A Hello to Arms: A New Generation of Steely-Gazed Anarcho-Communists Head Off to Syria

A Hello to Arms: A New Generation of Steely-Gazed Anarcho-Communists Head Off to Syria (3)
Illustration by Matt Mahurin

Billymark's is the most working-class bar in Chelsea, if not all of Manhattan. On a Thursday afternoon in early March, union guys play darts as both TVs air a CBS report on the early days of Syria's fragile cease-fire. A few minutes after five, Guy, 22, and Hristo, 23, walk in and we grab a booth next to a group of day-drunk FIT students. The minute we sit down, it's clear something is different. The two men are vibrating with excitement.

"You need a punch?" Guy asks me, as he always does at such meetings. He's asking if I need his dime-size tool to pop the SIM card out of my iPhone — to prevent it from being surreptitiously turned into a microphone. He passes it across the table, and we all remove our SIM cards in silence. Then we turn our phones off — can't be too careful.

"So the first thing we should tell you is we bought our tickets," Guy says. As usual for them, though, there's been a hiccup. The bank has put a hold on Hristo's credit card, suspecting fraudulent activity, so technically they have only one ticket. But after a year of planning, the moment is almost here.

In eleven days, Guy and Hristo will leave the comfort of their families' homes in Chelsea and south Brooklyn, respectively, and attempt to smuggle themselves into Syria to join the Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units (YPG). They will become the first reported American anarchists to join the leftist group, which is based in a swath of northern Syria that has been renamed Rojava. Most of the more than 100 American citizens who have made the journey to fight alongside the Kurds — whether with the YPG in Syria or the Peshmerga in Iraq — have been military vets, Christian crusaders, or adventurers looking for thrills and a chance to kill ISIS fighters. They have been surprised to discover that the YPG, the U.S.-supported group that has consistently beaten ISIS on the battlefield, is, at its core, organized around Marxist and feminist principles. As one Army vet named Scott put it in an interview with Agence France-Presse, the YPG is "a bunch of damn reds."

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But for Guy and Hristo, that's the draw. In fact, the redder the better. "They're our anarchist comrades," Hristo will tell me in a later interview. "I feel it's my obligation to go aid them." So as millennials across America #FeelTheBern and pick up The Communist Manifesto for the first time, Guy and Hristo ready themselves for a war zone.

A few days before our Billymark's meet-up, Delmer Berg, the last surviving member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American unit that fought against the fascists in Spain, had died, and the parallels between the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War and their own martial ambitions are not lost on Hristo and Guy. "It's fitting that the last member of the Lincoln Brigade died," says Guy, not quite capturing the sentiment he's going for. "I don't want to let the flame die out."

Guy stands six-two and is built like a wrestler. His blond beard looks more Amish than militant; his thick glasses make his eyes seem unnaturally large. Hristo is smaller and more serious. He's contemplative, where Guy is constitutionally open to the world. They both know that what they're doing is insane. The closest thing they have to an actual plan is a contact in a group called Lions of Rojava, which coordinates logistics for foreign volunteers. The contact told them to fly to Sulaymaniyah, in northern Iraq, and call a cellphone for further instructions once they'd landed. "He's not going to meet us at the airport," says Guy. "That freaked me out at first."

So, yes, they're brave and reckless and ready for the anarchist revolution in Syria, a country they've studied obsessively — including taking months of Kurdish language lessons at the CUNY Graduate Center — yet one that remains a total abstraction. Still, they're young men doing what a certain kind of young man has always done: risk his life for a cause he believes in. They're folk heroes from the Clash song "Spanish Bombs" by way of the Harold and Kumar movies. And as they conspire at Billymark's, their enthusiasm is contagious.

But it's also complicated.

For starters, Hristo's parents and sister don't even know he's going. Only one of Guy's sisters does; he's about to go to Colorado to tell his mom in person. Then there's the delicate matter of legality. What they're doing isn't illegal, exactly, although the law is gray enough that a creative FBI agent and prosecutor could probably find a charge if they wanted to. The State Department has explicitly advised Americans not to fight alongside the YPG, and Guy and Hristo fully expect to be interviewed at the airport by the Department of Homeland Security. Their cover story — if they end up needing one — is that they're freelance journalists, which has the benefit of being partially true: Although they'll probably receive weapons training, neither is a soldier; their role will be to create and disseminate pro-Kurdish news and media. "It's propaganda, but like in the old-school sense," Guy says. Their main project will be a photo blog similar to Humans of New York called Scenes From Rojava, which they hope to launch within weeks of crossing over.

