“Some of you will say to me: You signed the contract and you fought in a war because of your signature, no one held a gun to your head. This is true, but because I signed the contract and fulfilled my obligation (…), I am entitled to speak.” – Anthony Swofford, ‘Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles
A potbellied Beduin with snorkeling goggles and no teeth wades out of the Red Sea. He’s holding a gutted parrotfish.
“It got caught in my net and the smaller fish ate its belly,” he greets me – I’m not sure whether proudly or apologetically. I tell him what brings me here.
“Ah, the American!” he beams, and pointing the limp fish south, he says, “He always goes for walks. I’ll go get him.”
There’s not been much else for Robert Amos to do here since he was exiled from Israel and then from Jordan for joining the Syrian Kurds in their fight against Islamic State. We’re in a Beduin camp on the eastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula, a few kilometers north of the port city of Nuweiba. Across the sea are the blue mountains of Saudi Arabia.
Amos is an American Jew from Charleston, West Virginia. He sleeps on a hammock under the stars, and every inch of his visible skin is covered in mosquito bites. He’s got small, intelligent eyes and a castaway beard the color of bread. His hands are white and thin. I spend three days and two nights with him. He talks like someone who has too many stories to tell and no one to tell them to. Apart from the Beduin who host him, a small clan of the Muzziena tribe, we’re alone for kilometers around. This is his story.
AMOS, 29, is a graduate in history with a specialization in historiography. He worked as a tour guide at the Governor’s Mansion in Charleston, later at the House of Delegates – the representatives for the state – and lastly as an assistant to the senate president.
He came to Israel in October 2013 to do an MA in sociology at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg School. Although in practice he’s as Jewish as the next Jew, the fact that his mother isn’t Jewish made aliya complicated, and he settled on a student visa.
The following year, he decided he wanted to fight against Islamic State.
“It didn’t really hit me how big the problem was until ISIS [Islamic State] took Mosul in June 2014. Then, in early August, images of the massacre in Sinjar started coming in through the media. I felt I wanted to do something.”
I ask him why.
“Well… because I could; I think people focus too much on ISIS and not enough on the people they are traumatizing. My motives weren’t ideological, they were moral.”
His best option was to join the Kurds.
The ethnic group, which sprawls over Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, is now – thanks to the turmoil and many power voids that fill the Middle East – slowly eking out a greater autonomy, with the goal of establishing an independent Kurdish state.
In northern Iraq, the Kurds have already set up the de facto state of Iraqi Kurdistan under the leadership of Masoud Barzani. Its combat units are the Peshmerga. In Syria, the Kurds have also achieved autonomy, but haven’t yet established a state structure. They are governed by the PUK, whose combat force is the YPG.
Both the Iraqi Peshmerga and the Syrian YPG are facing off against Islamic State along thousands of kilometers of front line. But whereas the Peshmerga have become the object of Western praise for keeping Islamic State at bay, the media do not view the YPG as kindly – perhaps because it receives support from the Turkey-based PKK, a Kurdish guerrilla force that many states consider a terrorist group.
Amos didn’t care whom he fought with as long as he could combat Islamic State. By asking around, he reached a Facebook page for foreigners who wanted to join the Kurds. He sent a message saying he’d like to help out. They replied, “Buy a ticket to Sulaymaniyah.”
On February 10, Amos took a flight from Tel Aviv to Amman, and from there, a connection to Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. There, a cab took him to the local PUK headquarters, which acted as the embassy to Rojava – the name given to Syrian Kurdistan.
He had been told that the Peshmerga wasn’t currently hiring, so he assumed he would be sent to the Syrian front.
At the HQ, after the introductions, exhaustion overtook him. He lay down on a mat and slept for two solid hours before his contact burst into the room: “Biçin Rojava! [We’re going to Rojava!]” “I’ll get my bags.”
“No need, we’re coming back!” They never came back.
He was loaded onto a truck with three other guys – one British, one Portuguese and one American – who had been at HQ for a few days. They were driven over gravelly roads to a transit camp in the northern Iraqi mountains. There they would wait to be relocated to a unit.
“The camp was, for all intents and purposes, a glorified toolshed,” Amos smiles.
They met other foreigners who had been waiting there for more than a month. The area was lush and beautiful, but the days were long. Every morning, a YPG rep would walk into the tent to wake them: “Roj bas, Roj bas! [Good morning!]” They ate breakfast, drank tea, played cards, smoked, walked 20 meters to the kitchen and 20 more to the spring, but mostly sat and waited.
Amos met people with the same ideas he had, and felt a bit less alone. He and about a dozen foreigners grew very close, and started to call themselves “the Chai Boys.” The name was a kind of self-deprecating tribute to the young boys who – while too young to fight – scurried around the transit camp delivering chai to the soldiers.
