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Hope and fear for Syria's Kurds

In the first of a new series of long-form, in-depth articles, Al-Monitor traveled to the northeastern Syrian town of Derik to explore the transitional and often contradictory nature of the Kurdish-administered territory still commonly called Rojava.
Syrian Kurdish people rally on Mistanur hill during a gathering to celebrate Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on March 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO/YASIN AKGUL        (Photo credit should read YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)

“What happens when a black rat mates with a white rat?” The question prompted nervous giggles in a classroom in northeastern Syria. A dark-haired girl in a white hijab hazarded a guess: “All their babies will be born black." 

Of the 23 teenagers attending the evening biology prep course at Taleyah lycee in the town of Derik, only three are boys. “Most boys their age are either fighting Daesh or have fled the country,” teacher Shiwan Jamil explained during a brief pause in the lesson. 

Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS), and the Syrian Kurds who are running Derik along with the rest of northeastern Syria have remained locked in a vicious war with the jihadis ever since they bloodily erupted onto the scene in 2014. Two of Jamil’s students have died in battle.

Fighting under the banner of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurds’ skill and valor have made them the United States’ top ally in the fight against IS — and the darlings of the international media. With their flowing braids and precise marksmanship, female fighters draw much of the fawning. But with a few notable exceptions, there is seldom any mention of the Syrian Kurds’ history. Who are they? What motivates them? What was life like for them before the Syrian uprising, and what is it like for ordinary people today?

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“When journalists come here all they want is to rush from one front line to the other. The Kurds are always portrayed as great warriors, but rarely as human beings,” grumbled Barzan Iso, a local reporter who doesn’t hide his sympathy for the YPG. Thanks to its relative distance from the battlefield and its mixed population of Kurds, Christians and displaced Arabs, Derik combines the strands of that other life that few bother to explore. It’s infused with hope and fear and plenty of drudgery. 

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Glacial temperatures in the classroom where Jamil unveils the secrets of genetics are unbroken by a sputtering diesel-fueled stove. The paint on the wall is peeling. The desks are battered. Rats scurry amid piles of debris cluttering the stairwells. But the spirits of the students are intact. They laugh easily at Jamil’s jokes and meet a reporter’s gaze with startling confidence. Then the lights go off. “We have two hours of electricity, then it goes out for an hour then comes back on again,” Jamil said. 

His class encapsulates the transitional and often contradictory nature of the Kurdish-administered territory that was called Rojava or Western Kurdistan until it was rechristened the “Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria” in December. Cynics say the change is a ruse to mask Kurdish domination over the area. Rojava’s leaders say the federation is a blueprint for the secular, egalitarian, multi-ethnic and federal plan they giddily imagine for the rest of Syria. Most people still call the place Rojava, and its administrators make no secret of their desire to dilute decades of government-enforced Arabization crafted to efface the Kurds.

Education is a key pillar of this new order, and mandatory schooling in the Arabic language is being phased out. Kurds, who make up the largest ethnic group in Rojava, are finally receiving education in the long-banned Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish that is spoken here. Arabs continue to send their children to Arabic schools while Syrian Orthodox Christians, also known as Syriacs, tutor their children in their own tongue. 

In practice, things are a lot fuzzier. Young Kurdish students are easily immersed in Kurdish-language education, though the program remains very much in the pilot stage. But Kurdish and Syriac high school students who are caught in the middle continue their schooling in Arabic-language facilities affiliated with the Syrian Ministry of Education. Only these schools, which include the Taleyah lycee, offer diplomas that are internationally recognized. Some of the Taleyah students are Arabs. Jamil, a Kurd, teaches in Arabic but replies to his Kurdish students in Kurmanji. 

Training teachers to teach Kurds in Kurdish was among the Rojava leadership’s first goals when it began running the three Kurdish-majority cantons — Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin — that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had abandoned to combat opposition rebels elsewhere in Syria. The summer 2012 withdrawal prompted accusations of collusion between the Kurds and the regime that persist to this day. Not surprisingly, Rojava officials bristle at the suggestion — but few as strongly as Fawza al-Yusuf. “There is a huge difference between withdrawal and collaboration. The Syrian army withdrew,” she said.

