Hasaka is still controlled by the Syrian government, but even from the window of a taxi it’s obvious the people here have not been spared from the country’s civil war.
The lines at bakeries are daylong, and many schools are closed because they’ve become homes for refugees from other parts of the country. The power is out now as often as it is on, and fuel is in ever shorter supply.
Though she is happy to see him, Adam Ebrahem’s mother admonishes him for returning to his family’s home here.
“You shouldn’t stay,” she says. “The PYD will kill you.”
Ebrahem – it’s a pseudonym he uses for security reasons – is a 27-year-old revolutionary. A musician and a student, he was working and studying in Damascus when the rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad began nearly two years ago. After months of demonstrating in Damascus, he returned to Hasaka to organize demonstrations. Now, as he travels across Hasaka province and in Deir al Zour province to the south, documenting the situation there, he openly wonders whether he and his fellow revolutionaries have done the right thing.
“What will we tell our children? That we started this revolution and destroyed the country?”
Ebrahem is a Kurd, the ethnic group that dominates Hasaka province and makes up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. The PYD is a Kurdish militia that is allied with the Syrian government; it’s the PYD that more or less controls the neighborhood Ebrahem’s family lives in. It also has clashed with anti-Assad rebels in northern Syria, heightening tensions between Kurds and Arabs.
The first demonstrations, particularly in Damascus, were hopeful ones and deliberate in their displays of unity among the country’s sects and ethnicities. But as the violence grew, it was the Sunni Muslim Arab population that armed itself. Though the narrative that has persisted is that arming the rebellion was the only choice, many peaceful demonstrators like Ebrahem are tepid in their support of that decision, and some oppose it outright.
Ebrahem’s family is making plans to leave Hasaka. They don’t expect it to remain free of widespread violence for much longer. No one does.
Ebrahem, who openly questions the existence of God, did not help start the rebellion in Hasaka to see it empower conservative Islamist militias, though that is exactly what it has done across the country. He wonders if he should be making plans to leave the country. He alternately expresses respect and amazement for the devout men he meets on the frontlines.
“Islam is the only power in this country capable of challenging Assad,” he confided at one point. “I knew that before.”
Ebrahem’s bizuq – an instrument similar to a guitar – hangs on the wall in his room at home. It has been a long time since he played. The rebellion derailed his career. He was able to support himself as a musician, which he says made the studying even more gratifying.
Syria’s Kurds have long protested against the Assad government, but most have not supported this rebellion outright, hoping, in vain, that they might be spared the violence that has engulfed other parts of the country. As a Kurd supporting the rebels, Ebrahem is in an increasingly difficult position, one that was evident as he accompanied a reporter to meet with rebel fighters in Hasaka and Deir al Zour province.
“What do the Kurds want?” he was asked repeatedly. “Are you Kurdish? Are you with the PKK?” – a reference to a Kurdish group that has fought a long guerrilla war in Turkey and is aligned with the PYD.
In short, though he has lived his entire life in Syria, he was considered practically a foreigner to the Arab rebels.
To one inquiry about whether he was Kurdish, Ebrahem simply answered: “I’m Syrian.”
One’s ethnicity or nationality seemed to matter least when Ebrahem found himself documenting what the war has wrought. In one home in Muhassen, east of Deir al Zour, a man wept as he cleaned up his father’s home, destroyed by artillery shelling that morning. His father was dead.
The father’s blood, not yet dry on the floor, was pungent, even from the yard. After a few minutes of filming, Ebrahem had to leave, overwhelmed.
“I couldn’t stay in the house,” was all he said. “The smell. . .”
Ebrahem considered buying himself a gun in Deir al Zour, but the price and the idea of it put him off.
“What will I do with a gun?” he asked. “I don’t want to use a gun.”
But his forebodings were right. A few days later, Ebrahem gave an update by phone.
“There was fighting between Kurdish and Arab students today at three schools in Hasaka,” he said.