The Hustle

"I Spent a Month in Syria and Iraq. Here's What I Saw."

It's easy to dismiss the statistics you see on the news as meaningless numbers. 100 dead from a suicide bomber, 120 murdered in Paris, 43 dead in Beruit. But every once in a while you see something that completely humanizes...


November 19, 2015

It’s easy to dismiss the statistics you see on the news as meaningless numbers. 100 dead from a suicide bomber, 120 murdered in Paris, 43 dead in Beruit. But every once in a while you see something that completely humanizes the numbers and makes you feel as if you know the people being affected.

This is the case with Dwight Crow. The former Facebook product manager recently quit his job so he could document the conflict in the Middle East. He said his life changed when he was climbing Mount Everest in Nepal when an avalanche hit. Afterwards he stayed to help rebuild Nepal.

“I watched a lot of people who had lost everything,” he said. “I looked for ways I could help people by telling stories.” He realized that no one really understood what was going on in Syria, and said that – as an American – he felt obliged to understand the lives that foreign policy has shaped.

This is his story.


I recently spent a month in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria to understand the conflict.

Words are shit for conveying the pain here. These people have lost their homes and families. Their women are kidnapped by ISIS and raped. Displaced people fill the abandoned buildings, living with little hope and dwindling savings. Jobs do not exist. Only the rich can leave.

The area is increasingly run by non-government forces. ISIS runs on extortion, spoils, and oil sold illegally within Turkey. They fight with American weapons captured from the Iraqi army.

The Kurdish militia (Peshmerga) work for a near bankrupt government with EU munitions, American airstrikes, and captured American arms. Unemployment is rampant and young men often fight as the only way to get a paycheck.

Cruelty is everywhere here. A Baghdad man told me how Shia militia murdered his wife and kidnapped his four-year-old son. The child had been tortured with a power drill and couldn’t walk when he returned. I saw the child and drill marks.

Syria feels empty and destroyed. City sections are leveled. People live in the rubble.

Observation is nothing. I am grateful to all those on the ground trying to fix this, and I hope we find the resolve to do more. These people are in a hard place.

Here are my photos:

These are the refugees. I’d let them move to America.Credit: Dwight Crow
Credit: Dwight Crow

This is a photo of a woman from The Women’s Protection Units, an all women Kurdish Military unit, also known as YPJ. They give their lives to fight for gender and ethnic equality. Most are frighteningly young.

Jamil Chatto Khero, 50Credit: Dwight Crow

This is Jamil Chatto Khero. He’s 50 years-old and from Hazar. He left to find a safe place for his family, but ISIS came and he couldn’t go home. Every person on the paper is a relative who has been killed by ISIS. Jamil borrowed $18,000 to ransom three daughters and is now penniless. He lives in an abandoned building near Dohuk in western Iraqi Kurdistan.

Credit: Dwight Crow

This woman and her family were taken by ISIS. They were told they had nothing to fear and were taken to an office building for processing. Most of her relatives were forced to work, but some were killed. Relatives eventually paid a man in Turkey to arrange her rescue – it cost $3100. The woman organized the rescue with a cell phone she hid on her person. She used it to call her family every few weeks.

Credit: Dwight Crow

I was impressed with the Kurdish Peshmerga. They fight, often unpaid, with probably the best discipline in the region and weapons largely self-supplied.

The Iraq army broke when a thousand ISIS fighters attacked Mosul, but the Peshmerga held when thousands of ISIS fighters attacked Kirkuk. There were an estimated 800 ISIS casualties in their recent offensive.

Kurdistan is a place of honest people and general tolerance. The Kurds are doing their best to build themselves a home, and I wish them the best at it. They are good people.

Hani Ismail Halil, 65Credit: Dwight Crow

Hani Ismail Halil, 65. He lived in a Christian village outside Mosul with the other men in the background. They fled when ISIS came and have been in the UN camp since August 2014.

Hassam Salman RashidCredit: Dwight Crow

This is Hassam Salman Rashid. He lived in Baghdad until the Badr militia bombed his house in 2007. His wife was killed. He fled to Syria for two years, then returned to Baghdad in 2009. Badr then kidnapped his son and tortured the four-year-old with a drill. The child is bedridden and to my right of the picture frame – I saw what looked like drill marks on the leg, back, and skull.The paper being held is a UNHCR refugee application – Hassam has been on a waiting list for years, trying to escape Iraq.”People have no guilt anymore, they just kill now.”

Faris Mahmoud Elays, 54Credit: Dwight Crow

This is Faris Mahmoud Elays, 54-years-old. He was a captain in the Iraqi army when it fell. He fled the front lines but did not leave the city. ISIS forces came to his home and captured two of his sons. He heard his sons were executed. His family now lives in the Baharka IDP camp outside Erbil.

“I am finished. I have no future. My son should be in high school now, but he is in a camp. What will be his future?”

Faris Mahmoud Elays, 54Credit: Dwight Crow
Credit: Dwight Crow

It was hard to capture how destroyed Syria is. I have never seen anything like it. It’s like the worst suicide attack I saw in Afghanistan multiplied by a country. And people cannot get out.

Credit: Dwight Crow

This guy runs a store in the Baharka IDP camp. Refugees in Kurdistan do not have residency, so they cannot legally work. Most NGO’s help by giving people grants to set up stores or small businesses in the camps, but they seem to be having trouble – their only potential customers are people who fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

Saddam Fathim Mohammad, 41Credit: Dwight Crow

Another store owner, Saddam Fathim Mohammad, 41. He was in  Unit 6, Brigade 2. He explained that when Mosul fell his officer fled first and lead them to Kurdistan lines. The Peshmerga disarmed his unit. His brother was a guard for the gas office and was killed when he tried to stay in Mosul. He now owns a small shop in an IDP camp, but admits he doesn’t sell much.

Credit: Dwight Crow

An artist in Syria. We stayed at his house two nights. Tremendous guy. I’m going to wire him money to buy one of his paintings when I’m done traveling.

Found these guys living in what I assumed was an abandoned house.Credit: Dwight Crow
At the end of the day, even the elite YPJ sometimes laugh.Credit: Dwight Crow
A wedding in Kobane. Life goes on.Credit: Dwight Crow
Escort to mass grave south of Hasakah.Credit: Dwight Crow
Credit: Dwight Crow

Entire towns are abandoned when they are between conflicting forces, which in Syria is quite often. About a third of the population has had to flee their homes. That’s the population of six Rhode Islands.

Syrian Starbucks.Credit: Dwight Crow
Shepherds at a market.Credit: Dwight Crow
Credit: Dwight Crow

Cities in Rojava are mostly stabilized by the YPG & YPJ. You may notice the small portraits. Each is different, each is the face of a soldier who has died defending this land.

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