By Eric Winslow
Published by permission of the author
WITH THE SAINTS GIVE REST, O LORD!
Rest in peace, hero of the Rojava revolution, Michael Israel.
It is with deeply heavy heart that I learned of the heroic death of local Amador activist, Michael Israel, while bravely fighting the Pseudo Islamic Guerilla State in Rojava, near northern Syria.
While I was a reporter for the local newspaper, only a few short weeks ago, Michael generously responded to a series questions I had sent him with the plant to write some features on his admirable military service for the democratic community of Rojava.
As you all know, the newspaper died only a month before Michael did. Alas, I was unable to publish the entire series of features on this amazing young man.
Hence, I have decided to publish all of Michael's responses to my questions unedited on Facebook, for the general edification of my friends, and, especially, so that the resounding voice of this fighter for freedom and justice will continue to resonate, even as his eternal spirit lives on...
(The following words are all Michael's from October 2016, released here without correction or emendation)
Sorry I've been out and about. I wrote this a while ago responding to your questions. Let me know if it answers some of your questions. I just came back from bringing a team out into the manbîc countryside.
Q1. Personally I have no preferred name for the enemy. Usually when speaking with other westerners I will use ISIS or ISIL as it is an acronym they will understand. Here when speaking with Kurd or Arab people I'll use daes. With both foreigners and people here, I may also refer to the enemy as fascists, here fascism is understood but sometimes with people in the west it needs clarification as some only know the term as it relates to 1930s-1940s Europe. With the situation here, it's used to describe the reactionary and conservative ideology of not just ISIS, but also Al Nusra and other smaller brigades who have justified their acts and beliefs for a very regressive system of power based on the failings of western imposed models of modern nation states, democracy and liberal economics. If I were to simply refer to an ISIS fighter here as a fascist, others would understand. The base ideology of reaction and regression of ISIS is not far removed from the sentiments of many supporters of fascism in Europe decades ago and is not unlike the beliefs of some of the far right in America today. They're styled different, but the roots of this ideology is the same.
Q2. I've spent most of my life in amador. I was born in the Central Valley and spent my early years in Lodi. The family moved to Amador when I was still young and I've lived there ever since, the foothills will always be home for me. It helps me here, that much of Rojava's scenery is very similar to that of the central Sierra foothills.
Q3. I had been following the kurdish resistance to ISIS for quite a while, both of the peshmerga in Basur and that of YPG/J in Rojava. Being a leftist politically I was already vaguely familiar with the kurdish PKK (kurdish workers party), but it was not until reading about Rojava's resistance to ISIS that I understood that the political movement in Rojava that formed YPG/J is allied with PKK in Bakur and PJAK in Rojhelat and that the strength that Rojava has to successfully drive off brutal, better armed and better funded enemies like ISIS is directly connected to the revolutionary movement within their areas. From nothing Rojava has built up a system of communes, which have organized the creation of a strong social welfare network capable of taking care of its people and the refugees settling there. As of no surprise, the men and women here selflessly volunteer themselves again and again to defend the revolution and the society they are building. It is either save the most progressive model of democracy and socialism in the Middle East or live under the darkness daes flags in a feudal state.
Q4. Fighting alongside the men and women of YPG and YPJ is both the most inspiring thing I've ever experienced and also the most humbling. Many of these people have nothing by western standards. Maybe this war killed their families, or their homes were destroyed, or maybe they lived their entire lives in mud villages without running water or electricity. I've seen old kurdish men put on uniforms and pick up rifles because their children had been killed. I've known Arab fighters in YPG who have scars on their backs from being whipped or have had fingers cut off from when ISIS conquered their villages. I've met IED victims who had lost limbs request to return to the frontline once they had been outfitted with a prosthetic and gone through a minimal amount of physical therapy. Seeing these things and hearing these stories really underscores how different, luxurious and safe our lives in the US are. It really is a privilege for me as an American to travel here, by choice, to help their fight, it is a privilege that they don't have. They fight against the odds because they must.
