To Martyr Zozan: My time at the military hospital in Kobane
In July 2015, I went to the city of Kobane in the Kurdish de facto autonomous region in Syria called Rojava to work at a hospital in my capacity as a medical student. Kobane became a symbol of unwavering resistance during a 4-month long battle against the barbaric self-proclaimed Islamic State that ended in January 2015. In the early hours of June 25, 2015, Kobane suffered a devastating loss when Islamic State men wearing YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units) and FSA (Free Syrian Army) uniforms detonated suicide bombs on the outskirts of Kobane and then moved into the city on a killing rampage, leaving more than 233 civilians killed and just as many injured. Today, the people of Kobane are coming together to rebuild the proud city but the massacre and the ongoing war have left their palpable mark on the survivors.
The sweetest watermelon I have tasted was broken open by the tanned hands of a YPG soldier. We were sitting on the stairs by the entrance to the military hospital in Kobane one late night; the injured fighters, the guards, the nurses in their blue scrubs and I. His attentiveness to us and his kind eyes softened the features in his weathered face. His Kalashnikov leaning on the wall by his shoulder was rendered harmless with every word uttered by his mild voice, compelling us to eat more melon. It was a happy moment; one of those safe moments in Kobane when the world outside the edges of light cast by the lamp flickering above our heads ceased to exist. More often than not, it ended when a car or an ambulance appeared as out of the blue, silent while approaching the hospital but braking suddenly in front of us with a loud screech. We would let go of what was in our hands and get up in what I now remember as slow motion, moving together into the dark street, worried but calm, maybe pushing a stretcher, to open the doors for the blood-dripping man or woman, boy or girl. Some would come out of the ambulance with a raised chin and insist they were fine while covering gaping wounds on their bodies with their floral-patterned scarves. Others stumbled out with a look of terror in their eyes that sent shivers down my spine.
Like Asmin. Asmin with her thick hair braid that felt rough and dusty under my fingers as I looked for the “huge metal thing” that she insisted was in the back of her head. There is nothing, I assured her. Just a metal splinter that I removed. I showed it to her but she was not satisfied. “You have to remove it,” she repeated and kept touching her head. I was anxious to get her to accept that she was fine as there were other patients I wanted to attend to. I was clutching her rainbow-coloured hairpins in the palm of my hand, eager to give them to her but she would not look up at me. She looked to the end of the emergency room. “Where is my friend?” she asked. She had come with a girl who had been badly injured. The friend had been lying on a stretcher yet she held Asmin’s hand tight as they got out of the ambulance, trying to calm Asmin who stared determinedly at the ground. She would not let go of her friend’s hand when the doctors and nurses flocked around the stretcher. But I had taken Asmin away. Now I also looked towards the doors to the emergency room. I had not noticed it had emptied. Her friend was gone too.
Amira is the caretaker of the hospital. She is a petite woman with a scarf tied in a knot in the back of her head to keep the grey strands of hair away from her tanned face. She is the one that the fighters from YPG and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) go to for another pack of Arden cigarettes, a Cappy drink or a piece of marble cake brought in from the other side of the border – that is, when the borders are not closed by Turkish authorities. The fighters call her “anne,” Turkish for mother or grandmother. She greets every fighter as if they were indeed her grandchildren, affectionately calling them “my eyes”.
The evening I arrived in Kobane we were sitting on the stairs in front of the hospital entrance. Amira sat close to me and leaned in to look at the pictures that a journalist was showing us on his phone and I could feel the warmth from her body through her dusty, almost sun-dried brown shirt and grey pants. On my last day there, she hugged me before I got into the car driving me and a doctor from Amed (Diyarbakir) to the border, kissing my cheek and saying “You are sweet like sugar.”
It did not take long before I understood that the closeness and intimacy between the staff at the military hospital and the YPG/J fighters had to do with more than just the feeling of being united in a war against an enemy feeding off fear and dissolution. There was a need to be close with another person. The nurses chatted with the patients as if they had known each other for a long time. Some did. They had met during the siege of Kobane by Islamic State and stood close in the emergency room, holding hands and whispering stories and secrets to each other. They shared looks and embraces so tender and vulnerable that I felt shy looking at them yet I was curious because these young people were the personifications of extremes: death and life, war and love. My description of these moving moments is a romantic cliché but the experiences was sobering and humbling.
