National Geographic : 2016 Mar
122 national geographic • march 2016 sermons into Syria, where they hoped to fight the forces of dictator Bashar Al-Assad. But ISIS leaders soon ordered Hemin and his friends back to Iraq to fight against their own people. Rashid tracked his brother-in-law’s move- ments in phone calls and on Facebook, and he came to believe that Hemin was unhappy. He hadn’t enlisted to fight Kurds, and he no longer seemed to believe ISIS’s propaganda. Hemin was killed in October 2014 in the town of Sinjar, which had fallen to ISIS (and was recaptured by peshmerga forces late in 2015). Rashid was told that Hemin died in battle, but he’s never believed that. “ We think he was going to leave Daesh,” he said, using a common Arabic name for the group. “ You see, there was no fighting in Sin- jar the day he died. I think he wanted to come home, and they killed him.” Rashid begged ISIS commanders to let him have Hemin’s body. They refused, leaving his family to ponder a few last photographs on Facebook that showed a pudgy, bemused boy in borrowed camouflage. “Hemin was a big kid,” Rashid said. “A lot of boys are joining Daesh not because they are extremists, but because they have not found themselves. I blame myself for not taking bet- ter care of him. God knows what will happen to him now.” Rashid was talking about the afterlife, where, he assured me, Hemin would find no paradise. On the drive back to Slemani, I thought of Sami Hussein. At best he was locked in a cell somewhere. Possibly he was counting out the last days of his life. The following week I showed Botan Sharbar- zheri a photo I’d taken of Hussein. He took my iPhone and stared at the ISIS volunteer. “I hate him,” Sharbarzheri said. “He makes me think of revenge. I will get my revenge. For what they did to me and what they did to all of us. I promise you.” It was a very Kurdish way to put it. During my last visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, in October, I searched again for Hussein. The police general who’d arrested him could not remember his name, and the Iraqi justice sys- tem remained as opaque as ever. I thought I might simply go door-to-door through Kirkuk’s Arab neighborhoods, showing his photograph, but it was a risky plan, and my translator warned that we might endanger anyone who spoke to us. So Hussein had vanished, at least to me. One more ghost among the thousands who’ve gone missing in Iraq over the past 10 years, the past 50. Away from the front line, my Kurdish friends had all grown wearier, gloomier. The pesh- merga continued pushing ISIS back in several places, but elsewhere the Iraqi Army foun- dered. Major cities such as Mosul and Ramadi still smoldered under the militants’ control, and the Iraqi economy (and with it the Kurdish one) coughed along, dragged down by low oil prices and years of war. The bloodied country seemed to be no closer to reconciliation, and within Kurdistan old wounds ached, while new ones worsened. In several Kurdish cities and towns, pro- tests flared that month. Many were peaceful— schoolteachers, for example, who demanded wages they hadn’t been paid in months. But other protesters sought political reform, and some of those demonstrations had turned vi- olent, even deadly. In Slemani policemen in black riot gear ringed the central bazaar, and peshmerga units were recalled from the front to keep order. At night military convoys snaked through the city. Sharbarzheri himself seemed optimistic, despite the unrest. He’d recently returned to school full-time, and switched his major from engineering to international studies. Someone had given him a new oud, more beautiful than the last, and though he still kept an AK-47 in his bedroom, half forgotten, wedged in a closet between some blankets, he no longer thought of returning to war. “Politics is the only way to make any changes,” he told me. I must have laughed, because he suddenly became quite serious. Even if given the chance, they probably wouldn’t try to carve a single Kurdish state out of the lands they claim.