From the front line

From the front line

  • 4
  • 22 min to read

Click here to read part two 

The rumbling of an endless barrage of mortars and heavy machine guns firing in the distance permeates the cool evening air. I cannot believe I am in Kurdistan accomplishing my dream of photography in a war-torn country thousands of miles from the U.S.

The sky darkens on the dirt roads as I follow a convoy of trucks full of Peshmerga soldiers to the front line against Daesh about two miles from Telskuf, Kurdistan. I am amazed at the orange-yellow glows of fires peppering the Kurdish countryside.

“Daniel, if I die, make sure my body gets back to my family,” my Kurdish fixer Younes Mohammad says as we drive toward the sounds of war. I have sought and paid for his services to guide me into this hostile area where the Kurdish forces are trying to retake their land from the Islamic State, known as Daesh in this region, for a self-imposed photo excursion — my version of spring break.

His demeanor is so calm I think he is joking. He is not, and nothing about this place seems funny. I look behind me at the Peshmerga soldier in the backseat riding with us for any signs of fear. His face bears no expression as he gazes through the driver-side window.

Adrenaline courses through my veins as I sort out the many “if” and “then” thoughts colliding in my mind: If he does die, how will I get him back to his family? What if this is the last chance to message my family? If we get overrun, then at what point do I pick up a weapon and fight? And will Younes be willing to kill me if Daesh somehow gets a hold of me? I’d kill him to spare him the torture. I don’t want to be on one of their death videos. Maybe I shouldn’t message any family, I don’t want them to worry.

Within 30 seconds, an adrenaline-induced euphoria takes hold. I am calm.

I’ve always believed that witnessing the most amazing thing — or hellish nightmare — by one’s self, it is nothing more than a dream. Witnessing it with another makes what you’ve seen reality; someone else can testify to it. Photography bridges the gap between dreams and reality.

As a child, I was fascinated by photographs of war and experienced the power these photographs have on a viewer: to shock, to overwhelm, to connect, to inspire, to change. I wondered what compelled people to fight and kill each other.

When I became older, I looked through my grandmother’s photo album and learned the power a photograph can have on a survivor left behind. My grandmother survived the Cité Héraud Massacre Sept. 24, 1945, in French Indochina, now Vietnam. In her family photo album, she had not only the happy group photos of her family, she also had a photograph of her dead mother, laying on the ground where she was executed in the French Colony of Héraud of Saigon.

If people are willing to die, or more importantly kill, for a cause, it needs to be documented. It is my responsibility show the viewer the struggles of those affected and not allow the viewer to be ignorant of the brutalities of war. It’s why I choose conflict photography.

It’s why I am in Iraq.


Day one: Al Kuwayr, Kurdistan, Iraq

I fly two days prior into Erbil on March 18 and, within two hours, head to the front line near Al Kuwayr, a village divided by a branch of the Tigris River. Daesh occupies the area west of the river and its flag is seen in the village.

There, I meet my first group of Peshmerga soldiers. They wear mismatched uniforms and carry different types of rifles. Most are armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles; one is armed with an M16 assault rifle he purchased to defend his homeland from the radical Islam extremist group that rose to power January 2014 after betraying the Free Syrian Army rebels fighting a civil war against the dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Syrian Armed Forces.

By June 2014, Daesh swept across Syria and through Iraq attempting to establish its caliphate, slaughtering thousands who wouldn’t convert to its extreme Islamic views and turning women and young children into sex slaves to be bought and sold as trophies of war.

Capt. Mahmoud, commanding officer of Peshmerga’s Sechaleh and Al Kuwayr bases, tells me many of the soldiers purchase their own weapons, uniforms and protective gear to fight Daesh because the Iraqi Armed Forces didn’t supply them.

From the front line

A Peshmerga soldier ties his boots March 18 at a front line base against Daesh near Al Kuwayr, Kurdistan, Iraq.

