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The English version of the article published in Ballast, on October 7, 2021.

Images of Roja­va fight­ers have cir­cled the world over– notably fol­low­ing the bat­tle of Kobanê in 2015 where these fight­ers con­tributed to the oust­ing of ISIS. But this media spot­light often came with an eclips­ing of their ide­o­log­i­cal moti­va­tions. In Octo­ber 2014, a mem­ber of our edi­to­r­i­al staff met with Sêal, a young fight­er from the Wom­en’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPJ). Sev­en years lat­er, he attempts to find her again and quick­ly learns that she was among the first fight­ers killed dur­ing the offen­sive against ISIS in the regions of Tabqa and Raqqa in 2017 – two impor­tant fief­doms of the Jihadist move­ment. In order to tell her sto­ry, he then takes off to meet her fam­i­ly and peo­ple who knew her. 

By Loez

May 2021, on the road to Qamish­lo. Sit­ting in front of a shawar­ma in a small restau­rant where we are tak­ing a break after dri­ving since the bor­der cross­ing at Semal­ka – where the Tigris divides the north-west­ern part of Syr­ia from Irak – I show Alan a pho­to of a group of YPJ fight­ers. The pho­to was tak­en at a base in the area around Tal Elo, not far from the town where we now find our­selves. The one fight­er I’m most inter­est­ed in stands in the back row, com­plete­ly on the left. This is not her unit. Sêal had fol­lowed us after we had met her fam­i­ly and as we head­ed to observ­ing a train­ing ses­sion of young fight­ers, with whom she stood for the pho­to. Alan rec­og­nizes sev­er­al of the young women. Two of them are his cousins: one of them is mar­ried, the oth­er is still fight­ing. Anoth­er of the young women has become a kadro: she has joined the PKK gueril­la and the armed com­bat against the Turk­ish army in the moun­tains of North­ern Irak.

In 2011, Alan came back from Dam­as­cus where he was study­ing geol­o­gy, in order to enlist in the rev­o­lu­tion start­ing up in North­ern Syr­ia. He quick­ly joined the YPG, as did sev­er­al of his broth­ers, before spend­ing a long time work­ing with Yazi­di refugees, then, with the media. His smil­ing face and good humor are famil­iar to many among the Autonomous Admin­is­tra­tion 1  as well as in the armed forces. His fam­i­ly is heav­i­ly involved in the polit­i­cal life of Tirbe­spiye: his father was may­or for sev­er­al years and his broth­er, Rêwan fell a mar­tyr in Decem­ber 2013. Hav­ing care­ful­ly exam­ined the pho­to­graph, he hands it over to one of his acquain­tances, the com­man­der of the YPJ, so that she may make inquiries.

The answer lands on the fol­low­ing day: Sêal is no longer. She fell a mar­tyr in 2017 in the province of Raqqa.

YPJ Cen­ter in Girkê Legê, Octo­ber 2014: Sêal is on the right.

Girkê Legê, end of Octobre 2014

This is my third trip of the year to Roja­va. I’ve had sev­er­al meet­ings with YPJ fight­ers, orga­nized in non-mixed  units since 2013. Self-defence is one of the basic ten­nets of demo­c­ra­t­ic con­fed­er­al­ism, the polit­i­cal sys­tem based on direct democ­ra­cy and wom­en’s eman­ci­pa­tion, a sys­tem mil­i­tants have attempt­ed to set up since 2012 in North­ern Syr­ia in the zones lib­er­at­ed from the Syr­i­an regime. For the women, it is also a way to claim their  prop­er space in soci­ety by par­tic­i­pat­ing in their own pro­tec­tion. That time, I had asked if I could pos­si­bly meet one of them in her fam­i­ly set­ting. After a few days, I received a pos­i­tive response from the YPJ high­er command.

We went to the base in Girkê Legê. This was my first meet­ing with Sêal. The young woman was smil­ing, shy; she con­veyed an impres­sion of seren­i­ty. Sit­ting with two com­rades, a man and a woman, she was braid­ing the fringe of a large green scarf they often wear in win­ter. Her com­man­der came with us for the vis­it in her fam­i­ly. She had cho­sen to pull her away from the fight­ing, I am told sev­er­al years lat­er. We head out. The autumn sun was still warm: huge wheat fields stretched out far into the South, toward Jazaa 2. On the hori­zon, plumes of black smoke rose from makeshift refiner­ies where unem­ployed peas­ants ruin their lungs and their skin. The front with ISIS had been pushed back just beyond these, some ten kilo­me­ters fur­ther away.

