Some twenty miles outside the ISIS-controlled area of Hawija, in northern Iraq, commander Hussein Yazdanpana shakes the hands of two American soldiers. They are standing on a dirt path next to a wall of sandbags. For a moment they glance over to the training field below the hill where some twenty young Iranian-Kurdish recruits are learning to dismantle a gun while blindfolded. Then the two Americans leave. They had come to exchange information and check on their weapons.
For the past two months, Yazdanpana hasn’t left his position near the Dibis power plant. Coalition partners, journalists — whoever wants to talk to him — have to come to the front line. That is, on days he is not busy attacking ISIS.
Hussein Yazdanpana is the vice president of the Party Azady Kurdistan — the Kurdistan Freedom Party — or PAK, a Kurdish opposition party based in neighboring Iran. PAK has both a political and a military wing, and they are fighting for an independent Kurdish state. The Kurdish people (who number some 25 to 30 million) have long inhabited parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and currently control the autonomous region in northern Iraq known as Kurdistan. PAK is fighting for one big state of Kurdistan that would encompass land currently in all four countries. Although for now their more immediate concern is defending against attacks from ISIS.
With his gray hair standing up and pronounced mustache, Yazdanpana, 49, is a hit on Russian social media for his resemblance to Stalin. As the party’s vice president, he is also the commander of its 600 Iranian-Kurdish fighters who are protecting Kurdistan’s borders around the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.
We walk up to his office, a prefab shipping container connected to a generator, and take a seat on the black leather chairs around the long oval table. It looks just like an American army base, except for the five vases of shrapnel with dried flowers on the table. The commander has a grave look. His sources have told him that ISIS — “Daesh” as it is known locally — has been gathering information about Kirkuk. They’ve spotted movement of vehicles and personnel on the enemy’s side. “What Daesh is capable of doing, they will be doing in the coming days,” the commander says. “The weather is in their advantage; you can’t see very far. We are ready.”
* * *
Sometimes just before he falls off to sleep, the commander’s mind wanders back to Lake Kazemi in northwestern Iran. Hussein Yazdanpana was born in Saqqezlu, a village of some fifty mud houses along the lake’s shores. He is the third of seven children — four sons, three daughters. As a child, every morning he’d wake up, open the door and look out over the lake. Protected by the mountain range surrounding the village, he was free to wander around.
His father came from an aristocratic family and rented out several nearby houses. The 1960s, when he grew up, was a peaceful time here. But just two generations earlier, back in 1881, his grandfather, Fayzulla Bayg, had lead a thousand Kurdish fighters in the Kurdish revolution against the Qajar Dynasty that ruled over much of the area. Seven of his cousins were hanged when the revolution was crushed.
When Yazdanpana was growing up, peace was just a thin cloud hanging over the mountains. Every now and then Iranian soldiers raided his village, rounding up the young men, searching the houses for weapons and stealing cattle. Whenever soldiers were coming, his mother would urge him to come inside while she was busy hiding things. One time he saw soldiers rough up a boy and force him to join them. He soon realized these soldiers were his enemies.
* * *
We walk past the wall of sandbags and look out over the desolate steppe. Yazdanpana points to the villages just on the horizon. Two miles from here is Zika, a bit further on is Azeri; both are in the hands of ISIS.
“Today we fight Daesh, tomorrow it will be Iran,” he says. “The truth is that Iran and Turkey support Daesh.” The fight against ISIS is, he says, “the King’s Fight of the Middle East.” It’s the defining battle, one that will redraw the lines of the region. “My first home is my family. My second home is Kurdistan, my third home is humanity. I left my first home to protect the second and third. I came to die — because I want my children to live.”
Between the sandbags and the prefab container of the camp, soldiers have built a wooden house for a dog that is nursing a nest of puppies. As we walk back to the training field, we pass another dog wearing a cowbell on his collar, so soldiers can hear him coming and won’t shoot him. From the base up on the highest of the small hills, we can look out for miles. We enter another prefab container filled with desks and chairs — the classroom. The soldiers, who come from all different backgrounds — Sunni, Shia or not religious at all — receive lessons in politics.
The main lesson is this: Kurdistan should be one country. Near the end of World War I, the French and the British signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement — named after the men who drew up the contract, which set borders for the region following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds were divided into four different countries: Turkey in the north, Iran in the west (simply called rozh balad – Kurdish for “the western country”), Syria in the east and Iraq in the south. “It has been 501 years [since the beginning of the Ottoman rule] that we have been separated, and one hundred years since Sykes-Picot was signed,” Yazdanpana says. “After all those attempts to disconnect us, we are still one people. We suffered under their repression. But they couldn’t turn us into Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians and Turks. There will be a day, either in my lifetime or beyond, that the borders between the different parts of Kurdistan will be erased.”