Other weapons and equipment they acquired when they captured territory from Daesh, such as the U.S. Humvee covered by tarp to avoid detection by Daesh drones Mahmoud points to. Daesh captured it from the Iraqi army as its soldiers fled Daesh’s quick June 2014 advance into Iraq.

American-led coalition airstrikes have helped Peshmerga to reclaim their land as they combat Daesh, he said. The coalition flies over keeping watch on Daesh and occasionally strikes with bombs when Daesh attempts an attack, though coalition help is limited to good visibility, and mainly to during daytime. Daesh now mostly attacks at night under the cover of darkness.

Mahmoud beckons me at about 3 p.m. to join him on the third floor roof of the house used as a front-line base. Warning me to be careful, he shows me we are standing in range of snipers as he points to a bullet impact site about 6 inches down the exterior wall. I worry about a sniper seeing light reflect off my camera lens, making me an easy target. How can I be a war photographer if I get shot in the head my first day? I learn the shooting happened as the soldiers raised the Kurdish flag over their base.

Sniper fire isn’t the only threat at this base. Signs of craters from mortar impacts are visible, and suicide-bomber attacks also happen.

Mahmoud picks up a fragment from a crater where a 120mm mortar shell landed and shows it to me. As I grab a fragment, he tells me not to grab them. Some of the mortars have chemicals on them. He says the most recent chemical attack was about 20 days ago at another base.

Though he is ready to fight to the end of his life and doesn’t care how long it takes to win, Mahmoud said he wants something else more than beating Daesh.

“Opportunity for independence for Kurdistan,” he said, speaking about Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The region of Kurdistan stretches into three other countries — Turkey to the north, Syria to the west and Iran to the east.

Governance of the region can feel like a confusing patchwork of military units, government authorities, tribal leaders and religious factions. It also makes it fertile ground for extremists like Daesh who are trying to establish its caliphate.

It’s here where the U.S. has expanded its military role, training and advising Iraqi forces since summer 2014. The U.S. has had two combat-related deaths since the beginning of March, one of those on Tuesday. The U.S. has committed to sending more mobile artillery and providing up to $415 million in support of the Kurds in northern Iraq.

Desire for Kurdish independence is a common theme among the people I encountered.

Day Two: Telskuf, Kurdistan, Iraq

The following day I see a few displaced people camps for Yazidis, members of one of the world’s oldest religions, some a few miles long, as we drive to a Peshmerga base in the abandoned Christian town of Telskuf.

From the front line

Christina Gbo Ashoa, 93, leaves after a brief visit March 20 with Safaa Khamro, directly behind Ashoa, commander of the Nineveh Plain Forces, at the forces base in Telskuf, Kurdistan, Iraq. Ashoa is one of three Telskuf citizens who didn’t flee Daesh, survived by remain inside her house. Now the forces have made it their responsibilty to feed and care for her.

The area smells fresh with a slight scent of vegetation, and the land surrounding the town is covered by green plants with yellow flowers that rise about three feet above the ground, brush my forearms when I walked through them.

Upon arrival, I have an hourlong meeting with generals, soldiers and local leaders.

Over a hot cup of tea, as every discussion and meeting starts, Hamid Adal Bavi, a former Iraqi Parliament member from Kurdistan, calls journalism an honorable profession before thanking me for being there to share with the world Peshmerga’s conflict and struggle against Daesh.

Bavi declares his gratitude for U.S. help, saying they need more help, support and equipment from the U.S. He asks for mine and explosive clearing equipment because the Iraqi government hasn’t supplied Peshmerga with equipment since 2007.

Most of Peshmerga’s deaths and equipment losses are because of mines and improvised explosives devices, Bavi said.

When the meeting ends, they offer access to explore their post. Lingering near the largest group of soldiers, I’m offered and witness more sharing of cigarettes than ever before. My thankful decline is accompanied by laughter and, through my fixer, a few soldiers ask me, “Why?”

Though I say no today, their consistent generosity and my own stress from the front line will lead me to pick up my old habit again before I leave this front.

