Impressions from Raqqa: They even fight in sandals
When I first came to Raqqa, the urgent question that prey on my mind was how on earth could these people fight with their feet in nothing more than sandals. By now I came to understand that in Raqqa it is perfectly normal to go to battle wearing sandals.
The war in Rojava and Northern Syria against the ISIS gangs will shortly enter its fifth year. During those five years dozens of operations were conducted, hundreds of villages, hamlets, cities and towns were liberated. And this very moment the fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are advancing under the lead of the People's Defense Units (YPG) at high speed on Raqqa, to deliver the ISIS gangs the final death blow.
Raqqa, the self-declared capital of ISIS. Their caliphate of terror was proclaimed here. And it was again here, where all the barbaric and gory attacks and massacres against cities and peoples around the globe were thoroughly planned. But the youths from Kurdistan, Syria and internationalists from around the world have come together and are now only a stone's throw from the successful accomplishment of the operation to liberate Raqqa.
I spent already more than a month in the city of Raqqa, always accompanying the fighters on the front line. They can tell of stories, that will leave every human being bewildered to say the least.
This is Raqqa. A fighter, whose three younger brothers, one elder brother and father were martyred, is sitting next to me, talking with me. As he spoke about the story he lived, I become deeply aghast. He said to me that he is fighting to avenge them, stood slowly up and left.
Another fighter's five siblings were brutally massacred by the ISIS gangs, who also decapitated his new born baby and raped his wife afterwards...
A young boy, whose entire family was dowsed in gasoline and burned to death.
Horrible stories like these exist on these soils unfortunately in abundance.
All these young fighters have taken up arms to battle the fascism of ISIS, that enforces ignorance on humanity.
But these youths defend in the middle of the desert the spring and land they call theirs.
What makes this struggle a real epic, are these youths. They are fighting fiercely against the enemy of freedom, the enemy of humanity, the enemy of the woman. And this why the struggle that is fought in Northern Syria is nothing else than a struggle for humanity itself. It is a fight of honour and conscience.
And no one has the right to badmouth this undeniable truth.
URBAN WARFARE IN A HEAT OF 50 DEGREES
Raqqa...We have reached now the final stage of the war.
The sun is beating down with 50 degrees.
As for me, I packed my bag in London clouded once more in mist and showered in rain and here am I now, writing news for you within a relentless heat of 50 degrees.
I ask myself, how these men and women on the front lines are getting ready for battle? What do they eat? How do they get their daily needs supplied?
How do these Kurdish, Arabic and internationalist fighters get from one emplacement to another?
I will try to give you an insight of the hidden side of the war, which in fact has not been yet delved into very much.
The operation to liberate Raqqa was launched from two flanks. The fighters of the SDF laid out a battle plan, by which the ISIS gangs were to be encircled in the city's centre. And according to that they took action.
About seven thousand SDF fighters are at the front lines in the Raqqa operation. Here are also many fighters from New York to Rome and around the whole globe. Some are as young as 18 years old, and others 60 years.
Anyone younger than 18 years is not permitted to join the fighters. The SDF is complying with the Geneva Convention most meticulously. There are countless under age boys and girls begging to be taken in, but all of them are sent back. Those who are dying to join and have literally nowhere else to go, are employed in villages 20 kilometres away from the emplacements at a minimum or in the headquarters.
To meet the needs in food and water of all the fighters, the War Coordination Command Centre is nonstop on the move. Only to get this job done, a team of fighters almost as big as an army is tireless on the road.
Under such a parching heat, organising all these necessities is as emaciating as the actual fight against the ISIS gangs.
TRANSPORTING ICE BLOCKS TO THE EMPLACEMENTS
Against the burning desert heat the fighters of the SDF pick up ice blocks in an outlying position and take them to the emplacements at the font. But that is only a real drop in the ocean. The second biggest enemy following after ISIS, is the merciless heat.
It might be the most difficult task on earth, to fight in a brutal heat of 50 degrees. The more essential are the three rounds of food, that are provided to the fighters daily.
WATER EVEN HOTTER THAN A BULLET
There are more water bottles at the front lines than bullets. But due to the heat, the water gets even hotter than a bullet.
At times orange juice, soda and fruit juice are given to the fighters, but that is rather rarely.
The food gets prepared ten only kilometres afar from the front at a logistic post, filled into plastic plates and transported to the front.
A couple of days in the week the fighters prepare with some fresh tomatoes and paprika sent to them their own food as far as their means allow. In those cases massive dinner tables are set, covered abundantly.
There is never a lack of bread on the front lines. Every fighter gets provided with so much bread, lasting for two days at least.
EATING GRITS UNDER A STORM OF BULLETS
When I witness how amid a heavy storm of missiles and bullets and suicide attacks, a group of fighters have come together around a pot of grits, it once more opens to me clearly how much of a legend this battle has become.
Not from the mouth of any fighter have I ever heard words like 'I am hungry, thirsty'.
The fight for Raqqa is an urban warfare. And even the ISIS gangs do not attack anymore like before, but have adopted in these last times guerrilla tactics, using a hit and run fighting tactic. And their suicide attacks are still at their highest.
