To The Frontlines Against ISIS - dswphoto
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  • To The Frontlines Against ISIS

My trip to Northern Syria and Iraq, walking through the bustling bazaar in Duhok, inspecting a captured ISIS UAV drone in West Kirkuk, avoiding Syrian Regime checkpoints in Qamishli, seeing first-hand the destruction of Kobanî after surviving the onslaught of over 9,000 ISIS militants, looking over into ISIS territory along the frontlines on the Euphrates river and meeting the brave YPG and YPJ fighters leading the battle against ISIS in the recently liberated Al Shaddadah.


Day 1.

Outside Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) for my early morning flight to Doha. I had flown into Al Maktoum Airport before, but this was my first time flying out.


My flights for the trip were on Qatar Airways (QR), flying to Iraq's Erbil International Airport via Doha (DWC-DOH-EBL), and the reverse for the return back to Dubai.


Below is the Syria map of control as of April 4th 2016, three days before my departure. After flying into Northern Iraq, I entered Northern Syria via the Semalka border crossing (A), and then travelled to Qamishli (B), Amuda (C), Tell Abyad (D), Kobanî (E), Sarrin (F), Tishrin Dam (G), Hasakah (H) and Shaddadah (I).


After checking in I went to the Marhaba lounge for an early morning snack and to wait for my flight to Doha. Although I had been to other unstable destinations before such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and despite planning and preparation to ensure that this trip was within a reasonable risk threshold, I still had some pre-trip nerves and fleeting second-thoughts as to whether it was safe to be travelling to Syria with the continuing civil war.

This apprehension was accompanied however by restrained excitement for the opportunity to see first hand the emerging Syrian automonous state of Rojava that had recently been declared, despite the many opposing forces that sought to undermine its existence.


On the tarmac at 5am, ready for boarding. I got a slight surprise when instead of the burgundy Qatar Airways (QR) logo, the A320 was covered in the green Al Maha Airways livery instead. After a quick Google I realised that Al Maha was actually a low-cost subsidiary of Qatar Airways with plans to fly in Saudi Arabia. It was still awaiting regulatory approval however, and hence its aircraft were being used on short Qatar Airways trips in the interim.


Chicken sandwich, cupcake and OJ served on the short hop to Doha.


Banking left over Al Khor before lining up for finals into Hamad International Airport (DOH).


A quick glimpse of the famous giant yellow teddy bear during my short transit in Doha.


And after a short bus-ride, boarding the QR A320 for the 3.5 hour flight to Erbil.


Another airliner just above and to the left of us, over the mountains in eastern Turkey. The flight from Doha to Erbil took a slightly unexpected route, flying through Iran, over into Turkey and then heading south into Iraq.


After landing in Erbil and getting my 30 day visa for Northern Iraq, I caught the bus to the arrival terminal to meet up with Jan, my fixer/translator/guide I had organised for the trip.


After meeting Jan for the first time after conversing via email for the last few months, we then caught a taxi for the drive to the Iraqi city of Dohuk.


As the Semalka border crossing into Syria closed at 2pm, we were too late to cross today. Also unfortunately the border had recently started closing on Fridays, hence we would have to wait an additional day in Iraq tomorrow before crossing over into Syria on Saturday morning.

The most direct route from Erbil to Duhok was via Mosul. However due to Mosul now being under the control of ISIS, we had to take a more northerly route.


After arriving in Duhok at about 2pm, we checked into the Parwar Hotel for our two night stay.


And the view of Duhok from my balcony. The hotel was right next to a Peshmerga base and was the hotel of choice for UN staff here working with the refugee camps.


Myself and Jan then headed out to grab some lunch at a local restaurant. We had some interesting conversation about the various factions in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Originally from the Syrian district of Afrin, he had fled to Northern Iraq after persecution by the Syrian Regime for his cultural activism and was now living in Sulaymaniyah.
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Although I had done alot of reading and research on the current conflict and the different parties involved, it was great to discuss it with Jan and for him to share his in-depth knowledge and first-hand experience of the region and the current situation.

Fruits & vegetables. After lunch we headed for a walk into the city for the afternoon.


Mother. Although I had visited Northern Iraq before, it was my first time to the city of Dohuk.


Two Kurdish men wearing the traditional cemedanî.


Dohuk Bazaar.


We then continued our conversation from lunch while drinking some sugary çay.


Roof top. We then caught a taxi back to the hotel where I promptly crashed out for a few hours after being up since 2am.


After a few hours nap, we had a simple dinner of Zatila (Kurdish bread stuffed with cheese) from the local bakery with some more çay while we discussed our plan for tomorrow before heading to Syria on Saturday.