I wander their base, empty shell casings littered about and a few exploded mortar shells that look like gnarled branches on an upside-down, minuscule, metal tree are displayed like lawn ornaments at various guard shacks.

Soldiers walk holding hands, an acceptable sign of support I am unfamiliar with in the U.S.

Day Two: Masghalat, Kurdistan, Iraq

Eventually, Peshmerga soldier Faisal Braimaga meets us in a two-door pickup truck model I’ve never heard of, but looks similar to ’90s model Nissan. He demands I ride with him to Masghalat, the front-line base where I’ll embed for the night. It will be my first time void of a translator, who is driving behind us in his own SUV.

Our communication is a challenge, and the drive lasts about 15 minutes on dirt roads across a slightly hilly countryside. We establish several things: He is married and I am not; Daesh is to our left; and he lived in Holland for a while.

This must be how cavemen learned to communicate.

A soldier meets me, greeting me in English.

“Slaow,” I say attempting the Kurdish greeting, one of the few phrases Mohammad taught me. “Choenee bawshee?”

The soldier takes me to their meeting room to sit down. It’s 

also a make-shift storage room, where they have stored rocket-propelled grenades and other items. Tea is served.

Sniper Miran Nawzada Anwar, 24, a tall, and thin man with a scruffy beard, enters the room, placing his Dragunov, a sniper rifle with an effective range of more than 1,421 yards or more than 14 football fields, next to him as he sits. He speaks English well and welcomes me. He tells me he learned English while living in a refugee camp in Holland, a country about 2,815 miles northwest of Erbil, for more than 10 years. Our conversation turns to discussing peace and if humanity can survive without money.

“There are no such thing as countries.” Anwar says as we leave the room. “We are humans first. Borders are man-made.”

From the front line

Peshmerga sniper Miran Nawzada Anwar sits March 19 on a mound of dirt above the word “Kurdistan” in Kurdish at a front line base in Masghalat, Kurdistan, Iraq. The word is spelled using empty .50-caliber bullet casings.

We walk to a base about a mile west, where we rendezvous with Gen. Sarhad Anwar Bag, commanding officer of the Peshmerga forces I am embedded with and one of four heads of the Betwata tribe.

The general is touring his bases and points out to me the villages Daesh occupy to the east. He warns me, through Anwar, to be careful looking at the villages because we are in range of snipers.

From the front line

Peshmerga Gen. Sarhad Anwar Bag, right, converses with his troops March 19 in a bunker at the front line in Masghalat, Kurdistan, Iraq.

We leave the base, head east and walk along the bottom of a 10-foot dirt berm the soldiers have constructed. The berm protects them from Daesh driving a car bomb into their bases. It marks the front line. The other side is no man’s land.

Stray dogs roam nearby, barking any time I get close to them.

A soldier hands me the stem of a yellow-flowered plant and tells me to eat it. It’s semisweet and tastes as the plant smells, reminiscent of dandelions.

“It’s good for you,” he says before biting the stem in his hand. “It beats cancer.”

We arrive at another base. My fixer, Mohammad, tells me they are going to shoot an 82-mm mortar shell, if I want to photograph it.

When the mortar fires, I shake with surprise. I didn’t expect it to be so loud. My right ear rings so badly I question whether I am deaf and hope accomplishing my dream of photographing conflict has been worth it.

The soldiers laugh a little. Anwar advises me to open my mouth next time because it gives the pressure an escape.

At the third base we tour with the general, a soldier who’s been carrying a machine gun shoots at Daesh’s position across no man’s land with no apparent target. He and the other soldiers laugh and smile.

Anwar asks if I’ve ever shot a Dragunov sniper rifle. I hadn’t, despite my training as a paratrooper for the U.S. Army. We search for a rock in no man’s land and I take aim. As I orient myself to the scope, I hear two gunshots in the distance. I barely hear the sniper shooting at us because my ears now feel like there is cotton in them.

