Breakfast at the hotel in Qamishli of Kurdish cheese, bread, sweet porridge and çay before beginning our journey south.
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 city 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), 8 weeks before our visit.
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.
Like Qamishli, the regime still maintains some control over Al Hasakah. While originally controlling the majority of the city, the regime quickly wilted after ISIS attempted to capture the city during the Battle of al-Hasakah in June 2015 and lost large areas of control of the city. These areas were then captured by the YPG when ISIS was defeated and expelled from the city.
A soldier carries a crate of 14.5×114mm heavy machine gun 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 onto 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.
The absurdity of US-backed forces using US weaponry to destroy US-made military vehicles is perhaps an apt reflection of the very complicated mess in the Middle East that America is reluctantly being forced to deal with.
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 forward line further south and were enjoying a respite from the battle against ISIS.
It was my first real chance to meet with a YPJ unit, so when I asked if I could take a few portraits, they were very happy to oblige.
YPJ Fighter Dilbirîn Robar.
YPJ Fighter Tolvîn Nidal.
YPJ Fighter Lîlav Hesekê.
YPJ Fighter Zîlan Birûsk.
It was hard to comprehend the risks, pressures and dangers that these brave warriors regularly faced 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. Although the rooms had already been searched and cleared, we had to be very careful to avoid any possible explosive mines or traps that ISIS may have left.
An ISIS religious book. One of the most 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 was 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 (ISIS) 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 been 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. However, once inside they captured and killed the YPG & YPJ 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.
Kalashnikov 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 curriculae that banned the teaching of art, music, national history, literature and Christianity.
We 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 was 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 intimidating 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 mother before his journey to 'paradise'.
For you, Mother.
Apologise, oh light of my life.
Forgive the mistakes of my life and I apologize.
I did not want to hurt you oh 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 in paradise for us.
An ISIS tenancy document in one of the apartments.
An Islamic book used to understand and practice correct Islamic principles. Normally available in libraries, schools and homes but now used by ISIS to bolster their religious facade.
An 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 former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor to ISIS. Al-Zarqawi was killed by Iraqi and US forces with an 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 vitriol was brainwashed into the ISIS militants.
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 Al Shaddadah. His Kalashnikov rifle seemingly also had an US AR-15 stock.
After ISIS was routed after the Battle of al-Hasakah in 2015, it executed 90 of its militants in central Al Shaddadah for abandoning the battlefield.
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 militants.
Dried blood and used bandages on the floor.
After the tour of the hospital we were invited for some çay 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.
My last morning in Syria before beginning the journey back home. After breakfast in the hotel, we went to the Qamishli Bazaar to do some shopping.
Jan buying some cheap tobacco.
I was taking some photo's and this proprietor was disappointed I didn't take a photo of him so I was happy to oblige.
I bought some YPJ and YPG patches to take home.
The following month, US special forces fighting along side Kurdish YPG forces in the fight against ISIS were spotted wearing similar YPJ and YPG patches. Turkey scolded the US for being "two faced" and although the YPG is regarded by the US as close allies and as the most effective fighting force on the ground in Syria against ISIS, the US soldiers were ordered to remove the patches to not upset Turkey.
We then stopped at a cheese stall and while Jan stocked up on some Kurdish cheese, I enjoyed some very tasty ricotta cheese and honey.
At about 10am we began the drive east back to the Semalka Border crossing.
On April 20th, six days after I had left Qamishli, tribal fighters from the NDF, a pro-government milita, attacked an Asayish Patrol when they failed to stop at a checkpoint, killing 2 Asayish members and 2 civilians with sniper fire. The situation then escalated with additional clashes with Asayish forces killing 8 NDF members and arresting others.
The next day the Asayish encircled regime forces in the center of the city, taking over a bakery and a prison, with five Asayish fighters and many more pro-government militiamen being killed. Syrian troops went on to launch mortar shells into the town from a base on the outskirts, causing a number of civilian casualties.
On April 22nd an indefinite ceasefire was declared after 17 civilians, 10 Kurdish fighters, and 31 regime forces were killed during the three days of clashes. Both sides agreed that Kurdish forces could keep the territory captured during the fighting, expanding their control over Qamishli.
Despite the bloodshed, Jan's comparison of the Syrian Regime control in Rojava as being 'snow in the spring' had proved to be a fitting analogy.
On our way to the Semalka Border crossing.
And waiting for our passports after they had to be sent to the KRG side of the border to verify it was ok for us to return. We got a bit of a surprise though when they said we weren't allowed to cross. It was 1:15pm at this stage with the border crossing closing at 2pm until two days later on Saturday. Jan quickly telephoned the border manager on his cellphone though and we were allowed to cross back over.
Passing one of the Yazidi refugee camps after catching up with Mr. Khudeda for the drive back to Erbil. We had lost some time with the hold-up at the border and were running slightly late for my evening flight to Doha.
We made it back to Erbil Airport with minutes to spare however. I thanked Mr. Khudeda and reluctantly said farewell to Jan before rushing to catch my flight back home after an amazing and incredible journey through Northern Syria and Iraq.
Seven weeks after my return from Syria, the US has decided to ignore Turkey and is now supporting the SDF with Special forces and intense airstrikes as they push west over the Euphrates and on to the ISIS-controlled city of Manbij. Capturing Manbij will sever a vital ISIS supply route and cut off the flow of militant fighters traveling across the Turkish border and on to the defacto ISIS capital of Raqqah.
To build pressure and further squeeze ISIS, US Special forces are also continuing to support the SDF as they push south and make their advance on Raqqah.
I would like to profusely thank Jan for his professional organisation, guidance, knowledge and experience that allowed me to make this journey to a troubled but promising region and to return safely. I am extremely grateful to my partner, Rianda, whose support and invaluable help with organising this trip without which it would not have been possible. And to my friend Adam for assistance with the translation of the Arabic script in some of these photo's.
I look forward to the day when I can make the return journey back to Syria, when it is completely free from the tyranny of the Assad Regime and fully liberated from the evil scourge that is ISIS.