But this is history; every Kurd knows this. The real lesson to learn here is how to hate the enemy. “Do you know Daesh even cuts open pregnant women?” he asks. “They have no mercy.”
* * *
The commander’s assistant walks to the fridge and gets us each a plastic cup with mineral water. Then he goes out to make us Iranian tea. Yazdanpana sleeps little. At night he ponders how to win the battle. “We’re in touch with each other on the front line. We see if the enemy is moving. Weapons and fighters. Daesh prefers to fight in the night, when the sun is down — we attack in the daytime. I usually go to bed at seven [in the morning] and sleep until eleven. I wake up, drink a coffee, and see what needs to be done.”
He’s busy planning another attack. One team — some 40 soldiers — will walk to the enemy, weapons on their back, and attack the village or base from the hills. A second team, same size, facilitates. A third team throws grenades to distract the enemy and will attend to the wounded.
Photos of the martyrs — soldiers who have lost their lives in the fighting — hang on the wall just outside the prefab shipping container. Soldiers are standing on guard next to the sandbagged wall, AK-47s slung over their shoulders. Just minutes away from the base, there’s a group of bombed-out houses. Daesh used the villages here as their own base until November 10, 2014. After a fierce battle, Yazdanpana and his men took over. “It was hard. When they abandon a place, they leave it full of TNT. We attacked the place and it exploded. They had remote control. We lost many Peshmergas,” he says, using the Kurdish word for freedom fighters. Translated literally it means “those who face death.” Yazdanpana warns me to stay on the path when I leave, as the area is still full of IEDs.
* * *
He must have been fifteen when Peshmerga fighters asked him to stand guard around their camp as they attended a gathering. On the lookout, he felt like a man for the first time.
In 1979 the revolt against the Shah broke out. The new leaders of Iran wanted to Islamicize the country, while the Kurds in the north were leaning towards communism. Yazdanpana followed his older brother Reshid who’d already joined the Peshmerga — and disappeared into the mountains. He didn’t have a clear vision at the time, he says, he was just a child. But once there, there was no way back.
From 1980 to 1988 Iran and Iraq fought a vicious battle in which almost a million people were killed. Meanwhile, the Kurdish Peshmergas waged a guerrilla war in the mountains against the Iranian army. In 1983, his brother Reshid was killed on the battlefield.
In 1991, after Saddam used chemical weapons and killed thousands of civilians in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja — a punishment for collaborating with Iranian Peshmergas — the international community established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. It gave the Kurds a de facto autonomous state.
Hussein went to study in Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. He married and had five children — the youngest, a girl, just turned five.
That same year, 1991, his older brother Said founded the Kurdish opposition party PAK. Yazdanpana and his wife joined the party from the start. Yet disaster struck again: Said was assassinated by Iranian intelligence officers. Yazdanpana became the vice president and with that automatically also the commander of the troops.
From their bases in Iraqi Kurdistan the PAK attacked Iranian targets. Starting in 2004, the fighting lessened upon the request of the autonomous Kurdish government in Iraq. PAK kept recruiting and training fighters from inside Iranian Kurdistan, otherwise known as Eastern Kurdistan. But Yazdanpana finally saw a chance to move away from the battlefield and went back to university in Arbil. After completing his bachelor’s, a few years later he started working on his master’s thesis: “The Influence of Globalization on the Kurds.”
When ISIS attacked the Sinjar Mountains in Kurdistan, his life took a new turn. He left his thesis and went back to the battlefield. “I was ready to go to battle since 2012. But I didn’t think we would be fighting Daesh. I thought we would be fighting Baghdad.”
He won’t say if the Kurdish government in Iraq or the Kurdish people in Iran are funding them. “When one part of Kurdistan is in need, we all come to its rescue,” he says. “Daesh wants to commit genocide on the Kurdish nation. They attack all of Kurdistan. This is in the brain of all the Kurds. And all Kurds become one when this happens.”
* * *
The sun has gone under. He puts a small petroleum heater between us. He’s talked about his childhood, the lake and the mountains where he grew up, and I ask him about his brother’s murder.
Yazdanpana abruptly gets up. He takes his small cup of water in his hand and strides to the window. The generator is running. It is getting dark inside, but no lights have been switched on. Without saying a word, he walks out. He returns a few minutes later, sits down and grabs a tissue. Tears are slowly rolling down his cheeks. He dabs his eyes. “I can’t talk about that. Not now,” he says, almost pleadingly.
After a while he continues. “I personally don’t hate anyone. Just the other day, 25 Arab families fled to us. We’re not allowed to have Arabs at our base, but we fed them all. I even gave my sweater away.
“It is hard to kill someone,” he continues. “Humans shouldn’t be killed. I don’t even allow my men to kill a bird. But they want to kill us. When we fight, we think of how they kill even pregnant women.”
It is getting dark now. “You are welcome to stay for dinner,” he offers, “but if you want to leave you better go now, the road is dangerous after dark.”