Once they've landed in Iraq, things will only get more complicated. In his email a few days earlier, Hristo's Lions of Rojava contact explained that "the way is open now, if you still want to come." He said Iraqi authorities at the border would "try to guess if you're lying by your body language, so make it credible, calm down, and be sure of yourself. Never mention you are going to Rojava."

A Hello to Arms: A New Generation of Steely-Gazed Anarcho-Communists Head Off to Syria (5)
Dave Foster

The destruction caused by the Syrian Civil War is impossible to catalog fully. The Syrian Center for Policy Research estimates that at least 400,000 people have been killed as a result of the fighting, the vast majority by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime. Twelve million people have been displaced — 8 million within the country and 4 million pushed out of it altogether, mostly to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

What began as a nonviolent uprising by civilians inspired by Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt has become the most intractable conflict in recent history. Part of the complexity lies in the sheer number of actors. There are anti-government rebels within Syria, some of whom are backed by the United States. Some of those anti-Assad groups have formed alliances of convenience with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which the U.S. continues to bomb. Then, of course, there is ISIS, which fights everybody.

In Syria, the Kurds — who have been oppressed, screwed out of their land, and regularly double-crossed for at least the past century — are exploiting the chaos to establish self-rule in their ancestral homeland. That's where the YPG fit in. They emerged from the horror of the war to protect Kurds and others in northern Syria from ISIS and to stake out autonomous territory as part of the larger project of creating a greater Kurdistan — in practice if not as an actual state. Early in the war, the YPG and the Assad regime essentially entered into a détente to avoid opening a new front in an already complicated war, a decision many anti-government rebels find unforgivable. (That uneasy truce was tested in April when minor skirmishes broke out between YPG units and regime forces.)

The YPG also have close ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought for independence from Turkey since 1978 in a conflict that has left 40,000 dead. Despite supporting the YPG, the United States lists the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization, as does the European Union. Further complicating matters, Turkey is a U.S. ally through NATO and is furious at the United States for cooperating with the YPG. Recent photographs showing U.S. soldiers wearing YPG patches on their uniforms particularly enraged the Turkish government.

Zoom out, and you have Sunni Saudi Arabia and Turkey supporting anti-Assad rebels while Shiite Iran and Hezbollah fight to ensure Assad's survival. And, on the global scale, Russia's backing of Assad has led some hawks in the U.S. to blame President Obama for getting outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin. It's a dizzying array of often self-contradictory forces, and sometimes feels designed by a higher power to ensure perpetual conflict.

A street view of an undisclosed area of Rojava. The graffiti reads, “I’m not leaving.”EXPAND
A street view of an undisclosed area of Rojava. The graffiti reads, “I’m not leaving.”

Guy and Hristo could be the beginning of a wave of Americans leftists entering the fray — or little more than a blip in a war that has already destroyed millions of lives. But many Kurds, eager to see their anarcho-communist fever rise to the regional if not the global level, have welcomed the Americans and Westerners who have volunteered. "It's very important to see Americans next to Kurds to reach the goal of the universalism of the Rojava revolution," says Hulya Kartal, a Kurdish human rights activist from Turkey. Kartal argues that the nation-state as a form of government is collapsing, and that Rojava "can be a role model for our future."

As is always the case, however, "motivations are notoriously difficult to infer," says Nathan Patin, whose report "The Other Foreign Fighters" examined the Americans who have joined the YPG. But "I've definitely seen some guys who are fans of the leftist ideology." Not enough of them, according to David Graeber, an author and prominent anarchist thinker who wrote an op-ed in the Guardian in October 2014 wondering why more international leftists haven't volunteered to fight alongside the YPG. Graeber's own father had fought in the Spanish Civil War, which ended with the defeat of the revolution and the installation of Francisco Franco's fascist regime. "I feel it's incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: We cannot let it end the same way again," he wrote.

In March, I interviewed a Lebanese-American filmmaker named Malek Rasamny who had just returned from a trip to Rojava to screen his documentary about Palestinian refugees in the Middle East and indigenous peoples in the United States. He'd spent five days on the ground and noted that much of the lofty idealism seemed real. "It's not rhetoric. The people themselves, on a grassroots level, are filled with an energy to experiment and try new things," he said. "But this is a revolution very much in the process of creating itself. It could exceed its expectations, or it could betray them."

