Our plan for today was to head south from Qamishli down to Al Hasakah, obtain necessary permission from the SDF base there, and then head further south to the town of Al Shaddadah. Al Shaddadah was initially captured on the 14th of February, 2013 by the Islamist Al-Nusra Front, and then subsequently by ISIS. After two years of ISIS control, it was liberated on 20 February 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
An overhead road sign just before a checkpoint to Al Hasakah. Amongst the destinations is the disputed city of Aleppo and Al-Raqqah, the headquarters of ISIS in Syria.
Stopping for coffee and biscuits on the way.
At about 10am, we made it to the main SDF base in the city of Al Hasakah. The SDF is a multi-ethnic alliance composed of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen and other minorities formed in October 2015 with the primary goal of fighting and defeating ISIS and Al-Nusra Front.
A soldier carries ammunition at the SDF base in Al Hasakah. The YPG make up the majority of the fighters in the alliance, and although the US-led coalition has hesitated in arming the YPG directly, they have received materiel support indirectly as being part of the SDF.
General Tala Silo, the spokesman for the SDF in Al Hasakah. Mr. Silo, a Turkmen, was previously with the Regime, but switched sides 4 years previously. After a brief chat about our plans for the day, he gave us the necessary paperwork to allow us to continue to Al Shaddadah.
A shot-up sign to Damascus, Palmyra and Deir Ezzor on the outskirts of Al Hasakah. Also note the damaged and non-functional powerlines in the background.
Two destroyed ISIS Humvees and a truck on the road to Al Shaddadah.
Over 2,000 Iraqi Army Humvee's were captured by ISIS after the fall of the iraqi city of Mosul in 2014 and many were taken for their operations to Syria.
After arriving at Al Shaddadah we met up with a group of YPJ (Women's Protection Units), who welcomed us and made us some coffee. As we were chatting, a Regime MiG-21 flew low overhead, presumably on a reconnaissance mission.
They had just rotated off the frontline further south and were enjoying a respite from the battle against ISIS.
It was my first real chance to meet with a YPJ unit on the trip, so when I asked if I could take a few portraits, they were very happy to oblige.
It was hard to comprehend the risks, pressures and dangers that they regularly face at such a young age, and how seemingly calm, confident and strong-willed they appeared to be. Apart a very small stipend of ~$70 per month, their participation in this struggle was voluntary, and motivated purely by the desire to establish and defend a free and democratic region in Syria.
And my camera gear in a bit of a mess at the end.
Al Shaddadah is a strategic oil town, with significant reserves nearby at the Jabisah and Kabibah Oil Fields and the al-Ghabsa Gas field. On the outskirts of town, there were serveral accommodation blocks for the oil engineers and workers, which were subsequently occupied by ISIS when they captured the city.
One of the YPJ fighters showing us a bunker that was built by ISIS for shelter against airstikes. It was connected via a tunnel to the accommodation blocks just behind.
A discarded ISIS oil receipt on the ground. Sales of oil from Al Shaddadah, either to other parts of Syria or smuggled north across the border into Turkey, was an important source of revenue for ISIS.
Low-rise accommodation, previously occupied by the Oil engineers before being occupied by the ISIS fighters.
Various detritus inside the accommodations.
An ISIS religious book. One of the very extremist literature, read by “Wahhabis” and authored by their leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
Assault rifle casings amongst clothes scattered on the floor.
An ISIS magazine. It was very professionally produced with modern graphic design.
Other various ISIS paperwork, pamphlets and other literature we found inside.
A warehouse request order to deliver a number of trucks with a shipment. Most likely the shipment is crude oil.
Another ISIS magazine.
Turkish books to learn Arabic.
The YPJ fighters said that there were alot of Turkish ISIS militants killed during the battle to liberate Al-Shaddadah.
Another bunker built to take shelter during Coalition airstrikes.
