Every generation seems to grow up with the memory of at least one major war in his or her lifetime. Whether we choose to read the headlines or acknowledge the reality beyond our own everyday lives, the war that is currently underway in Iraq and Syria is one that affects us all. As a Kurdish soldier would tell me later— this conflict has been churning for centuries, but remains hidden from most of our views.
Like the rest of the world, I watched the Syrian Civil War escalate from simple protests to a full blown conflict between the Syrian regime, rebel militias, and jihadist organizations like the Islamic State and Jabat al Nusra. Ignoring the political demarcation of Syria’s borders, militant groups began to redraw their own territorial boundaries further into Iraq. Each heavy-handed stroke brought further destabilization to an already embroiled, war-torn region with deep-rooted sectarian tensions.
Seemingly without warning, Mosul— a densely populated city approximately 350 km north of Iraq’s capital of Baghdad— fell into the hands of the Islamic State, allowing the organization to capture ample amounts of American-made weapons. The militant group used this as an opportune moment to reinforce to their devout followers and Twitter-cheerleaders the rather absurd idea that some divine prophecy was at work— and an ancient Islamic Caliphate was being re-established. Leading up to this moment, the most effective fighting forces against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL as we see it being referred to in the press, were Shia militias with American blood on their hands, and the Peshmerga, a fighting force loyal to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is the governing body of the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq.
In this massive game of chess, there was another distinct grassroots movement that caught my attention— Kurdish guerrilla groups known as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). These seemingly ragtag armies are in fact quite agile, effective and organized.
The Kurdish people number around 40 million— whose homeland is spread across vast swaths of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They are considered to be the largest ethnic group that do not have their own country. This is important to note, because as you’ll find out, they have something, which they believe is worth fighting for— a long-awaited independence and region to call their own.
During my initial research, I couldn’t help but notice that there were many theories as to whom these Kurdish guerrilla groups were. The foreign press often romanticized the females in their ranks as fearless warrior women, while some of my Turkish friends suggested that they were terrorists, operating more as opportunists in a bloody war. I set out to uncover the truth, or at least to better understand the nuances behind the headlines. Portrait photography has a strange way of humanizing even the most distant of situations, and that was my goal with this project.
Guerrilla Fighters of Kurdistan from Joey L on Vimeo.