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A Small Favor

A Small Favor

Published Nov 13, 2023 Updated Nov 13, 2023 Travel Travel
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A Small Favor


Kurds were waiting on the banks of the blond river. All their belongings, tied up in bales, lay at their feet. The men were smoking, glancing nervously around, and their wives held their children, who were wailing out of exhaustion. The sky was white, and the Khabour river shook the pontoon bridge angrily.
He looked at the black-haired, wailing little boys when the bus arrived from the Syrian side. It took half an hour for all the homeward bound to load their belongings, and another half hour for everyone to board. The bus crossed the bridge haltingly; the river sometimes slammed over the bridge, splashing everything with water. The ground beneath them swayed, and the sky above them too. The women prayed until they reached the other side.
Armed young women were standing on the other side, inspecting the documents of those who crossed over. When they saw them, they smilingly directed them to the command station, which was on a hill, a hundred meters from the crossing. The Kurdish commander served tea, looked over the permits, then had them climb in with a mustached, fortyish man who was going to Amuda by truck.
The last nails had been driven into the caliphate’s coffin. They shot with 7.62 and 5.56 bullets, they pounded them with precision air strikes and heavy artillery, until the kingdom of madmen shrank to the size of a village.
The sand blew over the Islamic State’s dreams of conquest; the caterpillar belts tore them to shreds. Only the mass graves served as reminders of their former existence.
The Western press was swimming in euphoria, each article more optimistic than the last. 
Only those who knew what was happening on the ground felt sick to their stomach.
Four armies looked at each other with wolf eyes.
They were waiting for the prey to exhale its last toxic breath, so they could jump at each other for the spoils. It was already clear that the Kurds would be the civil war’s big losers. No one cared any longer that they had halted the caliphate’s offensive in 2014, or that they had liberated the sect’s capital, where the hospitals had been optimized for a hundred limb amputations a day, in the spirit of a local interpretation of Sharia law.   
Turkey announced that it would take action against the Kurdish terrorist threat, that it would levy an offensive that would ultimately crush the Kurdish dream of an independent state. The offensive had begun.
All those areas that were pointless to defend, the Kurds handed over without bloodshed to the government troops. With Iran’s help, they could at least fight the Turks. 

(Photo: On the road to Raqqa in 2018. © Sándor Jászberényi)

As he stared through the window at the landscape passing by, at the oil wells’ smoke winding upward into the naked sky, at the intrepid civilians fleeing by foot next to the road, he had the feeling that he was staring at a disturbed anthill.
It had started pouring by the time they reached Amuda. The water reached his ankles when he got out of the truck in front of the press center’s yellow concrete building, which was reinforced with barbed wire and machine gun nests.
A boy of about twenty years was stationed next to the center. His name was Amanj, and his snow-white, bloodless face always looked dirty because of his fledgeling mustache.
That was his task: to take him to Raqqa and Hassaqa, to the refugee camps.

He paid the press center’s director two hundred dollars, so he received the permit on the spot.
At the press center they made a living by charging their foreign correspondents serious money. They charged for “protection,” “translation,” “administrative costs.” They always found a justification.  
Everyone paid; there was no appeal. Anyone in Syria could end up in a deadly accident by getting the wrong people angry at them. The Kurds had lost their desire to win the world over to their side.
They no longer hoped for anything from Europe. They even made Western media support contingent on funds. They demanded money for everything.
His plan was to interview jihadists and their family members who had been taken into captivity in the refugee camps. That could sell in the international media. Many had escaped from Europe to join the Islamic State. Second- and third-generation European Arabs; German, British and French youths who had converted to Islam and become radicalized. Most had died during the caliphate’s five-year tenure, but there were still many awaiting their fates in the refugee camps that had been cobbled together in the desert, the makeshift prisons.
At seven-thirty in the morning, he and Amanj set out for Hassaq. It was still dark, with morning glimmering only at the bottom of the horizon. The boy was driving a Toyota pickup; his belt held a 9-millimeter Beretta rifle, which he fiddled with constantly while driving. They talked about the war, about the possibilities of an independent Kurdish state. Soon they took a liking to each other. All the way along the road, there were checkpoints made of stone and debris. Blinking against the rain, men with scarves wrapped around their heads inspected the permits and let them pass through. 
When he told Amanj that he wanted to interview the jihadists, the boy made a long phone call. It turned out that his uncle was the head of a smaller camp next to Hassaq.
“That’s the best option,” he thought. “The large camps are surely full of Western journalists. And I don’t know any of the heads.”
“Do I need to pay your uncle?” he asked Amanj.
“It’s enough if we bring him a gift of some kind.”
“I would love to go back to Europe!” the freshly shaved man sitting opposite him said to the camera, and his voice caught. His name was Ahmed. A fair-skinned third-generation Dutch Arab. “I regret joining the Islamic State. I ask Europe’s forgiveness, and for peace to raise my children in.” Tears streamed from his eyes.
He was quite pleased with the material. The new camera had much better resolution than any previous video recorder he had tried. Although he hadn’t quite mastered the use of it, it seemed to work splendidly in the field.
He thanked him for the interview, and the Kurdish guard on duty took the man back to his cell. 
The prison was in the cellar of the soldiers’ quarters. To reach the commander’s office, you had to pass through a courtyard encircled with barbed wire, where the jihadists’ families were waiting in tents. 
The women and children followed him with murderous eyes as he cut across the courtyard. The children ran after him all the way to the steps of the office. They were chased away by the Kurdish soldier with a PKM machine gun, who had been surveying the area from the top of the stairs.

