Halabja, Iraq – By the time the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) formed a committee to investigate the disappearance of young Iraqi Kurds in November 2013, nine of them had died fighting alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in northern Syria.
On May 23, Kurdish news agency Bas News reported an attempted attack in Sulaymaniyah allegedly carried out by 20-year-old Aram Ozair, a Kurd from Halabja who came back from Syria after eight months of fighting with ISIL.
A new phenomenon with old roots has cast a shameful silence over parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly in the southeastern province of Halabja and its eponymous capital, where many of the young Kurds fighting are from.
A recent case was reported by local media on May 4, when the group allegedly informed Harem Omar Ali’s parents of the death of their son while fighting alongside ISIL.
“The families are ashamed to talk because these youths have been portrayed as terrorists by local media,” the spokesperson for the Kurdish Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, Mariwan Naqshbandi, told Al Jazeera.
According to Naqshbandi, approximately 200 young Kurdish men aged 17-24 from the Kurdistan area have made the journey to Syria since the start of the war in 2011. Most have entered through Turkey’s southeastern city of Gaziantep, where accommodation is provided, before they are guided across the border.
“Our estimate is that 35 have been killed and 50 have returned,” he said. The estimates, according to Naqshbandi, are based on his own contact with the fighters who seek his help in case they wish to return, Kurdish intelligence sources, and families reporting to authorities when their sons call them from Syria.
Despite Iraqi Kurdistan’s relative stability, radical elements are not a new development in the autonomous enclave. A number of the men who have joined ISIL were once members of the now disbanded Ansar al-Islam, a Salafi organisation that was largely destroyed in 2003 by a joint mission between Kurdish Peshmerga and US Army Special Forces.
Ako Abdul Qadir, 25, formed part of Ansar al-Islam in the early 2000s and joined ISIL in November 2013. He made local headlines in January when he was killed in clashes between ISIL and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Kurdish Supreme Committee in Syria. Months before his death, the young Kurd recorded and posted a video online in which he threatened to rid Kurdistan of the current ruling parties.
On the streets of Halabja everyone knows Qadir and the other young men who left the city to fight in Syria. A man stops to explain that Qadir was “a good man” and in a teashop, a boy in traditional dress talks about a friend who deserted ISIL and came back to Kurdistan after his parents bribed him with a new car. But while most people are willing to talk, family members are more reserved.
Qadir’s cousin works in a small family-owned convenience store in Halabja’s busy city centre. He talks about his cousin’s troubled life, but is adamant that he cannot disclose private information and asks to remain anonymous. He explains that Qadir became an orphan at a young age and as an adult struggled to find a job that could support his wife and daughter. This, he believes, was the main factor behind his travels to Syria – not his Muslim faith.
“He wasn’t a strict practising Muslim,” said the cousin.
According to Naqshbandi, the economic instability and unemployment that reigns in Halabja is one of the three key reasons behind the spike in men travelling to Syria to fight. According to Ministry of Planning figures, in 2012, 7.7 percent of Halabja’s residents over the age of 15 were unemployed, while 20.8 percent of residents over the age of 10 are illiterate. These statistics underscore the sense of abandonment felt upon entering the border town which also suffers from lack of electricity and water supplies, paved roads and modern infrastructure.
The other two reasons are the ideological remnants of Ansar al-Islam and the glorification of “jihad” by Kurdish mullahs through local TV channels, according to Naqshbandi.
The families are ashamed to talk because these youths have been portrayed as terrorists by local media.
While the common denominator between many of Halabja’s young fighters is a difficult economic background, there are exceptions to the rule. According to Halabja-based civil society activist Osamah Golpy, 24-year-old Kaiwan Mohamad had a comfortable upbringing and was not confronted with the same troubles that haunted Qadir, but he still travelled to Syria to join the fighting.
Golpy explained that Mohamad was known in Halabja as Mulla Kaiwan: “The title is used for Islamic preachers, although he was not a preacher himself; he got the title from his role in teaching Islam … probably to people his own age.”
Mohamad had recently graduated from the University of Sulaymaniyah when he joined the fighting in Syria. According to two of his friends, who asked to remain anonymous, the young fighter was injured twice, but continued fighting until he was killed in October 2013.
“I think he did believe in what he was doing. He did not have any financial or social problems; the motive remains religious,” said Golpy.
“Not all are poor. The son of a manager in our ministry has gone to Syria and their finances are good,” Naqshbandi added.
According to Naqshbandi, there are many voices in Kurdistan that are encouraging young men to join the fighting in Syria. While Kurdistan’s Islamic parties have officially spoken out against travelling to Syria, a number of religious individuals have not been as discouraging.
Cleric and parliament member Salim Shushkay was recently accused by Asayish, Kurdish state security, of coaxing youth into travelling to Syria.
“Many of the youths who went to Syria went to Shushkay’s mosque, but whether he has encouraged them or not is not official,” Naqshbandi said.
Shushkay told Al Jazeera that while he does speak of the oppression of the Syrian people in his sermons, he does not actively encourage people to travel to the war zone. “I have heard these accusations many times and they are baseless. The KRG is responsible for not strengthening border control,” Shushkay said.
Today the collective understanding of the Syrian conflict has changed both in Kurdistan and in Halabja. Returning fighters are not only wary of recounting their stories because of Kurdish security’s close watch, they are often ashamed of their own actions.
According to Golpy, Halabja’s residents used to speak openly and proudly about the neighbouring “revolution”, but when Kurds in the Islamic groups began fighting against YPG Kurds, the sense of pride began to vanish.
“They go there in hope that they will fight the Assad regime, but they get there and fight between Islamic groups and between themselves [YPG vs ISIL]. This is why they regret it and come back,” said Naqshbandi, who has facilitated the return of many of the fighters.
However, he says, many have remained in Syria in fear of the Kurdish security service’s reprisal while others have fled to Europe. Following September’s deadly suicide attacks in Erbil, a number of young men who had put down their weapons and returned to Kurdistan were arrested without evidence.
The number of jailed fighters is unknown but Naqshbandi, who by merit of his post is in close contact with the security apparatus, estimates it is approximately nine. He has also visited a number of those men in jail.
While Kwestan Akram, the vice president of the Halabja municipality, told Al Jazeera that most of the young men who have returned to Halabja from Syria have resumed their normal lives, Naqshbandi said that many throughout Kurdistan suffer the stigma of being branded a terrorist.
“They have been affected in a very negative way, if it continues this way they will find it hard to go back to their normal lives,” he said.