Rasamny went on to warn against romanticizing the YPG. "We can't idealize them," he said. "They might be better than some of the other armed groups, but they're not running a vegan cookie store."

Some people I spoke with for this story explicitly reject the Rojava project. Abdel Salam Dallal is a Syrian from Aleppo who supported the revolution and was forced to flee to Gaziantep, a small town on Turkey's southern border. A former English teacher, he now works as a translator for Western journalists and follows events in Syria closely. (I worked with him on a recent reporting trip.) He supports the Kurds' rights to self-determination, including the freedom to speak their own language, but he can't forgive the Faustian bargain the Syrian Kurds made with the Assad regime. The Kurds have expanded their territory at the expense of other Syrians, says Dallal, and taken advantage of a horrifying war for their own gain.

As for the Western leftists who have gone to Syria to join the YPG, Dallal is extremely critical. "Those leftist/Marxists who join the YPG are similar to the radical Muslims who join Daesh," he says, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

And indeed there are credible reports that the YPG has engaged in war crimes: Amnesty International said in October 2015 that it had found "evidence of alarming abuses, including eyewitness accounts and satellite images, detailing the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages in areas under [Kurdish] control."

Hours after booking their tickets for Iraq, Guy (left) and Hristo wait for their Kurdish language class to begin at CUNY.EXPAND
Hours after booking their tickets for Iraq, Guy (left) and Hristo wait for their Kurdish language class to begin at CUNY.
Tawni Bannister

On the day Guy and Hristo are set to leave New York, we're at the used-camera-lens counter at B&H Photo and Guy is sounding like a man who thinks he's never coming home. "This one comes with a one-year warranty," says the B&H counter man. "Oh," Guy replies. Then, after a pause: "I don't need that." Wherever Guy's going to be for the next twelve months, it won't be midtown Manhattan.

Alana, Hristo's best friend, is with us and doesn't know quite how to process what's happening. "I'm trying not to be too dramatic, but I don't know if they're coming back," she says. "Do I say 'goodbye' or 'see you later'?" She mentions that Guy was really psyched to get a new baseball cap, a '47 Brooklyn Dodgers replica. The Dodgers were Guy's dad's favorite team until they moved out west. They're still the only baseball team Guy cares about. "It's easy to love a team that doesn't exist anymore," he tells me later that day.

Guy can be prone to nostalgia and to a comforting view of history with clear heroes — whether that's Jackie Robinson or Eugene V. Debs railing against capitalist wars. "I am opposed to every war but one; I am for the war with heart and soul, and that is the worldwide war of social revolution," Debs wrote in 1915 in "When I Shall Fight," a passage Guy cites regularly. His easygoing nature masks a rough-and-tumble, white-working-class upbringing spent shuffling between an economically hollowed-out Long Island and a rapidly gentrifying New York City. "It was like Little Rascals, but, you know, people had guns," he says. In East Islip, he saw the poor kids selling drugs to the rich kids — and the poor kids going to jail for it.

From childhood, Guy was taught never to cross a picket line under any circumstances. He was taught that when Scabby the Inflatable Rat was outside a building, it meant they treated the workers poorly. He was taught the lyrics to Phil Ochs songs, and that the Black Panthers and Malcolm X were righteous freedom fighters. He owns his Irish heritage like something from a Tenement Museum tour.

There was never any question in Guy's mind that he was going to do something like this in his lifetime, as long as the opportunity presented itself. For Hristo, it's not that simple. He's the academic, the one who graduated from Hunter College and who has applications out to grad school. (Guy dropped out of his Hell's Kitchen high school, though he later got a GED.) Hristo's family lived in Chicago until he was five and then came out east. His parents are Bulgarian immigrants, both doctors, and he knows they would be horrified if they knew what he was doing. He's upper middle class, and it makes him self-conscious. At least part of his decision to go is to prove to himself that he's a revolutionary and that his bourgeois upbringing didn't make him soft.

A Hello to Arms: A New Generation of Steely-Gazed Anarcho-Communists Head Off to Syria (2)
Cover illustration by David Brinley

But there's also a practical goal for each of them in going to Syria. Guy has wanted to be a war photojournalist since he saw The Killing Fields as a kid, and he hopes this will improve his portfolio. In that respect, he's not unlike every young freelance conflict journalist of the past generation. Hristo, for his part, wants to make a name for himself in the field of human rights. Their voyage to Rojava is like an open-ended internship, if perhaps the most dangerous internship in the world.

