by Warren Stoddard II
In the night you had a lot of time to yourself to wonder what in the hell you were really doing there. And so he did. The room was garishly lit by an upturned flashlight. Its beam, reflecting off the dusty ceiling, lit men in haphazardly-arranged mismatching uniforms. The only similarities they had were the small, yellow, shield-shaped patches on their shoulders that read YPG.
The People’s Protection Units, he thought, Yekinêya Parastîna Gel. Had he done so much protecting? Could killing of any sort be any kind of protection? Killing?
The sun’s final dying embers lingered pathetically on the horizon through the window. In the distance he heard the rattle of a Biksî – the PKM machine gun – sounding out to remind them all that there was a war to be won. “Another one bites the dust,” he said. Somewhere in another corner of the room another heval grunted an affirmative reply. He reached his arm out from under the blanket and grabbed his Kalashnikov, pulling it into the warmth of the little mattress with him.
It was hard to remember the war was there when you were not in it. In the evenings and in the days you slept or ate or read a book among falling mortar shells. It is not that it went unnoticed. The war permeated everything – the walls of the buildings were shattered, jets laced the sky with potent venom, your rifle always remained within arm’s reach, a round in the chamber. War had just seemed such a novel and interesting thing when read about, when acted out with army men, when experienced through a television screen. Hell, he had traveled from a comfortable life in America to a place halfway around the world to see it – to fight it – for no money.
Is there any intrinsic value in any of this? he asked himself. When I am old and I am grey and I can say to my grandchild, “Let me tell you about the war…” was that the value of it? The ghanima? The spoils of war. To one day add your name to humanity’s all-important registry of war-fighters, heroic, noble?
What a fucking stupid proposition, he said to himself. He hoped he believed it, but he knew otherwise.
I needed to be here, he told himself. He stood from the thin mattress and folded the blanket neatly atop it. Wrapping himself in the floral black scarf so emblematic of his chosen cause, he made for the stairwell of the building. It was time for nobet – guard duty. On the rooftop, the sentry was staring idly over the ruined city.
“Hîwa?” the sentry asked as he heard footsteps behind him.
Hîwa stood beside him, gazing over a heavy blackness so still that your eyes could not handle it. They created static, made the silhouettes of buildings waver against the sky, convincing you there was something out there.
“I think we’ve won,” the sentry said, speaking with a French inflection in his voice.
Hîwa adjusted his beanie on his head and slung his rifle lightly over one shoulder. He held it by the pistol grip casually. “Did we?” he asked.
“I think so. No movement, not anything. All the shots are coming from our side.” The sentry unclipped a radio from his vest and handed it to Hîwa. “Don’t get killed,” he said.
It would be hard to imagine it, after all this, but then it always is. To have fought and killed and bled and felt the blood of your friends hot on your arm, the winds cold in the night, and the sun hot in the days before the rains came, and with autumn the seemingly unending downpour – day after day. Until it ended. The sun came out, the fields turned green, and that was the end of it. It would be hard too to imagine spring after a long winter.
He wondered if they knew they would die. In the sights of this rifle, in the scope of the Dragunov, they had gone about their business – whether shooting at his friends or squatting in the shade. He didn’t feel bad about it. He didn’t feel anything about it, and in some ways that was worse than the feeling bad. Utter contempt – a sneer – they got what was coming to them – of what importance is any life like that?
He had seen all the videos. Everyone had. ISIS. The beheadings. The flames. The black flag waving and murdering with bastardized benediction. A whole beautiful corner of this world decimated for words in a book, for nothing. Only a few hundred meters away they had led out those who resisted and decapitated and decollated the detractors in the Al-Naim Traffic Circle. Those unfortunate enough to live silent under their scourge saw the bodies up for display the very first instant vehicles entered Raqqa. For years they quietly seethed. And now they had exacted their revenge.
He supposed there was no good reason for a war, but this must have been pretty damn close.
And now it was all rubble. Airstrikes, mortars, heat, wind, bullets, and hate had whittled this de-facto capital to nothing. The walls were in shambles, the shops’ roofs caved in, oranges rolling out into the dusty street. You could smell the citrus – even among the stench of decaying bodies. So many dead, he thought. Was that what he had come for? To kill? To understand what it is to handle life as a god might?
You fired your weapon and they stopped firing back. They stumbled into safety. They fell face-first into the street. You fired and they stopped fighting. You never saw them, but you saw the panicked faces and the frantic prayers of their friends. And then you fired again. And you fired again. And you fired again. And again. And again. Until it was nothing to you. Until you were one with the war. Until you had fought it. Until you had won.
In the morning, victory was declared. The YPG, YPJ, and SDF forces entered the stadium, that last stronghold. And ISIS was defeated in Raqqa, their capital now somewhere else surely, but not here, and though the war to eradicate them would rage on for nearly two more years, that was all that mattered today.
Around the tattered stadium, uniformed Arabs and Kurds and Syriacs and white-skinned foreign volunteers took selfies with their smart phones, fired celebratory bursts of automatic rifle fire into the air, and posed for group photos with their loot – black ISIS flags, gold coins, swords stained pink in their grooves, antiquated bolt-action and black powder rifles engraved in Arabic.
“I’ve got to get me one of those,” Hîwa said.
“A flag?” the Frenchman asked. “What use have you for a flag? The flag of Daesh?”
“I’ve just got to have it.”
“Will you fly it?”
“Then what use have you for the flag of Daesh?”
