When Death Is Chasing You

When Death Is Chasing You

By Karlos Zurutuza

After the bombings


Because no one desires tragedy.

By Karlos Zurutuza

It was great meeting the two of them again although conditions were dire. When Turkey launched an attack against Kurdish populated areas on its border with Syria last October 9th, Ali and Diyar Khalil, father and son, fled to shelter in Hasakah, about 50 miles to the south.

It was out of the strike zone but not really out of trouble: a Turkish bomb had hit a water treatment plant leaving half a million individuals without drinking water. Which meant that when I tracked them down they apologized for not being able to offer me a cup of tea.

“Someone will bring a few bottles soon,” Ali said.

I wanted to talk to Diyar but what do you ask a child that cleans up corpses?

I first met the Khalils in November 2014 in Serekaniye, a Syrian Kurdish border town then under siege by Islamists militias. When you work crisis areas there are always two places you must visit first: hospitals and schools. Hospitals for a measure of the ongoing violence. Schools for the amount of people who have fled.

I found the school remained shut. Someone at the Kurdish militia headquarters told me that there was still a child left in the village though and I could easily find him at the local Association for the Martyrs, one of those places where the bodies were cleaned and dressed up in uniform before burial.

The walls were covered with the portraits of those fallen in combat and when I got there I met Ali. He had buried his brother there, with the rest, two years earlier. His 13-year-old son Diyar was helping.

“These three arrived completely charred; these two got their heads cut off…”

One by one, Ali told me the stories of six of the dozens of dead faces. Diyar did not look up. Two new coffins showed up though. This broke the monologue of misery as they both wrapped the fallen in regular red cloth before adding the yellow Kurdish-Arab militia banner and a plastic flower crown.


Father and son, readying the dead.

They worked with precision. Ali said that shrouding the bodies was much more difficult, but he told me that his son was always there to help. He insisted on it. I wanted to talk to Diyar but what do you ask a child that cleans up corpses?

“Tell the journalist how much you loved your uncle. Tell him what you said on those days when the bombs were falling,” blurted Ali. Diyar avoided eye contact and focused on the crown on the second coffin.

What did he want to be when, not if, he grew up?

“I will be a soldier.”

That was years ago. Now? I figured I’d stop by Serekaniye to ask about them. I found a group at the association. They were drinking tea and chatting around a stove. They said that the last corpse had arrived 15 days ago, and it had nothing to do with the war.

Zahra, one of the volunteers, remembered me from 2014 and I recalled her lost son. I asked her about Diyar and Ali. She made a phone call. Ten minutes and they both showed up. Diyar was now about to turn 18, and much taller than his father.

They had quit working at the association in 2017 and by then, Diyar was only helping with the dead bodies after school.

Now, after high school, he had plans to enroll at Rojava University. It was pretty remarkable that in the middle of a war, the Kurds had been able to build their own university. But there it was.

I asked them to pose in the same place they had five years earlier. Now there were no coffins on the floor, and the wall behind them was white. The portraits had been properly framed and hung in a “sanctuary” room dedicated to the memory of the martyrs. There seemed to be no place left for new arrivals, and no need.

But that wasn’t how it played out.

Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” was precipitated by a decision by the United States. Formerly allied with the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State, the U.S. pulled its forces off of the border with Turkey. The Turkish military and allied Islamist militias crossed the frontier on October 9 as President Recep Tayip Erdogan pledged to drive the Kurdish fighters away from the border, making room for a “safe zone” to house some 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Thousands of refugees from not only Serekaniye, but also from practically every town and village in the region, started to flee. This was the first stop for those fleeing Turkish bombs. More than 300,000 were displaced after this Turkish assault in northern Syria, according to my UN sources.


Ali and a grown-up Diyar.

The Khalils? They made it to Hasakah, where they were staying with relatives. Ali said his former neighbors had told him that morning that the Islamist militias had ransacked his house.

“They have taken everything in trucks, this is all we have left,” he said, pointing at a couple of bags with clothes and blankets on the floor.

A few minutes later, tea finally arrived.

“Five years ago we managed to stay home despite the jihadist offensive. Back then, Diyar was the only child in Serekaniye, remember? Well, imagine what we went through this last time.”

Diyar listened. I noticed his hair was going grey. Ali said Diyar would soon cross the border to Iraqi Kurdistan. They had a relative there who could help.

Diyar made it…as far as a refugee camp in the Kurdish region in Iraq. And a new plan: If he can, he’ll head for Europe. If he can.