There was no place to sleep my first night at the hospital. I was told to just go upstairs to the room where the injured YPJ fighters were staying. It was 2 am and I walked slowly in the dark, passing a few girls moaning in their sleep from pain. I found an empty bed furthest away from the door and went to sleep next to a girl whose IV fluid bag was swaying slowly above her. It was still dark when I woke up to someone moving at the foot of my bed. It was the shy YPJ fighter who had sung for us earlier; she had curled up by my feet, still in her uniform.
I whispered to her that she could just sleep next to me as there was enough room for both of us. We had only known each other a few hours but she immediately stretched out next to me and moved close so she could nestle her head by my neck. It is a curious experience to feel a soldier who fearlessly fights the Islamic State cuddle you. I do not know who felt safest, me or her.
To martyr Zozan
An old AC was dripping above the thin aluminium doors in the emergency room and onto the floor stained with blood and orange spots from the povidone-iodine solutions. It is probably still dripping. Sometimes it would blow out hot air and a tired, sweaty doctor resting on one of the beds in the empty room would sigh in disappointment. Some days were quiet and the nurses and I would rip big sheets of paper into smaller ones to be used for prescriptions.
Other days were busy.
It was around noon when they brought in a man on a stretcher. He had stepped on a land mine as he was clearing a field. His clothes were burned to his skin. His right leg was one gaping wound, exposing shattered bones and torn flesh. I could feel the dust from his black skin in my nostrils as I stood over him. He was moaning silently and seemingly unaware of what was happening around him. We were all working concentratedly on removing his clothes and treating his injuries when he suddenly sat up straight and started screaming incessantly with wild terror in his eyes, resisting the nurses who tried to lay him down.
Working in the emergency room of a military hospital, I had to be quick and focused. I did not have time to deal with the sinking feeling in my stomach that the burned man’s eyes induced in me. I saw the blood dripping fast onto the floor and my shoes, and I noticed small lumps of flesh on my shirt but I held the patient down with all the force I could muster. A part of me also wanted to let him go so he could do what his pain prompted him to do because what would the medical care even help? What does it matter to be treated when you have to return to a life where your family and neighbours have accepted war, death and gruesome injuries as part of their daily life?
This is my dad’s blood from when I held him as he died, the nurse Fatma said when I pointed out she had a stain on her shirt. She noticed how embarrassed I got and told me it was okay. Her father was killed by the Islamic State on June 25, just a month earlier. I didn’t have time to mourn him that day, she said, I had to move quickly to help those who were still alive. Fatma paused and pulled on her sleeve, looking at the dark stain. Actually, Naila, she said slowly, it might not be my dad’s blood. I don’t know whose blood it is.
I met Fatma my first morning in Kobane. I walked downstairs at 7 am and saw her sitting on a red plastic chair by two glass doors, deep in thoughts and looking at the back garden of the hospital enclosed by a brick wall. I joined her and it was not long before she told me the story behind the name of the hospital: Martyr Zozan’s Hospital.
Zozan was a nurse at the hospital. Like Fatma and the majority of the nurses, they were not formally trained but during the Islamic State’s siege of Kobane many fled the city and sought refuge in Turkey, including doctors, which brought about an urgent need for medical staff. Whoever could help did so. That is why Mustafa who tucked me in at night while I was asleep dropped out of medical school his first year. It is why Kamel, the aspiring film maker with the scarred face after the massacre on June 25, dropped out of university where he was studying to become a lawyer. And it is why Amed, the 17-year-old son of the orthopedic surgeon, works the night shifts and gives the patients their medicine, following a precise and detailed notebook.
For safety reasons the hospital was moved to different locations three or four times; at one point the medical staff was working from a basement. “Zozan never left Kobane,” Fatma told me. Zozan worked tirelessly. When they didn’t have patients, she cleaned the rooms and the utensils, arranged the medicine and kept spirits high among the doctors and patients. But she was also passionate in her dreams and ideals for Kurdistan and was devoted to the Kurdish struggle for freedom. “Her teacher told her she could be anything she wanted and that she had her entire life in front of her to do what she desired,” Fatma said.