Day 2.

While we had breakfast at the hotel, Jan introduced me to our driver in Duhok. Mr. Khudeda, a Yazidi, who used to live with his family in the Iraqi city of Sinjar but was now living in a refugee camp near Duhok. In August 2014, during the course of their second Northern Iraq offensive, ISIS seized control of the city of Sinjar. In the following days, ISIS killed 2,000–5,000 Yazidi men and took many Yazidi women into slavery, leading to a mass exodus of Yazidi residents from Sinjar. About 50,000 of these Yazidis fled into the Sinjar Mountains where they became trapped without food, water or medical care.

Between the 9th and 11th of August, Syrian Kurdish militants from the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, or People's Protection Units) and Kurdish militants from the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, or Kurdistan Workers' Party) established a safe corridor which allowed much of them to escape to safety into Syria.

When Mr. Khudeda and his family fled Sinjar, he had to abandon his vehicle in the Sinjar Mountains. After finding refuge near Duhok, he enlisted the help of Kurdish militants to retrieve his car, and was thus be able to make some kind of living while in the refugee camp.

Some UN 4WD's outside our hotel. Our plan for today was to drive to West Kirkuk, close to the Iraqi Kurdish frontlines with ISIS, and meet with Dr. Kemal Kirkuki, the Head of Public Relations Office for the KDP, one of the main Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan.


On our drive out of Duhok, we stopped at a Yazidi refugee camp. As it was a Friday, we could not unfortunately locate the camp manager to obtain permission to enter the camp.


We then stopped at an informal camp where some refugee's were staying. While they can obtain better services inside the formal camps, some of the Yazidi prefer the freedom to be outside, and without the restrictions that living in a formal camp entails.


As we got closer to West Kirkuk, we stopped at restaurant for some tasty lamb kebab for lunch.


After the ~3 hour drive from Duhok, we arrived at the Peshmerga base where Dr. Kirkuki had his office. Dr. Kirkuki was formerly the Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament.


We discussed with Dr. Kirkuki the current state of the battle against ISIS near Kirkuk as well as the greater goal of Kurdish independence. Since the takeover of Kirkuk by Peshmerga forces after the Iraqi Army abandoned the city during the first Northern iraq offensive by ISIS in 2014, there had been increasing calls by the Kurdish Government for an independent Kurdish State from Iraq.

From the Al-Anfal genocide under Saddam Hussein to the current battle against ISIS, Dr. Kirkuki said it was not possible for the Iraqi Kurds to continue to be under the rule of the Sunni or Shia Arabs that they had been subjugated by since the Sykes–Picot Agreement was implemented after WWI.

Dr. Kirkuki's zone on the frontline with ISIS was 44 kilometres long and 38 kilometres deep. Currently the Peshmerga forces were 1-2 kilometres from ISIS on the frontline but were as close to 50 metres at one stage, and were able to see the ISIS militant faces and talk directly to each other.

Attacks from ISIS occurred on the frontline almost everyday, and the previous night there had been a large scale attack by the militants. Luckily the Peshmerga had received prior intelligence of the attack, and after communicating with the Joint Coalition Coordination Center (JCCC) in Erbil, many ISIS militants were killed and maimed by Coalition airstrikes before they could reach and attack the Peshmerga forces.

Dr. Kirkuki then walked us through the progess made against ISIS (red dots) near Kirkuk and the advances made by the Peshmerga (blue dots) over the past 18 months.



In one large battle, ISIS had fired 252 Katyusha rockets and used several armoured bulldozers to attack Peshmerga positions. In January 2015, an ISIS Humvee filled with TNT was neutralised after the Peshmerga killed the militants driving it while Dr. Kirkuki was present. Seven minutes after he departed to meet another Peshmerga unit, the Humvee loaded with TNT detonated, killing many of the Peshmerga soldiers.

A large battle with ISIS in January 2015 had resulted in 452 militants killed. After this, Dr. Kirkuki said that ISIS had lost most of its professional soldiers, and since then their tactics had not been as successful.

The nearby town of Hawija, only 22 kilometres from where we were, is controlled by tribal fighters affiliated with ISIS. Dr. Kirkuki said as the priority was to avoid civilian casualties, the ISIS militants were mixing with the local Sunni Arab's, and even wearing civilians clothes to avoid detection.

Strangely, Dr. Kirkuki had said that as the Peshmerga had advanced south outside of Kirkuk against ISIS, they had been attacked on three separate occasions by aircraft from the Iraqi Airforce. On a subsequent fourth occasion the Peshmerga retaliated and fired back, and since then there had been no further Iraqi Airforce attacks. This was interpreted as a signal that the Central Iraqi Government did not want the Kurds to expand their territory further into disputed areas.