At the time, the fam­i­ly still lived in a small earth­en house on the edge of the vil­lage of Gir Ziyaret. The par­ents were not there. They had to leave for a med­ical appoint­ment for the father, Sîle­man, whose health was frag­ile. Five years lat­er, her moth­er, Hal­i­ma, still regrets this. This is when I will learned that such vis­its to fam­i­lies were extreme­ly rare. We were then greet­ed by her two broth­ers and their wives. We drank tea in the long main room. Sêal remained with a gen­tle smile on her face, but did­n’t respond much to ques­tions. What was she think­ing of, at that time? Was she try­ing to under­stand what this for­eign jour­nal­ist expect­ed her to answer to ques­tions that weren’t real­ly very clear? Her com­man­der, Zilan, end­ed up monop­o­liz­ing the inter­view: she was a woman in her for­ties, with deeply wrin­kled fea­tures, with the hard but pleas­ant bear­ing of those who have expe­ri­enced the PKK gueril­la. She fought sev­er­al years in the moun­tains before being sent to North­ern Syr­ia, from where she was a native.

Sêal on the left, with one of her sis­ters and her sis­ter-in-law in Octo­ber 2014

Sêal was hap­py to see her broth­ers; she picked up one of the babies. The fam­i­ly posed for group pho­tos. Her cousin Mazlum joined us. Before her own death, he will fall a mar­tyr in 2015, dur­ing the sec­ond oper­a­tion to reclaim Tel Hamis from the hands of ISIS. In the end, there was no time or oppor­tu­ni­ty for a longer exhange. I did­n’t learn much more about who was this young woman. A pho­to will remain – Sêal, sit­ting next to her sis­ters-in-law. The one in mil­i­tary uni­form, her weapon close at hand, the oth­er with a baby in her arms. Two dif­fer­ent des­tinies. And unan­swered ques­tions: what led Sêal, like thou­sands of oth­er young women, to join the YPGJ? In what way did this com­mit­ment change her life?

Gir Ziyaret, May 2021

The vil­lage of Gir Ziyaret nes­tles along the road lead­ing from Tirbe­spiye to Gire spî, a bit before the entrance to the town. It is a big vil­lage at the foot of an arti­fi­cial hill that serves as a ceme­tery, like so many you find in this region. The road that leads to it, dusty and rocky, is not asphalt­ed. A young man on a motor­cy­cle, to whom we put the ques­tion, leads us to the home of Sêal’s fam­i­ly we weren’t able to find despite indi­ca­tions we had been given.

The space has changed. A met­al gate opens onto a large court­yard. On the left is the grey mass of a large, recent­ly built house. On the right, the old beat­en earth house has dis­ap­peared: in its place there is now a gar­den where clothes are dry­ing on wood­en slats. Hens and ducks keep to the shade of a large and well-trimmed tree. Out­side, Sêal’s moth­er greets us, a cig­a­rette between her lips. The scarf on her head and tied around her neck, lets a few wisps of white hair stick out. Sêal’s broth­er Reber is also on hand.

The walls of the greet­ing room are emp­ty, save for one side on which hang sev­er­al large pho­tographs of Sêal, some­times alone, some­times among oth­er mar­tyrs. The ground is cov­ered in rugs. We sit on mat­tress­es, our backs against cush­ions. When Hal­i­ma starts talk­ing about her daugh­ter, a few tears roll down her cheek which she  wipes away with her hand.


In May 2021, the new home of Sêal’s fam­i­ly, built after her death

Sêal was born in 1994 or 1995, her moth­er does­n’t quite remem­ber. She was named Newroz. A name that is not in the least bit insignif­i­cant: Newroz is the feast held every March 21st, cel­e­brat­ing spring – for Kurds it has become a sym­bol of resis­tance. This is because Sêal’s moth­er was already a sym­pa­thiz­er of the PKK’s leader, Abdul­lah Öcalan, whom she admires. She chose the names of two of her sons to hon­or him. In the fam­i­ly, she is a Kur­dish patri­ot. And poor. Pri­or to the rev­o­lu­tion, the father, his sev­en sons and five daugh­ters worked as field hands for wealth­i­er owners.

