At 10am on January 16, the day I arrived in Sinjar city in northern Iraq, three suicide bombs exploded at precisely the same moment, sending huge plumes of smoke over the rooftops. Much of Sinjar had already been destroyed: fighters from the so-called Islamic State — locals call them Daesh, a play on the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — took control of the city last August, when hundreds of them fanned out over the entire Sinjar area and tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees fled to the mountains in search of safety. But since December 20, something new has been afoot — local Yazidi and their allies have come back down from the mountain and have been fighting back, moving into areas within the city itself.
Sinjar is the new Kobani, the besieged Kurdish enclave in northern Syria where Daesh mounted a full frontal assault last autumn before being turned back, and the battle to oust the Islamic State here is going to be every bit as slow and relentless. Daesh still control more than half of the city, but the Yazidis, a group mainly consisting of ethnic Kurds who have their own distinctive religion, together with their allies in the pan-Kurdish guerrilla outfit called the P.K.K. — and backed fitfully by the official Peshmerga forces of Iraq's Kurdish regional government and by airstrikes from an international coalition led by the United States — have taken two strategically important hills inside the city. Chunky, heavily armored Peshmerga vehicles can be seen in the streets, but it is the local Yazidis and the veteran nationalist guerrillas of the P.K.K. who are doing the bulk of the hand-to-hand fighting, and who have carved out an operational base in Sinjar city itself.
I arrived at their command center in the city to find young men cleaning, soldering, and sometimes inventing weapons in a makeshift repair shop. Conspiracies abounded. Many of the young Yazidis I met told me they were from a new guerrilla outfit called the Sinjar Resistance Units, and they promptly complained that the Kurdistan Regional Government had received weapons on their behalf but had not handed them over. “They don't want the resistance units to be a force” in Sinjar, one man said, “or for us to have our own administration and protect ourselves.” Through thick afternoon fog the crackle of gunfire and the sound of exploding mortar rounds was constant. The explosions kept getting closer, as the mortar fire homed in on the building. This band of amateur mountain guerrillas includes everyone from schoolgirls to grandfathers in its ranks; two teenage girls, Viyan and Berivan, told me they had not seen their families for five months. When I asked one 60-year-old Yazidi commander how the battle went, he sprang instantly alive. “We have been fighting for five months. And now we are inside the city.”
To make it to Sinjar I had to take a two-day, 400-kilometer round-trip from Iraq through northern Syria. During part of that trip I shared a van with a stretcher-bound 23-year-old Yazidi who had been fighting for six months and had been wounded by mortar fire six days previously. Even though he was clearly incapable of doing much fighting, he said he needed to go Sinjar as soon as possible. “I just want to go back and be with my friends,” he said.
I had arrived in the Sinjar area the previous day. I was driven first to the local headquarters of the P.K.K. on snowcapped Sinjar Mountain to meet one of the group's commanders. Both of us were waiting to go into the city of Sinjar itself; to pass the time a local P.K.K. commander named Siyabend switched on his walkie-talkie so I could hear Islamic State fighters barking instructions to each other in the streets of the city.
Most of the men in the room were from Turkey — at least some, it seemed likely, were veterans of the P.K.K.'s long war against the Turkish government. This is the reason why the P.K.K. is still considered a terrorist organization in the US and Europe, but Siyabend put a brave face on it. “We have 40 years of fighting like this,” he said, “and our fighters are prepared to sacrifice themselves too.” In his telling, the P.K.K. is already coordinating with the Americans, who sometimes bomb Islamic State positions in the area, but only by using the Peshmerga as an intermediary. Siyabend seemed relatively happy with the arrangement. Thus far, however, the success of those strikes has been patchy; much more could be done. “It's good, but not systematic. We are the ones who are doing the fighting in this city . . . so they need to coordinate with us. They just bomb whatever they want. There is no plan.” But surely they needed help: a band of guerrillas, however dedicated, couldn't dislodge the Islamic State on its own? “Of course. If they want to support us with heavy weapons we will do it faster. But anyway we will do it.”
The week before visting Sinjar I had been driven to the front line between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State south of Kirkuk on the Baghdad road to interview one of the P.K.K.'s overall guerrilla commanders for Kurdish Iraq, Agid Kalar. I met him at an army base that the P.K.K. shares with the Peshmerga, and Kalar claimed to have no problem with the Peshmerga or the Kurdish regional authorities. It was just, he said diplomatically, that the P.K.K.'s offspring and ally in northern Syria, a militia called the Y.P.G. that had done much to protect Kobani, had more experience than the Peshmerga did of fighting the Islamic State, and moreover had been helped in that task by the P.K.K. The result was that both they and the Y.P.G. knew better that a showdown with the Islamic State was on the way. The Kurdish authorities in Iraq “didn't understand them in the beginning like we did. We know these people well.”
Six hundred meters away, on the other side of the road, a white-circle-on-black-background Islamic State flag was clearly visible in the Sunni Muslim village of Wahda; there are regular clashes here, and raids by both sides. Over a spartan breakfast — the silence broken by some of the fighters grumbling that the Peshmerga in the other half of the camp have fresh chickens delivered on a daily basis — Kalar explained what he took to be the real difference between his men and the Peshmerga. “Peshmerga have families. They go home to see them and come back. But we in the P.K.K. don't have families. We are training and thinking of new tactics every day.”