(Photo: An Iraqi soldier is monitoring the main road in Mosul in 2017 © Sándor Jászberényi) 

Kawa was the camp commander’s name. He was a kindly, mustached man near the end of his fifties. He dyed his hair; only his wild eyebrows had white strands. He greeted them warmly. He accepted the gift of whiskey from Maros, who had originally brought it along for health purposes.  
Colonel Kawa smiled when he entered the office. He was sitting at a large, solid wooden table, with a picture of Öcalan hanging on the wall behind him, and was speaking with Amanj.
When he saw him, he opened his desk drawer. He took out a transparent bottle of arrack and three glasses. 
“Will you drink one with us?” he asked, and poured the drink into the glasses. With his hand he motioned for Maros to sit. He sat facing him and took one of the glasses. They toasted.
“So, what did the prisoner say?” asked Kawa.
“That he is very sorry and wants to return to Europe.”
Kawa hummed. “And what did you expect?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Half a year ago he was a member of the Sharia committee. He was the one who ordered to have smokers flogged or their hands cut off.”
“I didn’t know this.”
“Now you know.”
“Still it seems that he regrets what he did.”
“Regrets my ass. He simply has no other choice if he wants to save his life.”
“Not maybe. Definitely. A jihadist will always remain a jihadist. Those people never change.”
“No, not Arabs. People. Once someone takes a weapon in his hands, he never lets it go.”
“The Kurds took up weapons too.”
“And we won’t let go of them either.”
Amanj nodded. Kawa reached into his fatigue coat pocket and pulled out a box of cigarettes. They were Slim cigarettes, which were in fashion among Kurdish men in Syria. You could see them on almost every guerrilla fighter. He passed them around, and they lit up.
“No matter what those guys say, the caliphate spirit will always stay with them. This one is just waiting for the occasion. No matter, it isn’t our problem any more.”
Kawa poured everyone another round of drinks.
“What will happen to the prisoners?” Maros asked.
“Within days we’ll hand them over to the Syrian army, along with the camps. They’ll do what they want with them.”
“And what are they going to do?”
“I don’t know. I think they’ll just let them go home and explode in Europe.”
“They won’t put them in prison?”
“What’s the point? Why should they feed so many mouths? They’ll only put them in prison if Europe pays for it. But I don’t think Europe would pay.”
“I do.”
“Europe doesn’t negotiate with Assad. And Assad is offended enough to send these people back to Europe.”
“And the Kurds?”
“What has Europe done for the Kurds?”
“We sent weapons.”
“And allowed the Turks to butcher Afrin.”
Maros was silent. Images of the Kurdish city shot to ruins flashed in his mind. The Turkish army had done dirty work, and not many of them were taken prisoner.
“Look, don’t take it personally. You seem like a very kind person. But Europe left us in the lurches.”
“I don’t take it personally.”
“I hope you’re pleased with the interview.”
Kawa was in the camp for two days, and then he set out for Raqqa.
Amanj was a skilled leader, and by taking a long way around, he avoided the government units’ checkpoints. The former capital of the caliphate was in ruins. The allied air strikes had leveled entire streets. All the houses still standing were filled with black holes, and some had been sunken by grenades.

(Photo: An Iraqi soldier guarding the destroyed Central Hospital of Mosul in 2017. © Sándor Jászberényi)

Thick black smoke and concrete debris. This was the former capital of the caliphate. Pickup trucks equipped with .50-caliber machine guns traversed the muddy streets; the Shiite volunteer corps had renamed the Sunni mosques after Husseini. Still, the city was very active. Life buzzed in the marketplace, and although the power supply stuttered, thousands of points of light attested every night that people were returning to the city.
He and Amanj reserved a room at the Hotel Mecca. It was a middlingly filthy hospitality unit, with an English-style bathroom and dusty horse-blankets on the bed. They stayed there four days. Maros shot films of life returning to the city, the atrocities that had been suffered under the Islamic State, and just about anything else that he thought would sell.
On the fourth evening, after finishing dinner, he started sorting through the videos in his room. The first video, the one he had made of the jihadists, had no sound. Probably he had set up the camera incorrectly. He desperately tried moving the sliders in the program, with no result. He got so nervous that he called a friend in Hungary to ask if he knew how to fix the video. “The best thing would be to record it again,” was the reply.

