Homage to Rojava: An American Fighter in ISIS Territory

By Arvind DilawarJanuary 11, 2020

Homage to Rojava: An American Fighter in ISIS Territory
ON OCTOBER 9, 2019, Turkish military forces invaded northeastern Syria, taking advantage of a recent withdrawal of US troops. The aim of the operation, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was to fight terrorism. He was not referring to Islamists, but the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (“People’s Protection Units” in Kurdish), which his government believes is a front for Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

The YPG, led by the charismatic Abdullah “Apo” Öcalan, rose to prominence in the early days of the Syrian Civil War, liberating northeastern Syria, also known as Rojava, from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The “Rojava Revolution,” as some supporters describe it, quickly earned the interest of anarchists, communists, socialists, and other left-wing radicals worldwide. Volunteers from a dozen nations, including the United States, repulsed ISIS attacks on Rojava and helped free Raqqa, the Islamists’ capital in Syria.

Marcus Harnichar is a 28-year-old resident of Upstate New York who traveled to Syria in 2017 to volunteer with the YPG. I recently spoke with Harnichar about his politics, his time in Syria, and how he feels about the US withdrawal, which threatens everything that he and his comrades made sacrifices to defend.


ARVIND DILAWAR: How did you first become interested in Rojava?

MARCUS HARNICHAR: I became interested in Rojava for two reasons: one family, one political. My father and uncle were in the military during the Gulf War. My uncle was infantry, my father was Navy. Because of this, I picked up study of the Gulf War. This was the initial spark for me, in terms of studying the Kurds. However, this is the much smaller of my reasons for being interested in Rojava. My main reason for wanting to go to Rojava was political. I was one of the original people at the New York City Occupy Wall Street protests. After that movement fell apart, I more or less went into political hibernation. Nothing of note was happening in the United States, and when it was happening, it was being limited by weekend warriors who were loudly moderate — think the person who comes to protests on days they have off, but insist on demanding that all marches take place on the sidewalk, so as to not bother people. During this sort of political hibernation, I started reading about the history of the struggle for Kurdistan. This lead me to “Apo” — Abdullah Öcalan — and his works fit in firmly with my political leanings. Once I had been reading Apo for a while, I started to see story after story about Rojava and the YPG. Eventually I started looking into how to join.

Why did you decide to join?

When I realized that the YPG fit so closely with my political leanings and that they wanted volunteers, I knew that if I didn’t go, I would always remember that I could have, but didn’t. I knew that I would be beating myself up, constantly saying, “I almost went,” or, “I wanted to go,” as a sort of mental defense. Fittingly enough, this is my pet peeve back home: YPG-sympathetic people who say, “I was going to go, but something came up,” or, “I almost went.” Because I couldn’t live with myself becoming one of those people, I left everything back home and went. Similar to many volunteers, I was also going through a bad relationship. It was falling apart, and the day we decided to move out of our shared apartment, I got my acceptance letter. I went to support the revolution, but there was a part of me happy to have a place to go.

How did you make arrangements for the trip?

If by “made arrangements” you mean literally, then I literally just bought a ticket to Iraq, messaged my contact that I was there, and over the course of a few days, crossed into Syria. I don’t wish to disclose specifics, as volunteers in the past have accidentally disclosed information regarding crossings and such leaks have led to arrests of people crossing. Given Turkey’s involvement in the war at this moment in time, such information could cause people to die.

If by “made arrangements” you mean what I did at home to prepare, I didn’t do much. I saved some money. I bought equipment I thought might be useful but wouldn’t have airport police questioning me — having a portable solar panel in your bag on a plane to Iraq doesn’t look as suspicious as having a sighting tool for an AK-47, for instance. My things at home, however, I just left. I hoped that some of it would be there if I came back. Bills? Unpaid. Debt? Defaulted.

How long were you in Rojava?

I went in May 2017 and came home in November 2017. My time in Rojava was mostly boring. I spent a lot of time in Shaddadi [town in northeastern Syria], which was more or less being used as a launchpoint for the future Deir ez-Zor campaign [city in eastern Syria]. There were only a handful of days I was legitimately afraid for my life, the most memorable being when my tabur — a 40-person unit — came under fire in Shaddadi. It was my first time under fire, and it was definitely a stark contrast to the boredom that makes up 99 percent of war. Eventually I went to Raqqa and left Rojava shortly after its liberation.

What kind of training, if any, did you receive?

We received very little training. The training was essentially language training and some basics on firearms. Most of the Americans were familiar with firearms already, myself included. I can’t recall the exact number, but I want to say we were allowed to fire 30 rounds or so before going to the front. So the only real training we received was language. Specifically, we studied Kurmanji Kurdish for two weeks.

Were there many other people from the United States? Of those you knew, who died there?

There were quite a few people from the United States. The list of people I met who have been killed in the war varies depending on whether you count suicide on the homefront or not. I count suicide. The list of the people I knew who died is as follows: Robert Grodt, Jake Klipsch, Ollie Hall, Jac Holmes, Kendal Breizh, Haukur Hilmarsson, Jamie Janson, Andok Cotkar, and a number of others. I won’t split them into Americans and non-Americans. They were all internationals who volunteered to fight. They all fell. I cannot split them up.

What was it like returning to “normal life” after your time in Rojava?

I can’t say that I’ve returned to normal life. I live at home as a civilian, but the war is still going on. I still have friends fighting. I still get messages from people asking me how they can volunteer. I still spend way more time than I should talking to those people, as nearly every one of them has a reason not to go when the time comes. But when I first got home, I had a hard time going to the grocery store. It sounds like a weird thing to have trouble with, but I had just gotten home from having nearly every meal made from the same six ingredients. Occasionally we would go to the store to get some stuff to supplement our meals. These stores usually had only a handful of items, and they were about the size of a small storage shed. When I got home, every aisle of every store had hundreds of different options of just one type of food. It was overwhelming. I remember getting very angry at a lady who was yelling at a clerk for being out of the particular brand and flavor of potato chip she wanted. I got angry a lot when I first got home. Life in the United States is hard to explain. I wake up every day with an easy life. Even when life is hard, it’s extremely easy. But whenever you get news from the front, you can’t help but want to be back there.

As someone who’s been to Rojava, what do you make of the United States withdrawing from the area and thereby implicitly allowing Turkey to invade?

I can’t really answer this coherently. I am furious. I’ve been stuck on this question for days. I am furious. That is literally the only thing I can say on the subject.


Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, the Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.


Banner image: "Kurdish YPG Fighters" by Kurdishstruggle is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

LARB Contributor

Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in NewsweekThe GuardianVice, and elsewhere.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!