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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