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One on One: Mike Giglio, Middle East Correspondent, Buzzfeed

In November, Buzzfeed correspondent Mike Giglio traveled to Syria’s Kurdish areas, reporting on what life was like for residents and Kurdish fighters as extremists moved into the area.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

At a cafe in Istanbul, he talked about the fast rise of the militant Kurdish militia (PYD), and how desperation is leading the local population to grasp at false narratives.

I went because it was the only relatively safe way to go to Syria. And I was really tired of sitting on the border and covering it. The PYD is professional, they have a good network to bring in journalists and they have a good command structure, so you likely won’t get kidnapped when you go in. They keep good track of the front lines for their battles with ISIS and other groups.

Even though Kurdish Syria is somewhat of a separate issue from the rest of the war, an important story right now is the fight against ISIS and al-Nusra, and what ISIS and al-Nusra are doing in the areas they control. And you can still tell that story in Kurdish Syria. Even before the rebels were fighting ISIS, they were fighting ISIS.

What made me decide to pull the trigger was that in late October, they had won a bunch of battles against ISIS and al-Nusra and cleared them out of some territory that the jihadis had wanted to control. So we were able to go in and we could then tell the story. What is it like when these guys are in control of your town and you don’t want them there? And with the fighters, what’s it like to fight them? If you’re just a regular Kurdish soldier called up from your village because al-Qaida is coming, how do you see these jihadis?

The Kurds had just taken a town called Yarubiya. Yarubiya’s interesting because most of the places where they’d cleared out the jihadis, they could reasonably say, These are Kurdish areas. But Yarubiya, they wanted strategically. It’s 50/50 Kurds and Arabs, maybe. They took it so they could have the border crossing. They really are isolated. They needed that border crossing into Iraq proper. The first day they were allowing people into the town after they’d cleared it of explosives and weapons, we got to go in. We got there as these truckloads of Syrians were coming back to the town for the first time in months with their goats and mattresses on the top of their trucks. We watched them clear out debris from their homes.

The Kurdish police are everywhere; they’re really worried about journalists getting hurt. And they’re very controlling. These two things combined make your trip very security heavy. They brought us to the border post in Yarubiya, the reason they took the town. ISIS and al-Nusra were the two main groups there. They really took that border seriously. They painted their name everywhere. They want the state feel. That is the state for them, the state part in their name and title: they mean it.

Our police escort had to run, so they just left us there for 30 minutes. We ended up in a warehouse, and we found all these signs that they’d spray painted so carefully with Quranic verses and the ISIS/Nusra logo.

Next to the warehouse was a bomb factory where the jihadists had been storing all their explosives. There was gunpowder and the ball bearings that they were jamming into the pipes.

What was unexpected was the level of propaganda and the way that people, when they’re so under threat, buy into it. The YPG didn’t have so much support at the start of this whole thing. The Kurds are still fractured. As soon as ISIS started threatening the Kurds, though, everyone united behind it. You could really see how they felt, This is our army now.

One day, we went for a walk around the neighborhood where we were staying. There was a group of little kids on the street playing with toy guns. I decided to interview the kids. I asked them basic questions like, what do you want to be when you grow up? I was talking to a little girl who had a toy pistol. She said something like, she wanted to be YPG. And I said, You want to be a doctor or YPG? And she said, a doctor and YPG! I asked her why, and who would you fight? And she said, al-Nusra, because they kill innocent people.

There were eight little kids behind her, and I said, aren’t you afraid of al-Nusra? And she said yes. And everyone spoke at the same time, and one kid bopped her on the head, and they all said, No! Because they know they’re not supposed to be afraid. I cut it from the story, because it sounded too melodramatic. But it’s a community thing. Even the little kids know how they’re supposed to feel and what they’re supposed to say.

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