Last week a young British woman, Anna Campbell, died while fighting Turkish forces with the YPJ, an all-female Kurdish militia protecting the city of Afrin in the north of Syria. By Sunday, the Turks controlled the city.
Last Friday I spoke to Tirpan Cudi, an Irish man fighting with the International Freedom Battalion affiliated with the YPG (the Kurdish People's Protection Units) of which the YPJ is also a constituent part.
This is not his real name. “Tirpan” means scythe and “Cudi” (or “Judi”) is the mountain where Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood (in the Islamic tradition it’s in Syria).
There are three Irish men fighting there. "We've a lad from the Six Counties and a lad from the west" says Cudi, in a Munster accent tinged a little by two years spent in Syria. "As you can probably hear I'm from the south of the country."
Cudi and his fellow fighters are disappointed by how the YPG have been abandoned by the American and Russian forces that had formerly championed and armed them.
Just last year, they were a US-backed force, considered to be, in Cudi’s words, “the heroes of Kobani”, who had huge successes against Isis.
The tragedy of Kurdish history is that the big powers use them as pawns
Their women’s units, featured in viral videos and some of the women fighters even came out in support of the Irish campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. (“When you liberate territory from Isis obviously you have a lot of rape victims so [the women’s units] were getting abortion pills for them,” Cudi explains).
The Turks, however, consider the YPG a terrorist organisation because of their connections to the Turkish based PKK (the Kurdistan Workers' Party). Turkey rejects the idea of having the autonomous, leftist and YPG-protected Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (commonly called Rojava) on its doorstep.
The US and Russia have done little to intervene, and Cudi now sees those countries' interventions in the region in terms of imperialist self-interest. "The tragedy of Kurdish history is that the big powers use them as pawns," says Cudi.
Tirpan Cudi went to Syria two years ago to fight Isis and bolster Rojava's burgeoning socialist experiment. He planned to return home to Ireland this month but then the Turks invaded. Now he's a member of a group called Anti-Fascist forces in Afrin.
“We came back to Afrin on March 8th and there was a march and a party atmosphere because the International Women’s Day is taken very seriously here. It’s a women’s revolution, a women’s liberation movement.”
A week later, the water had been cut, civilians were streaming out of the city and the Turkish army was, in his words, “closing in.”
A trained paramedic, Cudi was then thinking he could be more useful by “laying down the rifle and helping at the hospital… I’ve still got the medic bag I’ve had since Raqqa.”
He feared seeing the city reduced to the ruins he has seen elsewhere in the region. On St Patrick’s Day, he and his group left the city by convoy.
How does an Irishman end up fighting in a foreign civil war?
“I was talking to my sister about this,” he says. “I think in our house there was just an emphasis on critical thought and history. We weren’t a very bourgeois, reading family either. We were a rural family. We were never very poor but we never went on any foreign holidays or anything like that. We all became more left wing as we grew up.”
Do the rest of his family know where he is? “Some of them do.”
I wasn't very militant, but I always supported the left
What did he work at before he came here? “I’m in my late 20s…. I was doing odd jobs, working with a builder, [as] a jack of all trades. I left school in 2008 so the whole economy had collapsed.”
He laughs. "I suppose it was the economy that made me question things. I always knew Ireland was a bit rotten with the Celtic Tiger but when we had to pay for the banks and see every house affected by suicide and emigration and the elite get away scot-free and actually making huge amounts of profit. That sickened me. I wasn't very militant, but I always supported the left . . . A communist, but not a member of the party."
Is he religious? "I would have been a lapsed-Catholic atheist. I still am but I wouldn't be a cold-blooded bourgeois atheist like Richard Dawkins. I have a reverence for the universe and a reverence for science."
Going to Syria
Why go to Syria? “To fight fascism,” he says. “The people on the ground consider Isis to be a fascist organisation…. They also consider the Turkish state [to have] fallen into a fascist regime and I’m inclined to agree. You could fight fascism in [other parts of the world] but there’s nothing being built in the background... Here they’re trying to make an alternative to [Assad’s] regime but they’re not trying to separate from the rest of Syria – they’re just trying to find autonomy.”
He talks about the work happening on the ground and the posters displayed around YPG-held areas that celebrate martyrs and promote socialism and women’s rights. He contrasts this with the imperial images of Assad displayed around the regime-controlled areas.
"In Ireland we had many women revolutionaries but the whole thing fell into a theocracy [after independence]… The same in Spain. Many women fighters got crushed. I think that's a tragedy and I'd hate to see that happening anywhere else.
“So [I thought that] if something like that happened in my lifetime I had to get involved…. The YPG offered hope for people in Syria and the Middle East especially with the women’s revolution.”
I'm from rural Ireland so I really like it here – the slow pace of life
He first contacted the YPG on Facebook but after the first few messages he switched over to encrypted email communication. He eventually flew into a Kurdish area of Iraq on May 20th, 2016, and a few weeks later was smuggled into northern Syria where he received a month of both military and "ideological" training.
What did “ideological” training involve? “They show you the culture and show you that it’s very important that you live communally and collectively and take pride in making food for comrades. And I love that kind of thing.
“I’m from rural Ireland so I really like it here – the slow pace of life. The culture is conservative, but it’s a very easy-going culture and they’re very, very hospitable to us. It’s very hard to pay for things. You have to put down the money twice. They’re always asking you in for chai and coffee. They drink tea almost more than the Irish.”
The violence is frightening
The International Freedom Battalion was set up in the spirit of the international brigades during the Spanish Civil War, he says.
His fellow fighters are "villagers, students, sons of butchers, people who left the Turkish army, anti fascists, socialists, anarchists". He laughs. "Not crazy anarchists like the Joker in Batman: political anarchists."