He could not explain it. Trying to rationalize it was like trying to rationalize this whole endeavor. Why would a man leave his comfortable home in America to come to Rojava, to war-torn Syria and fight against terrorists he had never suffered under and for the revolution of the people of a land he had never seen? Why would he want to take home the flag of the enemy he had killed and who themselves had killed hundreds of thousands of people and fold and tuck the scrap of cloth away in a box only to be brought out when he wished to delve into nostalgia or impress descendants in some far-off and unpromised future? He could not say, he only knew that he had to have one. He had to have the black flag of terror that he himself tore down from the city walls it once beamed so proudly over. He had helped take the city. He would take a flag too.
“It is just a stupid piece of cloth,” the Frenchman said, and he rolled his eyes and sighed and acquiesced and said, “Let us go find you one.”
They left the stadium in a hurry, avoiding the watchful eyes of commanders. Outside, the once-motionless streets began to twitter with the first signs of life since the battle had begun months prior. YPG fighters walked openly in the streets, their Hilux pickups parked along the curb. Sabotaj units patrolled the city, scanning through buildings for unexploded ordinance, disarming them, piling IEDs up outside the doorways of the high-rise apartments of Raqqa.
The pair walked openly, but their eyes were alert, darting from alleyways and ledges where ISIS fighters had once emerged. Placid sun shone. They could hear the rattle of celebratory machinegun fire. They could smell the citrus in the shops and the bodies decaying above them. Their scarves were dusty, and they had walked a long way.
“Here looks good,” Hîwa said, his voice growing weary – months of fighting, of being shelled, of auditory fatigue finally began to set in. He felt his nerves release, his mind relaxed, now unafraid of impending death – the ease of life could resume – desires be felt. “I’m hungry, anyway.”
“I hope there will be şawarma and a fire tonight,” the Frenchman said, unslinging his rifle from his shoulder as he entered.
“And dancing,” Hîwa hoped.
The building was another of Raqqa’s many high-rise apartments, shooting up some ten stories. The tentative burbling of peace had not yet reached inside the door. It was still shrouded in the uneasy silence of war. Blankets were strewn about haphazardly. Ceilings hung like broken bat’s wings. Shell casings littered the floor, tinkling sweetly as they walked.
“It is… something in here,” the Frenchman said, “I cannot think of the word.”
“Yes. Unnerving. It is a good word.”
Hîwa held his rifle low but ready, the Frenchman the same, they both slid off the safeties of the AKs as quietly as they could allow and ascended the first flight of stairs, scanning the floor for tripwires, carefully stepping over things that could be booby trapped – tea kettles, heaters, blankets – those comforts most immediately desired in the discomfort of war.
Their minds again began to race, now the hopes of the evening were gone, replaced instead by survival instinct, but the cognitive dissonance of their objective was not lost on them.
“Are you sure this flag is worth it?” the Frenchman asked as they mounted the second set of stairs.
“We’ll be fine,” Hîwa responded. “We’ll be fine.”
They checked each room as they passed, rifle barrels entering first, followed by quick darts of the head before finally stepping under the lintel. Each one empty. Bare walls, pockmarked by bullet holes. Shell casings.
The third and fourth sets of stairs passed under their feet. On the fifth floor Hîwa darted his head into a room and found it too empty. He stepped through casually and out onto a small patio overlooking the all but destroyed city of Raqqa. “I wonder what it was like before all this,” he called to the Frenchman behind him.
“You’ve arrived a bit late to see that, haven’t you?”
He had. “But I arrived in time to see all of this. They’ll be talking about us forever, you know.” The sky was clear and brilliantly blue. The wind skirled across the ruins.
“Yes, Achilles, they will. But you know what they say, heval. ‘Şehîd na mirin.’ Our martyrs never die. They will have their faces still up on posters long after you and I have gone home and told everyone we know of what we did here, and we and they have all died. We’ll be forgotten as quickly as winter.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Hîwa saw something – a rag, a scrap of cloth fleetingly fluttering out of a nearby window. Black. In the room next door, pulled by the wind out an open window. He broke into a smile. “Oh, heval. We have got it. You can keep all the copper Daesh coins you like. And I will take my ‘scrap of cloth’.”
“You have found one? Where?”
“Just over here,” he said.
And he stepped into the room nonchalantly, as a conqueror might. As Caesar might have strode across the Forum. He had come. He had seen the plight of these people, so tortured by the Islamic State. He had fought the war. And he had taken their capital. Their flag would come with him. Never to flutter again in the breeze of the plains of Syria. He would tuck it in some box somewhere, taking it out only when he sought to bathe in euphoric nostalgia, wincing as long-ago bullets whizzed past, ever feeling the recoil of his rifle and the dust, kicked up by the winds, settling in his eye.
The flag was hung by nails driven into the concrete wall. They settled loosely in their cavities. He pulled the first one out with ease, regarding it with contempt and speaking over his shoulder to the Frenchman as he flung the nail out the open window. “I knew all this wouldn’t be so difficult.”
The Frenchman was leaning casually against the frame of the door, arms crossed, and his eyes widened.
Hîwa had some difficulty pulling the second nail out, but after a few determined wiggles he broke it free, the black flag, the divine scrap of cloth now his. And somewhere just behind him, very faintly, he felt the perception of a click and a wave. He did not hear it. He felt it coming, as one feels the seasons begin to change from far away. And slowly that interval rolls toward you until spring has come. Autumn has fell. Very briefly – instantaneously it came to him from across the room. And that was the end of it.