I will always remember my first serious engagement with Islamic State. I joined two westerners and a small group of Kurds on a covert mission. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) were engaged in fierce fighting in two locations.
As the Kurdish units moved south, our right flank began to assault a large village which contained a significant force of IS fighters. On the left flank there was a smaller village where the YPG was also pressing hard. Our job was to venture out between the villages and prevent IS fighters from reinforcing either of the battlegrounds.
Our 10-person squad was dropped off in a field under cover of darkness. We walked toward a small hill from where we would be able to cover most of the IS positions and hit them hard if they decided to retreat. We spent an uncomfortable night freezing on the hard earth; sporadic fighting erupted around us and the night air was full of whistling projectiles. We waited patiently in our ambush position but – wisely – no IS fighters attempted to escape in our direction.
The next morning we entered the village and engaged IS. I had just been issued a PKM – a heavy machine gun – and the feeling of firing it for the first time was a joy. I hammered every IS shadow I saw flitting between buildings. They tried firing back but at 300 to 400 meters their AK-47 fire was a little high. I can remember turning to my friend and laughing nervously. What else can you do when someone’s trying to kill you? It was also the first time our unit lost someone in combat.
Heval Kendal was leading a group of YPG fighters to take small group of buildings.
During the engagement he was shot and killed. From my vantage point on the roof I could see the YPG’s attempts to retrieve his body. I provided covering fire, smashing every window and doorway in an attempt to slow the enemy’s rate of fire.
As night approached the fighting intensified. After my sleepless night on that hill I was utterly exhausted. During a lull in the fighting I crept downstairs and tried to enter the house. It was locked but I climbed in through a smashed window. I was surprised to see an immaculate house, untouched by war. On the wall there was a crucifix and a picture of the Virgin Mary.
Two Kurdish fighters climbed through the window to join me. They both smiled when they saw what I was looking at. One took from around his neck a small crucifix and held it up. The other reached into his pocket and pulled out some Muslim prayer beads.
Two Kurdish friends of different religions stood in front of me smiling. If I needed an example of the multi-ethnic and multi-faith composition of the YPG I didn’t have to look any further.
This was what this war is all about! The entire village we were fighting in was Christian and it was a joy to see people of all faiths in the YPG trying to liberate it. The people of Rojava have never been more united. They have been let down by the Assad regime which saw the Syrian army crumble as IS advanced toward the Turkish border.
In the face of annihilation, Arabs, Christians, Kurds and the Yazidis rallied behind the YPG and fought back.
They knew that only unity would defeat IS and create the democracy that they have always wanted.
This must all seem world away from democratic and peaceful Israel. Due to the strength of the Israel Defense Forces you’ll never see the black flag of IS over your cities, or the ancient buildings of Jerusalem turned to rubble by hammer-wielding thugs. That hasn’t always been the case though. Many older Israelis will remember the threat of being surrounded by countries that wished to destroy the young democracy before it could take root. I wonder if that awful feeling of being surrounded by hate is still with you today and whether it helps Israelis sympathize with the plight of the Syrian Kurds.