KURDWATCH INTERVIEW : Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali, Commander of the Mishʿal at Tammu Brigade

»I went from water carrier to weapon carrier«

KURDWATCH, March 28, 2013—Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali (b. 1979 in al Qamishli) went to school until the ninth grade. He lived in Saudi Arabia for awhile before returning to al Qamishli seven years ago and opening an art supply store near the Qasimo mosque. Hilali was among the first activists to organize demonstrations in the Kurdish regions. He is the founder and commander of the Mishʿal at Tammu Brigade, which is armed in the struggle against the government.

KurdWatch: Were you politically active before the revolution?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: No. I had friends who were active. My political activities were limited to having once visited the grave of Jigarkhwin and once visited the grave of Muhammad Shaikhu. Friends taught me to read and write in the Kurdish language. I was not politically organized.

KurdWatch: In other words, the revolution politicized you?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: Yes. I began to take part in political functions, and I met young activists. To be honest, I must say that even today, I don’t know all of the Kurdish parties. My political knowledge is superficial. I first became active at the outbreak of the revolution.

KurdWatch: What exactly did you do?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: Like many young people, we began to organize demonstrations. This is how I got to know the activists of the Future Movement. Later we founded a group with the name »Tevgera Roja Azadiyê« [Movement of the Sun of Freedom]. I took part in almost all of the meetings of the various coordinating groups and was present at most of the founding meetings.

KurdWatch: When did you become a member of the Future Movement?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: About five months after the start of the revolution; that was after my first arrest.

KurdWatch: When and why were you arrested?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: During the first year of the revolution, I was arrested three times. At the time, my arrest was reported on al-Jazeera and even on Ronahî‑TV. At that time I was not yet in conflict with the PYD. The reason for my arrest was my support for the revolution. My store was right there where the demonstrations always started. I almost always made electricity and water available to the demonstrators. Even before this I had no love lost for this government, and so I was one of the first who joined the demonstrators against the government in al‑Qamishli. By the way, the PYD later set fire to my store.

KurdWatch: When did you form the Mishʿal‑at‑Tammu‑Brigade?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: We began preparations about a year ago. We didn’t receive any support from the Kurds. In contrast, the Free Syrian Army was willing to support us. In the beginning, there were only two of us. Myself and another young Kurdish activist from al‑Qamishli. We had already joined the Free Syrian Army. I wanted us Kurds to also take part in the revolution. I was truly received with open arms by the Free Syrian Army. They were very proud that I, as a Kurd, would fight with them. At the time I was with a brigade in Hama. I really liked how they accepted me. I didn’t have a Kurdish flag, so they made me one. I then began preparations to form a Kurdish brigade with the name Mishʿal at‑Tammu. Later we announced the formation of the brigade in Tall Abyad. At the time, Tal Abyad was free, and we had the opportunity to work here.

KurdWatch: When was that?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: I can’t remember the exact date. About fifteen days before the first battles for Raʾs al‑ʿAyn [ November 19, 2012]. We were not there for the first battles.

KurdWatch: It was said, however, that you took part in the fighting.
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: We were not there for the attack on government troops. We came several days later. After the Free Syrian Army had captured Raʾs al‑ʿAyn, I contacted our friends in Aleppo and Idlib; we wanted to meet in Raʾs al‑ʿAyn and make the city a base from which we could fight. We hadnt imagined that we would fight against the PYD here. When the first problems with the PYD arose, we were right in the middle. All those who died were caught in an ambush by the PYD. No one intended to fight against the PYD. That day, we approached a PYD roadblock and said that we had freed Raʾs al‑ʿAyn from government units and would not accept that they were building their bases so close to the city. They had built two large bases in the immediate vicinity of the city and between Raʾs al‑ʿAyn and ad‑Darbasiyah. We also said that they did not have a clear stance toward the regime. There were no problems at the first base. There were twelve PYD‑fighters, heavily armed, but at our request, they removed their roadblock. We then drove to the next roadblock. We had hardly left our vehicle when the PYD began shooting at us. Four fighters of the Mishʿal‑at‑Tammu‑Brigade died. Our intentions were not to attack them. If we had planned to do that, we would have done it immediately. The FSA freed all of Raʾs al‑ʿAyn from the regime, yet fewer people died in the process than on that day. We lost seventeen people. Later Ronahî‑TV released several reports about us; most of the footage was taken from the camera of one of the dead. After they killed Hozan, they took his camera.

KurdWatch: How large was your brigade in Raʾs al‑ʿAyn?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: We were about twenty-five. We weren’t there to fight. Some of us even came without weapons and some had stayed home. When the conflicts arose, fifteen of us were present. The conflicts lasted from eight in the morning until eleven in the evening. Then there were negotiations with the PYD, and the PYD began a propaganda war against us via their media outlets. They attacked Hozan’s burial and threatened the family. He was not a fighter. He had worked as a journalist. The PYD’s stance and its close ties to the regime have hurt the Kurds in Syria significantly; many people do not distinguish between the PYD and the Kurds. With the help of our martyrs we could show some people that there are also other Kurds. Not everyone cooperates with the regime. The loss of our friends was a heavy blow to us. I was also injured in the fighting at the roadblock. It came as a great shock to us to lose our people at the hands of countrymen, of Kurds.