A Chinese-made drone fitted with cameras that ISIS had used for reconnaissance (and lost) on the frontline.


After thanking Dr. Kirkuki for the very interesting meeting, we started the journey back to Duhok. On the way back, myself, Jan (left) and Mr. Khudeda (centre) stopped at the restaurant of Dr. Kirkuki's brother (on the right) for some coffee. His brother had went to University in the UK and had then lived there for 30 years. He had recently come back to Iraqi Kurdistan now that Kirkuk was back under Kurdish control.


And stopping at a Petrol Station to fill up Mr. Khudeda's Hyundai SUV on the way back to Duhok.


We arrived back in Duhok at about 9pm, and after a quick dinner and some çay, headed to bed to get some rest before our border crossing over the Tigris river tomorrow and into Syria.


Day 3.

The sun rising over the hills outside the balcony of my hotel room on the mornng of day 3. My doubts about heading to Syria had now gradually ebbed away, supplanted by both nervous excitement and anticipation.


After breakfast at the hotel again, we met up with Mr. Khudeda for the drive to the Syrian border.


The drive west from Duhok to the Semalka border crossing took approximately one hour. On the way we passed several more refugee camps with Yazidi who had escaped from Sinjar.


We arrived at the Semalka border crossing at about 10am. The border crossing was situated ~1 kilometre downstream from the Iraqi-Syrian-Turkish border tripoint. Also crossing over today were three western contractors from Canada, USA and the UK who were headed to Amuda to train IED/bomb disposal technicians, and two Spanish journalists based in Beirut.

After completing the necessary border formalities on the Iraqi side, we then hopped into a small, flat-bottom boat for the short ride over the Tigris and onto Syria. On the banks of the river on the other side there were numerous Syrians waiting to make the journey back over to Iraq. Also visible on the hills in the background was the green and yellow symbols of the YPJ (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin‎, or Women's Protection Units) and the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, or People's Protection Units).


And my registration for my arrival into the Jazira Canton (Kantona Cizîrê) of Syria. The Kurdish people were very welcoming, offering us tea & coffee, and a place to sit down while they registered our passports. Definitely not the usual overland border crossings I had encountered previously with suspicious and unhelpful border personnel.


At about 11:30am we headed west with the two Spanish journalists for the journey to Amuda to register at the Jazira Canton Media Centre. The surrounding countryside was very green, with wheat fields in all directions.


The journey to Amuda would take us ~3 hours.


A stationary Pumpjack. The north of Syria is strategically important as it contains a large percentage of Syria's oil supplies. With the Syrian Civil war there is limited route for both export and facilities for refining, and hence most of oil production is used domestically and the rest has been idled.


The first steps toward creating an autonomous Kurdish region within Syria began shortly after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, when the Kurds largely excluded themselves from the opposition Syrian National Council due to the involvement of Turkey. Instead, the Kurdish Supreme Committee was formed by agreement between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) under the guidance of Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani in July 2012.

A small store in the countryside. After seeing images of destruction and mayhem on television of Syria, it was quite enlightening to see relative peace and calm.


In the same month, the YPG, a guerrilla combat force and considered as the armed wing of the PYD, captured the Kurdish city of Kobanî and then followed with the capture of Amuda and Efrîn. The cities fell without any major clashes with Syrian security forces, as they had largely pulled out to fight elsewhere.

A mother and her children playing as we passed through a small village on our way to Amuda.


YPG control quickly spread to other Kurdish towns and cities with little resistance, and on the 2nd of August, 2012, it was announced that with the exception of Qamishli and Hasakah, Kurdish dominated cities in Syria were now being governed by Kurdish political parties.

Approaching one of the frequent security checkpoints we had to stop at on the way. Flying high above is the green flag of the YPJ. The YPJ was set up in 2012 and is the female brigade of the YPG.


A family travelling in the back of a pick-up as we passed through a town.


On the 17th March 2016, at a conference in Rmeilan, the PYD and along with allied Syrian Turkmen, Arab, Christian and Kurdish officials, voted to create the Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava.

As well as Kurds, there are Arabs, Assyrians, Yazidi, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens\Circassians living in Rojava.


Alley.


Motorbike.


Some goats in the back of a Hyundai truck as we passed through Qamishli on our way to Amuda. On the left is a billboard of Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan is one of the founding members of the Kurdish militant organization, the PKK. In July 1979 he fled Turkey and into Syria where he remained until October 1998 when Syria expelled him. He was captured in Kenya in February 1999 and has remained in Turkish custody ever since.