“Get down,” Anwar says, and I hand back his rifle.

He quickly begins scanning the area searching for the sniper.

From the front line

Peshmerga sniper Miran Nawzada Anwar shoots at Daesh snipers March 19 from a base in Masghalat, Kurdistan, Iraq. The snipers previously shot at Anwar’s position.

“Where are you fuckers?” he says sternly. “Where are you at?”

The dichotomy of the man who spoke previously of love and peace is not lost on me as he switches into his sniper role. Here, it is war, and his job is to kill.

The situation ends almost as quickly as it began, and we walk to another base.

We climb to the base’s rooftop. One of the soldiers plays music on his cellphone, and the soldiers, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, hang their arms straight down their sides and holding hands, dance on the rooftop.

Mohammad tells me they are excited because tomorrow is Newroz, the traditional Kurdish new year.

When the dancing ends, we head back to where I first met Anwar the sniper. It’s completely dark, and it begins getting colder. We’ve had tea at each base, and this will be no different.

We sit in the meeting room and are promptly served tea. Other generals, soldiers and visitors join us. Gen. Anwar Bag offers everyone food and a carton of cigarettes, along with a cup of tea.

One of the visitors who speaks English gives me a short but in-depth history of Kurdistan. He shows me photographs with his phone taken in the ’60s by French photographer Francois Xavier Lovat.

These are Kurdistan’s history, the visitor says. He thanks me for coming to share their story and tells me my photographs will be important for Kurdistan’s history, too. I am moved thinking my photographs could someday be in the hands of their kids and grandchildren.

That night, after the visitors leave, I go to the rooftop with Gen. Anwar Bag. It’s cold and eerily quiet as he points out a mortar impact crater on the roof. In front of their base, generator-powered lights illuminate no man’s land making it easier for the soldiers to see if Daesh attempt an attack.

From the front line

A long-exposure shows Peshmerga Gen. Sarhad Anwar Bag on the rooftop of his base March 19 near Masghalat, Kurdistan, Iraq.

“I stay with my soldiers at the front instead of at the rear because I want them to think of me as their brother, not their general,” Gen. Anwar Bag tells me before we go downstairs and inside. I sleep in the meeting room with him and four soldiers.

Day Three: Masghalat, Kurdistan, Iraq

A loud noise wakes me about 4 a.m. I won’t find out until later in the morning that it was a Daesh suicide-bomber attacking a Peshmerga base about 1/4 mile south. Not knowing what it is, I fall back to sleep.

I wake up about 6 a.m., still not fully adjusted to the eight-hour time difference between Arlington and Iraq. I join the soldiers on guard duty. It’s windy and cold; the sky is covered by dark gray clouds. Coalition planes hidden by the clouds fly overhead.

I watch a soldier standing behind the sandbags offering protection to the dirt walkway leading to the forward most fortified position of the base. He’s petting a stray dog while he observes the perimeter, his face turning slowly from right to left.

Eventually the sky becomes quiet. The only sound is the wind rustling around the base and across the surrounding vegetation. The silence from man-made noise lasts less than 15 minutes. It is disrupted by what sounds like a large aerial firework. It’s coming from Daesh. The soldier ducks quickly, pressing himself against the sandbags. He motions for me to get down. His eyes then roll up to the sky.

A few moments pass. I don’t know if 20 seconds passed or two minutes. Boom — an explosion along the Peshmerga front. We’re being mortared.

A few minutes later, another mortar. I am scared as I await its impact, powerless to prevent what may come. It explodes about 200 yards in front of us. The smoke is almost nonexistent. The next mortar lands about 100 yards behind us, this time the smoke has a yellowish haze. I wonder if it’s mustard gas. Watching the haze dissipate, I come to a more probable conclusion: pollen from yellow flowers it landed in.

Another mortar hits an abandoned dirt house about 150 yards in front of us. This marks the first mortar I don’t fear. I’ve accepted there are three possible outcomes: The mortar will kill me, it will wound me and possibly blow off a limb, or nothing will happen.