Guy has never had a plan B, but in the year they've been planning this there was at least one potential off-ramp for Hristo. At Hunter, he'd taken an internship at Human Rights First for three months. He liked it, but he wanted to be in the field, not an office, so he applied to the Peace Corps. In January of 2014, Guy floated the idea of the two of them going to Rojava and Hristo started doing some initial planning, but in the back of his mind he was waiting to hear back about the Corps. In September, he was rejected. "After that, there was no practical way to get where I want to be," he told me.

Of the two of them, Hristo is the planner. The caretaker. It comes up constantly. "He's such a mom," laughs Alana at B&H as she watches him handle the money he and Guy have pooled together. Hristo is the one who'd hand-written the two Kurdish vocab workbooks they've been studying. He's the one who has been in touch with the Lions of Rojava, and who has a better grasp of encryption and secure communications. And he's the one who bought all the Clif Bars, to save money on food during their flights and layover. "We've got 23 Clif Bars," he says. "It was originally 24, but I got hungry."

After B&H we all go back to Guy's older sister Phoebe's apartment, in Chelsea, where Guy lives in a sectioned-off area of the main room. Phoebe and Guy had stayed up until seven that morning. They were both restless, planning for the trip. "He's never been away for this long," Phoebe tells me in the kitchen as everyone else packs and repacks the bags in the living room. They had made lists together, like: Things We're Not Going to Forget. One of those things had been to FaceTime with their mom the night before. She seemed fine, Phoebe says, although Guy suspected it was only because Phoebe was on the call.

What to take to an anarchist revolution? Guy and Hristo both pack light — sensibly yet somehow goofily, too. Each of them, for example, makes a point of telling me he is bringing a pair of wrinkle-free pants. "I feel like I'm going to test that to the limit," says Hristo. Two pairs of pants each, a few pairs of shorts, a few T-shirts and button-downs. Guy is bringing eight pairs of socks — Phoebe suggested ten — and ten pairs of underwear; Hristo is bringing fewer of both. They're also bringing cameras, lenses, hard drives, and microphones to set up their propaganda shop. Hristo tells me he's bringing two video games he can enjoy even without internet access, though he expects to get some online multiplayer action in. "We'll be able to LAN-party," he says. Everyone in the room is slaphappy, like they're packing for camp or the first year of college.

The atmosphere gets punctured easily, though. Alana worries how Hristo's family is going to react when they learn that she knew he was going and didn't tell them — or somehow stop him. Hristo has no easy answer for her, and it clearly upsets him. Not only is his decision hurting his family, it's hurting his best friend. He tells me later in the day that he had gone on a walk with his dad early that morning, and that over the past few weeks he'd been trying to spend quality time with them. "Saying goodbye to my parents this morning was the hardest part," he tells me.

As we pack up, Guy and Phoebe are getting in their last moments of quality time. She hugs him for a long while. "Be safe," she says. Then she hugs him again. "Have fun," she says. Then: "Oh my god, what a stupid thing to say."

She hugs Hristo, and while they're embracing, Hristo says, "I'll keep him safe."

The two of them hoist their gear — young, crazy, scared, looking every inch the American backpackers heading off to Europe. As we exit the apartment complex, an elderly woman enters the lobby and registers that something is happening. "Have fun, kids!" she yells as we walk to the A train.

We head south on Eighth Avenue, past the Gristedes. The weight of his backpack has finally hit Guy. "This is heavy as shit," he says.

"That's our life now," Hristo replies. As we wait on the platform, Hristo busts out a Clif Bar. Down to 22.

Hristo breaks into his stash while waiting for the A train to the airport.EXPAND
Hristo breaks into his stash while waiting for the A train to the airport.
Tawni Bannister

In the 1930s, Hristo's grandmother's uncle went to Spain to fight in the civil war and was never heard from again. Hristo isn't sure, but his guess is that his great-great-uncle fought with the Dimitrov Battalion, a division of the International Brigades named after a Bulgarian communist. Now it's their turn. "We're acting in a political tradition we believe in," says Guy. "We're much more the XV Brigade than we are Greenpeace."