The one who was still known as Newroz left school in the 6th grade – thus, around 12 years old – to join her sis­ters in the cot­ton fields. As a child, her moth­er recalls she liked to sit on the rock fac­ing the tendûr, the bread oven while she baked hand-flat­tened bread dough. She said the oven was her horse. When the rev­o­lu­tion began, the eldest and the youngest sons quick­ly joined the YPG. The fam­i­ly did not flee, the moth­er empha­sizes; Newroz was the next who want­ed to enlist. This was in the last months of 2013, pri­or to the Tel Hamis oper­a­tion. “Not in a sneaky way, thank God”, sighs Hal­i­ma, who attempt­ed to dis­suade her, explain­ing how this was a heavy respon­si­bil­i­ty, a hard com­mit­ment, she would not be able to bear the con­straints of mil­i­tary life. But Newroz did not give up. She want­ed to go. She said good­bye to every­one and left in order to be reborn as Sêal Cûdi – lit­ter­al­ly, Sêal means “the shad­ow of the the flag” or “the three flags” ; inter­pre­ta­tions vary whether this means sê as in shad­ow or sî, the num­ber three… In any event, it is a patri­ot­ic name. After her train­ing, her knowl­edge of ara­bic and of kur­dish   send Sêal on the roads of the region with a cadre from TEV-DEM 3, Eli She­mo, for work that was more polit­i­cal than mil­i­tary. For close to a year, she trans­lat­ed at meet­ings with ara­bic tribes, helped to recruit new fighters…

On sev­er­al occa­sions, her par­ents attempt­ed to bring her back home. Her father at first, whose round, tanned face resem­bles than of Sêal. “She did polit­i­cal work. After that, I told her to stop: ‘Daugh­ter, I don’t want you to die.’ But she refused my request. Some­times, when she was in the vil­lage, she did not come home, she stayed with the heval [“com­rades” in Kur­dish] and in the mar­tyrs’ homes. She car­ried the weight of the rev­o­lu­tion on her shoulders. ”

Sîle­man did not see the change in his daugh­ter. Some­times in dis­be­lief he would tell his friends that she was not all that brave; then, he would be told: “No, you’re wrong, she is the bravest of the heval.” He remem­bers an anec­dote. In 2012, the vil­lage was threat­ened by the arrival of forces from the Islam­ic Front, affil­i­ates of Syr­i­an rebels. The inhab­i­tants took up their weapons to orga­nize their defence. Sîle­man picked up his rifle and start­ed head­ing for the front lines when he turned around and saw his daugh­ter fol­low­ing him, deter­mined to pro­tect him.

Lat­er, Hal­i­ma had two of her friends, Arab girls from the vil­lage, send her a mes­sage. By then, Sêal had been enlist­ed for three years: her moth­er con­sid­ered it was time that she came home. When the two girls came back, they told Hal­i­ma: “We could­n’t con­vince her to come back but she about about to con­vince us to join the YPJ.” After a silence, Hal­i­ma adds: “The two girls are still alive today.” 


Hal­i­ma and Sûleiman, Sêal’s par­ents and her broth­er Lez­gin, in May 2021

The last time her fam­i­ly saw her alive was in ear­ly 2017, some three months before her death. She had obtained three days of leave but her com­rades did not come for her before the fifth day, which angered her. The two fight­ers who came for her were killed when she was. When they arrived, she yelled:Heval, you for­got me, you said three days and now, it’s been five!” They answered: “How dare you say that? We nev­er for­got you!“Appar­ent­ly her old grand­moth­er sensed this was the last time she would see her. She stood up to fol­low her, then the rest of the fam­i­ly fol­lowed. “That was the last time; after that, I saw her in her cas­ket”, mur­murs Halima.

Short­ly before dying, Sêal appears in an inter­view to a Kur­dish sta­tion. “We are head­ing to the oper­a­tion in Raqqa, we will avenge our mar­tyrs, suc­cess is with us.”

