The Stakes of Kobani – Roads and Kingdoms

Story here. Photos by Jodi Hilton.

It’s midnight and bitterly cold when Muhammed Sik’s corpse arrives from the border. Mourners stand at a petrol station 15km outside Diyarbakir, Turkey’s unofficial Kurdish capital, rubbing their hands together to keep warm. When the coffin arrives, they lead the way to the city’s morgue accompanied by the wail of the siren: another ‘martyr’ has arrived.

Sik was killed by ISIS militants in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in late October. He had left his home near Diyarbakir to defend neighboring Kurds from the tightening ISIS siege, but was trapped by the jihadists. His body was found riddled with bullet wounds to the neck, sides and leg.

In Diyarbakir, a city of 1.5 million in the southeast of the country, funerals for young fighters killed in Kobani are now common. It’s a pain that brings back memories of the worst days of Turkey’s war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). During the thirty-year conflict, around 40,000 were killed on both sides as the Kurdish group fought for rights and self-rule. This time though, the bodies are coming from the spreading civil war across the border in Syria.

The hearse carrying Sik’s body snakes its way through the cool night and arrives at the morgue. His coffin is carried inside amid shouts of “Martyrs never die” from the crowd of mourners who have gathered to welcome him home. They stand with red-ringed eyes, pulling hard on cigarettes, embers flickering. Inside, Sik’s corpse is washed by his cousin and a local Imam. The close intimacy of a cry ripples through the crowd as one of Sik’s sisters has to be held up.

Last year, the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan announced a ceasefire with the Turkish government and the rebels retreated to bases in Northern Iraq. But the fight for Kobani has now become a war cry for Kurds, and young men and women from across Turkey’s Kurdish southeast are flocking to Syria to join the PKK-linked fighters defending the town from Islamic extremists, angry that the Turkish government isn’t doing enough to help. Some, like 22-year-old Muhammed Sik, are buried as heroes of the Kurdish cause, stoking anger within communities who thought the war was coming to an end but find themselves burying their young again.

The next morning, vans arrive from Diyarbakir to Kocakoy, bringing hundreds of mourners to the red-earthed village for Sik’s burial. He is laid to rest on the side of a hill in his home town under heavy clouds. Women huddle on nearby roofs to watch, with the flat backdrop of south-eastern Anatolia behind them. Onlookers clap and cheer, shouting “we will take revenge” and “long live Öcalan, long live Kurdistan.” Chickens roam the streets between farm houses and on a narrow lane, a donkey chews on a clump of grass. At the centre of the crowd, men use spades to pack earth into Sik’s grave.

Muhammed Sik’s family are being cared for today by friends and family, but also by the human rights organization Meya-der (Mesopotamia Solidarity Organisation), which help to arrange burials of the fallen fighters. Kassam Pervane, the general secretary of Meya-Der, knows the grieving process. “I can feel what the martyr’s children, wife and mother are going through, but especially the children,” he tells me as we clamber up the hill for the wake after the burial. Meya-der helped to provide the food. Pervane’s father and two of his older brothers were killed during the worst days of the war in the 90s. The organization was started by a group of volunteers in 2008, driven by their personal experiences of losing loved ones to conflict.

When a Kurdish fighter dies, Meya-der transports the body to the burial site, and helps to provide food for the three days of mourning that follow. The organization also hunts for the corpses of those who disappeared during the war. “We call them ‘killers unknown’,” he tells me. “In Turkey still there are people that are lost, we can’t even find their bones,” adds Fatima Arshinet, a Diyarbakir official and member of Meya-der.

At the wake, Besra Sik’s eyes are milky with tears as she talks about her brother. “He was a hero, he fought to save the Kurdistan,” she tells me as mourners start to disperse. She sits in a tea shop on the town’s main street and is comforted by a group of close female friends who stand protectively over her as she eulogizes her dead brother.

“One of the last times we spoke, he was working in a refugee camp looking after the Yazidis [a minority religious group who escaped ISIS in Iraq]. Our father told him he wanted to buy him some new clothes but he refused. He said, ‘the Yazidis wear torn clothes so I will too’.”