From the front line

Nineveh Plain Forces and Peshmerga soldiers abandon their Newroz celebratory fire March 20 to drive to the front line a few miles from Telskuf, Kurdistan, Iraq. Newroz is the traditional Kurdish new year.

The mortars keep coming. Then, seemingly without reason, they stop.

It’s now about 8:30 a.m.

The soldier pretends to grasp something with his right hand, then moves his hand to his mouth. He takes me to the kitchen, hands me a bowl of goat milk yogurt and fresh pita bread. Locals visit the soldiers, showing the soldiers support by bringing food and sheep.

The other soldiers begin waking up as I eat breakfast. Tea is served with more goat milk yogurt, pita bread and hummus.

A coalition aircraft flies over, louder than the previous planes have been, followed by an explosion much louder than the mortars.

It’s an airstrike.

It’s a few minutes before 9 a.m., and most of the soldiers continue eating. I join two as they move outside.

Looking across no man’s land, a gigantic plume of smoke towers over the horizon. Shortly after the sound of the aircraft fades, I hear the familiar sound of an incoming mortar.

The ground shakes and windows rattle when the mortar explodes, leaving a crater in the dirt road 25 yards behind the base, sending shrapnel through a SUV’s rear window and showering the surrounding vehicles with mud.

Day Three: Telskuf, Kurdistan, Iraq

I return to Telskuf, the abandoned town I was at the day before, with my fixer, Younes Mohammad, at about noon and eat lunch with the soldiers. After lunch I accompany a squad of Nineveh Plain Forces soldiers through the town. They take me to the more than 100-year-old Saint Georgio Catholic Church. Each of the religious figurines and sculptures inside and a rooftop crucifix are broken or destroyed.

From the front line

Nineveh Plain Forces’ soldiers view the surrounding city and countryside March 20 from Saint Georgio Catholic Church’s rooftop in Telskuf, Kurdistan, Iraq. The crucifix was replaced after it was destroyed by Daesh in August 2014.

They take me to the street used by Daesh, also known as the Islamic State group, as headquarters during their occupancy. Children’s toys, sandals and personal items lay where those who fled Daesh in August 2014 left them. In one house, a hole marks where a rocket punctured the ceiling, exploding in the residence and scorching the walls. The ceiling fan’s blades are melted, drooping like a dying flower.

Day Three: Serechka, Kurdistan, Iraq

We return to the base on the edge of town and prepare to attend a Newroz, the traditional Kurdish new year, celebration in the Yazidi town Serechka. While we wait to leave, three more mortars land in the field across the street from us. Two in front of us within 200 yards, their smoke, barely visible, marking their impact. The third, a soldier says, lands about 1/4 mile to our right.

I arrive in Serechka with Mohammad around 5 p.m. The people wear traditional Kurdish clothes. The men, boys and some girls wear baggy two-piece suits. Most of the suits are earth tones. They tuck their jackets into their pants. The women and some girls wear long, flowing dresses, an array of shimmering colors, accompanied by a vest, many adorned with gold colored jewels.

From the front line

A Yazidi girl waves a flag while walking in a parade celebrating Newroz March 20 in Serechka, Kurdistan, Iraq. The procession made its way along dirt roads through the village, ending at the town square.

I walk among men, women and children in a parade as they wind their way along narrow village roads as they walk in procession to the celebrations on the town square. Children carry lit torches, mini-flags of Kurdistan and photographs of politicians and leaders.

The children, many of whom shout, “Ameriki,” pose, smile and make goofy faces, competing with each other for my camera’s attention. I cannot help thinking they were protected from Daesh’s brutality in August 2014 only by several miles of open field between Serechka and Telskuf.

Explosions and heavy machine-gun fire can be heard from the front line near Telskuf, but the smiles don’t fade and the dancing continues as a huge fire burns in Serechka.