Yusuf is a member of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), the governing coalition in Rojava that draws its ideological inspiration from Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Turkish Kurdish rebel group called the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). When Ocalan and his comrades set up the PKK in 1978, they said they would be fighting for an independent Kurdistan that would unite the Kurds of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. But over time the PKK scaled back its ambitions as geopolitical realities set in. Ocalan now preaches a radical brand of communalism that rejects ethnic nationalism and national borders and encourages gender equality and environmental friendliness in their stead.

Rojava has become the laboratory for these ideas, poached in part from late American libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. Yet for all its talk of diversity, Rojava is unabashedly Kurdish, its leadership is top-down and Kurds like Yusuf with PKK backgrounds mostly call the shots. Iso, the reporter, said Yusuf is a fairly big fish. His assertion was borne out a week later when I saw her on television reading out the “charter” of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria.

I met Yusuf for the first time in Iso's modest, one-story house on a narrow street in the heart of Derik. It was decked out with Christmas lights and an artificial tree that go on and off with the electricity. Yusuf wore a big smile and was flanked by two girls carrying Kalashnikov rifles. One of the girls had large, dark eyes and a pale, moonlike face. She looked no older than 12, but Yusuf told me that she is 15 and that her “code name” is “Agiri,” which means “fiery” in Kurmanji. Agiri ran away from home to join the female unit of the YPG. The adolescent was assigned to Yusuf’s security because she was too young to be on the front lines. Apparently warnings from international rights groups to keep minors off the battlefield are having an effect. Yusuf waved the girls out of the room and tucked her legs under her, and our conversation began.

Like most TEV-DEM members, Yusuf was drawn to Kurdish politics by Ocalan. She was studying law at Aleppo University in the early 1990s when she first heard about the PKK leader. She engineered a meeting with him, dropped out of university and, though she doesn’t say so, probably joined the PKK.

Still, Yusuf was engagingly frank. Unlike many of her colleagues, she made no pretense of not speaking Turkish, the lingua franca in the PKK. When I came to Rojava for the first time in 2014, all the TEV-DEM leaders I addressed in Turkish claimed to not understand, probably for fear that doing so would betray their links to the PKK and bar them from travel to Europe and the United States, where the PKK is formally listed as a terrorist organization. Yet each time I asked a provocative question, their faces would tighten before it was even translated. When I told Yusuf this, she laughed and continued to describe her views on Ocalan. “Ocalan reawakened our Kurdish identity. He created a people with a sense of history and of self. Now we are putting those ideas into practice.” 

That is easier said than done, and Derik’s mayor, Dicle Hamu, is struggling to keep up. On first impression, she is doing a decent job. Derik seems an orderly and safe place. “There is stability and security here, and business is better since Assad withdrew,” confirmed Suleyman Temi, a local jeweler. “In times like these I can display all my gold in this window — imagine.” There is no rubbish on the streets. Most of the mud and dust are from new buildings that are being erected throughout the town, surely a sign of confidence in Rojava’s future. 

But many residents complain that their leaders’ management skills do not match their prowess on the battlefield. “Sure, in the past five years we witnessed developments that we could never have imagined,” said Jamil the biology teacher. “I can finally speak my own language freely and the Kurds are defending themselves for the first time, but otherwise nothing seems to work, and our standard of living has dropped. I am unhappy and pessimistic about the future.”

Hamu told me her biggest problem is funding, an issue compounded by Turkey’s continued blockade. The municipality raises the bulk of its paltry revenues from the town’s erratic electricity and water supplies, and the cantonal administration pitches in with a share of the taxes that it levies on trade with Iraqi Kurdistan. Hamu said the municipality also runs agricultural cooperatives, textile workshops and a driving school. “We’ve issued 350 licenses so far, and most of our pupils are women,” she beamed. 

The newly minted drivers were nowhere in sight, and there was an unsettling dearth of traffic. The “mechanics’ neighborhood,” incongruously located near the remains of a French fort where prisoners were hanged, offered a possible explanation. Rows of forlorn cars, some stripped to their chassis, awaited repairs. “They sit here for months until the spare parts are smuggled in,” confided Said Ali, a local mechanic. Most of the parts are carried atop mules via Mount Sinjar in Iraqi Kurdistan. The mountain fell under PKK control in 2014, when the group moved in to rescue thousands of Yazidis from imminent slaughter by IS. 