I still have her books by Serok Apo [nick­name giv­en to Öcalan] and her small Coran. Her friend told us she read them when she was tired,” says Hal­i­ma. She often wore a scarf tight­ly wound around her head, with a bor­der of beads, all of the same col­or – not the flow­ered mod­el often seen on Kur­dish women fight­ers. From what we are told, she was always on the front lines with the elite groups, the kadros, trained in the PKK gueril­la in the strug­gle against the Turk­ish army. Fight­ers trained to night oper­a­tions. Sêal had spe­cial­ized in heavy artillery: 12,7 mil­lime­ter DShK, RPG rock­et launch­ers, PKC machine guns. Per­haps field work had giv­en her the endurance and strength required to car­ry the ten kilo (bar­ring ammu­ni­tion) of the Russ­ian machine gun. Thus, we see her on a video, lift­ing it on to her shoul­der before leav­ing on oper­a­tion as the night falls: pre­cise move­ments, a smile on her lips.

Her per­son­al diary, cov­ered in a hes­i­tant and tight scrawl is filled with direc­tives on the use of var­i­ous weapons. On one page with schemat­ic draw­ings, Sêal details the use of the RPG, how to load the rock­et, arm it, shoul­der the launch­er… Tech­ni­cal expla­na­tions fol­low on ide­o­log­i­cal writ­ings, leav­ing scarce oppor­tu­ni­ties for per­son­al quo­ta­tions cho­sen by the young girl – a few poems, whether com­posed by her­self or not is unclear, hon­or­ing per­haps, two mar­tyrs whose names appear at the top of the page.


Sêal’s diary: details on the use of the RPG rock­et-launch­er, May 2021

Tekoser 4

Anoth­er star shines in the sky, I know it is the spark from your eyes. I was nev­er fright­ened by the dark nights but I was afraid of the spark in your eyes. It is so painful I can­not talk about it. I want­ed to write your name in the leg­end of lovers, but I was afraid to lose you by writ­ing it.

I am not afraid of this day, but I am afraid of the day when you will leave me all alone and go away. I am not afraid of death, and I am not afraid of the pain gnaw­ing at at my heart, but I am afraid to lose you.

I am so fear­ful of your depar­ture, that you will leave me alone in this mad­ness, I am not afraid of the black nights but I am afraid to remain alone in them with­out you, no one sees this fear in my heart because I hide it from them.

My pain only hurts me, so why should I talk about it?

Do not make of your heart a riv­er in which every passer­by can drink, but make of it a kind­gom owned by a rare person.

I regret no one who entered my life; the faith­ful ones made me joy­ful, the bad ones made me gain expe­ri­ence, and the best will nev­er leave me.

Sêal had deeply changed. “Her mind had changed, her atti­tude, her lan­guage, she had start­ed to talk like a kadro, says her broth­er Reber – his name means “the guide”, one of the ways his par­ti­sans call Öcalan. He also fought in the YPG. Hal­i­ma adds: “She was joy­ful, she joked, she told me ‘you’re bloat­ed but my dad­dy is slim’. She was smart and every­one loved her, bril­liant, she knew how to keep a secret. Thank God I am still and always proud of her.”

In her diary, Sêal wrote: “My Leader, you have ressus­ci­tat­ed the Kur­dish peo­ple, you instruct­ed it, you gave me a life with mean­ing and values.”

The fam­i­ly pre­cious­ly keeps on a com­put­er images of the young girl. On one video, she is seen sit­ting in front of a fire, head rest­ing on one hand, thought­ful; beside her, a few of her com­rades are danc­ing to music from a hand phone. On anoth­er video, she is leav­ing on a night oper­a­tion, her head wrapped in two scarves. Her eyes are tired, her grave smile los­es itself in the night. On the last pho­tos of her, her fea­tures have hard­ened. Wrin­kles have appeared around her eyes, despite her young age; she has gained in con­fi­dence. Many of her friends have fall­en as mar­tyrs. Only a few still show up to vis­it the fam­i­ly, such as her friend and first com­man­der Ruken, now a dri­ver with the YPJ.

As a child, Sêal liked to sit on the stone fac­ing the oven and watch her moth­er pre­pare bread – May 2021

Girkê Legê, May 2021-09-30

The weath­er is stormy, the air is heavy.