A kitchen sink full of dishes. It was quite surreal to wander about where ISIS fighters used to live, cook, eat, sleep and bathe.
A personal letter written in Indonesian. There is an estimated ~500-700 people from Indonesia fighting for ISIS.
An ISIS religious book given to soldiers in military camps.
Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham written on the compound wall.
A large cache of ISIS documentation, including sale documents of oil from the nearby oil and gas fields.
A room with a reinforced metal door and heavy lock that had been added.
Inside the room the window had a metal grill added and numerous mattresses on the floor, suggesting that the room was possibly used to detain people. Yazidi women who had been captured by ISIS after the Sinjar massacre were taken to Al-Shaddadah and sold as sex slaves at an infamous bazaar in the town.
50 calibre casings littered on the ground. The Iraqi Army Humvee's captured by ISIS were equipped with 50 calibre machine guns.
YPJ and YPG fighters atop a captured Humvee that had left behind by ISIS. They were now using it for their fight against ISIS.
At about 1pm the YPJ fighters invited us to have some lunch. We chatted about their lives with the battle against ISIS. One of the fighters said that when she had recently been on the frontlines, their position had been attacked by ISIS, with three of her comrades martyred. She was the only survivor and had to wait 8 hours until she was rescued by another unit.
They described how after the SDF had liberated many towns and villages, there were many civilians in them still sympathetic to ISIS. Some civilians had asked the YPG & YPJ fighters to come to their houses to defuse mines left by ISIS, but once inside, captured and killed the fighters in revenge attacks.
Also often when they liberated a village, some women would leave their babies behind, but rigged up to an explosive mine. When the YPJ fighters ventured into the houses and went to pick up the abandoned baby, both would be killed. The mothers twisted belief was that her baby would go to heaven for having died a martyr by being killed along with the YPJ fighter.
They also said that they would often prefer to be on a position on the frontlines, fighting directly with ISIS, rather than 10 kilometres behind in the liberated civilian areas, where the threat from ISIS sympathisers was much more hidden and perhaps much more dangerous.
AK-47 at the ready while we were eating lunch.
After lunch, a YPG fighter took us to venture to the rest of the former ISIS buildings. This building was a former ISIS education centre. ISIS closed down government schools when they captured an area, and introduced new curricula that banned the teaching of art, music, national history, literature and christianity.
When then ventured into some of the other ISIS fighter accommodations.
Wires and connections used to manufacture mines and bombs.
A disarmed mine nearby.
In amongst a jumble of clothes is the infamous ISIS Black Standard.
A potent symbol often seen on TV, waved about after murderous rampages when conquering towns and villages and plastered all over their own slickly produced internet video's while boasting about their latest atrocities, it was both quite surreal and initimidating to see one up close.
A poem we found written on a wall of an apartment by a French-speaking ISIS fighter. It seemed to be a farewell to his loved one before his journey to 'paradise'.
For you, OUMMI
Apologise, o light of my life.
Forgive the mistakes of my life and I apologize.
I did not want to hurt you o my sweet Heart.
But the paradise calls me and wants me,
I apologize, and don't say I have abandoned you,
How could I abandon the only person Who worries for me in this world ...
How could I make you cry?
Whereas you are the dearest to my soul and to my eyes.
You are more dear to me than the day my heart loves the most
and you are the person who understands me the best.
If you knew the reality, you could not make any reproaches to me.
Mam, I refuse the humiliation continues.
I'm going to get a house Fal Jema for us.
An ISIS tenancy document in one of the apartments.
Islamic book used to understand and practice correct Islamic principles. Normally available in libraries, schools and homes but now used by ISIS also to bolster their religious facade.
ISIS soldier identification card. For Abu Musa’ab al-Zahrawi and valid for 3 months.
The back of a ISIS police overcoat for the “Baraka” area. The ISIS police are purportedly more powerful than ISIS soldiers themselves, with extrajudicial detainment and torture common.