The most amazing are the women of YPJ, not only can you always count on them to fight with as much or often more ferocity than any man, but they are also breaking the ground in providing a radical feminist counter to patriarchy as a system of oppression, sexual objectification and destroying the status quo in society of power always in the hand of wealth political men and the status quo at home of power literally being the hand of a controlling husband or father.
Q5. No prior military experience, except for what I received here last year.
Q6. There are other foreign fighters here, the exact number is difficult to guess though. Aside from local forces in Rojava, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians... their are lots of foreign volunteers from outside the area. The most significant in numbers would be the Turkish volunteers - many of them come from the cities Istanbul and Ankara, are educated with at least a few years of going to university and all of them are staunchly left politically. It was these Turkish leftists that formed the International Freedom Battalion, which took most of its inspiration from the International Brigades that fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. (Coincidentally, the last surviving american volunteer of the Spanish civil war, Del Berg, was also a foothill local)
The volunteers that come from Western Europe and America are much smaller in number and come for many different reasons - some come only to fight ISIS, some are here to support the revolution, some are adventure seekers and some are old soldiers looking for one last battle. I'd say maybe less than 50% have some kind of former military experience. Up until recently though there were enough foreign volunteers with prior military training in YPG that there was an autonomous assault unit composed entirely of westerners.
Q7. While I do believe that the military struggle here is important and I am determined to do my part in it, it is not for everyone. This is a guerrilla army and we are fighting a superior force that is often outfitted much better gear than us - such as left behind NATO rifles, explosives, uniforms, humvees, etc. I would never recommend someone volunteer here or contact YPG International unless they were similarly determined to give 100% to defending Rojava's revolution and fully understood the history and politics of this conflict. Any weakness in will or understanding could be dangerous for the one thinking of volunteering or this around them.
For people that do want to help remotely though, there are ways to donate to groups like the Kobane Reconstruction Board which is working on helping life return to normal in Kobane, a city which was rendered over 70% unusable after ISIS was defeated there, or the International Brigade of Rojava which often raises money to buy medical equipment for YPG/J's tactical medical unit and helps support foreign volunteers here.
Making a decision to come and help directly is a very serious one. Even combat veterans who had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan that are volunteering here will describe the fighting here as unlike what they had ever experienced before. Even besides dealing with an enemy that is better supplied and funded, life in general is hard here. You'll often be living out exposed to the elements, whether it's intense heat or freezing rain and wind. It is common for volunteers here to go months without having any way to communicate with the world outside. And though you will always be supplied with food here, it's quality and variety has limits, last year I had once spent several days in a position that could not get resupplied regularly living off dry bread and hot smashed and moldy tomatoes. All of this of course coupled with the fact that as volunteers, meaning no one here receives a paycheck or a benefits package when their time is over, makes deciding to come and help here a very serious choice, one that someone shouldn't make lightly.
That all said, there is a strong sense of pride and honor among those that come to aid these people in their fight against a vicious enemy and defend the revolutionary and democratic movement of Rojava that make the sacrifices worth it. We leave behind safety and luxuries in the west to come here, but accross Rojava - from cities to the smallest villages - foreign volunteers are always greeted by the people here as if they were their own family.
For people that are interested in donating and helping Rojava, these groups immediately come to mind...
Kobane Reconstruction Board, who do work in helping re build and organize the city of Kobane which stood it's ground against the siege by ISIS 2 years ago. A siege which left well over 70% of the city in ruins.
Rojava Plan, which is a group that has been developing agricultural projects geared towards crop diversification, local fertilizer production and reverse desertification. This farming related work becomes increasingly necessary due to internally displaced people and refugees coming north to seek safety in Rojava all the while Rojava is often met with trade embargoes on all its borders, this places very high demands agricultural production. Pioneering large scale sustainable agriculture is becoming more and more a necessity for survival.
International Brigades of Rojava, which is a group composed mostly of foreign volunteers who have already returned home. The group primarily provides info on the war against ISIS, but they will often collect donations to purchase supplies and equipment for YPG's tactical medical unit or to help out other foreign volunteers in what ways they need.
