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Tea with monsters and humans


Sera Keleş writes on her meetings with two different men from extremist backgrounds

A few days before the Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakır, I found myself seeking somewhere to take cover from a rain storm. I found a kıraathane – the type of cafe where the cigarette smoke is thick and the low murmur of all-male voices a constant hum, punctured only by clicking backgammon dice, prayer beads and metal spoons stirring smuggled tea in tulip-shaped glasses.

A momentary sullen hush fell as I entered. I always feel a degree of guilt in such places: I am acutely aware I may be making the regulars uncomfortable with my presence.

I found a seat and ordered tea. Before I had a chance to catch my breath a man pulled up a chair next to me. He spoke in a soft, low voice. He was in his late 30s but looked older, unshaven with short salt and pepper hair. His eyes were alive but his face showed years beyond his age. He was a fighter for the YPG (People’s Protections Units) and, in the eyes of the Turkish Government, a terrorist. He clearly saw me as someone he could “educate” about the YPG and the current situation in Kobane.

He took out his mobile phone and showed me photos. There he is with comrades in a verdant field near Kobane, picking flowers. And here’s one of a destroyed ISIS tank brought in from Iraq. He flicks through the others: him at a YPG checkpoint with his sniper rifle, him with other fighters posing among the Dresden-like remain of eastern Kobane.

I asked question after question about the usual subjects: YPG military strategy in Kobane, perception of the policies of Ankara, the frequency and type of IEDs and other booby-traps planted by ISIS, the threat of the Turkish/Kurdish Hezbollah, relations with the Peshmerga and so on.

Then I asked: “What do you do when you are not hunting ISIS? What did you do before this war?”

He smiled dryly. “I have always been partisan.” This admission meant only one thing: prior to joining the YPG he had been in the PKK. I grew up at a time in Turkey where the PKK only meant one thing: terrorists.

“But I want you know that I never attacked a Turkish soldier, gendarmerie or policeman. You [the Turks] are our brethren.”

Perhaps he was simply sweet talking me. Perhaps he was telling the truth. I wanted to believe him. The rain had stopped and I had run out of questions. Despite my protests, he refused to let me pay for the tea.

On another day, in another place, I was nervously waiting to meet my first ISIS fighter. The group has such a powerful hold on the psyche of the wider public that just the idea of meeting a former fighter of the notorious group conjures a strong reaction, both consciously and subconsciously. As I anxiously waited in the empty, plush hotel lobby in Şanlıurfa, a town an hour’s drive from the Syrian border, I wondered if I was dressed conservatively enough, if my mere presence would make him uncomfortable. I looked again atthe only photo I had of him: a child fighter, holding a knife in one hand and making the ‘tekbir’ gesture in the other. He was wearing a suicide vest and a deranged expression on his face. How should my body language be?

Nothing prepared me for the vulnerability I encountered. He was a 15 year old with a full head of thick black locks, the type of complexion that always looks sun kissed with the occasional pubescent pimple, and large almond shaped dark brown eyes. He hesitated before accepting the cup of tea I offered him.

The barrage of questions began, trying to learn as much as possible about ISIS recruitment, structure, power and influence from his experience. He was shy and timid – almost painfully so – as my colleague and I tried to coax him into talking. And yet some of our questions seemed grossly unfair.

“Why did you join ISIS?”

“I wanted to fight Assad.”

I didn’t believe him, not because I thought he was pro-Assad but rather any kid that runs away from home at 14 or 15 years old to join an extremist group, isn’t doing so from having made an informed decision. So I went off-script and began asking him personal questions about his family.

He was the youngest child from a family that had two wives (permissible in Syria) and had so many siblings he was not certain if the total number was 19 or 21. He defected from ISIS when the local emir finally relented to his mother’s persistent attempts to see her son.

As he told his story, he would look at me and involuntarily break into a beautiful smile. His eyes quickly darted away any time I happened to catch him. I just wanted to give him a hug.

These two interactions reminded me of graffiti I came across in Ankara some years ago: “All monsters are human, but not all humans are monsters.”

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