An ISIS mosque named after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the 1st Emir of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to ISIS, and was killed by a US airstrike in June 2006.
On the mosque entrance there were a few memo's that gave an interesting insight to the more mundane aspects of governance under ISIS. An announcement for the opening of a new motorcycle registration center. "Will be seriously punished whoever not following the new rules by new registration".
And a memo for non-Arabic speaking ISIS fighters needing home repair.
And inside the mosque where undoubtedly extreme hate, twisted logic and horrific vile was brainwashed into the ISIS fighters.
We then drove into the centre of town where we met another YPJ unit. A couple of them spoke reasonable English and were keen to practice abit of it with us.
A YPG fighter on guard in the centre of town. His AK-47 rifle had a US AR-15 stock.
Although the town was liberated and civilians were starting to come back, all the shops were closed. As we peered into a few shops, the sweet smell of women's perfume emanated from one, and next door the pungent smell of rotting food wafted out from another.
A sign above a shop where the tobacco and cigarettes has been blacked out, as per their ban by ISIS.
An ISIS 'seal of approval' that had been painted on each of the shop rolling doors.
A boy who had ventured out on his bicycle. We had a chat with him and he said he was glad that ISIS had gone, as now he could go back to school.
An ISIS sign for ladies dress. "Oh sister, you are just like an 'untouched diamond' with your proper dress".
Ahmed, a member of the YPG from Al Hasakah. Although a majority of the YPG fighters are Kurdish, they have a sizable minority of Arab fighters in their ranks.
We then visited the local hospital. Previously built by the Regime, but subsequently taken over by ISIS, it was being cleaned out by a YPG doctor (on the left) to be used to treat injured SDF fighters.
The hospital had been occupied by ISIS, and had suffered some damage during the battle to liberate Al-Shaddadah by the SDF forces.
The YPG doctor then gave us a tour of the hospital. ISIS commanders had lived on the ground floor in the hope that the building (and themselves) would be saved from coalition airstrikes. The basement was used to treat injured ISIS fighters.
A medical training area with both Arabic and English medical writing on the wall. As there were no windows in the basement our only lighting was from the flash lights on our cellphones.
Gunshot, mines, fragments.
There was also significant documentation, both medical and other, such as this letter dated April 12th, 2015, warning all teachers to not move to areas controlled by governments for sake of receiving salaries. It is a “sin” and you have to step back if you are already involved, otherwise the punishment will be serious.
Below in the basement was a triage area for injured fighters. The semi-darkness attentuated the eerie and ghostly feel of where doctors and nurses worked to save injured and dying ISIS fighters.
Dried blood and used bandages on the floor.
After the tour of the hospital we were invited for some tea and a chat with the doctor and other YPG personnel.
The YPG doctor had been trained in Damascus. The government had not built any universities in the Kurdish cities as part of its policy to weaken and forcibly disperse Kurds across the country. We talked about the hospital under ISIS, and how it was restricted to only ISIS fighters and their supporters. The doctors and nurses had retreated with ISIS when they fled Al-Shaddadah. It wasn't clear if they were forced or not, but the doctor said it was likely that they were not coerced and were actively and voluntarily supporting ISIS.
As the hospital was close to the frontlines, it will now be used to treat injured SDF fighters. As civilians slowly come back to Al Shaddadah, the doctor said that a small clinic is planned in the centre of town to treat them.
As dusk was approaching, we bid farewell and started the journey back to Qamishli.
On the outskirts of Al Hasakah again. On the top of the structure was a bullet-ridden portrait of the late Syrian President and father of the current President Hafez al-Assad.
Back in Qamishli we visited Gabriel, a Syriac Christian and liquor store owner. After visiting a town where alcohol, tobacco, schools and showing a womens face in public was up until recently forbidden, it was quite refreshing to drink a beer to bring us back to near-normality.
We then ended up at local restaurant for some fish, caught fresh from the Tigris, and some more beer to relax after the long but very interesting day.