We finally arrived in Amuda just after 2pm and went to the media centre to register our arrival and obtain the necessary paperwork for our drive tomorrow to Kobanî.


The media centre was located in a secure 'green-zone' in the centre of town.


One of the Spanish photojournalists was quite an interesting guy who had spent five years living and working in Pakistan performing freelance work for media organisations such as the New York Times. He said he had to leave however after constant harassment from the Pakistan Intelligence agencies, and was now based in Beirut.

One of his friends, another Spanish photographer, had been held hostage for the last 8 months by the al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front. Although we were in relatively stable Northern Syria and away from the areas under complete control by the Syrian Government Regime, ISIS and other Islamist militia's, it was a reminder of the elevated risk and ever present danger in this part of the world. On the 8th of May, after the trip, his friend was finally released along with two other Spanish journalists.

The Spanish photographer also showed me the level of passion for his craft with a tattoo he had gotten on his left arm of his very first camera!


After registering at the Jazira Canton media centre and enjoying a cup of coffee, we went for a walk through the streets of Amuda.


Street corner. The news on the internet and on the TV I had seen of Syria was overwhelmingly dominated by coverage of destruction and death. I was keen to see and experience normal life however, with normal people continuing their everyday lives.


Front seat.


People were quite intrigued and happy to see a Westerner walking about, and most had no issues with me taking their photograph.


Car wash.


Repair.


Free Woman Square, that had replaced a previous statue of Hafez al-Assad.


Under the Assad Regime, the northern Kurdish language, Kurmanji, was banned. There were no Kurdish schools, books, newspapers, television and for a time parents were even forbidden from giving their children Kurdish names. However, walking down the main street in Amuda, not only Kurdish and Arabic were now used on signs, but also the language of the Assyrian minority.

Gold.


A local lady walking on the main street.


During our walk we stopped at a park that commemorated a fire at the Amuda Cinema on November 13, 1960, killing more than 200 Kurdish children.


Ladies.


Three gentlemen.


A member of the Asayish, the Kurdish internal security forces.


After our walk around Amuda, we went for the 20 minute drive back to Qamishli, the biggest city and the defacto capital of Rojava.

Qamishli was still partially controlled by the Syrian Government Regime, and as we drove through a Regime controlled neighbourhood we saw portraits of both Bashar al-Assad and Hafez al-Assad, as well as the flag of Syria.


We then checked into the Assia Hotel in the middle of the city for our one night in Qamishli. Very clean and perfectly comfortable.


We then went for a walk through Qamishli Bazaar.


We were approached by a suspicious Asayish officer after he saw me taking photographs. Luckily after showing him our paperwork we had gotten from the Amuda media centre and some friendly charm from Jan, he let us go in peace.


At a money exchange where I stopped to get some Syrian pounds. At the start of the civil war in March 2011 the exchange rate was 48 pounds to the US dollar. At the time of my visit however, it was ~500 pounds to the dollar and has since plummeted further.


Baker. He was very happy for me to take his photo and also gave us a free biscuit!


A gentleman with a big smile we had a quick chat with. His family had left Syria and were now living in Germany.


Apples.


This street was still under Regime control so it was not safe to walk down as I did not have a Syrian Regime issued visa.


A crop from the above photo, showing Regime soldiers and a portrait of Bashar al-Assad wearing sunglasses just visible to the left of the yellow taxi in the distance.


On February 15th, 2015, Swedish journalist Joachim Medin and his Kurdish interpreter Omar Sabri were arrested by Regime soldiers after passing a similar checkpoint in Qamishli. He was then held in an underground isolation cell and repeatedly interrogated. Later he was blindfolded, handcuffed and flown to the capital Damascus for questioning.

The YPG in turn kidnapped a high ranking pro-Assad official in retaliation and to use as leverage to release the Swedish journalist. 6 days after his arrest, Medin was released by the Syrian government.

Taxi.


For dinner we stopped at a restaurant and had roast chicken, bread, tabbouleh and hummus. While eating dinner we talked about the partial Regime control in Qamishli. Jan said that the YPG forces had opted for a non-confrontational approach against the Regime soldiers in the city. The Regime control of Qamishli was already weak, and he compared the remaining forces to worrying about 'snow in the spring'.


We then continued our walk in Qamishli as dusk fell. Above the street on the right is a banner with Abdullah Öcalan with outstretched arms.


Peace.


Candy.


Café. Although Qamishli is quite far from the frontlines with ISIS, it is not totally immune from their violence. In December 2015, 16 people were killed and 30 were injured in three blasts that targeted restaurants in Qamishli.


We then retired back to the hotel to get some rest before our early morning departure tomorrow for the long drive west to the city of Kobanî.



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