Gabar was a French nation­al who joined the YPG in Roja­va. He was inter­viewed for a book titled “La Com­mune du Roja­va”, édi­tions SyllepsE, 2017. Wound­ed at that time, Gabar had vowed to return to the fight.

He did. On Sep­tem­ber 7 2017, the French vol­un­teer known as Gabar died in Roja­va while fight­ing against ISIS along­side his com­rades of the YPG (People’s Pro­tec­tion Units).

As a trib­ute, this is an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the inter­view pub­lished in “La Com­mune du Roja­va”. The online French ver­sion on Rojinfo

In helping them, we protect ourselves

By Gabar, French vol­un­teer among the Kurds of Rojava

There are French nationals among the volunteers joining the YPG (People’s Protection Units). We met one of them, who had returned to France for treatment, to avoid amputation following a bullet wound. For security reasons, he did not wish to reveal his real name. We will call him Gabar – the nickname YPG fighters gave him spontaneously. Gabar tells us here about his first months alongside the Kurds.

Gabar’s tes­ti­mo­ny was col­lect­ed by Jean-Michel Morel

Jean-Michel Morel has been a radio host, a critic of films, comic books and graphic novels, in charge of a book collection for éditions du Seuil, and television script-writer. He is also an author and member of the editorial committee of Orient XXI.

As I slide my crutch­es under the seat in the train bring­ing me back to Cler­mont-Fer­rand, I think back on what hap­pened to me. Over there, 5 000 kilo­me­ters away from my home.

I think back also on my depar­ture for a des­ti­na­tion that only a short time ear­li­er, I would have been hard pressed to locate with any pre­ci­sion on a map.

So, what drove me to go to Syr­i­an Kur­dis­tan ? To join the ranks of the YPG, the People’s Pro­tec­tion Units ? Rage. Rage, pure and sim­ple. A rage trig­gered by the Novem­ber 13 attacks. And the cer­tain­ty that there would be oth­ers. Faced with this per­pec­tive, I couldn’t stay inactive.

My mind is still full of the images near the Stade de France, filled with fire trucks and flash­ing blue lights of police cars, the mem­o­ry of the blood­ied cafe ter­races, of the bod­ies on the pave­ment, cov­ered with impro­vised shrouds and of the the col­or­ful facade of the Bat­a­clan, that tem­ple of music and joy, out of which were tak­en scores of dead and wound­ed. I can still hear the sirens of the ambu­lances speed­ing toward the hos­pi­tals and the com­ments of the jour­nal­ists, adding their own amaze­ment to the tes­ti­mo­ny from the wit­ness­es. The ter­ror­ists struck all out, tar­get­ing only the inno­cent. With no oth­er jus­ti­fi­ca­tion than their con­cep­tion of life not being that of their victims.

From that day on, I decid­ed that since they had come here, in my coun­try, to assas­si­nate peo­ple who had done them no harm, I would go find them in their phan­tom State and make them pay the price of blood. Hav­ing been a Legion­naire for fif­teen years, I know about war. I thought I was done with it, since I don’t con­sid­er that tear­ing each oth­er apart is mankind’s inevitable destiny.

As an appren­tice bread and pas­try-mak­er, I’ve known get­ting up at four in the morn­ing, knead­ing the dough,shaping the round loaves, fold­ing the puff pas­try, slash­ing the baguettes and the suc­ces­sion of batch­es in and out of the oven, day after day. Wish­ing to escape this rou­tine that didn’t suit me, I signed on to my first five year con­tract and put on the white képi. Oth­er options were pos­si­ble no doubt. But the Legion was mine and I don’t regret it. I’m even rather proud of it. I signed on twice more. When I took off the uni­form after fif­teen years, like many oth­ers, I went through tons of jobs, tons of mis­eries until I found my way to some sta­bil­i­ty. I became a qui­et cit­i­zen with a job, a wife and a son. I was forty-eight years old and had turned over many a page.

Leaving everything behind to go fight

By their sav­age acts, the Dji­hadists forced me into writ­ing a new page and to pick up weapons again. I sold my small busi­ness, pulled my mea­ger sav­ings out of the bank, informed my wife and a few friends of my plans and packed my gear.

Why did I join up with the Kurds in Syr­ia ? Because of their polit­i­cal pro­gram, their reli­gious tol­er­ance, their envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, their capac­i­ty in fed­er­at­ing pop­u­la­tions of dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups, their man­age­ment of the towns they con­trol with man-woman teams ? Not in the least. Of all that I didn’t even have a clue when I start­ed to surf on Inter­net look­ing for a site that might lead me to an effi­cient net­work. My only goals were to cross the bor­ders, reach Roja­va and to bump off a max­i­mum num­ber of bastards.

