Ras Al-Ain, Asharq Al-Awsat—Mohammed Ezzo Heloub was, by all accounts, a very well-respected young man in Alouk. The locals in the village knew him as a baby, and they watched him grow up to be become a schoolteacher and then, later, a lawyer. He was a 30-year-old family man with three children. “We thought he was cultured,” said Abdulrahman as he shook his head sadly. Only one thing marked him out from the other young men in the village: “We knew that his father was a very strict religious man, but we never thought that Mohammed could do that.”
Mohammed is no longer in Alouk to tell his side of the story. But the fighters who gathered around a metal table scratched with love hearts and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) logos on a sunny afternoon in November were unanimous: they said that he was to blame for the devastating attack on his own village carried out by the radical Islamist group Jabhat Al-Nusra two months before.
Abdulrahman, a rotund middle-aged man with a heavy mustache, told the bones of the story while his young charges fleshed out the details. Mohammed, they said, had never shown any interest in politics until the start of the Syrian uprising. It was only when the revolution started that he began speaking about his disdain for the regime and about what he believed the alternative should be. “After the revolution began, he started to show that he had very radical Islamist ideas,” said Abdulrahman. “He thought that that was the way to challenge the regime, and he believed that an Islamic state would be the best thing to replace it once it fell.”
By September, the specter of the Islamic state was drawing close in Alouk. Just a few miles to the west, half of the city of Ras Al-Ain had fallen to Jabhat Al-Nusra in an offensive that had lasted just a few days in November 2012. In the opening months of 2013, all that prevented the Islamists from advancing further into Kurdish territory was the presence of the YPG, the Kurdish militia that now controls much of Syria’s northern region.
But the YPG’s presence here was more complicated than in the other towns and villages that surrounded it, because Alouk is an Arab village in Kurdish territory. Many of the Arab villages in this area are constructs of Syria’s Ba’athist regime. In the 1970s Hafez Al-Assad, the current president’s father, gave houses and land in the Kurdish region to Arab families from outside the area. Many locals believe that the policy was designed to pre-empt any attempts at Kurdish separatism, but Alouk is a different case. “I have lived here since 1958,” one villager told us. “I was born here, and my parents were also from here. We are the people of this land. We are not interchangeable materials to be used by outsiders.”
There had already been one Islamist assault on a YPG checkpoint outside the village before the September attack, and the fighters believed that some of Mohammed’s friends had aided it. “They had logistical information; they knew how many people were guarding the checkpoint,” said Abdulrahman. “Some of his friends had an anti-YPG stance—they kept saying that the checkpoint should not be there.”
Meanwhile, Mohammed himself had not been seen in Alouk for some weeks. When the villagers were woken up by gunfire in the early hours of September 14, Abdulrahman was shocked to see that he was among the attackers. “I saw him with my own eyes,” he said. “I didn’t believe it at first. He is one of us. He has friends, cousins and relatives here.”
He was the same man he’d known for 30 years—tall, slender and dark haired. But there was one change in his physical appearance: he’d grown an Islamist-style beard. “He had a beard but no mustache,” said Abdulrahman. “He changed his style when he joined Jabhat Al-Nusra.”
Nobody was sure exactly when or why Mohammed had decided to join the Islamists. Some of the younger fighters said that he had been phoning up other young men in the village, trying to persuade them to join, with promises of money if they did. Others had heard that he was working in an Al-Nusra-run Shari’a Court in Ras Al-Ain. But nobody seemed to be in any doubt that it was Mohammed who had coordinated the attack on Alouk.
“He was really proud of himself,” said Abdulrahman. “He spoke to the villagers and said, ‘This will take half an hour, we will clear the village and kick the YPG out.’ He told us that there were tanks coming.”
The villagers of Alouk didn’t stay to find out what liberation Jabhat Al-Nusra style would mean. Most of them fled to the Kurdish-controlled areas of Ras Al-Ain; many have not yet returned.
Inside the village, the scars of the September 14 assault are still raw. At the local school, teacher Hasan Mounir Al-Shehab described in a voice laced with venom how the Islamists blasted tank shells through the walls as they entered the village, just five days before the start of the new school year.
“There were more than 300 of them, all around the village,” he said. “Around 30 of them entered the school with a tank.” He believes that they were trying to take the building to use as their base in the village.
Hasan fled when the fighting began. When he returned to his home, he discovered that it too had been destroyed. “They entered my house and burned my photos of my grandfather and my children,” he said, as he showed us the pictures he had taken of the destruction on his phone. He scrolled through image after image of family portraits in which the eyes had been scratched out. “They say that it’s not right to hang photos of people on the walls, that it’s a sin,” he said. “But they don’t consider what they’re doing as a sin—killing and burning.”
Both Hasan and Abdulrahman say that many of the Islamists who attacked their village were not Syrian, but foreigners. “There were fighters from Malaysia, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Hasan. “They said that they were here to teach us religion. But they have nothing to do in our country. They are only here to damage and destroy.”
The battle for Alouk lasted for 15 days. By October 1, the YPG had pushed the Islamists out of the village, and Hasan had reopened the school. “We’ve tried to fix some classrooms so that the students can come back,” he said. “They destroyed some of our books, too.” Around half of the school’s students have returned to a building where the wind now whistles through the shell holes. Meanwhile, outside on Alouk’s streets young children play with the spent cartridges that litter the floor, the remnants of a bitter battle of which they must understand little.
The residents of Alouk now appear to be unanimous in their support of the presence of YPG in the village. A local man who didn’t want to be named told us how the Islamists burned his house in retaliation when they discovered that he had helped two injured YPG fighters get to the hospital disguised as women. “From the beginning we had good relations with the YPG,” he said. “But now I trust them more than my son. They are dying for us. While we sleep, they are protecting our village.”
Since the attack, many local Arabs—men like Abdulrahman and his comrades at the checkpoint—have also joined up to fight with the Kurdish militia. “Many Arab villagers have joined with the YPG, because we see that it is the best way to stay safe,” he said. For the villagers of Alouk, this is not a war of Kurds against Arabs, or even a struggle for or against the regime. It is simply a struggle for their homes, families and security, and for now it is only the YPG who can provide it for them.
Mohammed and his family have disappeared from Alouk, and the friends were accused of assisting Jabhat Al-Nusra in their attack on the checkpoint have been arrested and taken to YPG jails. When we asked the fighters if it was possible to speak with them, their response was instant and firm. “Impossible,” they said. There have been no trials or admittances of guilt, but here in Alouk, Mohammed Ezzo Heloub’s tarnished reputation is sealed as firmly as his fate is if he ever returns.
“If he comes back,” said Abdulrahman, “we will slaughter him.”