There were times when the fights between the YPG/J and Islamic State were so fierce that Fatma and Zozan could not leave the hospital. One night the fighting intensified and the two girls were alone in the makeshift hospital. They were waiting for silence to fall over the city. The moment the fighting died out, they hurried up the stairs to the abandoned apartments above the basement and took everything they could carry – blankets, pillows, a mattress and small ornaments – and quickly ran back down the cement stairs. “Zozan was petite like me,” Fatma said with a smile. Her eyes had teared up and she looked out through the glass doors at the garden again. “It was difficult for us to carry all of that down the stairs.”
To the sounds of gunfire the two girls set their phones to play music and decorated the room with the figurines they had taken. They lay down on the blankets, slightly apart, and texted each other on Viber, pretending to be strangers. “We created our own fun,” Fatma said. “It was always fun with Zozan. She was the light of our lives.”
Zozan was killed when Islamic State members were chasing the ambulance she was in. They shot her and the ambulance driver as they were on their way to pick up injured people. The ambulance still bears the signs of the relentless attack. But Fatma and the staff at the hospital do not need the bullet holes in the ambulance to remind them of Zozan. She is a martyr and martyrs never die.
I remembered Fatma’s story about Zozan when a few days later she was bending over a drowsy Islamic State member lying on a stretcher and cleaning his old war wounds gently with gauze. He was a prisoner in the care of the Kurdish security forces who had become sick and a tall, young YPG soldier brought him to Martyr Zozan’s Military Hospital to be examined. The nurses had dressed him in new clothes; the blue pants still had the price tag on. His black beard was shorter but he still resembled the terrorists from the pictures and videos I see on Twitter. The doctors and the YPG soldier soon left the room and left us alone with him. Only Fatma and I were now tending to him. One nurse looked at him in disgust. Her brother had been killed by the Islamic State. A male nurse approached him while saying: “It’s funny how this women-hating Daesh [Islamic State] is being cared for by two Kurdish girls.” He leaned over to look closer at him, remarking that he thought the patient could probably hear us. I could not help but mutter biji Kurdistan (long live Kurdistan).
How can you help him, said the nurse who had looked at him in disgust and was keeping her distance. She shook her head and left before anyone answered. I repeated the question to Fatma.
“What sets us apart from these people is our humaneness,” she replied. “We would not be any better than Daesh if we didn’t help them when they are wounded and in our care.”
The aluminium doors had tinted windows and I soon learned not to expect an ambulance by the sound of sirens but by the sight of a shadow behind those tinted windows: a small shadow was a car, a tall shadow an ambulance. I do not know why the sirens were not used. I did not ask. But now back home in Denmark, I have come to appreciate the familiar warning that the sirens induce. The sound prepares me for what will come. There was no warning in Kobane. Just the tinted windows and the large shadow.
I had my back to the doors when they sprung open, dragging across the floor with a screeching sound – and once again I was gripped by this sense of movement in slow motion as I turned around and saw who came in: five or six blue men in uniforms striding towards us while moaning in pain and stretching their arms in front of them. I felt paralyzed for a split second and could only focus on the blue colour.
We quickly sat them down and started cutting their uniforms off with scissors. They told us they had been getting ready to fire at the enemy when the weapon they had launched turned around and exploded near them, causing their skin to burn. Their bodies folded up in pain and they pushed our hands off their bodies and faces as we tried to remove the slippery blue toothpaste on their wounds that someone had smeared on them at the frontline, maybe thinking it would cool off their skin.
I saw them healing while I was still there. The black skin peeled off, a rosy one appeared and they soon roamed the halls of the hospitals, joking with fellow fighters and singing for us in the evening.
“They told me a kid had come from Europe and wanted to work at the hospital.” Heval [comrade] Ali, a YPG commander who had turned a former academy into the current military hospital, was leaning against the doctor who was the manager of the hospital. They both looked at me with furrowed brows except heval Ali also looked slightly amused. He turned towards the doctor: “She’s not a kid!”
