners immediately got executed. Right next to these cells, there was a room which was relatively large and bright. “This room was for execution,” an Asayish officer said with a gesture of shooting, and clicking his tongue. In brief, the prisoners were forced to hear the gunshot of other prisoners right next to their cells every day. Fearing that tomorrow might be their turn, their nightmare would become the reality.
In this connection, none of us knew how to go to the prison at first. Therefore, we recruited a local guide then. Ibrahim, a guide, was an Arab and said he cooperated with YPG with full support. “There are many Arab citizens who cooperate with or even join us,” a YPG colonel said. It is a fact that quite a few Arabs support YPG because they suffered from ISIS rules. “It’s not about blood, it’s about freedom and dignity,” Ibrahim smiled. After he left, we drove for a while and arrived at the next site. However, during walking around the ruin of a welding factory surrounded by a possible mine field, Ismail came to me and said, “ISIS has launched an attack against YPG near here. We must leave.” Indeed, I had heard some gunshots while walking. Looking at many marks of ISIS on streets’ wall out of the corner of my eyes, we left Shaddadi. Even after I had done with the day at a hotel in Qamishlo, the scene of full destruction and the faces of locals in Shaddadi never went out of my head.
In the following morning, I left for Kobane, which is probably the most famous town of Rojava because of the worldwide-reported siege by ISIS in the late 2014. During five-hour drive from Qamishlo, I found many interesting factors in the highway. Alongside the highway, I sometimes found burnt cars broken to pieces. “Daesh,” the driver said. “These are car bombs set by ISIS.” During the road trip on this day, we found around ten of them. In addition, the highway was studded with Turkish border military observatories; no, they were not border police stations but observatory posts of Turkish army and this is how Turkey blocks refugees from Syria. Outrageously, there were even several tanks although the situation along the border between Syria and Turkey is now stable. It was maybe because Turkey wants to exhibit its military equipment for PKK, who illegally cross the border on a daily basis. However, being in Kurdistan, both Rojava and Bashur, I learnt that Kurds would never lose their nerves; instead, they would proudly fly Kurdish flags and shout, “biji Kurd u Kurdistan!”
Nearly six hours after the departure, I finally arrived in Kobane. This town is so small you can walk around the whole places just within one or two days; however, during the siege battle of Kobane in 2014 and 2015, Kurds resisted against ISIS with greatly tough determination and forces. “This street,” Muhammad, a local interpreter and guide, said, “was the very front line, splitting the YPG-controlled area and ISIS-controlled area.” Indeed, all the walls on both sides of the street were full of bullet scars. It sounds like very special place. But later, I notice bullet scars are everywhere in the town and they are not special only here. Besides, people are living and running businesses as if there is nothing wrong. Peace now prevails in the town and everything seems to be normal like any other rural towns in the Middle East—except destructions.
We reached a roundabout named Qada Azadi (Freedom Square). Around the rotary, some rusty mortars and canons are displayed. “This is something like open-sky museum. This one is small one but the larger one is over there,” Muhammad said. After a-few-minute walking, we arrived at the site. “Whole area here is going to be a museum.” What I saw was a small district which was severely damaged. Many buildings no longer had walls due to the combat and stood only by columns. It was a ghost town. “This used to be my home,” Muhammad said and pointed at a ruin of house. “So, your home will become a part of museum?” I asked. “Yes. But there will be no support from the government [of Rojava],” he nodded and sighed. “I spent a lot of money to build my home. It was destroyed because of the fight, but it’s acceptable, [because that was a] fight for freedom. But I can’t accept that the government takes my home and land with no return. I continuously protest against the government, but every time, they don’t listen,” he said. “We are now at war, so we must be united into one. But if this [senseless act of the Rojava government] continues, there will be another revolution.”
I stayed in Kobane for a week and walked around the town from one end to another end. As it had been more than a year since it was liberated from ISIS, there were sometimes buildings under construction or reforming; however, the majority of houses and facilities remained destroyed with little or no repair. A few wrecks slanted and it seemed miracle that they still stood. Near Qada Azadi, there was another roundabout with a large white statue. Two burnt tanks were displayed and they became toys for children. The statue was named “Monument of Resistance” and sent from Sulemaniyah Governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan as an admiration for the resistance to the invasion of ISIS. In fact, however, what Kobane needs is not a statue but humanitarian aids such as constructional materials, medical supports like counselling for the inhabitants with PTSD, and educational backups, for instance, schools, teachers and even opportunities. It still lay unclear if the monument was a hope for recovery and victory for the citizens, or just a waste of money.
The Media Centre in Kobane offers international journalists interpreters as well as drivers and permissions, but the charges for the interpreters are not free unlike the one in Amude. “We used to take no money from journalists, but now the situation is worse,” Muhammad shrugged. “I work as a teacher for Kurdish language and the income is 60 to 70 dollar a month. I can’t feed my family with this little money,” he added. The building of the Media Centre in Kobane was totally overspread with bullet scars while most glass windows were replaced with new ones. The walls surrounding the facility also had a lot of holes and most of them were barely made up with blocks and rocks. Eventually, if there were few people in the town, I would have believed the battle just ended one week ago. In other words, since January 2015, almost nothing seems to proceed in Kobane in terms of the constructional aspect. The people, however, have come back to their home town and are leading normal lives in the ruins. Men enjoy tea and chats on the street with Kalashnikov, women shop for groceries in wrecked markets, boys play on abandoned tanks, girls play house on a carpet printed with “UNHCR”. An ordinary life in the unordinary sight—this is Kobane.
(To be continued)