At the exit from Girkê Legê, a small road runs next to der­ricks danc­ing their hyp­not­ic dance near fresh­ly har­vest­ed wheat fields. Heval Ruken’s home is by the side of this road. Her white Toy­ota pick­up truck is parked in front of  a wall sur­round­ing a small court­yard. The house is paint­ed white, the inte­ri­or is cool. Small, lean, tanned skin and heav­i­ly marked fea­tures, Ruken is a kadro, a pro­fes­sion­al enlist­ed fight­er. Like most of those who met her, she was impressed by Sêal. They met when she enlist­ed in the YPJ in 2013. There was a mil­i­tary check­point in their vil­lage. Accord­ing to Ruken, see­ing women in arms encour­aged her to join them – plus, her broth­ers were already in the YPG…Sêal was the first in her vil­lage and its sur­round­ings to join the YPJ.

Her thirst for learn­ing, her curios­i­ty and her charis­ma soon impressed the com­man­der. She was first in her train­ing class. “She was a girl from the Par­ty.” Sêal was curi­ous, con­stant­ly ques­tion­ing the kadros about their life in the moun­tains in the PKK gueril­la. She had books in hand, she wrote down her com­rades’ mem­o­ries, their sto­ries. Although she had left school ear­ly, she still wrote in her diary. “She was unique”.  Dur­ing her year of polit­i­cal work, she met a num­ber of kadros who told her “You seem to have spent years in the moun­tains.” But that work was not enough for Sêal; she want­ed to be on the front lines.

A week before being killed, she wished to see her dear Ruken. The lat­ter was absent and Sêal had come with­out fore­warn­ing. The two women had not seen one anoth­er in a long time, fol­low­ing three years spent togeth­er; Sêal had gone to the front lines, but Ruken had­n’t. She had seen com­bat in Tel Alo, Tel Hamis, Jazaa, Tel Temir, Hes­eke, in the moun­tains of Kezwan…

When she arrived on the front, she plunged straight into the uni­verse of war. “Some fight­ers cried, morale was low, but heval Sêal was­n’t like them,” states Ruken. At the end of her train­ing, she refused the ten-day leave. She did not want to go home, she asked to be sent to the com­bat zones – this was dur­ing the Tel Hamis oper­a­tion, at the end of 2013.  She liked meet­ing fight­ers trained in the PKK, those arrived from Turkey, Iran, Syr­ia. And also, lat­er, for­eign­ers, Amer­i­can, French…“She was curi­ous, talk­ing about every­thing with them, fight­ing, friend­ship. She had a strong per­son­al­i­ty. Every­one appre­ci­at­ed her.” Despite the fact she was a new­com­er, she was asked to train new recruits.

In 2016, she sus­tained a head wound dur­ing the oper­a­tion to lib­er­ate the town of Shad­da­di. An ISIS fight­er explod­ed him­self near the house where she was with her group and the house crashed down on them.

The vil­lage of Gir Ziyaret under a dust storm, in May 2021

I can’t for­get heval Sêal’s words when her cousin fell a mar­tyr. She said: ‘Ruken, you must come for me, you are my dar­ling, you have led me up to this point. Your friend­ship makes me stronger. If I die, don’t for­get my fam­i­ly: bring a piece of fab­ric and a scarf to my moth­er.’ I said ‘I could­n’t do that, it would pain her moth­er’. It is painful when I vis­it her fam­i­ly, among Sêal’s friends, I am the one who remained. There are those who fell, those who mar­ried, those who left the YPJ, those who head­ed to the moun­tains. I recall our pre­vi­ous life, the kitchen, the watch­es. We were like two sis­ters. When we vis­it­ed her home and she told her fam­i­ly ‘she is my com­man­der,’ I said ‘we are friends, don’t use such words; we are the same age, we have slept togeth­er, we have gath­ered plants to cook them on a wood fire.’ So much so that the oth­ers passed com­ments. They told us to stop being togeth­er all the time. Such a strong link is poor­ly received here, but we could­n’t lis­ten to them.”

On the way back, a storm hits the region.

A vio­lent wind rais­es clouds of dust, the sky is tor­ment­ed, low and grey. The light is odd, elec­tric, giv­ing the area a super­nat­ur­al aspect. From the road, the vil­lage of Gir Ziyaret can hard­ly be dis­tin­guished, drowned in the dust.