I found their comments ironic seeing as many Kurdish fighters are much younger than me. “I’m in fifth year of medical school,” I said, feeling the familiar rush of disappointment. From Denmark to Nusaybin which was my last stop before heading to the city of Suruc on the Turkish-Syrian border, people had told me not to go to Kobane because it was dangerous and I was too young, too inexperienced but worst of all, a girl travelling alone.
Heval Ali smiled: “Come have dinner with us.”
I was taken up a steep flight of stairs on the front of a side building to the hospital. It ended by a terrace with a brown couch and a couple of armchairs around a coffee table, facing a TV on the wall. To my right, the flat roof tops of a calm and quiet Kobane were lit up by a gold and rosy sunset, standing tall above the buildings demolished after months of fighting.
A young guard was sitting in the corner with one hand on his Kalashnikov, scanning the area from time to time. A group of YPG fighters who had been drinking tea got up from the chairs and scattered fast with a small nod towards us. As we sat down, their seats were quickly filled by other men in uniforms who introduced themselves to me with a handshake and a smile. Heval Ali sat down next to a tall, fair-skinned man with a light beard who was leaning back in the couch, resting his right hand that was in a cast on his chest and not looking at anyone or anything. He was a commander. “This is heval Mordem,” heval Ali said. Heval Mordem’s face remained expressionless as heval Ali explained that he was the most well-spoken of the two and that the two had worked hard together to build the hospital. “You two should talk.”
It was a calm night. I was still up and sitting alone in the emergency room when heval Mordem came in and without a word motioned for me to follow him. His solemn look made me obey him without asking where we were going.
Heval Mordem’s expression was still stern as we were walking so I focused my gaze on the ground, treading carefully when we passed through the dark area by the row of ambulances and cars behind the doctors’ lounge.
“What do you think of Kobane?” he finally asked. I could not answer the question. Every minute in Kobane had been a bombardment of impressions and an ensuing whirlwind of thoughts whose meaning I had yet to grasp. My senses were constantly active and fervently trying to soak up every little detail. I knew I could not even form a proper sentence about my time there and I told him that. I said I was more interested in hearing what he thought of Kobane. He laughed! I could see his face soften in the dim light from the lamp posts coloured in red, yellow and green and I felt more at ease with him.
He sat down on a bench under a tree and pulled out a cigarette with his bandaged hand but did not light it. He talked for two hours, speaking in his stern manner about the situation in Kobane. I was fiddling with the zipper on my bag as I was not sure if I should take out a pen and paper and write down his analysis of the political situation in not just Kobane but all of Kurdistan. But then he told me a story I did not need a pen to remember.
Something bad happened to me when the worst fighting against Daesh had ended, he said. I had a friend who died. I had nothing to remember him by, not his body, nothing. There was only his blood on a wall in the building where he was killed, heval Mordem said, waving his still unlit cigarette around. I went back one night with a friend, he continued. There was a woman standing by the wall. She had a hose in her hand. She was washing the blood away. I have never … never been so consumed with anger. My friend had to hold me back.
Heval Mordem grew quiet and for a minute he sat without saying a word and his face with the same expressionless look as when I first saw him. A car passed behind us and the driver greeted heval Mordem, pulling him out of his thoughts. He lit his cigarette and once again motioned for me to walk with him. “Let’s see if there’s tea on the stove.”
The tea was tepid and bitter but we took our glasses with us and sat down on a bench across from the hospital entrance. A YPG guard was sitting bent over in a black, broken office chair and his Kalashnikov was leaning against the wall; he had been there since early morning. Two doctors were sitting on a bench further along, smoking water pipes. Amira, the caretaker, was dashing back and forth in the dark, her keys making a faint, rustling sound. “Let’s go to bed,” she said to me.
Next day, the journalist who was staying in the building next to the hospital told me a father and two of his children had been brought to the emergency room last night after a land mine concealed by Islamic State had exploded under their car. Two kids died on the spot. The surviving children had been in a terrible state, the journalist said, the jaw of one kid completely crushed. There had been no sirens, no warning and hardly even the sound of a car pulling up in front of the emergency room. Death by the hands of Islamic State comes and goes in Kobane, even on a calm night.