All the same, they seemed perilously ill-equipped. Walking around the base I admired a brand new Toyota pickup truck and one of the fighters chuckled, claiming that they'd recently stolen it from the Islamic State. Kalar claimed that the P.K.K. hadn't been given any heavy weapons by the international coalition; a condition of the delivery of those weapons to the Peshmerga, he claimed, was that they mustn't find their way into the hands of the P.K.K. “They [the Islamic State] have tanks, they have everything,” the commander told me. “They took it from the Iraqi Army.” Just as it's doing in Sinjar, the P.K.K. around Kirkuk is busy training local villagers to form their own guerrilla bands and protect themselves against the Islamic State. It was clear, though, that the P.K.K.'s real effort lay elsewhere: Kalar had had only one fighter killed in the fighting around Kirkuk, but the P.K.K. had lost 120 in the fighting around Sinjar.
A few of the local villagers joined us for tea, and the conversation turned to the fighting abilities of Daesh. “They don't want to surrender,” said Kalar. “They bomb their bodies,” he said, referring to the Islamic State's habit of using their own men as stealth suicide bombers. “They don't obey the rules of war, so we can't capture them.” Instead, he said, he and his forces try to shoot Daesh fighters from fifteen to twenty meters away, so as to minimize the risk of suicide bombs. Would he ever send any of his men on a suicide mission himself? His men were not afraid of death, Kalar replied, but he could not countenance sending anyone out on such a mission: “We protect life.” When I asked him why so few P.K.K. appear to have been captured alive by the Islamic State for their gory execution videos, however, he became more circumspect: “We have ways and strategies to prevent that.” It was not clear what he meant, other than that P.K.K. fighters will fight to the death.
In any case, Daesh aren't the only ones with a reserve army of volunteers to draw upon. Those who are fighting against them are making international friends too. On our journey into Sinjar city we stopped off at a makeshift hospital, with sleeping dogs and bags of potatoes in the corridor, and I was ushered into a roomful of patients. One of them was an amiable 37-year-old US army veteran who told me his name was Patrick. I asked him why he'd come to fight, and he pulled something straight from the playbook of American evangelical Christianity. “I have selfish reasons,” he said. “Back home I found no purpose or meaning in life, so I prayed. America is different, you know; it's just money. So I prayed for a purpose and meaning in my life. Here I find myself — I don't know how else to explain it — finding purpose and meaning in helping these people to overcome Daesh.” He had arrived in Iraq two weeks earlier, on January 3, he said; his comrade, another American army veteran who had arrived a month earlier, was lying beside him on a stretcher alongside an Australian. While Patrick was unhurt, both the Australian and the other American had been lightly wounded by a mortar that, according to the Australian, “landed in our faces.” Both the Americans had taken local names, derived from the names of Kurdish mountains. “The Kurds are a mountain people,” Patrick explained. His nom de guerre was Bagok, while his comrade had chosen Judy. “Judy's a girl's name,” I said. “Not around here,” said Judy.
Patrick was not the first American I had met. On my way into Sinjar via northern Syria, two days earlier, while trying to sleep in a trailer in atrocious weather conditions at a Kurdish military base in Hasakah province, I'd been kept awake by two Westerners who were waiting for a ride, also to Sinjar. Both were in their 20s. One was from Florida, the other was from France. For at least an hour they engaged in a heated conversation about the physical appearance of Lady Gaga. The Frenchman said that he'd once seen her as attractive but now found her “ugly.” The man from Florida was patriotically coming to her defense. I asked them if they might be journalists, and the Frenchman rapidly dissembled: “The only thing we can say about our mission is that we're not journalists.
Patrick, his American friend, and the Australian were different from those two, and keener to chat. Both the Americans were originally from Orange County, California, Patrick told me, but their meeting here was nothing more than a happy coincidence. Both had also done time as cavalry scouts — recon guys, with four years of US military service apiece.
None of the three men wanted to have his picture taken or even give me his full name. If he returns home and the authorities find out where he's been, explained the Australian, he might be treated exactly the same as a jihadi, and be threatened with a lengthy prison sentence. The subterfuge made all of them irritable. What he didn't understand, Patrick told me, ”is why the rest of the world is not here fighting against Daesh. One night I heard two missiles drop. That was about it. I don't know what is going on with these politicians, but they need to come here. I understand that in the past they went to Iraq for imperialistic reasons; they got into fights for nothing. But this is a fight worth fighting, and they're not here — it doesn't make sense.“
The following morning, Patrick was less bullish. I mentioned that I'd visited the local P.K.K. headquarters in the city and he frowned. ”You mean the headquarters that's about to be hit?“ he responded. Judy knows about mortars, he said, and he calculated that the Daesh were ”bracketing“ fields of fire to improve their accuracy and slowly target the building. That same day I found out the tally of casualties from the three suicide bombs — one dead P.K.K. fighter and seven wounded. Much like Kobani, however, by the time the local civilians come back to reclaim their city, there won't be a great deal left of what they used to call home.
This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.