The remains of a French fort are pictured on the edge of Derik, near the “mechanics’ neighborhood,” January 2017 (photo by Berzan Iso).

Around 3,000 Yazidis fled westward to Derik, where they live in a municipality-run camp on the outskirts of town. Laila Ahmad, a Yazidi mother of four, said she wants to go back to her village. But Iraqi Kurdish authorities have told her and fellow refugees to hold off until Mosul is recaptured. In the meantime, female PKK cadres drill the camp’s women residents with Ocalan’s ideas during daily sessions in a giant tent. “I am here to carry out the work of our leader, Ocalan, to teach women that they are equal to men,” asserted a woman guerrilla code-named Zinarin Botan. She is from Sirnak, a Kurdish-dominated province in Turkey’s southeast. She said she joined the PKK to escape the patriarchy. Her leathery features point to a life of hardship in the mountains.

Back at the municipality, Hamu suggested that Derik’s other new “guests,” thousands of internally displaced Arabs, are not as welcome. “Their women are mostly covered,” she noted with a hint of disdain. The influx has driven up rents and allegedly lowered moral standards. “Some of them run prostitution rings out of their homes. Our female militia busted one last month,” Hamu said.

The 28-year-old city planner was catapulted to the job in 2015 when TEV-DEM decided to take over the municipality and give the boot to the regime-appointed incumbent. “He resisted, so he we had to lock him up,” she said. He’s since been freed, and 12 municipal workers from his watch have been permitted to keep their jobs so they can continue to draw salaries from the regime. “We took pity on them; they have families to feed,” Hamu volunteered. I glanced at a large picture of Ocalan that hung above her desk. He would surely have disapproved of her magnanimity. Or maybe not.

Allegations of complicity between the PKK and Syria’s Baathist regime initially surfaced when Ocalan fled from Turkey to Syria before the Turkish army seized power in September 1980 and began rounding up dissident Kurds together with tens of thousands of other “enemies of the state.” Ocalan spent about a month in Kobani in various homes, most notably with the influential Alloush family, holding court with locals and sowing his ideas. After establishing contact with Syrian authorities (or the other way around — details about this remain sketchy), Ocalan moved to Damascus. 

The PKK leader’s presence was tolerated if not outright encouraged by then-President Hafez al-Assad, who saw the PKK as a useful lever against Turkey and as a magnet for Syria’s own restive Kurds. On Aug. 15, 1984, from its headquarters in Syria, the PKK formally launched its rebellion inside Turkey. Its first targets were Kurdish feudal landlords, and Ocalan quickly earned a reputation for ruthlessness. Though he had the odd distinction of never taking up arms himself, the PKK leader ordered his critics killed without hesitation.

Harriet Allsopp, a rare expert on the Syrian Kurds, sums up the PKK’s rise in Syria in her authoritative “The Kurds of Syria: Political Parties and Identity in the Middle East” as follows: “The ability of the PKK to monopolize popular mobilization and public displays of culture was a consequence of an implicit understanding between the Syrian government and the PKK that the organization would not promote political activities against the Syrian government and that it would direct the attention of Syrian Kurds towards the Kurdish struggle in Turkey.” 

Thus, as the PKK began rallying Syrian Kurds against Turkey, the regime looked the other way. “They had a kind of laissez-faire attitude,” Yusuf recalled. Kurds taught their children Kurmanji at home. Celebrations to mark the March 21 Kurdish New Year, or Nowruz, which is a de facto national day for Kurds worldwide, were allowed. “But the authorities would call it ‘Mothers Day’ or some other non-Kurdish thing,” she laughed. 

It’s easy to see why so many Syrian Kurds joined the PKK. The Syrian regime treated its Kurds like dirt. “If you couldn’t sock it to the Syrians, then you might as well sock it to their other oppressors, the Turks,” their logic went. It is a testament to Assad’s wiles that even today Rojava’s leaders spend more time complaining to Western audiences about Turkey than about Assad’s Baath Party regime.

