Last week, nine SDF fighters died in a helicopter crash close to Duhok in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. It’s considered a ‘mysterious’ incident. I’ve been chewing on that word for a couple of days now, and come to the conclusion that it’s in fact not mysterious at all.
For my work as a journalist, and specifically for the year-long embedded investigation I did within the ranks of several groups of Kurdish fighters who are guided by the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan (PKK, YPG, YPJ and mixed-ethnicity SDF) to write a book about them, I have crossed the border between Kurdistan in Iraq and Kurdistan in Syria several times. I crossed it legally, illegally and let’s say semi-legally.
The easiest way to cross the border is, of course, legally via the Fishkabur crossing. I’ve done that several times, but for fighters, taking this route is in general not an option. For me, since last year and because of political reasons and diminishing press freedom in Kurdistan in Iraq, I can’t cross it anymore either.
The most difficult way was going on foot and by inflatable boat, on a moonless, so pitch dark, night in order not to get caught by KDP border guards. I took that route in both directions in early 2017 and summer 2017, running and stumbling over rugged paths and quickly peddling across the river in silence, and hiding in bushes in order to not get detected by search lights.
This route has become more difficult to take since Turkey’s expanded operations in the area. I remember arriving back in Kurdistan in Iraq, and we waited on the edges of a stretch of agriculture lands for a car to come pick us up quickly and take us to a PKK camp. No lights on, and again, on a moonless night so when we arrived in the vicinity of a PKK camp, we had to find our way in the forest to hidden tents and find a place to lay down and sleep. I remember seeing Duhok in the not too far distance. At the time, the Turkish army wasn’t as close yet as it is now, and I imagine the route and means of transportation are not so available anymore as they were then.
The semi-illegal way was via Shengal, in the northwest of Iraq and very close to the border. I took that route in late 2016 or early 2017. It was easy: the PKK had a presence at the time in Shengal, and I just boarded a pick-up car from the organisation that was going to Hasake in Syria. It was quite a stunning route, I remember. Shengal Mountain the only bump in a landscape that was flat as a pancake, with routes in the desert sand that reminded me of a river delta. It was mesmerizing.
This route has become very difficult now too, if not impossible. The PKK left Shengal in 2018 and the military situation changed there quite dramatically – let me spare you the details. I don’t rule out that the PKK can still find its way via Shengal occasionally via contacts and hidden routes, but not as relatively easy anymore as it was in 2016 and 2017, when I was there.
The legal way to cross is uneventful and can require quite a bit of patience: you run from one desk to another to get the required stamps and photocopies and signatures, and eventually you get a place in a minibus that takes you over a ponton bridge to the other side of the river into Syria – or back.
The illegal way is just hard. Hours of trotting through a rugged landscape you can’t see, trying to keep up with experienced and much stronger and faster fighters – God my ankles hurt upon arrival, and wow did I have spectacular blisters!
The semi-illegal way was the most insightful. The first time, I remember not being sure when we crossed the border into Syria. Whenever we approached a check point, I asked the fighters around me: ‘Are we crossing the border now?’, but all I got as an answer was a smile, which confused me very much and attributed to a sense of disorientation. It felt like no man’s land, but then again, it wasn’t because the fighters were perfectly at home there. On the way back, some time later, I didn’t ask anymore when we crossed back into Iraq. I just enjoyed the ride after a short night at a military base, in a front seat riding towards a spectacular sunrise. Who cared about the border?
Kurdish fighters are resourceful and will find their way. When going on foot, by boat or by car has been rendered close to impossible, they’ll somehow arrange a chopper. That’s not, as Turkey claims, a secret PKK air bridge, and also not, as the KDP claims, a violation of their air space. The problem is not the fact that SDF fighters are in a chopper close to Duhok, the problem is that Kurds can’t move easily in their own lands anymore while trying to defend it against assorted aggressors.
The ones violating air space are not SDF fighters in a chopper. The ones violating airspace are Turkish soldiers as an occupying force in Kurdistan in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, assisted by the corrupt crooks of the KDP who act as if Kurdistan belongs to them when it doesn’t. Kurdish fighters crossing borders are not the problem, but the borders cutting through Kurdistan. And even though the crash raises questions, it’s not ‘mysterious’. There is nothing mysterious about Kurds finding their way in Kurdistan, against the odds. May the victims rest in power.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.