By John Knefel
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.”