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Mazlum lay on the hospital bed, covered in fur blankets. Hanging sheets separated the cramped beds of the Emergency room. His deep, tanned skin was pale, and ashen, his eyes were shut, with one fist resting on his forehead. From where I stood at the foot of his bed, I could see that there were two bandages on his neck, one on each side from where the Islamic State (known to the world as ISIS or ISIL, but locally called Daesh) bullet had entered and exited during that morning’s attack.
He was one of the Kurdish fighters that frequently snuck over the Turkish-Syrian border to fight in Kobane. For two months, the Kurdish fighters had been in Kobane, surrounded on three sides by the extremist terrorist group, their only safety was the Turkish border to their north.
That morning, he and his comrades were ambushed when ISIS attacked from inside Turkey, crossing the border into Syria and detonating a military truck full of explosives. That day, the Kurdish fighters were attacked from all sides.
I was there with Mazlum’s cousin, Mehmet, who had paced around outside the hospital, carrying blankets, offering support to friends, making phone calls and, at one point, even breaking up a fight as the tense crowd spilled over into the street.
“Mazlum! Mazlum!” said Mehmet, “Tu çawa yî?” How are you?
No sooner had we spoken to him, than a Turkish Police officer began to shove us from Mazlum’s bed side. In all the cities in Turkey, near the Syrian border, the police forbid journalists from interviewing Kurdish fighters being treated for the wounds they received while fighting ISIS in Kobane, Syria. This was not the first hospital I would be kicked out of for trying to speak to Kurdish fighters.
We had stormed in past the guards, hoping that our determination would make us look like we belonged there but we certainly did not go unnoticed. Mazlum weakly told the police officer that he knew us, that it was alright for us to be there and that it caused him no distress. But that didn’t matter.
As we said hasty goodbyes to Mazlum, he gave me a weary look. His eyes were glassy, tears left stains down his cheeks. Then, he smiled. Two fingers poked out from his fist, giving me the V for Victory sign. I gave him the sign in return. Then, as quickly as it came, his hand closed back into a fist, the smile melted away, and his eyes shut as though exhausted from that small expression.
We left, and the police officer followed us all the way to the hospital entrance, ensuring that we were safely outside before resuming his duties of standing outside the emergency room – barring family, guests, and press from entering.
Reporting on Kurds, particularly if you are critical of the Turkish government, could lead to arrest. The Turkey’s application of their Anti-Terror law did not differentiate between a journalist covering the treatment of Kurdish population and a propagandist of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) calling for armed resistance against the Turkish government.
The Kurds are the largest ethnicity without their own nation and are relegated to second-class citizens in the borderlands they inhabit between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. In 1991, Saddam Hussein had conducted the Al Anfal Campaign to “purge” the Kurds from Northern Iraq by the liberal use of chemical weapons over entire villages. They had little support from their neighbors and many suspected that other countries in the region encouraged their genocide. The slaughter was only halted by the US-declared no-fly zone over Northern Iraq.
Outside the hospital were hundreds of friends and family waiting to hear the fates of their fighters. The crowd concentrated around the large ramp, where the injured where wheeled in and out on gurneys; a mess of IV bags, bandages, and cut clothing. A large red tent was set up to house those that had been treated, and stable.
Families were never notified by the hospital, but arrived when receiving a phone call by someone who thought that they recognized their kin. Several people fingered prayer beads as they watched the ramp, wondering if it would be their family wheeled up on the next gurney, but sometimes grateful for the uncertainty when it wasn’t.
We stood with Mazlum’s family. His mother and father were reassured by the news that he was probably going to be okay. Mazlum’s younger brother was there too, a young man of twenty years old, burly and muscular with a black beard shadowing his jawline. I put a hand on his shoulder, but he didn’t flinch, staring at the ambulances as they came and went with a look of complete determination.
He doesn’t have to tell me. I know that it has been on his mind for a long time. Little by little, he wants to pick up a gun and go to Kobane, and fight the ISIS scourge.
Mehmet steps beside him, smiling like a fool.