The Syrian government dealt its cruelest blow in 1962, when it carried out a census in the predominantly Kurdish and resource-rich province of Hasakah in a single day. Its aim, writes Allsopp, was to concentrate landholdings in the hands of Arabs, part of a ruthless “Arabization” campaign not unlike that conducted by fellow tyrants in Iraq. The state arbitrarily stripped tens of thousands of Kurds of their citizenship on the grounds that they had migrated illegally from Turkey. As a result, between 120,000 and 150,000 Kurds — around a fifth of Syria’s Kurdish population — were left stateless. But that was just the beginning. 

The stateless were separated into two categories: those registered as illegal immigrants, or “ajanib,” and those who weren’t registered at all. On paper, the latter group, known as the “maktumiin,” does not exist. Both groups are denied the right to own property, businesses or even a car. They are barred from marrying Syrian citizens or running for public office and they are not permitted to leave the country unless, apparently, it is to join the PKK. In 2011 Assad pledged to redress this injustice to keep the Kurds on his side, and many ajanib were finally granted citizenship. The maktumiin remain ghosts. 

By the mid-1990s the number of Syrian Kurds in the PKK had swollen to about a third of its current total force, and Fehman Huseyin — a Syrian Kurdish recruit from Derik frequently pictured with his pet mountain goat — became their hero. Huseyin had been studying medicine at Damascus University when he joined the PKK, assuming the nom de guerre “Bahoz Erdal.” 

“The Doctor,” as he came to be known, rose to become the commander of the PKK’s military wing. Turkey has repeatedly claimed to have killed him, only for “The Doctor” to pop up again.

Turkish Kurds plotting rebellion from Syria is nothing new. 

In the early 20th century, Kurdish aristocrats evading persecution in Turkey settled in Damascus and masterminded the failed Agri rebellion in southeast Turkey. And long before the PKK existed, a homegrown group called the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S) began secretly organizing in the 1950s amid rising Arab nationalism and its attendant bans on the Kurdish language and music and racist attacks against Kurds. 

Unlike the PKK, the KDP-S was brutally suppressed by the Syrian authorities and many of its leaders were jailed. Some eventually fled to Europe and, more recently, to Iraqi Kurdistan. Not surprisingly, they lost sway over their base, and the PKK was allowed to fill the vacuum. 

That was, until 1998, when Turkey threatened to go to war against Syria unless it got rid of Ocalan. It did, and he was captured four months later in Kenya in February 1999. Pressure steadily mounted on the PKK and its Syrian arm, the nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD), which was set up in 2003. Hundreds of PYD members and sympathizers were jailed and tortured. Tensions boiled over into violence during a 2004 soccer match in the town of Qamishli between the Fetuwa and al-Jihad teams supported by Arabs and Kurds, respectively. The violence quickly spread. The uprising was short-lived — lasting only eight days — but it sparked a new awakening among Syria’s Kurds.

Syrian Kurds hold a banner depicting Abdullah Ocalan while attending the funeral of four fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) killed in the fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra near the oil-rich province of Ramelan on Oct. 18, 2013, near the Syrian Kurdish town of Derik (photo by Fabio Bucciarelli/Getty Images).

With the onset of the Arab Spring, the Syrian Kurds’ fortunes were reversed yet again. In August 2011, Turkey embarked on its hapless campaign to overthrow Assad, and the PYD declared itself neutral, allowing the Kurds to stay out of the conflict, at least until IS struck. The KDP-S and a string of other smaller and perpetually squabbling Syrian Kurdish parties threw their lot in with the opposition and Turkey, ending up on the wrong side of the war and of Kurdish public opinion. 

Massoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s president and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) on which the KDP-S was modeled, is well liked throughout Rojava and especially in Derik and its environs, where the yellow KDP banner flutters above entire villages. Muhammad Yusuf, who runs a small shop that sells mobile phone accessories, said cellphone covers with Barzani’s face sell in numbers equal to those featuring Ocalan. Barzani owes his popularity above all to his father, the legendary Kurdish warrior Mullah Mustafa Barzani, a central figure in the Kurds’ struggle for freedom. But Barzani’s friendship with Turkey and hostility to the PYD are beginning to dent his image here. Still, Barzani is lobbying the United States to pressure Rojava’s leaders to let back in some 3,000 KDP-S fighters he helped arm and train. The aim, Barzani says, is to unify the Kurds. Critics counter that it is to shatter the PYD’s monopoly over power to his own advantage. The Rojava administration says it will allow the KDP-S forces to return provided they agree to fall under their command. But they won't.

On a recent morning I was awaiting permission to cross from Iraqi Kurdistan into Rojava when I was introduced to a young woman sitting in the office of Shawket Berbihary, the man who runs the Faysh Khabur border gate. “I want to talk, but if you use my name they will arrest me,” she said. “Who?” I asked. “The PYD.” Berbihary nodded vigorously in agreement. 

The woman said she was a lawyer and a member of the KDP-S. She lived in Derik, where the PYD, in her words, “made life unbearable” for its political rivals, “and especially for us.” She reckoned at least 35 senior KDP-S members were in jail. “They abduct them mafia-style,” she said.

Ilham Ehmed, a key official in the Rojava administration, told me Jan. 22 that all of the opposition leaders had been freed. But Ibrahim Biro, president of the Kurdish National Council, an umbrella group, contested that statement from exile in Erbil, improbably claiming “thousands” of council members were being unlawfully held.

I offered the lawyer a ride to Derik, where I was going to meet Yusuf. She declined, saying she was forced to cross illegally into Iraqi Kurdistan to meet with her party leaders and would return the same way because KDP-S members are “not allowed to move freely in and out of Rojava.” Smugglers charge around $750 for the trip and the PYD gets a cut, she said.

I had heard similar claims of PYD thuggery, most recently from Kamran Hajo, a heavyweight in the KDP-S “political bureau” whom I ran into in December at a conference in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Duhok. 

“The PYD is not a Syrian Kurdish party — they take their orders from Qandil,” Hajo snapped. He was referring to the PKK, whose headquarters is buried deep in the Qandil Mountains that separate Iraq from Iran. Hajo repeated accusations that the PYD was in bed with the regime and betraying the Kurdish cause. “The system they are talking about for this northern Syria business — the Kurds are not mentioned even once.”

That wasn’t quite true: Yusuf did mention the Kurds together with all the other ethnic groups in Syria and spoke of the need for them to be treated as equals. She also made it clear that the Kurds wanted to remain part of Syria. Yet Turkey sees the PYD-dominated TEV-DEM as a big threat, while embracing the KDP-S as an ally, despite the latter’s advocacy of Kurdish self-rule.

I reflected on this irony as I drove across the pontoon bridge spanning the Khabur stream that runs between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava. I was immediately struck by the contrast with my last visit. The shabby, smoke-filled “customs” shack on the Rojava side had been replaced by a largish building set off by marble columns in the faux neoclassical style. An Iranian Kurd sitting, inevitably, in front of a large portrait of Ocalan greeted me with an urbane smile and told a young woman in combat gear to register my passport details. There was a new feel of efficiency and confidence about the place. It was a far cry from the gilt chairs and Persian rugs at the Faysh Khabur crossing, yet I was overcome by a sense of deja vu. 

The Iraqi Kurdistan I first encountered in 1992 was quite similar to the Rojava I saw two years ago. Both were poor and wracked by conflict. Roads were rutted, food was scarce and despair clouded the air. Today, despite multiple challenges, energy-rich Iraqi Kurdistan is aggressively pushing for statehood. Rojava has fewer resources, it’s ethnically less homogenous and around a fifth of Syria’s Kurds are thought to be refugees in Turkey and Iraq. But the question is tempting all the same: Might it follow a similar path? Not if Turkey, for whom the PKK and the YPG are identical, has its way. 

Iso picked me up from customs and we sped along a newly resurfaced road in his black BMW. Across the border in Turkey, watchtowers were silhouetted against the snowcapped Cudi Mountains, where for decades the PKK waged war against the Turkish army. Some of those fighters are now leading the battle against IS.