Among them was a 25-year-old Iranian with a degree in philosophy and a keen interest in Judaism. He paid homage to his two passions by making his nom de guerre Ariel Pythagoras. He had the smooth face of a child and always wore a pendant of King Cyrus the Great, father of the ancient Persian Empire. He and Amos became good friends.
However, not all foreigners had come out of a moral calling. Some were simply thrill-seekers, and others downright sociopaths, like the Armenian who had just emerged from a 25-year prison sentence.
Others were veterans, like the Iraqi who had fought in Kobani and called himself Guevara. He had never seen a whoopee-cushion, and from the moment he found one, he spent his time amusedly making it fart.
While the volunteers bonded, the Kurds kept their distance. The Kurds were there because it was their war and they didn’t have a choice, and while they treated the volunteers with respect, they kept strictly to themselves for reasons a foreigner couldn’t understand.
After two weeks, a Kurdish woman representing the YPG told them to get packed: “We leave tomorrow.”
That night, as they lay on their mats, sleepless with anticipation, the British man said, “Hey guys. What do you think about making peace with ISIS?” No one said anything, waiting for a witty nuance or a punch line.
“What do you mean?” someone broke the ice.
“We’re not going to go all the way, right? I mean, we’re going to have to make peace; we can’t completely defeat these people.”
The floodgates opened and the British coward was shouted into silence.
THEY HADN’T even entered REM-sleep when the rep burst into the tent: “Biçin Rojava!” They got up, took the batteries out of their cellphones and were loaded onto a series of SUVs. They crossed the Tigris River – the natural border between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan – and were picked up on the opposite bank by a big battered truck. It drove them to the top of a hill, from which they could see the mountain where Noah’s Ark is believed to have crash-landed after the flood.
At the new base, the Chai Boys trained together and quickly gained notoriety.
Today, every Western volunteer in the Kurdish forces has at some point heard of the Chai Boys. Amos knew how to shoot from his days of hunting deer in West Virginia. In Rojava, he learned to throw a hand grenade, and trained with an AK-47, an ancient PK machine gun and a Dragunov sniper rifle.
He also improved his Kurdish and picked up the local slang. At the base, the Kurds referred to Islamic State members as “Çeta,” which is Kurdish for “maggot.” Even the Kurdish news employed this terminology: “Fifteen maggots were killed this morning by the brave forces of the YPG.”
Amos was meant to train for two months, but he was called to the front line after three weeks. He asked for more training, but it was out of the question.
The Chai Boys were rushed to the armory, where the Kurds were handing out weapons like candy. Amos shouldered an AK and stocked up on magazines and hand grenades. The Chai Boys were then separated into groups and relocated to different posts.
Amos and Ariel were sent with an Alaskan, a Russian and another Brit – who wasn’t a coward – to the outskirts of Tel Hamees, where a large battle was petering out. Very soon the Alaskan was shot in the knee, and he was flown out for treatment in the US. Islamic State was on its knees on this front, and once the fight abated, the Chai Boys mostly guarded their posts and dealt with sporadic minor skirmishes.
A month later, they were relocated to Tel Hanzir, west of Serekaniye, a city next to the Turkish border. Amos stood at the last outpost of the front, from which he overlooked Islamic State’s swath of land and the outskirts of Turkey. The Kurds were advancing steadfastly, and when Islamic State became desperate, it attempted a Pyrrhic counterattack. This final push is known to fighters and aficionados, and in time will be known to historians, as the Battle of Serekaniye.
NOT LONG after Amos arrived, he was holding his post at the front line when a comrade said, “Keep an eye out; I think I saw two maggots cross the border.”
Soon after, Islamic State fighters, clad in black and wielding machine guns, started pouring out of a tunnel at the foot of a mountain. Amos’s AK-47 didn’t have the range, so he changed to a PK and shot to kill. It was easy. He just had to think about the atrocities they’d committed, and it felt no different than shooting deer back in West Virginia.
The battle lasted a month. The YPG were so overwhelmed, they had to bring in Dushka trucks – but they held their ground. As Islamic State became increasingly cornered, they turned to mortar attacks, and the Kurds and the Chai Boys would take cover in ditches.
One mortar crashed a few meters from where Amos was crouching. His ears rang. Even at night, he heard them whistle by as he slept. The battles were on and off for weeks, and the longest ones lasted hours. He feared direct fire more than the mortars.
“Statistically very few people die from mortar attacks,” he explains. “But when you’re in somebody’s crosshairs, you have to suppress your natural instincts [to get away as fast as possible, and instead] take cover, hold your ground and shoot back.”
