I held on to Roj’s pistol belt as he pulled me through the darkness towards a tree under whose boscage we could safely smoke without being seen by the drones. It was alarming for me, to hear them, the drones, reeling so low overhead searching for us, but Roj’s nerves had the mansuetude of those who’ve lived long with war, and this calmed me, even though detection meant a possible airstrike.
The tree we sat under had an astonishing view of the surrounding Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq. In the valleys below the synclinal mountain skirts dissolved into vaguer shades of charcoal until they disappeared at the horizon completely.
It was my third night with the guerillas and I had met every fighter in the camp except for one 32-year-old man with bone white hair and synthetic legs, who rarely spoke and spent most of his free time in the hills alone. As with all the guerillas, nobody knew his real name. His code name was Berxwedan.
According to Roj, the Turkish military had burned Berxwedan’s house down when he was a child, and arrested or killed much of his family, thereby orphaning him to easy recruitment by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or “PKK.” He had been in the mountains ever since, and had fought for seven straight years. Roj told me how he, Berxwedan, escaped, barely and seemingly regretfully, a clash between his unit and the Turkish military in which a number of his friends were driven into a cave and gassed with chemical weapons. Berxwedan had gone into the cave afterwards and found that the Turkish soldiers had shot up the corpses to make it seem they had been killed in a firefight. One of the chemical weapon shells Berxwedan collected was sent it off to Germany for testing, and although it was affirmed the military was using poisonous gas, nobody in power did anything about it. His hair turned white after that. Not long after a mine blew his legs off.
Roj became suddenly attentive, and squinted, and we could hear the rattle and clank of synthetic legs, and Berxwedan’s white hair came out of the darkness, and he leaned his Kalashnikov against the tree and sat on a stone beside me. Roj extended him some tobacco and we all sat smoking, cupping the cigarettes in our hands to hide their flare from the drones, and stared down into the valley, where hundreds of guerillas were sleeping next to their rifles in camouflaged huts and underground bunkers.
We smoked and no one spoke. I knew the man wanted to say something to me because he would not have joined us without reason. The drones buzzed overhead.
I felt a colossal hand fall onto my shoulder, its fingers as big as bananas, and Berxwedan said something to Roj in a gruff voice, and stood and slung his Kalashnikov over his shoulder, and he kissed me on both cheeks and walked back into the darkness.
When he was gone Roj said, “He told me to tell you something. He wanted to make sure that you knew that he trusted you to tell everyone you knew that Turkey uses chemical weapons on Kurds. That you had met someone who had seen such things with their own eyes.”
I told him I would, and we walked back up to the commanders’ tent to drink chay.
I sipped from my tea glass as the guerillas around me laughed and spoke in Turkish. I had met many profound and traumatized people there, I thought. But even then I knew that the little world they had created in the mountains, through the sheer wrath of what they were fighting against, would vanish like a dream.
I left the camp the next day. Not long after, Turkey and Iran began bombing again. The camp I visited was reduced to shambles, with many of those I had met dead, and the rest still on the run in the mountains.