Some patients stayed only a brief moment at the hospital. More than one time, a young YPJ fighter came in surrounded by her friends and they would all walk like ducklings behind their older, charismatic commander who usually tapped her watch and asked us impatiently when we would be done examining the YPJ fighter. It depends, we would answer. We were used to the commanders who were eager to take the fighters back to the frontlines and rushing us to be done quickly. Sometimes it would take a while. I was once called to tend to a fighter who would not tell the male doctors why she had come. She kept giggling and hiding her face behind her hands while her friends tried to make her talk. “No, no!” she spluttered and turned red, squirming and pressing her face against her friend’s shoulder. We eventually persuaded her to let me examine her. After conferring with a doctor we explained to the girl that we had to perform a quick and standard procedure on her and that it was necessary. It took a while to get her to accept the treatment but she said yes. But only after I had gone to get her friend from the dining hall so she could hold her hand. Not even 15 minutes after we had told her she was done and could go with her commander, she passed out in the hallway from pure anxiety.
Other patients stayed for days, if not weeks. Like Rojin.
Rojin was a skinny YPJ fighter who had been shot in the abdomen during battle. The first few days I only knew her as the girl who was moaning in pain all night or who squirmed in bed with her eyes closed when I examined her, sometimes gripping my hands or pushing them away. She would calm down when I gave her an injection to relieve the pain but it was not until a week later that she was well enough to sit up in bed and walk around. She motioned for me to sit down on her bed as the girl in the next bed called on me to see her watercolor drawings. It was a rare view: all five girls in the room were up except for one, they had hung red and blue balloons on their IV drip stands and taped drawings on the walls over their bedheads. They were joking but they grew silent after a bit when the music video on Ronahi TV ended and a news host appeared, reporting on yet another battle between the Islamic State and the Kurds, the situation in Turkey and the martyrdom of our comrades. The sudden change in the girls was extraordinary to witness. They stopped giggling and painting red hearts and began instead to discuss the flaws in their combat strategy against the enemy. Rojin’s brow was furrowed, her voice calm and persuasive and her opinion on the issue mature and intelligent.
I was curious to hear their thoughts on the allegations that Kurds committed ethnic cleansing against Arabs. I told them about a specific incident where Ali Gharib quoted an anonymous activist in an article for The Nation who claimed that Kurds on purpose misled the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State so it would target and strike the village of Bir Hamalli, killing more than fifty civilians. Rojin nodded. I know about that incident and obviously we do not purposefully call in such airstrikes, she said. She was one of the fighters trained to send coordinates for a location, she explained. I asked who she sends the coordinates to. “Direct line,” she answered. She would not elaborate on what she meant.
I did not see Rojin again. A day later, one of the newly arrived patients, a woman whose nom de guerre was Asmin, stopped me as I was passing her and said in a low voice: “Will you sleep in our room tonight? Everyone’s gone and it’s lonely.”
I left the hospital after many hugs, kisses and a group portrait. As the Turkish border police was looking through their WhatsApp messages for my passport photo which they took when I entered Kobane, I watched tens of Kurds, if not hundreds, walk from the Turkish side of the border to Kobane, returning home with their belongings in plastic bags. It was no joyful reunion. The city was mostly rubbles and dust and maybe there was no home waiting for the returning Kurds. But where else could they go? What else could they do?
They never complained about their life in Kobane. My friends at the hospital simply stated the standstill of their life in an unemotional manner. I am 30 years old and I am not married, one of them, a nurse, told me. I don’t have a boyfriend. My life is this hospital. That’s how it is when you’re in war.
She was in love with a blue-eyed YPG fighter but when she spoke of him, her voice grew tired. The contagious exhaustion I could feel among my friends at the hospital is described accurately in this verse by poet Warsan Shire: I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running.
It was this exhaustion that would make them ask me, first as a joke, then sincerely: “Can you take me with you to Europe, Naila?”
Yet there must be something in Kobane that trumps the feeling of exhaustion because they do not leave. I think Fatma stays for Zozan and her father. Heval Mordem for his friend. Rojin and Asmin for their comrades. The doctors and nurses for the burned men, the injured fighters and the civilians murdered by Islamic State.
They stay for our martyrs. They continue the Kurdish struggle for freedom in the spirit of our martyrs.