At one point, the brunt of the attack was aimed at Ariel’s outpost, just south of Amos’s. The Iranian ran up to him, kissed him on both cheeks and said, “Goodbye, brother.” He then dashed to his post, his pendant of King Cyrus beating against his chest.
After the battle, a female Kurdish soldier approached Amos: “Ariel got scraped in the leg, but he’s okay.”
“Is he in the hospital?” “No.”
“But is he hurt?” “No, he’s fine.”
Amos had a bad feeling, and Ariel’s last words rang in his head. The following morning, the unit was packed around a table at the mess hall. Out of the blue, somebody said: “Ariel’s dead.”
They continued to eat in silence, not daring to look at each other, taking refuge in the sound of many people eating.
One of the Kurds didn’t like the atmosphere and countered, “He’s in the hospital.”
The Chai Boys gave him a dirty look.
After breakfast, Amos went to talk with the commander.
“Where’s Ariel?” “He’s in the hospital.”
“I’m having problems believing you.”
The commander stared at him, poker- faced, and didn’t speak. The remaining Chai Boys – Amos, the Brit and the Russian – assembled to deliberate, then approached the general again.
“Listen, someone is lying to us.”
The commander held their gaze for a moment and said, “He died.”
“So we’re leaving. We came to fight a war, we expected people to die. But we want to be with people we can trust.”
By asking around, they gathered that Ariel had stood up and gotten shot in the leg. The battle was so intense that no one had applied a tourniquet, and he bled to death.
“Ariel with one leg would have been better than no Ariel,” Amos tells me.
“The YPG need more doctors, more than anything.”
The final engagement lasted many hours, but the Battle of Serekaniye was won, and the YPG raised its flags all over the patch of land its forces had taken from Islamic State. But Amos didn’t feel celebratory. Ariel had been buried on top of a hill, surrounded by strangers.
Neither he nor Ariel’s family had been allowed to attend. The Chai Boys stayed two more weeks and left.
AMOS WANTED to take Ariel’s bags to Sulaymaniyah. It’s close to the Iranian border, so he thought he could meet his friend’s family there and give them their son’s possessions. He left with a group of Westerners who wanted to leave or be relocated. After crossing the Tigris River, they were interrogated by Asayish, the Iraqi Kurdish intelligence.
The Westerners asked for Iraqi visas, but the agents sent them to a camp and told them to wait.
They waited for weeks, sleeping on the ground and feeding the mosquitoes.
Eventually they were informed they couldn’t go to Sulaymaniyah.
Apparently a member of PJAK – the Iranian Kurds – had been shot, and this had sparked tensions among the different Kurdish factions. Tired of waiting, a member of the group took a taxi to Sulaymaniyah and got there without incident. Amos and the rest decided to follow suit.
They crossed Barzani’s Kurdish state smoothly, but when they entered a patch of land controlled by the socialist PUK, they ran into trouble. At every checkpoint they were stopped, interrogated and taken to an Asayish station, where a fat executive in a suit would hear their story and let them go with a “Khalas! [Off you go!]” When they finally reached Sulaymaniyah, they were questioned for days. The upside was that news of the victory at Serekaniye had reached the citizens, and they were treated like heroes. Eventually the regency office told them, “You’re not a security threat, but you should have come with a visa. You’ll have to leave the country.”
Amos explained he wanted to meet Ariel’s family to give them his stuff, but they were adamant. He left his comrade’s bags with the PUK and asked that they send them to his parents.
His mission cut short, Amos flew to Amman and headed to the Israeli border at the Allenby Bridge.
“I didn’t think I would be in trouble,” he says. “I knew I would be questioned, but I’d been killing ISIS; I should be the opposite of a security threat.”
After the woman at the Population, Immigration and Border Authority booth had scanned his passport, two plainclothes agents approached him and took him into an office.
“Someone at your school told us where you were.”
“I had it on Facebook.”
“Oh” – feigned surprise – “by the way, we are the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency]. Do you mind if we look through your bags?” “They’re with the immigration and population authority clerk.”
The agents rolled their eyes with annoyance. It was clear to Amos that the two organizations weren’t speaking to each other. The interrogation lasted a few hours, but wasn’t threatening. They concluded: “You’re not a security threat. Welcome back.”
But the Population, Immigration and Border Authority thought differently. When he returned to the booth, the clerk had a problem with his visa not being up to date. He had an appointment for a renewal some months after his visa expired, but the reservation slip was at his apartment in Jerusalem. The clerk wouldn’t hear about it and stamped a red “Denied Entry” on his passport.