Suddenly a wall appeared. It was gray and ugly, running along the border as far as the eye could see. Erected in 2015, the wall is intended to keep out Syrians of all stripes, and Turkish authorities boast that once completed, it will be the third-longest wall in the world. People still manage to steal across, albeit in far fewer numbers. Not everyone makes it. Ehmed, the Rojava administrator, claimed that as many as 17 people were shot dead by Turkish guards in a single day. Iso said locals who used to go fishing in the Tigris River that snakes along the border no longer dare. “Our simplest pleasures are denied.”

In August, Turkish troops moved into northern Syria to deny the Syrian Kurds something a lot bigger. The aim of Operation Euphrates Shield was twofold: to clear Turkey’s 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with Syria of IS, but above all to prevent the Syrian Kurds from linking up the Jazeera and Kobani cantons with Afrin, which lies west of the Euphrates River. 

Joining the cantons has long been the YPG’s dream, and the United States tacitly encouraged hopes that it would help achieve it once IS is driven out of Raqqa, the capital of its rapidly shrinking “caliphate.”

But those plans capsized when Turkish forces inserted themselves in the town of Jarablus, cutting off the YPG’s advance from Manbij toward Afrin and pushing further south toward the IS-held town of al-Bab, which is coveted by the YPG as a strategic link in the cantonal chain.

Will US President Donald Trump cave to Turkish pressure and abandon the YPG? Will the world look on if the regime and Turkey unleash their wrath on the Kurds yet again? Such questions weigh heavily here. But in the meantime, the Turkish incursion has made daily life easier in some ways.

The jihadis’ ejection from the Turkish border means there are fewer checkpoints and hence fewer taxes levied on trucks bringing in goods from the rest of Syria. Jidaan Khalid Ibrahim, a grain trader, says taxes for each truckload of merchandise he transports from the port city of Latakia dropped from $5,000 to $3,000 after the Turks entered Jarablus. Sugar, which used to cost $2 per kilo, costs half that now, and Turkish fruits and vegetables flowing into Rojava from Jarablus are plentiful at the local bazaar. 

The food makes its way to tables at Azar, a Syriac-owned restaurant said to be the best — and the priciest — in town. On a recent Saturday night, Christian families dug into small plates of hummus and eggplant salad, washed down by Lebanese arak and “Italian-style” Bulgarian wine. Peals of children’s laughter floated through the air.

The mood was decidedly darker during Sunday mass at the Mar Shmone Syrian Orthodox church. Most of the worshippers were old women with sour expressions, and they don’t like strangers. After the service, a youngish priest wearing a jeweled cross and a purple sash said he was not permitted to talk to journalists and walked away. 

My next stop was Syriac dentist and local sage Gabi el Qas. He is short and wiry and full of nervous energy. A stack of pamphlets about a fourth-century Assyrian church in Derik, penned by his late father, sat on his desk. “Dr. Gabi,” as his patients call him, reminded me that Derik was founded by Syriacs who escaped the mass slaughter of Christians by the Ottomans in 1915. Kurdish tribes did a fair bit of the butchering, and relations between Kurds and the Syriacs have been uneasy ever since. Perhaps it is to make amends that the Rojava administration appoints Syriacs to senior positions and has allowed them to form their own armed militia. 

Before the war, there were 1,200 Assyrian families in Derik. Now only 450 are left. Last year the Rojava administration, egged on by the pro-PYD Syriac Union Party, passed a law prohibiting Christians and Jazeera residents from selling their properties. The measure was intended to dissuade them from leaving Rojava. Qas called it “ridiculous” and insisted it will never work — not that he has any plans to leave.

With the collapse of Syria’s currency, profits are down and medicine and instruments are harder to find. “But when I think of how others live elsewhere in Syria, I am grateful for my life here,” he said. Qas shows his gratitude by offering free treatment to YPG fighters.

“Look,” he said, carefully extracting a plaster mold from his safe. “I made this porcelain crown for a YPG man.” His approach sums up the general feeling in Derik. “It’s not as though we were free under Assad. At least we are alive and safe, and for that we owe thanks to the YPG.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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