They have carved out literally another town at the bottom of the city. They have dug hundreds of tunnels connected with each other in a never ending loop, one tunnel goes to another. The tunnels seem to not find an end.
Raqqa resembles in fact the hell described in Dante's 'The Divine Comedy'.
While I am busy writing down my notes, the village Kesret Efan has been liberated from the ISIS gangs. Only two kilometres are left for the eastern and western flanks to meet. Shall those two flanks come together, the entire control over both sides of the Euphrates river will fall into the hands of the SDF.
What exactly are the positions?
In urban warfares, positions are taken one by one and steady advances are made from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.
During the operations led by the YPG and YPJ, the positions of the ISIS gangs get identified and captured. Sometimes new emplacements are set up close to those positions or the seized positions of the ISIS gangs are rendered to a headquarter.
SLEEP IS A LUXURY ON THE FRONT LINE
Following sunrise, the attacks and onslaughts of the ISIS gangs reach a new peak, as the gangs start to resort heavily to suicide attacks as soon as morning breaks. Therefore all fighters act very attentively while holding position in their emplacements.
How do the fighters confront the enemy?
Sometimes a battle drags on to two or three days in a row amidst these difficult and severe conditions and brutal desert heat.
With their own established collective systems the fighters created some opportunities for each other to take a rest in group formations, be it only a small comfort. In emplacements where eight to ten fighters are positioned, they have organized a set time of a few hours for two to three person to sleep on the turn. Sleep becomes a luxury on the front. And this makes the battle be fought adamantly and with enormous will power.
Worth mentioning at Raqqa's frontline is the hygienics all the fighters of the SDF attach importance to. The fighters of the YPG and YPJ in the first place, all the fighters within the SDF clean up all their positions thoroughly, where ever they set a foot, and even their whole surroundings.
The fighters, who enter those buildings that show clear signs of battle for inspection, even collect and get rid of the garbage from there.
The fighters of the YPG and YPJ never give in their morale values even under most difficult and severe conditions and circumstances of the war.
The biggest challenge are shoes
One of the many challenges the fighters cope with are socks and shoes. The march on Raqqa's burning hot ground, broken pavements, rubble of metal and sand is gnawing on the fighters shoes so much that they quickly fall apart. At times they are forced to fight for months with one single pair of socks on their feet. Their socks they wash every two to three days, but regarding the problem of the footwear a solution is yet out of range.
Those fighters, whose shoes have ripped apart have sometimes to wait four to five weeks for the logistic to get a new pair fitting them. And in some cases, shoes might come but be either too big or small.
THEY FIGHT IN SANDALS
Local fighters that are affiliated with the SDF go predominantly into battle wearing sandals. It is part of their tradition. You see only very few of them ever wearing shoes. Instead they fight with sandals, that expose their feet fully. And they march on the sand and stones wearing these thin sandals.
When I came to Raqqa for the first time, I was burning to know how these people can fight in a war with sandals on their feet. But by now I have learned, that in Raqqa it is perfectly normal for some to wage a war wearing sandals. Mohammed, himself a local from Raqqa, fought for three weeks even barefoot, as the straps of his sandals tore apart.
Meanwhile I understand much better, why this fight is a fight of epic proportion.
THEY ALL FIGHT WITH THEIR HEARTS
Let us come now to the fundamental matter... Some say stuff like America has provided them with panzers, with missiles and the Coalition Forces have equipped the SDF with brand new weaponry and so on...
But the truth is, the fighters on the front line do not even have the time to think about news and assessments of that sort. There is hardly anyone who would heed such news anyway. What they do know is, that they are defending their own soil.
One month has passed since I wandered on the very front lines and in the villages of Raqqa, and I witnessed that all these fighters were struggling from the deepest bottom of their hearts.
American warplanes surely bombed Raqqa's city centre in a distance of 14 kilometres, but those air strikes are very infrequent. When you see these fighters on the ground going to war barefoot and with sandals, the claim that the SDF would depend on America turn out laughable.
The weapons and munitions of these fighters are limited. It happens that sometimes they have only one bullet to spare. In their hands they all carry Kalashnikovs. The M16 provided by America, which jam in two days, is not being used by anyone here.
Here, on Raqqa's front line the latest and most modern weapons, missiles launched by a computer system, simply do not exist. Here are only Kalashnikovs, BKC's and B-7 on the shoulders of the unwavering fighters of the SDF.
THE WOUNDED ARE DRIVEN TO HOSPITALS
The sad side of the war are the hundreds of martyrs and wounded fighters...The wounded ones are first transferred in cars to Samra, an area affiliated to Raqqa, where a temporary emergency centre has been set up. Those, whose conditions worsen are sent after the first intervention here to the hospitals in Hesekê or Qamishlo.
The fighters of the SDF have cut the artery of ISIS in Rojava and Raqqa. The certain death of ISIS is now merely a matter of time.
* This article by Erem Kansoy first appeared on Yeni Özgür Politika newspaper and was translated by ANF English service.