The wounded of the Raqqa front: ‘I’ll soon be ready to fight again’
‘Delil, this one is for you!’, fighter Cekdar shouts, as he stands by the net and plays the ball to his comrade. But his set-up is not very accurate and Delil can’t reach it. ‘Delil, come on!’ Cekdar calls out, eager to score a point. Delil hardly moves, the ball bounces on the ground. No point. ‘I can’t walk, comrade!’ Delil says with a laugh, reminding his team mate of his injured leg.
The atmosphere is fanatical but excellent at the volleyball field next to the recuperation centre for fighters wounded in the war against Daesh. The centre is situated close to the Syrian city of Haseke, two hundred kilometres northeast of Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of Daesh, which the fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) want to cleanse of jihadists this year, in cooperation with the international coalition against Daesh.
How many fighters have been wounded so far in the battle for Raqqa that started last November is unknown, but there must be hundreds, mostly by improvised mines and exploding car bombs. In the fighters’ hospital in Haseke at the end of March fourteen of them are being treated, another twenty in the recuperation centre. In Qamislo, the most important city in the predominantly Kurdish north of Syria, there is a bigger recuperation centre and a better-equipped hospital.
Fighter Harun plays another game of checkers. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink
Those injured pass the mornings with education (see yesterday’s story). After lunch there is conversation, checkers, chess, backgammon and volleyball, reading and napping. Almost daily fellow fighters from SDF bases across NorthSyria visit their wounded comrades. But however relaxed the atmosphere is, impatience simmers below the surface. Impatience to return to the Raqqa front. The war against Daesh is of crucial importance and no fighter does not want to contribute to the destruction of the ‘Islamic state’.
Fighter Harun assumes he will be able to resume his fight against Daesh within a week. Five days earlier, in a rocket attack, he was covered with burning hot metal parts that penetrated the flesh all over his body. His underarms are bandaged, his hands are full of little black burns, his hair is partly scorched. A day later, a finger bone turns out to be broken too. He remains cheerful: ‘Nothing serious. I’ll soon be ready to fight again.’
Half his leg
Maybe he is right, and maybe a doctor will soon hand him a medical report stating that he is all set to go. Harun wouldn’t be the first one to take up arms again after recovering from injuries. But anyone who doesn’t get such a report is being counselled by a special commander and can stay in the home for disabled veterans, right across from the recuperation centre.
In that home, sitting on cushions along the wall, special commander Revan Kobani tells fighter Agit (20) that he can become a medical doctor. She offered him the possibility before, but Agit keeps refusing. ‘I am going back to the front’, he says. ‘My comrades are there, I cannot leave them alone.’
Revan Kobani raises her eyebrows and smiles. She is waiting for the day when Agit will realise that the front is off limits in his condition. The fact that he lost two fingers in the battle for the Syrian-Kurdish city Kobani in 2014 is not the problem, but he has now lost half his right leg at the Raqqa front, and this means the war is over for him.
Fighter Sidar is getting some fresh air with the help of a fellow fighter. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink
In the offer to become a doctor the armed forces show themselves as part of a bigger alliance. Agit is originally a YPG-fighter and can train for four years as an apprentice of the accredited doctors who work as guerrillas for the PKK and its affiliated forces, like the YPG. After that he can work somewhere at a first aid post for fighters. But he can also be trained to be a technician, he can do cultural work or follow extra ideology education so he can later instruct new fighters – there are loads of possibilities.All disabled veterans get this help, including the Arab SDF fighters, who more often than the Kurds stay with family after they are treated for injuries. Most of the Kurds in this article come from Turkey. They are guerrillas for life and can’t and don’t want to return to their families.
Commander Revan Kobani starts laughing at a question about psychological help. ‘We don’t need that here’, she says. Fighter Sidar, with iron pins in his broken thigh bone, asks a counter question: ‘Everybody here is injured or disabled, but do you see despair, sorrow? You don’t, right? We have our ideology (see yesterday’s piece), we live with our leader (PKK-founder Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned in Turkey, FG) and we get strength from the sacrifice our martyrs have given.’
Framed pictures of several of those fallen fighters are hanging on the walls. Sidar says: ‘You know what Öcalan said? “The disabled veterans are the living martyrs.” And the martyrs, they are sacred for us. We are not disposed of, we get respect.’
All names in this article are noms de guerre.