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At the start of October, anger amongst Turkey’s Kurds at their government’s response to the ISIS attack on Kobani boiled over. Many accused the Turkish government of blocking the border and not allowing fighters and weapons to move across, though after weeks of protests, Turkey shifted its position and announced it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross over in defense of the Syrian town.

Demonstrations turned violent in early October across Turkey when more than 30 people were killed at Kobani solidarity marches. By mid October, Turkish planes were bombing the PKK in Hakkari province in the first major attack since peace talks started. Three Turkish soldiers were gunned down in cities in the southeast. The International Crisis Group released a report calling on the two sides not to lose the momentum that had been building and to recommit to the peace process.

Abdullah Demirbas is the normally buoyant former Mayor of Diyarbakir’s central district, but his face looks stony when we meet in Diyarbakir’s old city. “The people here are afraid that we are going back to the old days,” he says. “I am worried about this.” Demirbas has reason to worry; in 2007, he was removed from his job, and in 2009 jailed for using the Kurdish language in office, as part of a sweep of Kurdish officials with links to the PKK. Recent reforms have allowed Kurdish private language courses in Turkey, but activists say this is not enough.

In Diyarbakir, local political leaders led a march in solidarity with the besieged Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Photo by Jodi Hilton.

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The day after Sik’s funeral I meet Turkan Biler in Diyarbakir’s PKK cemetery. She shreds a tissue in salt-wet hands and won’t let me leave until I’ve heard what she has to say. She is part delirious with fresh pain, two children gone; her son Ur died last year, Yakob died four days ago in Kobani.

“Kobani is our land; we just want to defend our land. My son is a hero of all of Kurdistan,” she gasps. “They say they (ISIS) are Muslims but they kill us with Turkey’s support, kill and rape us and we are 15 million Kurds.”

Through her pain, she has a clear sense of why he died and what he was fighting for. But Meya-Der’s secretary Kassam Pervane says this is not always the case, “The hardest part of my job is talking to families of martyrs who don’t agree with the PKK,” he says. “It doesn’t happen so often, it is rare that they don’t like the [PKK or affiliated Syrian fighters], but when we take the bodies back to them we have to bear what they say and accept it. It is difficult, but it is our mission.”

Some families have accused the PKK of kidnapping their children to the mountains to fight, an idea rejected by Kurdish politicians. Pervane says that since the siege of Kobani, no families have expressed anger towards the PKK or their sister parties as he takes care of the dead – the crisis has made the idea of martyrdom powerful again. “Now that ISIS are trying to divide us, all Kurds want to save Kobani, that’s why there have been so many protests – life has stopped in all Kurdish lands.”

Despite the strong renewed solidarity between Kurds, resurgent violence is not what anyone here wants. In Diyarbakir’s PKK cemetery, Biler adds: “We must hold our heads up; we must be strong; we want peace” she says running out of air between breaths, “but we must also defend our land.”

The Mural Painter of Alqosh – Kosovo 2.0

 Read here. Photo by Jodi Hilton. ALQOSH, IRAQ: Basima al Safar, the mural painter of Alqosh, lifts her brush to a painting of Christ on an easel. As she retouches the portrait she tells me she is struggling to find inspiration to paint the large, brash murals that surround us after she was forced to leave everything and run.

Her home is daubed with bright blues, yellows and greens that make it stand out against the barren, windswept landscape of northern Iraq. As we talk, the jihadist group ISIS who adhere to an austere version of Sunni Islam, are about 20km away on the scarred plain below. In June they took control of the city of Mosul, roughly 50km south of Alqosh, and set out on a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq — massacring and kidnapping opponents and members of minority groups, and destroying ancient temples and shrines.

Basima is an Assyrian Christian and has lived in Alqosh for all of her life, but when the front line with the militants collapsed in early August, she had no choice but to flee along with the rest of the town. Watchmen saw the Kurdish fighters in retreat and sounded the alarm.

“I stayed away for 6 or 7 days,” she tells me, “but I returned because I was scared [ISIS] would destroy everything.” The militants came within a few kilometres of Alqosh but never entered the town, which was guarded by a small band of poorly-armed Christian fighters. “When I came back, no one was here. It was like a ghost town,” she says.

While I visit Basima, the streets of Alqosh are still mostly deserted, and those that did venture out looked anxiously south across the horizon. Conversations in the narrow bazaar were centred on leaving — who had relatives abroad, a visa or a chance at a new life.

Basima has been painting for 34 years but started decorating her house with murals three years ago, after her mother died. “Painting was a support for me,” she says, “but now with what has happened I don’t paint, I just feel sick every day. I am thinking of leaving because things are so bad.”

Before ISIS pushed towards Alqosh, they declared an Islamic Caliphate stretching from Syria to Iraq, and gave the Christians of Mosul an ultimatum: to convert, pay a tax or die by “the sword”. Most choose to flee, and some said fighters stripped them of their money and gold as they left.

Although the exodus has hastened, Christians have been leaving Iraq at alarming rates over the past decade — of 1.5 million Christians in the country before the US led invasion in 2003, an estimated 400,000 remain, a figure continually decreasing.

Even though most people have returned, life remains temporarily frozen. The Christian fighters who protect Alqosh and other towns dotted across the Ninawa plains are poorly funded and carry rusted weapons. They freely admit that they couldn’t face ISIS in a battle so act as watchmen instead — looking out for the Kurdish withdrawal, which would mean running all over again.

Inspired by the Kurdish female fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Basima is also thinking of forming a female Christian battalion to protect the town. She isn’t afraid of weapons, evident when she says that “when a Bishop died in Lebanon 15 years ago, they brought the body here. I took out my gun and shot it in the air out of respect.”

“Now I want a machine gun or a tank. I am thinking seriously about this,” she says, becoming more animated. “Iraq will be better if women learn how to use guns because there is already no trust here.”

Joseph Abdul Saade, a priest from Alqosh, greets me warmly as I enter the Virgin Mary Monastery. When the town emptied in August, he tells me he took 1000 ancient manuscripts to Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan for safe keeping.

While Basima is wondering how she will paint her own story, Father Joseph is more concerned with protecting the town’s religious monuments. Standing in the clipped courtyard of the church, he ponders what would happen if ISIS attacked. “What will happen to our monastery if we leave?” he asks aloud. “Who do we give it to? They will destroy it.”

As violence flares, divisions form between those who were once friends. Basima tells me the story of her friend, a female doctor in Mosul and a Muslim. “She said that the Yazidis deserve to die because they have no god — I was very angry about this.”

In her narrow studio on the side of her home, Basima pulls back canvases to show me — there is a painting of the 1988 gassing of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein in Halabja, a town which sits by the Iranian border in Iraqi Kurdistan. Halabja is known for its abundant pomegranate harvest, and on rolling green fields by a stream Basima painted stick figures, lying piled on top of each other while soldiers patrol the scene. Another mural shows a scene from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. “My brother died in that war,” she mutters to herself.

Despite distracting thoughts of leaving Iraq and worry, she is determined to carry on and produce work that will explain what she is living through.

“I am working to make films, plays, paintings and pictures that will show what is happening here.” she says, her face newly fired with determination.

“I will draw ISIS as devils, killing and kidnapping women and children. I will draw the Christians as homeless with bags, travelling and emigrating — I will paint the truth.”

Kurdistan’s Miracle Mullah – Vocativ

Story for Vocativ on the miracle Mullah, Mala Ali Kalak who claims he can cure cancer, carry out exorcisms and has thousands of religious followers. Read here. Photos by Jodi Hilton.

ERBIL, IRAQ—In a small clinic some 20 miles west of this city, roughly 50 patients sit in a waiting room, hoping for a miracle cure. Their ailments range from upset stomachs to infertility. A few have braved the most dangerous parts of this war-torn country, while others have traveled here all the way from Europe.

The man they’re waiting to see, however, isn’t a doctor. His name is Mala Ali Kalak, and he’s a 43-year-old teacher turned Islamic healer.

In recent years, Kalak has gained a loyal YouTube audience and thousands of followers who believe in his unorthodox methods—among them, drinking camel urine for its alleged medicinal benefits.

Kalak is far from the first guru—in Iraq and elsewhere—to advocate such unconventional remedies. But perhaps because of his loyal following on both the Internet and television, he’s raised the ire of doctors living in the area who say he may be causing health problems.

Kalak, however, denies the charges. He says he’s helping people, that he’s a man of God who found his mission in life nearly two decades ago when he saw the Prophet Muhammad in a dream.

Many of his patients are true believers. On any given day, the Mullah doles out herbal remedies, like garlic seeds and honey, to dozens of sick and needy people. Appointments are free, but patients are encouraged to buy his books and DVDs, which cost anywhere from 86 cents to $10. He also does phone and Internet consultations and directs his patients to buy products from his pharmacy in town.

When I meet him in his office one morning, he’s wearing a white robe and eyeliner while an admiring crowd of 20 watches him recite the Quran to a woman who’s suffering from depression. Her knees buckle and her husband has to hold her up.

Kalak knows how to command a room. His patients treat him like a celebrity, lining up to take photos with him. His office is decorated with plastic flower arrangements and framed certificates, which he says legally allow him to practice his healing methods.

One of his patients, who asked to be called Amina, says she has breast cancer. Her doctor told her she only has a few months to live, but she doesn’t want to give up. So for three days, she traveled through parts of the country controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS), the world’s most notorious jihadi group, to see the Mullah and his miracles.

Kalak advises her to drink a small glass of camel milk and camel urine three times a day, half an hour before meal times. The preacher says camel urine works as a cure for cancer, that it’s full of healthy vitamins and proteins. The ISIS advance through parts of Iraq and Syria, however, has cut off supply lines for camel products that Kalak sells at his pharmacy. So Amina and her family decide to return home and buy the milk and urine locally.

Doctors living in the area don’t believe that Kalak’s camel remedies are helpful. Quite the opposite. Fatah Atroshi is a Kurdish physician working in Sweden. He also spends time in the Kurdish parts of Iraq, helping to run a free clinic in a camp for displaced people. “There is no evidence of camel urine and milk being a cure for breast cancer,” he says.

In fact, many doctors think camels are a likely source of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a virus that has caused more than 300 deaths globally since an outbreak emerged in 2012. “There is strong evidence suggesting that camels work as a reservoir for the virus,” Atroshi says.

The virus can also spread from person to person, so doctors aren’t positive that camels are the source. But this year, the World Health Organization warned high risk patients to avoid, “contact with camels, drinking raw camel milk or camel urine, or eating meat that has not been properly cooked,” until more is understood about the disease.

Kalak strongly denies there’s any risk in drinking camel’s milk or urine. As he notes, the Prophet Muhammad praised both for their medicinal qualities, and in parts of the Middle East, they’ve long been used as traditional remedies for various illnesses. In fact, some Saudi researchers say that camel urine could perhaps be used as a treatment for modern diseases, even some forms of cancer.

Many of Kalak’s treatments, however, aren’t exactly scientific. One of his patients that morning is a depressed young Kurdish woman who has traveled here from Germany. She screams and cries as he prays with his hand placed on her head. He tells the crowd that she’s possessed by a male ghost and sends her to the next room to have her feet whacked. A little while later she is back in Kalak’s office, chatting calmly with her father. Kalak says that the feet are connected to the brain, so hitting the soles will help get rid of the spirit.

At the end of a busy morning session, I meet Fariden Muhammed, who came to see Kalak after developing stomach pain. He bought one of his books, and I ask him if he thinks it’s worth it. “If it cures me,” he says, smiling, “then definitely.”

Journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Here's some of my work.