“No problem!” said Amanj, after Maros told him what was going on. “We’ll go back and record it again.”
They set out for Hassaq in the morning. Although Colonel Kawa did not pick up his phone, that in itself meant nothing. In the country shot to ruins, connections were sporadic. On the streets there was dense military traffic. After a while Maros stopped trying to figure out which armed group belonged to whom. By noon they arrived at the dirt road that led to the camp.
An armored Russian troop-carrier stood by the side of the road. Men in camouflage pants sat in the shadows, their weapons propped up against their sides. They were wearing masks like caps on their heads, the masks they used when attacking. When they saw the car, two soldiers stood up and motioned for it to stop.
“Shiites,” said Amanj. “Let me do the talking.”
Ever since the civil war broke out, Syria was full of foreign Shiite fighters, who arrived either from Lebanon or from Iran to support the Assad regime. They were religious fanatics, and while the regime had hardly any soldiers left, they effectively won the war for the president. Their methods didn’t differ much from those of the Islamic State. If there was anyone whose crossfires Maros didn’t want to get caught in, it was the Shiites.
Amanj pulled over and turned the car off. One of the soldiers walked to the side of the car. His strong body odor immediately blew through the rolled-down window. He had small rat-eyes. He was missing many teeth. He inspected their papers.
“Where are you taking this foreigner?” he asked.
“Back to Amuda.”
“Why didn’t you take the main road?”
“You could barely get anywhere on it. Can we go through?”
“Yes. But are you sure you want to?”
“Why, is it unsafe?”
“Why would it be unsafe at this point?” Then the soldier added, pointing at Maros, “Does he speak Arabic?”
“No,” Amanj replied. Maros put on his most idiotic smile.
“Idiots!” said the soldier, and motioned that they could go.
Amanj hit the gas pedal, and then, when they were at a safe distance from the checkpoint, said, “Those were Lebanese Shiites.”
“How do you know?”
“From the way they spoke. I should let my uncle know that we’re on our way.”
For twenty minutes they were silent. Maros stared at the stony landscape passing by.
Amanj’s scream startled him out of his contemplation. He turned his head, and he too saw the thick black smoke twisting up to the sky. When they came closer, they knew that the camp was smoking.
Both buildings had burned, and the black smoke was coming out of their windows. The steel gate, pushed into the mud, lay in front of the entrance.
In the middle of the camp, around the burning tents, empty yellowish cartridge cases lay about. Amanj took out his phone and tried to make a call.
Maros spotted the dead bodies next to the wall. Men, women, children. About forty corpses.
“Let’s get out of here right now!” said Amanj.
“I want to take pictures!” he replied.
“Have you lost your mind? If they see us, they’ll lay us down next to them.”
“But I have to take pictures.”
“Go ahead, but I’m not going to wait for you.”
He started out to the car with quick strides. Maros watched him recede, then ran after him. “No picture is worth my staying alone in no man’s land, next to a mass grave,” he thought.
When he caught up with the boy, the motor in the car was already running. He jumped in next to him, and Amanj hit the gas pedal. They had gone fifty meters when they turned back onto the main road. Amanj did not risk running into the Shiite militia again. They were so tense that it was almost sparkling in the car. 
They relaxed when they came to the Amuda checkpoint.
“There weren’t any Kurds among the dead, were there?” asked Amanj, who had been unable to get through to his uncle by phone.
“I didn’t see any.”
In truth he had no idea what he had seen. He was sure of one thing: dead people lay next to the concrete walls.
Amanj took Maros to his hotel in Amuda. Maros gave him the dollar that he owed him for the ride. They parted with the understanding that they would meet the next day, and Amanj would take him back to the border crossing. Maros asked him if he would like to have a drink in the evening, but the boy answered that the day had already been long enough and that he hadn’t seen his family in almost a week.
Maros unpacked at the hotel, then went out to the street.
The city was loud with life. Bypassing the people, he cut across the market. All the way to the public house, trucks were moving haltingly and honking. The pub had been closed for months. They opened it again for the international volunteers who came to fight against the Islamic State, and gave them enough drink to sustain them. Slowly the local alcoholics started coming back too. The Khammar shone in its old light. To the extent that the neon spilling on dirty white tile could be called light at all. 
It was full of men. Foreign volunteers for the Kurdish militia, humanitarian workers, or local drinkers were at every table. There was a hubbub in the room, and the smell of sour beer and cigarettes spread through the air. 
Maros approached the bar counter and waited his turn. He lit up, inhaled deeply, and stared at the framed photograph of Bashar al-Assad on the wall, the only adornment.
“Good evening, my friend, I’m happy to see you again!” someone said. putting his hand on his shoulder. It was Colonel Kawa. He was smiling broadly.
“What happened? We saw that the camp was set on fire.”
“We had to hand it over to the Assad militias.”
The bartender, an older, seriously balding potbellied fellow, took his order.
He ordered two beers, one for himself and one for the colonel. 
“So, and the prisoners?”
The colonel took a sip of his beer and stared confidentially into Maros’s eyes.
“You know, when you left, I thought about how the Europeans I know are all quite decent people. So I could really do you all a favor.”
“Thank you,” he said. He felt dizzy and had no idea what to say.
They went to the table where the colonel’s men were sitting. The colonel was extremely pleased with himself.
Maros had to pay for the drinks the whole night long.

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