“We are going back to the front after we meet the soldiers,” Mohammad said as we make our way back to his car, guided through the village by three young boys because we can’t remember where he parked. We were too focused on photographing the parade to keep track of where the parade started.

The soldiers’ faces and bodies are washed in an orangeish-yellow glow, mimicking the colors of Newroz fire they are standing around, when we arrive at the base in Telskuf. We are there fewer than 10 minutes when we begin our return to the front line a couple of miles away along dirt roads under the darkening hazy sky. Newroz fires flicker across the countryside.

Day Four: Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

The following day, we drive by people picnicking along the roadside as we return to Erbil. Kites shaped like bats, held by children and adults, fly above blankets and people dancing. Small groups of people gather around fires, some with black smoke from burning tires.

Mohammad takes me to have Persian ice cream when we arrive in Erbil. The ice cream is softer than I am used to, and it sits atop vermicelli noodles soaking in a flavored liquid. Mine is vanilla ice cream in a raspberry flavoring.

We drive to the nearby Shanidar Park-2. The park is on a former prison site, but hundreds of people move freely throughout the grounds. Mohammad tells me many of the people are either refugees or displaced people. Their accents give them away to him but I remain oblivious to the nuance in their dialects.

Day Five: New Betwata, Kurdistan, Iraq

I sleep in until 8:30 a.m. the next day.

I watch a Kurdish newscast on the lobby television while I wait for Mohammad. The news ticker on the bottom of the screen runs from right to left, which follows how Kurdish is read.

From the front line

Peshmerga Gen. Sarhad Anwar Bag and his son Sherwan Sarhad Khoshnaw March 22 in a meeting room at the general’s house in New Betwata, Kurdistan, Iraq. They were home during a rotation from the front line.

Mohammad picks me up at 9:15 a.m. and drives me to Gen. Anwar Bag’s house in New Betwata, a village on the east side of Erbil.

Gen. Anwar Bag gives me a tour. He takes me by hand, a sign of respect and support, to show me his pigeons and falcon. He shows me his son’s horse, then he shows me a room with pictures on the wall and tells me who the people in the photographs are: his brothers, his father, the father of Iraqi Kurdistan’s president Masoud Barzani, and relatives, more than a handful who’ve been killed seeking independence for Kurdistan.

He shows me a photograph book with pictures of his family members meeting foreign dignitaries. He then hands me a book of letters written by doctors, artists, authors and other respected people praising the Betwata tribe, which is one of the more prominent tribes in Kurdistan.

The general tells me he isn’t showing me the photographs and letters to brag, but to show me his family is a liked and respectable family and that they are good people. He then offers me a gift, a grey pin-striped two-piece suit, my own set of traditional Kurdish clothes. After lunch, he has a meeting to attend, and we part ways.

Day Five: Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

Mohammad and I don’t have anything planned, so we go to a mall to watch the movie “Eye in the Sky.” He informs me the indoor, multi-stored mall is the first in Iraq. As we wait to buy tickets, I ask him if he watched “American Sniper,” and if he thinks it’s an anti-Islam movie. He tells me he learned people in the U.S. think it is anti-Islam, but he doesn’t think so.

“If anything, it’s an anti-war movie,” Mohammad said. “It shows how bad a war can affect you.”

After the movie, Mohammad asks if I’d like to meet his family at another mall or if I want to go to the hotel. I thankfully accept this ultimate sign of friendship.

I meet his wife, daughter and son and accompany them to a grocery store in the mall. Watching him with his family is the first reality check that life happens outside of war zones. He is no longer Mohammad the fixer and photojournalist; he is Mohammad the husband and father.

From the front line

Kurdish “fixer” Younes Mohammad rests in a Peshmerga guard shack March 21 in Telskuf, Kurdistan, Iraq.

“They don’t care if I was just at the front. When I get home, I am their father,” he tells me while they shop for groceries. For the first time in my life, becoming a father is something I want.