In every­thing I had read, of every­thing I had seen on tele­vi­sion and been told, it was there, in this region bor­der­ing on Turkey, hard­ly big­ger than Bel­gium, that a for­eign­er could best expect to con­front the new bar­bar­ians. This was where I had the best chance of being accepted.

Volunteers as in 1936

I did not go as a mer­ce­nary – unless you con­sid­er one hun­dred dol­lars a month to be the salary of a “war dog”. I went as a vol­un­teer. Exact­ly as in 1936 when guys like me from a bit every­where left every­thing to go fight the Fran­quists in Spain in the Inter­na­tion­al Brigades.

Fol­low­ing a stopover in Düs­sel­dorf, the plane I had board­ed in Rois­sy set me down in Souleimaniye, the cap­i­tal of the province of East­ern Ira­ki Kur­dis­tan. A town hemmed in by moun­tains. A mod­ern town with its poor­er neigh­bor­hoods on the out­skirts. It is inhab­it­ed by Kurds and Arabs, some of whom have fled from Mossul or Kirkuk. A town ” held” by Jalal Tal­a­bani — Irak’s for­mer Pres­i­dent after Sadam Hussein’s fall in 2014 – and his UPK ( Kur­dis­tan Patri­ot­ic Union). The UPK and the PDK (The Kur­dis­tan Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty) split the man­age­ment of Ira­ki Kur­dis­tan between them­selves. A ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­tri­b­u­tion that wasn’t devoid of clash­es ; an agree­ment inter­vened between the par­ties fol­low­ing a frat­ri­ci­dal war that last­ed four years. We were in Feb­ru­ary. It wasn’t real­ly cold but the sum­mits were cov­ered with snow. No one was at the air­port to greet me or to pro­vide the slight­est piece of infor­ma­tion. I had to man­age on my own to find a hotel. And I wait­ed. I wait­ed for Cheenook, one of my for­mer bud­dies in the Legion – the one whose advice had allowed me to locate the site most apt to put me in touch with the right net­work, the one that had told me I should head for Souleimaniye and not for Erbil that was under PDK con­trol. I under­stood why later.

Cheenook’s arrival pulled me out of my iso­la­tion but it didn’t solve the prob­lem of my pas­sage into Roja­va. As sug­gest­ed on Inter­net, we went to the UPK head­quar­ters and, thanks to Cheenook who speaks Eng­lish, we were able to meet a per­son who put us in con­tact with mem­bers of the YPG. They greet­ed us warm­ly. We moved out of our hotel and they put us up, fed us, pro­vid­ed cig­a­rettes and tea. This gen­eros­i­ty of peo­ple ready to “give the shirt off their back” as we say in France, we were to encounter and appre­ci­ate all through our “sojourn” in Roja­va. Then, one night, we got into the car of a YPG “couri­er” and head­ed north, into the sec­tion under the con­trol of Mas­sud Barzani, the Pres­i­dent of the Ira­ki Kur­dis­tan Region­al Gov­ern­ment and head of the PDK. If he is not par­tial to for­eign vol­un­teers help­ing out the YPG, Cheenook and I saw that opin­ions were mixed on this among the Ira­ki Kurds. Many of them are favor­able to our pres­ence. Includ­ing among the pesh­mer­gas. As a mat­ter of fact, the YPG couri­er turned us over to two of them. They asked us to put on uni­forms sim­i­lar to theirs in order to go through the check­points into Roja­va with no problems.

A car was wait­ing for us on the oth­er side. Once again in the hands of mem­bers of the YPG, we made our way to the Vol­un­teers Acad­e­my in the moun­tains, some fifty kilo­me­ters from Qamich­li. There were all sorts of vol­un­teers, includ­ing those who come as “tourists” and who, after a few self­ies with fight­ers in camos in the back­ground, scoot off, unable to face the con­se­quences of their deci­sion. This is why the YPG asks for a six-month min­i­mum com­mit­ment. We start­ed our train­ing. It was brief. In fif­teen days, we learned the basics of kur­mand­ji, the Kur­dish lan­guage of the major­i­ty. This was indis­pens­able in order to under­stand the orders. We were remind­ed of the basics while in oper­a­tion, and as nei­ther Cheenook nor I wished to receive infor­ma­tion on the prin­ci­ples under­ly­ing the PYD’s polit­i­cal project, we were exempt­ed from it. What I know of this project, I learned dur­ing my exchanges with the YPG and even more in see­ing the behav­ior of the men and women mak­ing up the “taburs”, the equiv­a­lent to our sec­tions. And it was in see­ing them in action that I real­ized that the soci­ety the PYD meant to build suit­ed me rather well. On the oth­er hand, if I was able to skip out for the the­o­ret­i­cal speech­es, I couldn’t escape demon­strat­ing the required phys­i­cal sta­mi­na to hold up. And that was very hard.

A few kilos overweight…

All the vol­un­teers receive a new name. A code or war name, as you wish. Cheenook became Ser­had. As I was a good twen­ty kilos over­weight, the YPG chris­tened me Gabar – the moun­tain. It could have been flat­ter­ing but, in this instance, it was iron­ic. Luck­i­ly, I didn’t have to go on a diet in order to get back in shape. Scram­bling over all kinds of ter­rain, teeth clenched and sweat trick­ling off the fore­head took care of it. Once the tri­als were over, we were eager to get into the seri­ous busi­ness of con­fronta­tion. We were pro­vid­ed with uni­forms and weapons – Kalash­nikov and grenades. Includ­ing one we were to keep, in case of need. Mean­ing, in order to avoid being tak­en alive by the Dji­hadists. Bear­ing arms to deal with those fac­ing you is one thing. You get used to it, you con­vince your­self it’s unavoid­able, in the man­ner of “it’s them or it’s me”. Noth­ing could be more log­i­cal. But car­ry­ing a weapon to kill one’s self is some­thing else. In that instance, you no longer can rely on the body’s endurance, you must call on the soul’s resources. In fact, car­ry­ing around this instru­ment for one’s sui­cide is like per­ma­nent­ly car­ry­ing the ene­my around with you.

War is hor­ri­ble every­where. But over there, with insuf­fi­cient weapons, shaky med­ical ser­vices, with the huge major­i­ty of the YPG fight­ers being armed peas­ants, not sol­diers trained in the tech­niques of com­bat, faced with over-equiped Dji­hadists who respect none of the rules of war and com­mit all kinds of exac­tions on the pop­u­la­tions and using them as human shields, it is hell.

Dis­ci­pline is strict among the YPG. Over­ly so in some aspects, in my opin­ion. You must nev­er for­get that these brave fight­ers of flaw­less deter­mi­na­tion, wish­ing to chase ISIS out of their coun­try, are young. Very young. They have left their vil­lage, their fam­i­ly to find them­selves in Spar­tan con­di­tions. In order to rest and sleep once they have lib­er­at­ed a local­i­ty, they have no alter­na­tive to occu­py­ing bombed out, dev­as­tat­ed and aban­doned hous­es. They are often open to the four winds, devoid of all crea­ture com­forts with only the occa­sion­al car­pet and petrol stove. In Roja­va it rains a lot in win­ter­time and dur­ing the first three months of the year. It can get very hot in day­time but the cold pen­e­trates the dwellings at night. The morn­ing tea is wel­come as a warm-up. The diet is fru­gal – I nev­er wor­ried about regain­ing the kilos I had lost dur­ing training.

We almost died

With the oth­er vol­un­teers, — Amer­i­cans, Aus­tralians, Britons, Spaniards, Nor­we­gians, Greeks – we were spread out in the dif­fer­ent taburs. After a stress­ful day high in ten­sion when we almost died from a sniper’s bul­let, a burst from an assault rifle, a mor­tar shell or by explod­ing on a land­mine, we were hap­py to join up with the oth­ers. To reas­sure them (with lies, if need­ed), give them news, hear theirs, find out what was going on back home. For­eign vol­un­teers are free to do so via mobile phones or Skype. Not the Kurds.

With oth­er vol­un­teers and at the request of PYD lead­ers we met with them recent­ly in Brus­sels. Among oth­er top­ics we were able to broach this top­ic with them. They appeared most atten­tive to our argu­ments. Dur­ing an oper­a­tion, sol­diers need to feel they are sup­port­ed. Con­ver­sa­tions with dear ones, with friends, help in keep­ing up morale. You don’t fight every day dur­ing a war. Some­times, time stretch­es out. You must keep busy so as not to get depressed. Culi­nary feats are out of the ques­tion, giv­en the cook­ing ware and the ingre­di­ents at hand. Dis­cus­sions oth­er than polit­i­cal or tech­ni­cal with women YPJ fight­ers, includ­ing those of our own tabur, are out of the ques­tion. Every­thing is strict­ly reg­u­lat­ed there also. In this con­text, man-woman equal­i­ty implies that each keeps his or her dis­tance. Yet God knows that some of them were attrac­tive. So we smoked a lot.

