Faces of war: Kurdistan’s armed struggle against Islamic State

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The war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has flooded our daily news with troubling statistics of massacres and mass migrations, yet there are faces and human stories at the heart of the conflict. Joey L wrote: “From Iraq, one crosses the Tigris River into war-torn Syria, and is catapulted into a worldview crafted by the guerrilla.”

  • A water tower overlooking the liberated city of Sinjar, Nineveh governorate, in Iraq on 10 November 2016.

  • Warshin, a survivor of the Yazidi genocide and volunteer YJÊ fighter, in the Nineveh governorate in Iraq

“You are welcomed back by familiar faces wearing a palette of earth tones interrupted by a brightly coloured scarf – probably given to them by their mothers. Conversations over cigarettes and tea with much too sugar often drift to conspiracy theories about the entire world plotting to destroy their cause. Oddly, these discussions begin to make sense. The guerrilla’s secretive hierarchy vanishes because of its compartmentalisation, and you find yourself among Kurds who left their families with the intention of defending their culture and way of life. We had once again entered the world of the Kurdish guerrilla.”

A curious photographer

  • Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrilla members on an armed patrol in the countryside of Makhmur in Iraq.

“I could read all the articles, books and social media accounts in the world about what led to the war in Iraq and Syria, but that doesn’t constitute experience. The reality was that a burning curiosity – or shall I say a compulsion – drove me to observe what was happening on the ground with my own eyes, independently and unfiltered from the media I had lost trust in.”

  • Fighters of YJA-Star (the Free Women’s unit) from left to right: Evîndar Cûdî, Shevjîn Herekol, Hêja Botan, Nûdem, and Berçem Penaber.

“Since I became interested in photography as a young kid, all of the photographers I had looked up to and who had inspired me had inevitably covered conflicts. I had seen striking photojournalism spanning the generations of war in Kurdistan – but the portrait project I envisioned was different. I felt the public (myself included) was becoming fatigued with seeing images of war. War, particularly when it’s not happening on one’s shores, can feel far away and unrelatable. However, if a certain shift of style is enacted, then the viewer may actually pay heed. This is what makes portrait photography unique from more purist strands of documentary photography.”

  • Silava and Berivan of the Yazidi Women’s units (YJÊ) share a laugh in an abandoned ISIS base in Sinjar.

“I took another photograph of Berivan with one of her fellow female fighters, Silava. While the pair looked stoically into my camera as I took shots, they suddenly broke out laughing together. They then insisted that if I was going to publish one of the images, then I should use the laughing one, as it is ‘more realistic, because we always laugh when we fight on the frontlines.’”

  • Fighters of the YJÊ gather outside their base for military training.

“The Kurdish plight seemed oddly familiar. Even though the Isis propaganda had succeeded in scaring me shitless, I came to the conclusion that a project on Kurdish culture required a focus on Kurdish fighters – the armed defenders of a distinct heritage and language. There was something special about their struggle that at that time, I could not properly articulate. I just felt like it had to be explored in depth, and documented in a way outside of the constraints typical of mainstream journalism. There was no rational newspaper, magazine or online publication that would have sent me in place of their much more experienced staff. But frankly, that was OK, because I also wanted to be entirely in control of my own affairs – especially security.”

  • Evîndar and Nûdem, PKK guerrillas.

  • A YPG fighter takes a break during an operation to get a drink of water. Tel Tamir, Jazira canton, Rojava, in Syria, on 7 March 2015. Right: Ahmed Zakwan, a rebel fighter of the Army of Revolutionaries, reloads his PK machine gun in a farmhouse facing a small hamlet under the control of Isis. Ain Issa southwestern front, Raqqa governorate, Syria, 11 December 2015.

  • Jîn, a YPJ fighter, with rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

  • Agid, a YPG fighter, sits atop a destroyed ISIS tank in Kobane.

  • Clothes hang to dry in uncompleted concrete structure lived in by Yazidi refugees in Zakho, Dohuk governorate, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

  • Kurdish women in cultural clothing dance at International Women’s Day celebration in Rojava; and right: a camera operator streaming footage to a local Kurdish channel films the scenes. 7 March 2015

During his travels, Joey observed ragtag volunteer guerrilla fighters with mysterious links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) grow into a fully functional army and the US-led coalitions most trusted partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

  • Using binoculars and scopes, SDF fighters watch for Isis infiltration and suicide vehicles on the frontline in Raqqaon 16 November 2016.

With little official government support and just light weapons, brothers, sisters, former university students and refugees that once fled from their homes have now taken up arms together against a common enemy: radical jihadist groups that contest the secular social reformations in Kurdistan.

  • A family watches from their rooftop as firefighters struggle to extinguish walls of flames creeping closer to their home in Qayyarah.

  • Nader Yassim coordinates hoses running water to firefighters. Qayyarah, Nineveh governorate, Iraq, 26 October 2016.

  • Newal, a fighter of the YJÊ, and Shêbo, a volunteer policeman for a Yazidi refugee camp in the Sinjar mountains.

  • Idris, a student of the new self-administrated school system, is learning in his native language – Kurdish – for the first time in Kobane.

“My journey ended with the proverbial mask being pulled off of a formidable villain. In Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish people have risen up against a genocidal enemy, and have broken the great myth that Isis had carefully crafted around themselves. Thanks to the Kurds, Isis’s black flags have become shadows of themselves. As a photographer, I feel honoured to have spent time among the free people of Kurdistan. Through their sacrifices, their struggle is being recognised around the globe.”

Extracts in this photo essay are taken from the book We Came From Fire, by Joey L. published by Powerhouse Books. Joey is a Canadian-born photographer and director based in Brooklyn, New York.

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