Gir Ziyaret, May 2021-09-30

A few days after meet­ing Ruken, we pay a new vis­it to Sêal’s fam­i­ly. This time, her broth­er Lez­gin is there, the one who is undoubt­ed­ly the post politi­cized mem­ber of the fam­i­ly. After time spent as a crim­i­nal inves­ti­gaor in the Asayesh 5, he was wound­ed in com­bat in the Jazaa in 2014. Sev­en steel frag­ments are now embed­ded in his flesh. Today, he works coor­di­nat­ing with Russ­ian forces.

At home, she was qui­et and kind, he recalls. I always say she was the one who most resem­bled our moth­er. When chil­dren fought, they called her Jack­ie Chan: no one could catch her at school! Newroz was brave and defend­ed us.”  On one occa­sion the broth­er ran across his sis­ter on a the­ater of oper­a­tions: she was in the front lines, he was in the back. “Fol­low­ing her enlist­ment, we did­n’t see her often at home. She chose to sac­ri­fice and to move away from nor­mal, rou­tine liv­ing. She was tied to the mar­tyrs and to their roads. She want­ed to live free. Jin jiyan e [woman is life]. This rev­o­lu­tion forced us to take on respon­si­bil­i­ties big­ger than what we could handle.”

Sêal’s per­son­al belong­ings – May 2021

He ris­es and goes for Sêal’s per­son­al belong­ing – I had asked to see them, if pos­si­ble. On my first vis­it, nei­ther the moth­er nor the broth­er who was there at the time had men­tioned their exis­tence. Ruken is the one who talked about them. Care­ful­ly stashed away, they had slow­ly been forgotten.

Lez­gin comes back hold­ing a white plas­tic bag. Till that day, the fam­i­ly had not had the heart to open it – Lez­gin only did so the day before our vis­it. Inside, a YPJ flag, an envel­op, a bunch of note­books and pho­tos, one or two books, an Öcalan ban­ner, a YPG crest. I start leaf­ing through the note­books. There are two kinds. Small ones with squared  sheets and Öcalan’s por­trait on the cov­er. These are filled with tight, tiny scrawls, the Ara­bic let­ters done in an awk­ward hand. These are Sêal’s note­books. The oth­ers are a sur­prise: they are writ­ten in Turk­ish and a sig­na­ture keeps on re-occur­ring, that of Arîn Mirkan.This cap­tain has become a sym­bol of the bat­tle of Kobanê by explod­ing her­self in order to save her com­rades. But the date does­n’t match. 2016. This is anoth­er Arîn Mirkan. In the end, a let­ter tucked in one of the note­books pro­vides the key to the mys­tery, a dou­ble page care­ful­ly writ­ten on a sheet of squared paper torn from a notebook.

This Arîn Mirkan’s birth name was Fat­ma Atkas. She was born in 1989 in the Mazı­dağı dis­trict of Mardin province, in a fam­i­ly with no real mil­i­tant sen­si­bil­i­ties; she aspired to noth­ing oth­er than a petit bour­geois exis­tence. Fat­ma Atkaş stud­ied at Siirt Uni­ver­si­ty to become a school teacher, before inter­rupt­ing her stud­ies in her third year. She met the PKK at the uni­ver­si­ty. Began to take part in polit­i­cal activ­i­ties and writ­ing for the news­pa­per Azadiya Welat. Final­ly, in 2012, she joined the gueril­la and trained in Qandil. For two years, she worked among the HPJ-YPK, the wom­en’s armed forces linked to the PJAK, a sis­ter-orga­ni­za­tion of the PKK fight­ing against the Iran­ian State. She was in charge of what she calls “civil­ian archives”. She then went back into train­ing and was charged with train­ing new recruits. But Fat­ma want­ed to fight. At the tail end of 2015, she changed her code name and chose to call her­self Arîn Mirkan. A trib­ute to the mar­tyr, but also a self-direct­ed mes­sage: she would car­ry on the strug­gle and inten­si­fy her commitment.

Short­ly there­after, in the first half of the year 2016, she final­ly obtained her assign­ment to Roja­va to take part in the oper­a­tion to recap­ture Man­bidj and uni­fy the can­tons of Afrin and of Kobanê. The young women quick­ly became com­man­der of a group of some thir­ty peo­ple and took part in the fight­ing. But things did­n’t go as expect­ed. Lead­ing a mixed group was not a sim­ple mat­ter: for the first time, Arîn wit­nessed the death of one of her com­rades; she was deeply affect­ed. She asked to be sent to the front lines, which was denied her. Dur­ing her self-crit­i­cism, the young woman point­ed out her lack of expe­ri­ence which led her to be influ­enced in her deci­sions; she under­lined the extent to which it was dif­fi­cult to com­mand men who do not always accept a wom­an’s author­i­ty, and apply prac­ti­cal­ly the way of life pro­posed in the wom­en’s move­ment, the PAJK. She end­ed with these words: “I under­stood how I had lost and failed and I am learn­ing how to win. I think I am capa­ble of being a PAJK fight­er deserv­ing the lead­er’s love. I will always be an uncom­pro­mis­ing mil­i­tant in fair comradeship”.
The let­ter is dat­ed August 9 2016.

Sêal, on the right, dur­ing a Newroz cel­e­bra­tion, in the ear­ly years of the 2010 decade.

Some eight months lat­er, Arïn died in com­bat. Two days before the announce­ment of Sêal’s death, on April 5th, if one relies on the PYG’s offi­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Did Arîn con­fide her diaries to her before leav­ing on oper­a­tion, as fre­quent­ly hap­pened? Were the two women close to one anoth­er? On a video undoubt­ed­ly record­ed short­ly before this, she is seen for  a few sec­onds with Sêal as the two women seem to be prepar­ing for a new night oper­a­tion. On anoth­er video, they are cook­ing togeth­er. Arîn’s writ­ings stop with this let­ter of August 9 2016. In a page of her diary, a few months ear­li­er, she was already express­ing the regret of hav­ing so lit­tle time to write. Sêal’s name is not men­tioned, but per­haps the two women had not met yet. In any event, Sêal decid­ed to keep Arîn’s diaries with her own. Per­haps with the thought of send­ing them on to her fam­i­ly some day.

Did she then leave for the fight with rage in her bel­ly, with the thought of aveng­ing the death of her com­rade? She had seen so many of her friends fall, includ­ing her cousin Mazlum, the fos­ter broth­er she loved so well, killed dur­ing the sec­ond oper­a­tion on Tal Hamis in 2015. “The mar­tyrs are our lead­ers, we will not move back, we will not kneel, we will resist” she had writ­ten in her diary, at an unknown date. Or did Arîn and Sêal fall side by side? The YPG do not always com­mu­ni­cate all the deaths at the same time, in order to insure prop­er iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the fam­i­lies. Arîn’s death notice men­tions the vil­lages of Saf­safah as the place of death; that of Sêal, Raqqa.

Derik ceme­tery of mar­tyrs, in April 2018

The nar­ra­tion of mil­i­tary oper­a­tions allows for a lear­er pic­ture. In the night of March 21 to 22nd 2017, the bat­tle to reclaim the town of Tabqa began, with the trans­porta­tion by heli­copter of Amer­i­can spe­cial forces and 500 fighers of the Syr­i­an Demo­c­ra­t­ic Forces (FDS) to the south of the town, to allow for its encir­cling. The fight­ing raged on, notably for the cap­ture of a bad­ly dam­aged damn threat­en­ing to rup­ture and drown the val­ley of the Euphrates. A brief cease-fire was ordered so that tech­ni­cians could pro­ceed to emer­gency repairs. The total encir­cling of Tabqa was achieved on April 5th and 6th 2017 when the FDS closed off the road lead­ing to Raqqa by seiz­ing Saf­safah, a group of vil­lages fif­teen kilo­me­ters East of the town, on the shores of the Euphrates. The loca­tion takes its name from the Mediter­ranean wil­lows that one finds there. Hun­dreds of olive trees grow there, and fields sur­round the vil­lage: a strate­gic loca­tion to keep ISIS from send­ing rein­force­ment to Tabqa.

The Jihadists had retrenched there. They knew their days were num­bered and they fight fierce­ly. Accord­ing to news sources, the fight­ing in Saf­safah last­ed close to forty hours, dur­ing which two jour­nal­ists were wound­ed, ten sui­cide-attacks were repelled and eight vehi­cles loaded with explo­sives were destroyed. The ISIS fight­ers used the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion as human shields, com­pli­cat­ing the task for the FDS who attempt­ed to pre­serve the lives of the inhab­i­tants and to evac­u­ate as many of them as pos­si­ble. Cor­nered, the Jihadists mul­ti­plied the sui­cide-attacks and mor­tar shellings.