Ideologically, Guy and Hristo are very close, even if they came to their conclusions by way of different paths. They use several names to describe their belief system, cycling between libertarian communism, libertarian socialism, and, sometimes, simply anarchism. The left can debate the finer points of distinction between those labels, but basically Guy and Hristo believe that the best unit of governance is at the local level — through co-ops and neighborhood councils — and that as political bodies become larger, and power more centralized, they're more likely to oppress the population they claim to represent.

Those ideas dovetail nicely with the dominant ideology in Rojava, which rejects capitalism as inherently exploitative, limits personal property, places governing power at the local level, and insists that at least one co-chair of each local council be a woman.

"Each level of the political stratum has a 50 percent woman quota," says Kartal, the Kurdish human rights activist. "There is a women defense unit called YPJ [that] fights against the barbaric ISIS, [and] by doing so, they are sending a message to the patriarchy: We do not need men to protect us from other men in the battle. And furthermore, in politics, we can make our decisions on how to live as active members in [the] decision-making process."

The emergence of a grand leftist experiment in Syria came along at a perfect time for Guy and Hristo. In 2011 each had thrown himself headlong into Occupy Wall Street; they wound up meeting in a courtroom after both had been arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. As the movement faded, they found themselves directionless. Independently, they did what many young Americans do when they feel lost: They hit the road. Guy made the rounds at the big protests: the RNC, DNC, an anti-NATO protest in Chicago, then down to Texas for a climate change action. Hristo hitchhiked — he says he hit 38 states. Eventually, he'd had enough. "I was sleeping on the side of the road and realized this wasn't going to get me where I wanted to go," he says. "Also, my back hurt."

Much of Guy's political knowledge comes either from his family or from talking to people in activist circles, soaking up scholarship. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, he witnessed firsthand the failures of the state and federal governments. He also saw the ineptitude of large NGOs like the Red Cross, and the successes of anarchist organizing through the work of Occupy Sandy.

Typically, Hristo arrived at his worldview through a more academic approach. He speaks more authoritatively than Guy on the rapidly changing events on the ground in Syria. He's the bookworm, the researcher, the student who wrote his senior thesis on the foreign fighters in Syria battling ISIS.

The end of Occupy was especially destabilizing for Hristo. "After that, activism didn't have much pull," he says. Endless discussion with his fellow students that was "all theoretical" didn't interest him anymore. So when his internship at Human Rights First left him office-bound and the Peace Corps turned him down, he knew what he had to do. "I started learning Kurdish the same day I was rejected," he says. In a letter he intended to leave for his parents, he stressed that his journey wouldn't be as dangerous as it sounded. "I didn't work this hard just to die in Syria," he told me.

Meditations on mortality come up a lot with these two. Guy describes how, after years of money trouble, his father finally caught a break — scoring an apartment in a complex in Chelsea called South Penn — only to die four months later of a heart attack. He says he cried at his dad's funeral and a few other times but other than that keeps it inside. "The Irish are good at death," he says dryly. "Not that I'm thinking about...you know."

Guy lounges at his sister’s apartment just before heading to JFK to fly to Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan.EXPAND
Guy lounges at his sister’s apartment just before heading to JFK to fly to Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Tawni Bannister

When we finally get to JFK, what they're about to do hits Guy like a ton of bricks. "This is so fucking stupid," he says with a nervous laugh. Despite their fears, they get to Sulaymaniyah without issue. "Hey john in a suly hotel might be here for a day or two," Guy texts me in his usual ho-hum way. I ask how the accommodations are. "Hristo says they're 2.5 star and hes being polite. We have wifi and its shoddy but its there and the ppl are nice."

Guy says they called their Lions of Rojava contact from the airport, who told a taxi driver where to take them. He tells me it was nice to get a real night's sleep. "Our spirits are pretty high," he writes. "Kurdistan is really pretty and the cities are like legit as fuck. And the people are nice and when they try to rip us off they're real bad at it so im liking them. Also the exchange rate is crazy I feel like a king."

Hristo is more circumspect. I ask how he's feeling. "lol a ton of stuff, won't feel great till we're actually in rojava," he writes. "The guilt pangs over my family who's obviously very upset are horrible."

That evening, Hristo's anxiety is getting worse. "I'm growing pessimistic over us getting there," he writes. "Still no word from our people. We were sent to a hotel and are still waiting." Even worse for Hristo is his family's shock at what he's done. They are beyond hurt, and they worry that the news will give his grandmother a heart attack. Hristo tells me he's thinking about coming home.