The groceries are purchased and we split up. I go with his family to the food court, and Mohammad takes the groceries to his wife’s car. The court is dominated by U.S. fast-food companies. There is a Church’s Chicken, but the name is changed to Texas Chicken. His son decides Pizza Hut.

Adele’s “Hello” plays over the speaker system while we eat. It’s one of many times Kurdistan feels like home. A comfortable, peaceful feeling in my mind, heart and soul tells me I belong here. I feel safe in Kurdistan.

Day Six: Lalish, Kurdistan, Iraq

Mohammad and I drive to Lalish, a small Yazidi village nestled up a mountain canyon. Yazidis in the region are supposed to make an annual pilgrimage to this village; it is their most revered site. Located at the 4,000-year-old village is the holiest Yazidi shrine, a temple.

Before going to the temple, we stop in Al-Shikhan, another Yazidi village. We meet with Sheikh Luqman Suliman, a school teacher and our media contact for Lalish, for breakfast. We eat goat milk yogurt with pita bread. After breakfast, we drive the almost 11 miles to the village. At the mouth of the canyon are tents housing displaced Yazidis, many from Sinjar, who fled Daesh in August 2014.

Shoes aren’t allowed in the village, so I walk wearing only calf-high white socks. So are most of the people at Lalish; only a few are barefoot. Suliman acts as our tour guide, telling me not to step on any thresholds of the temple, a sign of disrespect.

Outside the main door entrance, on the right, is a sculpture of a black snake about five feet tall. I am told Noah’s ark had a leaking hole and the snake crawled in, saving humanity by sealing the hole, preventing the ship from sinking.

Hanging from columns inside the temple are green, gold and pink satin cloths with knots tied in them. The knots symbolize the wishes a person wants or struggles they want to be freed from. To make a wish you untie a knot, granting the wish or freeing the tier’s burden, then tie your own. I tie a knot with several thoughts in mind. I don’t remember my struggle or desire, but I feel it came true.

Inside the temple are 365 pots, one for each day of the year, filled with oil used for the wicks ignited in the evening and placed around the village. Some are still burning from the previous night.

From the front line

A Yazidi man enters one of several rooms March 23 while visiting the temple in Lalish, Kurdistan, Iraq. Lalish is the most revered sight for Yazidis.

I watch Yazidis kiss almost everything around the temple: thresholds, door frames and the places blackened from where the burning wicks are placed. They enter the many tombs around the village and picnic with their families.

I am in a courtyard when I spot a young Yazidi woman wearing a white shawl staring directly at me among the chaotic movement of everyone else. I raise my camera and burn the image into the sensor as well as my mind. She stares at me a moment after my camera is down, then walks to Mohammad and begins speaking with him. Worried I offended her, I approach their conversation. She looks at me, then back at him while they converse.

From the front line

A Yazidi woman from Sinjar on March 23 on a courtyard in Lalish, Kurdistan, Iraq. More than 200,000 Yazidis from Sinjar, a city in Kurdistan, fled from Daesh in August 2014.

“She invited us to lunch with her and her family,” Mohammad tells me as he calls Suliman, who we’ve ventured away from. “I told her I don’t know if we can, I have to find out.”

I begin photographing her again, she has the most piercing brown eyes I’ve ever seen. A few moments later, Suliman appears and talks with the woman.

“She is from Sinjar, I hope we can have lunch with her,” Mohammad said. I hope so, too.

The answer is no. We will be having lunch with Suliman’s family along a river at a nearby mountain. He gets the woman’s cellphone number and tells her we will have tea with her when we return in a few hours.

After we eat lunch, we walk up a hillside toward several other families picnicking. We pass some mounds of dirt with stones on top. Mohammad says they are graves, possibly a couple thousand years old.

From the front line

School teacher Sheikh Luqman Suliman brought his falcon to a picnic with family and friends March 23 near Lalish, Kurdistan, Iraq.