Sêal’s fam­i­ly was told she had fall­en into a trap. Ruken says the fol­low­ing: “They were six kadros com­rades. Heval Sêal was the sev­enth. Nor­mal­ly, only kadros are on the front line, local fight­ers are in a sup­port­ing sec­ond line. But Sêal was with the kadros in the front line. The Jihadists set up a trap: two women and four of the male com­rades were killed instant­ly. This was on the sec­ond or the third day of the oper­a­tions.” In the pub­li­ca­tion announc­ing Sêal’s mar­tyr­dom, along with that of five oth­er fight­ers, she is the only one whose place of death is indi­cat­ed as “Rak­ka”. For the oth­ers who fell on April 5 to 7, the men­tion is that of the vil­lages of Saf­safah. In fact, the bat­tle to lib­er­ate Raqqa only began on June 6 2017. In the press release announc­ing the death of Arîn, all the fight­ers have Turk­ish-sound­ing names which implies they were cadres trained in the PKK. And all were killed in Saf­safah. Thus, it appears cer­tain that Sêal also died there, even if it is hard to know if the two women died at the same time. Their dif­fer­ent sta­tus, the one a PKK kadro, and the oth­er a “local” YPJ fight­er, may also explain why their deaths were not announced at the same time.

Tabqa was final­ly retak­en on May 20 2017, after three and a half years under ISIS rule. Accord­ing to a coali­tion gen­er­al, the FDS lost some hun­dred fight­ers in the battle.

Sêal’s tomb, May 2021

Derik martyr’s cemetery, May 2021

Before her death, Sêal had start­ed to glue into a spi­ral note­book pho­tos of fight­ers she had known who had fall­en as mar­tyrs, along with dried flow­ers. Ronî, Harûn, Der­sim, Têkos­er, Mazlum, Sahîn, Rizgar…She want­ed to tell their sto­ry. Now, she lies among them in the Mar­tyrs’ ceme­tery in Derik, a few hours dri­ve to the East of her native village.

In the clear morn­ing light, the white mar­ble tombs in the ceme­tery are lined up, all iden­ti­cal. They are dec­o­rat­ed with green­ery. On a few of them, flow­ers have been laid out; here and there, a scarf or a pho­to dec­o­rates one of them. It is ear­ly, the air is still cool. A few women, their faces wrapped in a scarf as pro­tec­tion against the sun that will soon turn scorch­ing hot, clean the alley­ways with water and see to the upkeep of the tombs.  Lost among that of thou­sands of oth­er fight­ers who fell for the free­dom of their peo­ple, Sêal’s tomg is on the same row as those of the com­rades who died by her side. To her left, Arjîn, then Arîn. 28, 22 and 23 years old.

A vast plain of cul­ti­vat­ed fields spreads out around the ceme­tery. Green for a few weeks in the spring, it will quick­ly turn straw yel­low. The Tigris runs there, obliv­i­ous to the bor­ders imposed by Nation-States on the peo­ple who live there. Fur­ther back still, the mas­sive shad­ow of the Cûdi moun­tains stand against the sky, the name Sêal had cho­sen for her sec­ond name – or  the one that was assigned to her.  It is on this moun­tain at the meet­ing point of three fron­tiers, Turkey, Syr­ia and Irak, that the first Chris­tians locat­ed the land­ing of Noah’s ark. Gen­e­sis will move it over to Mount Ararat, before the Coran final­ly brings it back on Cûdi. Today, those who lie at its feet are Mus­lims, Chris­tians or athe­ists. Kurds, Arabs, Assyr­i­ans, Arme­ni­ans from the region or fur­ther off, who died defend­ing, this one a land, that one his or her free­dom, and anoth­er the ide­al of a soci­ety with more justice.

She­hîd namirin ’ ”the mar­tyrs don’t die”, chant mil­lions of voices.

All photos by Loez.
Header photograph: Sêal, on Ronahi TV

Trans­la­tion by Renée Lucie Bourges

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Pho­to-jour­nal­iste indépendant
Loez s’in­téresse depuis plusieurs années aux con­séquences des États-nations sur le peu­ple kurde, et aux luttes de celui-ci.