“The problem had a solution, but she didn’t care,” Amos says. “She had made her mind up from the beginning.”
He returned to Amman and commenced a marathon of phone calls to Israeli and American embassies and consulates, but to no avail. Even his university was of no help. He repeatedly hit a brick wall, as if a higher authority had beaten him to these institutions.
He gave the border a second go, this time via the Aqaba crossing. On the Israeli side, he was strip-searched and interrogated. The clerks then asked him to sign a form.
There were three other people in the room, and Amos thought them to be witnesses to his signature. No one told him what the form was. He refused to sign. The clerks got angry, gave him a second “Denied Entry” stamp and walked him back to the border.
On the Jordanian side, an amicable security officer named Laurence invited him to sit in his office.
“Can you help me?” Amos asked.
“Sorry… Israel won’t let us.”
“But I’ve got an appointment to renew my visa in –” “Look, the visa is bullshit. It’s because you’ve been in Kurdistan. They’re lying to you. I’m sorry, but you’re being deported from Jordan.”
“Why?!” “Israel is advising us to deport you.”
“But you’re not going to deport me, are you?” “I’m sorry.”
They sat in silence.
“Look, Rambo,” Laurence said smiling, “do you want to have dinner with me?” They broke the Ramadan fast on rice, chicken and eggplant in his office.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Laurence said. “I really respect what you did. You’re our brother.”
“If I’m your brother, why are you deporting me?” “I don’t know… I just have to do what I’m told. I don’t think Israel wants you back.”
When they finished eating, Laurence presented him with the options. From Aqaba, he could go either to Turkish Cyprus or to Egypt. Turkish Cyprus wasn’t an option, because he could get arrested for helping the Kurds – Turkey is against their independence struggles.
It had to be Egypt.
A Jordanian security agent escorted him to the port.
Before Amos walked up the gangway onto the passenger boat to Nuweiba, the agent said, “Prove to me you’re not ISIS.”
Amos could have said many things – “Buy me a beer,” “ISIS members don’t grow mustaches.” But he had no more fight in him.
“If you’re deporting me anyway… there’s no reason for this interview.” He walked up the gangway.
At sea, he was pacing the deck when he turned around and saw a Jordanian policeman tailing him.
They made eye contact, and the cop slipped away. The boat docked at Nuweiba, and when Amos went to retrieve his bag from the cargo hold he realized his computer was missing.
Although Nuweiba used to be a tourist hotspot back in the ’90s, it has – like most of the Sinai – become a ghost town since the rise in recent years of terrorist attacks and tourist kidnappings, and the presence of Sinai Province, an Islamic State affiliate. Last week, the group killed at least 70 people in a massive coordinated assault in northern Sinai.
It was almost ironic. For fighting Islamic State, Amos had been deported to Islamic State territory. He asked the first person he found to take him to a place to sleep and was driven to the Muzziena camp up the coast.
While he was walking along the shore a week after his arrival, a potbellied Beduin in snorkeling goggles caught up with him to say a journalist was there to see him.
THE SUN sets over the Sinai hills, and the beach is dark until the moon rises. We break the Ramadan fast with Nasser, a Muzziena Beduin originally from Sudan. We eat a Sudanese dish called aseeda – a giant dumpling with spices – and melon and tea. It’s good. Nasser is slow and tired from the fast.
“Only 17 more days,” he sighs.
After the meal, Amos hands me a black disk-on-key.
“I found it in Ariel’s bag,” he says. “I want to see what’s in it.”
He keeps some of Ariel’s possessions in a black woolen sock he carries around at all times, like an amulet.
Among them, there’s a battered Sony Ericsson phone without a battery.
“I’m looking for a charger to send my condolences to his parents,” he says.
We plug the USB into my laptop and open the folder.
There are some Arabic music MP3s, an SRT subtitles file for The Fault in Our Stars, and endless low-quality pictures that Ariel took at the front line. Amos scrolls through them and mutters, “Oh man.”
There are photos of violets, of a street puppy, and many, many pictures of the Chai Boys. Manning their outposts, cleaning their AK-47s, fighting, eating, waiting.
There are also short videos of Ariel laughing and the Chai Boys fooling around in the “glorified toolshed.”
One photo is of the façade of a theater. The title written in neon letters on the marquee is, “Let’s pretend none of this ever happened.”
Early the next day, Amos accompanies me to Nuweiba, where I’ll take a bus back to the Israeli border. We mostly talk about history – he’s a prodigious connoisseur of obscure historical anecdotes. Before I step onto the rickety bus, I ask if he would go back to the front line.
“Maybe, it’s an option. But right now my priority is getting back into Israel.”
This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine.