A day fighting the Islamic State: A Rocklander’s tale
BY ADAM LUCENTE
Baqofah, Iraq-Kurdistan region, Roughly two miles from the Islamic State (IS)
The Peshmerga (the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq) stop our car at a check point. My driver, my interpreter, myself and a member of Dwekh Nawsha get out. We are told to wait until a higher up gives us permission to pass. Later we are given tea.
Dwekh Nawsha is an Assyrian Christian militia in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. They formed in 2014 to defend their community from IS (more commonly referred to in the United States as ISIS).
They admittedly want to prove that Christians can fight when necessary. We are accompanied by one of their soldiers-a press officer of sorts and an Iraqi army veteran. He served before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, meaning he served in the era of Saddam Hussein. Dwekh Nawsha has a base in the town of Baqofah, just around two miles from IS-controlled territory. The area was previously mainly populated by local Christians, who have since fled.
A telescope brought from Australia by one of the soldiers’ friends sits atop the base. And from this telescope one can see IS’s infamous black flag flying high above a church in nearby Batnaya. I imagine the flag replaced what was once a cross above the church, given IS’s known penchant for destroying Christian symbols.
The soldiers spend most of their time watching IS’s movement. “We spend the day watching over the whole village,” said Samer Anwya, a member of Dwekh Nawsha. Like several of his brothers in arms, Anwya is an Iraqi Army veteran, and served in the Gulf War against the United States and allied forces. According to Anwya, sometimes, however, they engage ISIS. “If there is movement, we advance,” he concluded.
Before we are allowed to head to the roof to observe the front they share with IS, we are again given tea. I ask my questions and then we head upstairs. Hardly any of them speaks English. They speak Assyrian. And they speak Iraqi Arabic too. And some speak Kurdish. Someone seems to have a knowledge of Aramaic too-the language Jesus spoke.
IS’s town sits across a barren field. They rush us as we look at it from the roof and take pictures, fearing the light yet fairly normal mortar fire that goes back and forth between the two towns. We don’t see any this time. Back downstairs, they show us a mortar that hit their base. It’s about half the size of a football. The guy showing it to us is missing parts of his fingers. He says it’s from the mortar as we all kind of stare awkwardly. He then smiles and tells us it was a joke and that he lost them in the Iran-Iraq War, as if that’s any less astonishing to this Suffern native.
Back at their headquarters in Duhok, I hear a loud voice enter the room speaking English. Sure enough it’s an American. “I saw a picture of a little girl that showed six IS members standing over her pointing rifles at her head… I’ve had enough of this for pay. I want to give what’s left of me to this cause (of defeating IS),” David Shumock told me. Shumock is a former Air Force Pararescueman and private contractor, and is also the Commander of Veterans Against ISIS, an organization that sends veterans and aid to groups fighting IS in Iraq. He’s with another Anglo, a Briton named Chris Morris, who is ex-Royal Navy and Army Reserve.
“Nottingham where I’m from benefits from a significant and very vibrant Kurdish community, so I’ve been aware of the situation out here for quite some time,” he stated. “More recently I’ve come to a natural break in my employment…and it just seemed like the right time for me to travel out here and do something about the problems the region’s experiencing,” he added. They’re both volunteers with Dwekh Nawsha and are awaiting clearance papers to allow them to join the rest of the fighters on the front. And they hope to get to fighting ASAP. “I came out here to get involved in the actual fighting, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to aid the cause out here,” said Morris.
Dwekh Nawsha isn’t very large, but is allied with the local Peshmerga forces. The backline of this front is filled by the Peshmerga, who are much more heavily armed. Large trucks mounted with machine guns are a common sight. Dwekh has dushkas (heavy machine guns) too, and the AK-47 seems to be the weapon of choice for their soldiers. Their guns can be seen lying around on the couches in their living room, below the numerous pictures of Jesus that decorate many a wall.
“All we need is to get rid of this cancer,” Anwya told me when asked what message he had for the international media. IS currently controls large swaths of what was once known as Iraq. But judging by the looks of things in Baqofah, they won’t gain another inch, or hold what they already have for that matter, without a fight.