The long and bloody liberation of Manbij

The for­eign­ers come over to fight : they are incor­po­rat­ed straight­away into the “cadros” taburs (fight­ing units). They can even form one of their own. Which doesn’t keep the YPG com­man­ders from attempt­ing to expose them as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. This way of “pro­tect­ing” us is some­times a source of fric­tion. Dur­ing the bat­tle of Man­bij, for instance, I had to argue long and hard with my com­man­der to be in the front line. The lib­er­a­tion of Man­bij was long and bloody. Begun in May 2016, it end­ed two and a half months lat­er, around mid-August. The bat­tle was led by the FDS (Syr­i­an Demo­c­ra­t­ic Forces) in which are enrolled Sun­ni Arabs and Assyr­i­an Chris­tians along­side the YPG. The FDS were sup­port­ed by inter­na­tion­al coali­tion bomb­ing runs and, on the ground, by French, Amer­i­can and British spe­cial forces. Also present were vol­un­teer units of Yazidis, con­sti­tut­ed after the mas­sacres per­pe­trat­ed by ISIS in Sin­jar in 2014. In Man­bij, the Dji­hadists kept sev­er­al of their num­bers pris­on­er, reduc­ing the women to the sta­tus of sex­u­al slaves and work­ing at enrolling the young boys as child-sol­diers. The men hav­ing been exe­cut­ed long before. Say­ing that the Yazi­di fight­ers were moti­vat­ed is an understatement

The Dji­hadists put up a fierce strug­gle. Despite their impor­tant loss­es and although the FDS had tak­en hold of a good part of the town by the end of July, they refused the pro­pos­al to evac­u­ate along with their fam­i­lies in order to put a stop to the pound­ing by airstrikes at the cost in human life of an nev­er-end­ing human gueril­la. They pre­ferred launch­ing sui­cide attacks, using boo­by-trapped cars, and civil­ians as human shields.

The toll was heavy when the fight­ing final­ly end­ed on August 12. Very heavy. Col­lapsed hous­es, torn up streets, pierced water pipes, 4 000 Dji­hadists left for dead, the FDS hav­ing lost over 300 fight­ers, the civil­ians, men, women and chil­dren caught in the exchange of fire, exe­cut­ed by ISIS or fall­en vic­tim to the bomb­ings, num­bered over 400. But all this I learned lat­er for things went very poor­ly for me. I didn’t get to enter Man­bij and to see pulled off their masts, stomped on and burned the sin­is­ter black flags of the Dji­hadists. Dur­ing the bat­tle, I was dri­ving a Toy­ota pick­up, car­ry­ing a score of men on the back plat­form and with a com­man­der sit­ting next to me. As a young offi­cer from the ranks of the PKK, he had lived through the aggres­sions by Erdogan’s sol­diers in Bakur, seen the destruc­tions wrought by the army engaged in relaunch­ing a civ­il war. He had a clear idea of the risks we faced. Con­sid­er­ing my age, he con­stant­ly attempt­ed to keep me in the back. Although stem­ming from a gen­er­ous intent, I found his con­cern unbear­able. I let him know. Did I or did I not belong to a “cadro” tabur, one that goes up on the line of fire ? I was that much more furi­ous that, almost on arrival, I had par­tic­i­pat­ed in the tak­ing of the town of Al-Chad­dadeh in the north­west, close to the Ira­ki bor­der, a strate­gic loca­tion giv­en its prox­im­i­ty to the oil fields. I used the means at my dis­pos­al to make myself under­stood. With my rudi­ments of Kur­dish and unam­bigu­ous ges­tures – in anger, I went as far as to throw my Kalash­nikov at the officer’s head – and a Smart­phone app that allowed me to express my anger in Ara­bic, my com­man­der reply­ing in the same lan­guage and in the same way. The app trans­lat­ing our exchanges.