In a further blow to their momentum, regional politics conspire against them. The day they'd landed, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq tightened the border with Syria, and the PYD, the political party in Rojava, declared its territory a federal autonomous zone, angering just about every government in the region. What was supposed to be a quick stopover in Iraq has turned into an open-ended stay. Their visa will run out after thirty days, and I get the feeling Hristo is losing steam.

They spend their days bumming around, making friends at a local teahouse known to be friendly to pro-Kurd foreigners. Their contact gets in touch eventually, and, unsurprisingly, there's been a screw-up. Their taxi had taken them to the wrong hotel three days before. When they finally check in to the right one, they discover about twenty fellow travelers — internationals waiting to cross the border. "It's like a meeting in New York at Occupy," Guy says. "I've never met so many strangers who identify as anarchists."

But even anarchists get homesick. The previous day, while Guy was out with a friend he made through the teahouse, Hristo had an epic Skype call with his mom. "I was convinced I was going to go back home, go to graduate school," he says. Then he and Guy talked and he changed his mind again. He's going to stay and cross over.

Then they stall. They're told they're going to cross. Then they get taken to a safe house. Then they wait. Then four internationals get arrested trying to cross. Then they wait some more. Their visa is running out. Then Hristo gets the worst fever of his life — and receives word that he's been accepted into grad school.

Guy poses for a photo in an undisclosed location in Rojava.EXPAND
Guy poses for a photo in an undisclosed location in Rojava.

On April 11, I get a text message from Hristo. "I'm sitting right in front of the george washington statue at union [square]," he writes. Revolutionaries, everywhere you turn. As I walk up to greet him, he smiles a what-a-fucking-month smile. We don't bother with our SIM cards.

He'd gotten back to the U.S. three days earlier. He was accepted into several schools — political science or international studies — and thought it would be a mistake to defer with no guarantee they'd ever get to Rojava. "I'd be able to live with it if we were there and I had something to show for it," he says. But he was running out of money, not to mention physically ill. "I feel horrible," he says. "Broke. Dispirited." (Hristo doesn't stay down for long, though: When I text him a few weeks later, he's in Bulgaria, volunteering with refugees there.)

Hristo had texted earlier to let me know he was coming back, and when I heard the news I asked Guy if they were still friends. "Yea we're on good terms," Guy wrote. "I got sorta a hardening opinion of academics though. But I think that's just a fleeting anger directed at being left alone even though I'm not. Basically I'll get over any bad feelings, I'm sure."

Just a few days after Hristo returns home, his worst fears are realized: Guy successfully crosses the border. "In YPG academy," he texts me on April 17. "First internet." He asks me not to reveal much of the actual crossing, for reasons of operational security, but notes that once he was on the other side of the Tigris he had to hike a few hours, an effort made more difficult because he had to carry all of Hristo's media equipment.

Guy's handlers took him to a training camp specifically for Westerners, surrounded by beautiful rolling hills. There he adopted the nom de guerre Bakur Debs, combining the Kurmanji word for "north" with the name of his favorite American socialist. He's scheduled to spend two weeks receiving military training, though he still isn't planning on going to the front lines. In class he'll be taught how to use a Kalashnikov and a PKM machine gun. "Everyone here calls it a 'bixie' for some reason," he tells me over an encrypted telephone call. As we speak, he's watching volunteers at the camp burn trash.

Guy's mornings are spent in what's called "ideological training," with a Western-educated Kurd who speaks English and encourages constant questioning and critiquing of his teaching style. The rest of his day is spent learning Kurmanji, and he's supposed to get two hours of internet every night. One evening, when he was talking with his mom, his teacher jumped on the call and said hi to her. When Guy explained who it was, the man corrected him. "I'm not a teacher," he said. "I'm a soldier."

Guy also has guard duty every day, though he says it's more like a dry run for the real thing since the compound is so far from the front lines and behind so many checkpoints. I ask if he's happy he's there. "Oh, hell, yeah," he says. "One hundred percent. Any leftist with a collectivist outlook should be here." He's still going to launch the Scenes From Rojava photo blog. The plan must go on.

Two months after the last survivor of the Lincoln Brigade left this world, the spirit of Delmer Berg lives on in Guy McGowan Steel Steward. The torch has been passed from one comrade to another.

We talk for a few more minutes, then Guy has to get off the phone. Time to call home, or his mom and sister will start to worry.

Listen to writer John Knefel talk about his Village Voice cover story on the Leonard Lopate Show


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