My mind is on the woman from earlier and has been since we left her. Her brown eyes haunt me. I’ve fallen in love with her. Not in a romantic sort of way, but I’ll be concerned about her forever: always wondering what happened to her, what her story is, where life takes her and if she is safe. I only want the best for her in life. Mohammad tells me he wishes we could have eaten with her. I wonder if he read my mind or if my thoughts show on my face.

We meet a large family in a meadow atop the hillside, they greet me with tea and big smiles on their faces. All asking for me to photograph them and to get a picture with me. I oblige, grateful for their hospitality. Two men arrive, one with a wind instrument, the other with a drum. They begin to play; the eldest looking man in the group begins to dance near the musicians. His family forms a line to the left of him and, following his lead, they begin to dance.

A couple hours pass, and we return to Lalish to watch the wick lighting. The number Suliman has for the woman we met earlier doesn’t work, and we search the village for her. We are unable to find her and make our way to the temple.

In the temple, I wait in the room with multicolored satin cloths for Sheihk Saood, who will ignite the wicks, to arrive. I photograph people tying knots and wonder what they desire. Saood arrives and prepares the wicks, placing them in bowl shaped like a cooking pan; one end soaks in oil, the other end hangs off the edge of the bowl. With a match, he carefully ignites the tips hanging over the edge of the bowl.

Once the wicks are ignited, a Yazidi woman kisses the side of the bowl and follows him kissing a spot next to every wick he places.

Mohammad warned me the wick placing happens quickly, so I move to a spot in the room I know a wick will be placed. Saood moves so quickly that I only get a few photographs. I rush to the courtyard before he exits the temple. I sit down, positioning myself to photograph the next place I think he will place a wick, but he passes by with the woman trailing.

From the front line

Yazidi Sheihk Saood places a burning wick in an oil lamp March 23 inside the temple in Lalish, Kurdistan, Iraq. The wicks are lit and placed around the village every night.

I follow them to another courtyard. Knowing there are many places he will place the wicks, I recognize I cannot intercept him because I don’t know his route. I stop pursuing them and they disappear. I wait for their return.

The sun has dropped below the mountain ridge, confusing my sense of time.

As I photograph people in a courtyard near the temple, a group of teenagers, who recognize me from the place I had eaten lunch earlier, approach me. They take selfies with me and they seem as happy to be with me as I am with them.

About 10 minutes pass when I see Saood again. I attempt to photograph him again, but he passes me. Ready to give up and meet Mohammad, who is waiting for me next to the temple entrance, Saood slows to a crawl. He points up a steep stone staircase up the mountains side, the direction he will go next. I get ahead of him and begin photographing him again.

The woman begins speaking to me in English, asking where I am from and why I am at Lalish.

We speak as I photograph Saood. Each time I don’t know where to go, she keeps me moving in the right direction.

This cat and mouse game of rushing from tomb to tomb lasts about 15 minutes. Him placing the burning wicks. Her kissing beside them. Me trying to stay in front of them. Later we return to the temple. I am exhausted when I reunite Mohammad in the courtyard by the temple entrance.

We meet with Suliman who is conversing with some visitors to the temple. Mohammad and I sit and are served tea while we wait on Suliman so we can leave.

Leaving Lalish, we drop Suliman off at his house and drive back to Erbil as the sun begins to set. I express my concern to Mohammad that I am sad I am leaving, and I don’t know how I will go back to being a student when I return to school.

“Don’t be sad, Daniel,” he advises. “You will come back and you will go to many other places in your life.”

It’s after dark when we get to my hotel. Mohammad joins me in the lobby for our final cup of tea.

On my flight the following morning, I contemplate the advice Mohammad gave me, and I am thankful for the person who, in six days, went from stranger to friend. My joy doesn’t last long; I feel a discomfort, as if I am leaving home.


Like our work? Don’t steal it! Share the link or email us for information on how to get permission to use our content. Click here to report an accessibility issue or call (817) 272-3188.
Load comments