I'd also recommend contacting YPG International for more information on how one can help remotely from the west.
All of the groups mentioned about can be found online via either a Google search or by finding them on facebook.
Q9. There is no political official or candidate that I see now that has the middle east's interests or future or safety of its people at heart. This is why it is up to us to step forward and act together to support and defend the democratic movement of Rojava. It's success will come from real and meaningful international solidarity from everyday people, not from promises of political candidates who vow to bomb the region without acknowledging the need of popular and democratic local structures to fill the vacuum left by a militarized backward force like ISIS - or candidates who promise to ban the migration to the U.S. of civilian people leaving horrors of this war and the brutality of ISIS behind them.
The destruction of ISIS and building democracy in the Middle East won't come from strong politicians and demagogues, it will come from all of us, becoming involved and doing our share of the work in leaving the world in a better state than we found it for the generations that come after us.
Interesting stories.... Rojava is always interesting. Lately we've been staying entertained at night by drinking lots of tea and watching scorpions, spiders and praying mantises fight under a flashlight in our room.
I had once last year taken a team to an ambush position where we would wait for ISIS movement then eliminate the enemy. Our location this night was the second story of a building. In the stairwell, which was very dark, I had left small pebbles balanced over a piece of sheet metal, the pebbles and metal would only look like garbage on the floor but served a purpose of making a lot of noise if anyone was coming into the building behind us. During the night we heard several of the pebbles striking the sheet metal, which instantly struck me with the intense fear that the enemy was directly below us. I approached the stairwell with a grenade in hand, ready to throw down at whomever shouldn't be there, while a friend followed behind me with a Kalashnikov. While coming closer to the stairs, I was all the while worrying that the sound of my own heartbeat, which was pounding inside my chest, may be loud enough to alert whoever was coming up the stairs to our presence. I was relieved to find no ISIS fighters in the stairway and was instead greeted with the squeaky meow of a kitten who was clumsily climbing his way up the steps to our floor. We kept the kitten for the rest of our watch to prevent him from making more noise in the building and later brought him to our camp where he was quickly adopted by one of the female fighters.
You see funny, interesting and courage things here. But also horrifying acts of brutality. I've seen entire villages and city neighborhoods left as rubble. The mass grave of the young women of a village who were executed for refusing to become the brides of ISIS fighters after they had conquered the area. The children's room of a village near the Euphrates river that still had clumps of hair attached to flesh rotting on the floor and dried blood staining the floor and cradle.
Photos from FB should all be fine. I have an album from last year titled "rojava"- I've also posted a few more recently. Feel free to use them.
Thank you for your support and interest in writing on this struggle. If you have other questions,need clarification or would like other references to speak to, let me know.
Best of luck!
Got a little more time actually.
I listed some donation avenues in my response but one needs to be editted. The international brigade group I mention is now defunct - but there is another group by the same people, mostly other international volunteers that are setting up another page for the same service. It's Rojava Foreign legion I think. It's a facebook page run by my friend Rojhat Rojava.
i recieve no funding or payment of anykind, I'm doing this as a volunteer.
Ypg recieves a lot of support from donations and help from local population and kurdish people outside of syria in turkey Iraq and Iran.
I'm not 100% on this, but I do believe that some of the oil here does get sold occasionally to help fund PYD and YPG/j as well
most of te oil derricks are all shit down, but there are a few that are still pumping.
The day to day things, like feeding YPG/j, is all done on a donation and volunteer basis.
Food supplies or sometimes cooked meals get sent to the front that are crops grown in the villages or meals cooked at a restarant that offers to prepare food
so things like food are always present but sometimes supply is, maybe, inconsistent lol. Like a container of grilled chicken and onions one day and bread and mushy tomatoes the next.
It makes things really interesting with things being sourced this way, by volunteerism and donations.
Last year I remember our position being delivered a box of bisquets and also joined by a new fighter who prior to his training worked at the same bakery that the biscuits came from.
Photo submitted with article, source unknown.