Some of the early international volunteers were ex-military, Cudi tells me, but increasingly they tend to be more ideologically-motivated. Cudi would have enlisted in the Irish Army but for a public sector hiring freeze when he left school. He has seen combat now. He saw the tail-end of Operation Martyr in Mabij city. "I was disappointed because it was pretty much finished."
He later spent more than four months as a paramedic when the YPG, backed by the US Air Force, took Raqqa from Isis. "We always wanted to take revenge on Raqqa because of the pictures of people having their heads cut off and the Yazidi women who were essentially sex slaves. We wanted to liberate the city from those animals."
Isis is very effective at leaving mines. One apartment building in Raqqa had 35 mines in the bloody thing
The violence is frightening, he says. “Isis drive car bombs at you. If that reaches your base everyone can be vaporised. They can be more powerful than air strikes. I’ve lost a lot of friends…. I was always curious as to how I’d react [to battle].
“I read about psychology and watched the war films. You get overtaken by this power to protect the others and not let your friends down. And you hear them coming and shooting at you and you get angry and want to respond.”
Then there are peaceful periods, he says . “You do up your base as nice as possible. You cook. Then they can come in one night and kill a few of you and you’re fighting for 12 hours. We were clearing villages for days and weeks. Isis is very effective at leaving mines. One apartment building in Raqqa had 35 mines in the bloody thing.”
An English friend of his, a sniper and former house painter named Jack Holmes, died trying to dismantle a mine.
What’s it like being a paramedic there? “You’d be dealing with all sorts – severed limbs. Chest wounds. The big killer in war is blood loss.”
Once, he says, he tended to what turned out to be an Isis commander near Raqqa. “It was really weird having this guy in my hands and treating him medically. As tough as Isis are, when we had them encircled a lot of them tried to leave the line.
“This guy triggered one of his own mines on the way out. We had suspicions. His hair was recently cut and we nearly killed him when we found Sellotape on his body. We thought it was a bomb but he was actually carrying thousands of dollars. We sent him to the YPG for questioning.”
They ultimately established that he was an Isis leader and said “good thing you didn’t shoot him”.
There are, he says, significant differences between fighting relatively under-resourced Isis fighters and coping with the precision bombing of a Nato army.
He talks about friends who were victims of Turkish air strikes and how, just a few days before, he helped a family who had been bombed off the road. “The car was mangled and the father was kind of knocked out and everyone inside was bleeding and had broken limbs,” he says. “They were just trying to escape. That really affected me. A general panic took over and people were leaving.
“With Isis, people knew to stay away because if they capture you they burn you alive and rape women. With Turkey, people were expecting a bit of decorum... I don’t know what they were doing firing at a civilian car… an old family banger. We stopped the bleeding and got them out of there to the hospital. They were just on the side of the road crying.”
(The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that dozens of civilians have been killed in the invasion and more than 200,000 have fled the city).
On March 18th, Cudi's group was ordered by the YPG to leave Afrin and, shortly afterwards, the Turks took control of the city. The YPG has vowed to fight a guerrilla campaign against the Turkish forces. Cudi and his group are in a YPG-controlled district near Aleppo, "waiting on orders".
“[The YPG] left the city to avoid the bloodshed,” he tells me by text. “I think this is a wise call. [I’ve] seen two cities get absolutely wrecked in Syria and that was with them almost entirely empty of civilians. Afrin was full to the brim because the Turks with their air power managed to squeeze in on the city very fast and no humanitarian corridor was allowed be established.”
‘The kids get to you’
The reason Cudi doesn't want to use his real name is partly to prevent any consequences for his family and partly because several international fighters have been arrested on their return to Europe.
A recently-returned friend of Cudi's, Alexander Norton, is facing charges in London. Norton has done two stints in Rojava, the first to help build a hospital, the second to fight.
“I never had a period in my life where I felt I was in the right place doing the right thing and was around people who shared my values to the same level,” says Norton, who is a railway worker in Britain.
“Being a revolutionary and being able to participate in the revolution must be like being a Catholic who’s never been to church before. I don’t think I’ll ever regain the sense of purpose I had there.”
Did it affect him? “I don’t think I’m traumatised, just upset that I’m not sharing the fight with them.” He laughs. “The only thing that’s funny is that if fireworks go off I hit the floor and feel everyone should move away from the windows.”
The goal is always to come home but I'm hoping for a deal to be cut that protects Rojava
Cudi tells me that he thinks that psychologically he’s doing okay. “I think if I had [post traumatic stress disorder] it would have kicked in already,” he says. “I’ve seen things in Raqqa and I’ve had a lot of free time since. I think a lot of the cases of PTSD with [American troops] who went to Iraq is because they were all a bit brainwashed and thought they were going to kick ass. We came here to help. We’re not here for violence or to kick ass. We have a good reason to be here.”
Does he have anything with him to remind him of home? He carries a handmade bracelet that a friend gave him, he says. “It’s broken but I have it in my pocket.”
Will he return to Ireland soon? “The goal is always to come home but I’m hoping for a deal to be cut that protects Rojava. I don’t want to leave in its dark days, having enjoyed its good days.”
How does he think seeing all this violence has affected him? “As a medic, [wounded] men don’t affect me,” he says. “Women affect me a bit more and of course children affect me. The kids do get to you.
“You’d be angry at everything, [even] the YPG. But they’re just a defence force. They have no expansionist plans. Isis wanted to take over the world. Turkey want to take the whole of Rojava and make it into a greater Turkey. The Syrian army want it all back in their own control. The YPG just want a bit of autonomy.”