“I was not scared from the beginning and I am still not scared,” said Walat. “I fight to protect my people, my life here and the land I am standing on.” Photo by Carl Drott
By Carl Drott
DERIK, Syrian Kurdistan—Walat and a fellow Syrian Kurdish fighter had little time to react when they were attacked in late July by al-Qaeda forces on a frontline close to the Syrian-Kurdish border.
Walat, 27, who has been fighting for the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG), said the attackers came in tanks and armored personnel carriers and were from Jabhat al-Nusrah, one of the many al-Qaeda affiliates fighting in the increasingly comples Syrian civil war.
“As soon as they reached our positions, they got off the tanks and started shooting. My friend had to retreat through a tunnel and I stayed to give him covering fire,” said Walat, who like most fighters goes by a nom de guerre.
While his friend managed to get away, Walat himself was captured and beaten with rifle butts by his Islamist captors. Together with a female YPG fighter who was captured in the same battle outside the village of Yusifiye, he was taken to an underground prison in the area of Souk al-Hurra in Til Kocer.
The female fighter was placed in her own cell, while Walat was locked up with a fellow YPG combatant who was captured in an earlier battle.
Over the next few days, the Kurdish prisoners were beaten, terrorised and threatened with a knife.
“They were beating and terrorising us,” said Walat. “Sometimes they held a knife to our necks and told us that they would cut them.”
The leader – or emir -- of the unit that captured Walat went by the name of Ahmad al-Shami, his last name indicating he was a Syrian, most likely from Damascus.
Walat remembers that while some of the Islamist fighters were Syrian nationals, others had come from countries like Egypt and Tunisia. He said there were even a few Kurds from Turkey or Iraq among the Islamists.
After three or four days the beatings and threats ceased. During common visits to the bathroom, Walat discovered that there were also civilian men and women in the prison. He later learned that they had been abducted from the town of Serekaniye (Ras al-Ayn) because their sons had joined the YPG – a clear violation of international law.
On September 3, nearly six weeks after his capture, Walat was blindfolded and -- together with his two fellow fighters and seven civilians – was transported to an unknown village, where a meeting had been arranged with the YPG. There, the 10 prisoners were exchanged for 14 fighters from Jabhat al-Nusrah.
In spite of his ordeal, Walat says he will continue to fight alongside the YPG.
“I was not scared from the beginning and I am still not scared,” he said. “I fight to protect my people, my life here and the land I am standing on.”
On the day after of the prisoner exchange, the YPG launched an offensive against Til Kocer and its surrounding villages.
According to a source in the Kurdish units the town serves as the main supply base in northeastern Syria for Jabhat al-Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), another al-Qaeda affiliate.
During intense fighting that lasted over a week, the YPG managed to inflict heavy losses on the Islamists, but failed in repeated attempts to capture Til Kocer.
In the pre-dawn hours of September 11, Jabhat al-Nusrah and ISIL launched a counter-offensive against Yusufiye and other villages north of Til Kocer that had been left with only modest protection. Nine Kurdish fighters lost their lives and twenty more were wounded in this night alone.
The date of the attack was probably chosen to mark the 12th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States.
The Kurdish fighters have fought intermittently against both regime and opposition forces since early on in the Syrian conflict, but in general they have tried to avoid confrontation with both sides.
Syria’s Kurdish areas had remained relatively safe until July this year, when Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched major attacks from the south.