He tells Mazlum’s brother to be proud, and puts out a fist and straightens two fingers in the same victory sign that Mazlum had just shown us. Westerners may call it a peace sign, but among the Kurds it is not the addle-minded sign of some empty-headed hippie. It dates back to WWII, when the ‘V’ of the middle and index fingers mimicked the formation of airplanes and the first letter of the word Victory. The Kurds have taken it to show support for the Kurdish victory in battle against all enemies that seek their annihilation.
That morning, over twenty people would be rushed to this hospital. Five of them would perish before nightfall; with another half dozen receiving quick care before voluntarily waiving off the doctors and going back to Kobane.
When I asked someone why these fighters were leaving, one of the relatives told me, “because if they are being attacked by ISIS from inside Turkey, then it is more important than ever to fight.”
The news of that mornings attack had spread and a gathering was happening near the border, on a flat plain offering a clear view into Syria. It was the site where, each night, Kurds would gather to light bonfires, chant, and offer one another comfort. As we packed into a small car, we passed by police stations where cops in black uniforms smoked by piled up riot shields that had not been there the day before.
We came upon the checkpoint before we could turn off the main road towards Syria and get to the gathering place. The soldiers stopped us and told us to turn around. Other cars could get through that day, but not ones holding foreigners or anyone who resembled Press. I looked over at their up-armored vehicle parked at the side of the road; soldiers were drinking chai with their weapons laid across their lap, or barrel-down into the dirt leaning against their thigh as they sat sipping tea.
We turned our car around, took a bumpy side street through tiny villages. We passed several people and came upon a marching crowd, with signs that said “FREE KURDISTAN!” where everyone walked with their victory signs held high, led by the chanting of a man who sat on someone else’s shoulders. They wore the red, green and yellow colors of the Kurdish flag, and at each village they passed, more joined the procession. As we passed a house, a couple teenagers were on the roof and lit up fireworks as they cheered at the group that passed by. We walked with the procession up to the gathering point where the refugees go to watch the explosions and stare at the smoke billowing over the crumbling homes of Kobane.
Come rain or shine, this little spot was always occupied by Kurds, and many stand at the edge of the farms with binoculars, sometimes screaming “Daesh! Daesh!” when they see one of the black-clad fighters running among the buildings.
A young man we met at a nearby mosque had once told us that all the Kurdish fighters know to look this way, and they will see that all of Kurdistan – a nationless people – stood behind them. That was why their nightly vigil was so important. The Kurds believe that they have no friends but the mountains and solidarity is their survival.
There was the zoom of American planes over head, met with cheers as the ground shook from the sound of bombs dropping on Kobane.
The Kurds thrust up their victory signs and scream, “Obama! U-S-A! Obama!”
Days before, I had sat with Mazlum’s aunt, squeezed in with dozens of her relatives that were now refugees after fleeing Kobane as ISIS fighters began the slaughter of Kurdish families in their area. She had come from Kobane two months prior. She told me that if she was still home, if there was no war, she would invite me to her home, slaughter an animal and make a great feast and shower us with presents because those were the custom of the Kurdish home. Now, she apologizes for only giving us chai and cigarettes – but that’s all they have to give.
She told me that American bombs had leveled her house after ISIS occupied the area – the terrorists had taken their abandoned homes for shelter, raiding what her family left behind of their lives.
I apologized. I apologized for my country’s bombs.
She grabbed my hand, and told me that it was not something to apologize for. She said that the bombs were the price of Kurdish survival. She thanked America for the bombs that support the Kurdish fighters like her Mazlum. She said that she could rebuild, she could live in tents, or sleep beneath the stars if it meant that she could return to Kobane, and be rid of ISIS forever.
Mazlum would be transferred to a bigger hospital in Sanliurfa, the district capital. The day after the ISIS attack, the Kurds would hold a great rally. Thousands would appear on that place at the border, and the chairman of the Kurdish Party would make a speech calling for the Turkish government to investigate how the terrorist group managed to enter Syria from Turkey and how the Turkish Army, with all their tanks and equipment allowed them to go through without a fight.
I asked Mehmet if he thought that anything would ever happen in those investigations, or if there would be any investigation at all. He waved it off. He had no faith in it.
He believes, as most of them believe, that the Kurds stand alone with no friends except, on occasion, America.
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