Peshmerga 2.0: New generation of young Kurds learn to face death
After a tough day battling jihadists in northern Iraq, a group of young peshmerga fighters discuss English football results around a table littered with smartphones and vodka Red Bulls.
The peshmerga of old were instantly recognisable, usually sporting a thick moustache, wearing a headdress and baggy “sherwal” trousers with rifle magazines tucked in a traditional Kurdish sash.
But the new generation, now more likely to wear jeans and T-shirts, has lost both the distinctive dress and the mystique of their fathers and grandfathers, whose feats as mountain warriors conferred on the peshmerga — “those who face death” — a worldwide reputation for toughness and skill.
“It’s globalisation, it’s a new world and we need to adapt to it,” said Sirwan Barzani, who is commanding peshmerga forces fighting the Islamic State jihadist group.
The peshmerga’s heyday ended in the 1990s after thwarted uprisings against the regime of former president Saddam Hussein gave way to internecine fighting between the two main Kurdish factions.
What is now the main security force of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan for years enjoyed a reputation surviving off increasingly old successes, but since August, a new generation is experiencing combat.
The Islamic State group, which swept into Iraq’s Sunni heartland in June, made a secondary push in August, inflicting stinging defeats on the peshmerga and moving within striking distance of the Kurdish regional capital Arbil.
The young peshmerga members who are fighting the world’s most brutal jihadist group are far removed from some of the challenges faced by their illustrious forefathers.
Most of them grew up in the towns and cities of Kurdistan, a region which has experienced double-digit growth for years.
– New World –
They communicate on Facebook and Viber and while most would have learned to shoot with the family Kalashnikov rifle, for some, their only prior experience of war has been through video games.
When they return from the front lines, they leave their rifles in the boots of their cars and ditch their uniforms to blend into Arbil’s night crowd.
And when they go back to their military units, their smartphones remain switched on in a pocket of their body armour.
“Today’s youth have everything — technology, smartphones with apps… I saw one on the front line yesterday who was showing off his iPhone 6,” Barzani said.
The existential threat to Iraqi Kurdistan posed by the August jihadist drive brought some peshmerga veterans out of retirement.
Now the old and the new generation fight alongside each other.
Mohammed, a 19-year-old fighter based in the town of Gwer, which the peshmerga retook in mid-August, admitted that “the old-timers are stronger than us.”
“They may be old but they’re tougher than us and they have skills we don’t have,” he said.
“Even though we dispense a lot of training and give them as much information as possible, the young ones still need to have an experienced fighter by their side,” said Rashid Yasin Rashid Muzuri, a 63-year-old peshmerga fighter.
“Life is so different these days. Today’s youngsters have everything they want. In my day, when you were given a loaf of bread, you had to make it last a week.”
“Now these young people want cooked meals when they go to the front lines.”
– ‘Defend our land’ –
The nature of the fighting has changed as well.
“We used to fight in the mountains,” said Khaled, a 74-year-old veteran. “Now the fighting is taking place in the plains, it’s much harder. The enemy is straight ahead of you, there’s nowhere to hide.”
The peshmerga’s main battles in recent weeks have been fought over contested areas they took control of when federal government troops retreated in the face of the June jihadist advance.
Many of those areas are in arid and open parts or in urban environments of northwestern Iraq, very different terrain from the remote mountains where the peshmerga built their legend.
“At that time, we had roughly the same weaponry as the Iraqi army we were fighting,” said Khaled. “That’s no longer true” against the Islamic State group.
The jihadists seized a formidable arsenal of weapons, often US-made, from the routed Iraqi army in June, including tanks, Humvees and assault rifles.
For the new generation, the social prestige of being a peshmerga fighter is still intact.
“I was stopped by the police for a driving offence a few times. When they see my peshmerga military papers, they immediately let me go,” said a young fighter.
Khaled is keen to pass on what he sees as a sacred mission and has simple advice for his young apprentices.
“Defend our land and people always. Do not stop fighting until your hands are red with the blood of your enemy.”