Dislodging the Djihadists

Final­ly, threat­en­ing to return to France if I didn’t get my way, I received autho­riza­tion to par­tic­i­pate in the tak­ing of vil­lages sur­round­ing Man­bij and par­tic­i­pat­ed in chas­ing the Dji­hadists. It was not a health trek. We need­ed more than a month to secure every­thing. In the Roja­va coun­try­side, once Syria’s gra­nary, the col­or ochre now pre­dom­i­nates. The earth, the hous­es, the land­scape, every­thing seems of a sin­gle shade. At night, the ter­rain turns dark brown. This is the moment we often choose to move for­ward and dis­lodge the Dji­hadists from the posi­tions they are occu­py­ing. Some­times, they are close enough for us to hear their radio mes­sages. Hav­ing had the occa­sion of inter­cept­ing exchanges between French­men – one of whom want­ed to go home – I was able to cut into his con­ver­sa­tion and tell him “Man, that doesn’t even stand a chance of hap­pen­ing.” Dur­ing my entire stay in Roja­va, I kept the same pre­oc­cu­pa­tion : ensur­ing that the French fight­ers in ISIS were unable to return to France. I have nei­ther respect nor pity for them after what they inflict­ed on the Ira­ki and Syr­i­an pop­u­la­tions, be they Kur­dish, Yazi­di, Chris­t­ian, Alaw­ite or even Sun­ni. And, in Europe, we’ve paid enough to know to what crim­i­nal extrem­i­ties their mad­ness has led them. I didn’t con­sid­er myself an avenger for all that. I just did the best I could to pro­tect my coun­try and my people.

I took a bullet in the heel and was brought to Kobanê where there is nothing

When it advances in the open, a tabur is divid­ed into three groups. One stays “at the base”, the sec­ond goes to the left and the last goes to the right. That night, our attempt to fin­ish off the men from ISIS and dis­lodge them from a vil­lage led to three skir­mish­es leav­ing one dead and three wound­ed in our ranks. Myself includ­ed. After a bul­let grazed my neck, I took anoth­er in the heel. The pain was bear­able at first. I was able to go on fight­ing. When we pulled back and I put my foot on the ground, I felt the inten­si­ty of this wound. Atro­cious pain kept me from stand­ing up. My com­rades helped me back to the shel­ter from which we had ven­tured forth. I was clear­ly in too bad a shape to hope tak­ing part in the assault on the town. The clos­est field hos­pi­tal was a four-hour dri­ve away. I was tak­en there in a pick­up truck. From there, an ambu­lance took me to Kobanê. There are only two hos­pi­tals in this town of 200 000 inhab­i­tants. The med­ical staff shows unmatched devo­tion. But they lack med­ica­tion, vac­cines, ban­dages. In fact, they lack of every­thing. I was sewn up with­out anes­the­sia and cared for as best they could. I stayed for three weeks, and fear­ing that gan­grene would set in, I decid­ed to go back to France.

This entailed cross­ing the bor­der in the oppo­site direc­tion. But first, from Roja­va, I had con­tact­ed the French con­sul in Erbil. He told me on what day and at what hour I must return to Ira­ki Kur­dis­tan, warn­ing me I would be arrest­ed. Which did not fail to hap­pen. Once across, I was picked up by the per­sh­mer­gas and tak­en to jail. As they knew of my arrival, the French con­sulate got me out after three days and took care of my visa. How­ev­er, I am now banned from Ira­ki Kur­dis­tan for one year.

Wound­ed in my flesh and dis­ap­point­ed that I couldn’t stay longer, I paid for my return tick­et. Upon depar­ture from Erbil, a plane made a stopover in Dubai before return­ing me to France. After the Air and Fron­tier Police “received” me at the air­port and in the days that fol­lowed, I spon­ta­neous­ly report­ed to the DGSI (the French Gen­er­al Direc­torate for Domes­tic Secu­ri­ty). I don’t know if I told them any­thing they didn’t know but, in doing so, I felt I was doing my duty.

This is why I slid two crutch­es under my seat this morn­ing after board­ing the TGV Paris-Cler­mont-Fer­rand to join my fam­i­ly. But, one day, when my wound is healed, after the prop­er re-edu­ca­tion and retrain­ing, I’ll start sprint­ing like a rab­bit again and then, most cer­tain­ly, I’ll pack up my gear for Roja­va again. Although I refused to delve into the the­o­ry or learn the details of the “demo­c­ra­t­ic con­fed­er­al­ism” advo­cat­ed by Abdul­lah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, I under­stood that the Kurds in Roja­va are at the fore­front of the bat­tle against the obscu­ran­tism of ISIS and of inte­grists of all ilks in this part of the world. In help­ing them, we pro­tect our­selves. Which is rea­son enough for me to go back.

Pho­to : Heval Çîya (archive privée)

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