KurdWatch: In your opinion, who won the fight for Raʾs al‑ʿAyn?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: Neither side. I was there two days ago. The PYD and the Free Syrian Army have joint roadblocks. We, the Mishʿal at‑Tammu‑Brigade, are the biggest losers. All of the propaganda on television and the Internet against us. According to the propaganda we are terrorists and would set homes on fire, etc. And now the PYD has made peace with these presumed terrorists. Where are the people who criticized us for our cooperation with the Free Syrian Army now? Why is it o. k., if the PYD works together with the FSA? After peace was made with the PYD, we withdrew from Raʾs al‑ʿAyn. The PYD wants to establish a new dictatorship in the Kurdish regions. Only the images of the dictators will be changed. They are making a claim to sole representation of the Kurdish regions. They will tolerate no partners alongside of them. What they have done to the Kurds in the last two years, the regime has not done in the last forty years. They do not even shy away from kidnapping women. They kidnapped a friend of ours, Sherin Ahmad. She worked in the social sector and at the time, we organized demonstrations together in al‑Qamishli. She was only freed after we created a lot of publicity for her.

KurdWatch: Did she have anything to do with the brigade?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: No, absolutely nothing. The regretful thing is that there were hardly any protests against her kidnapping. When the demonstrations in al‑Qamishli were continuing to grow, we had a neighbor who worked with the intelligence service. He shot into the air at demonstrations twice, each time the people ran away. I’m telling this story for the first time; there are also videos. We thought that this couldn’t continue. One single person frightening all of these people so much. So one night two friends and I shot at his house. He never again dared to shoot at demonstrations. It’s the same with the PYD. Because no one is doing anything, they will take more and more liberties.

KurdWatch: The PYD claims that you are an Arab, not a Kurd. Moreover they claim that you killed someone and are a criminal.
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: I do not come from an Arab family. If I am an Arab, then the symbolic Kurdish figure Muhammad Sheikhu is also an Arab. Like him, I am a Mhallami-Kurd. That said, it shouldn’t matter what I am. If we had claimed that we were Arabs, we would have had many advantages. If we weren’t Kurds, I would not have carried the Kurdish flag. As far as the other matter: I actually wanted to issue a statement about that, but instead I will announce my decision via this interview. When this revolution is over, I am prepared to turn myself in to a civil court. My sister and her husband were having problems with one another and the husband’s family asked to have a conversation with me. When I arrived at the meeting place, six men were waiting for me and attacked me with knives and clubs. I defended myself and in the process mortally wounded my brother-in-law’s brother with a knife. I killed a young person, and that was a mistake. I didn’t intend to kill him. I am prepared to turn myself in to an impartial court. At the moment, however, I can neither turn myself in to the PYD nor to the regime. In both cases, the death penalty would await me. If I survive the revolution, I will turn myself in.

KurdWatch: Your family has distanced themselves from you on Ronahî‑TV. Why is that?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: Perhaps they are being threatened. They hardly dare to leave the house.

KurdWatch: It has been claimed that the Mishʿal‑at‑Tammu‑Brigade is the military wing of the Kurdish Future Movement. Is that true?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: When I became a member of the Future Movement, it was not because of the Future Movement. I had seen Mishʿal at‑Tammu, and I liked his ideas and his speeches. At the very beginning, when the demonstrations in our area started, I even carried the PYD flag. I didnt know much about the parties, didn’t make distinctions between them. The Future Movement works politically, and there were statements, by Faris at‑Tammu among others, that they had nothing to do with us. No, we don’t have very close ties. Besides, even if we did have a relationship, the Future Movement would not publicize that. Then they would have problems with the PYD. The PYD would kill them, kidnap them, and so on. The Future Movement knows that. We’re the same young people who organized peaceful demonstrations at the beginning of the revolution. Each week we prepared banners, cleaned the streets, and refreshed demonstrators with water when it was hot. Back then I carried a canister of water on my back with the words »Vitamins of Peace«. I went from water carrier to weapon carrier. There is a revolution and we will fight. We will either go the way of our martyrs or we will win. We will never give up.

KurdWatch: You are said to be receiving a lot of support from Turkey. Is that true?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: No, we are not receiving any support from Turkey. In the last clashes in in Raʾs al‑ʿAyn, we were even without munitions for two days. Each of us had only ten to fifteen cartridges in our machine guns. If we were men of the Turks and had fought against our people, then perhaps we would have received support. But we are not prepared to do that. We want to remain independent. The support that we receive comes from the Free Syrian Army’s Military Council. It is not much. Until now we have only had light weapons. Now we have received a Dushka [heavy machine gun] —but we still do not have a vehicle for it. Neither Turkey nor any other country is supporting us.

KurdWatch: Do you have contacts with the Kurdish Military Council?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: Actually many brigades were supposed to become members of the Kurdish Military Council. But most of the groups only exist on Facebook. So nothing has come of the Kurdish Military Council. It has announced its dissolution into the FSA’s Military Council.

KurdWatch: How large is your brigade?
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: We have fifteen people in Tall Hamis, we have ten fighters in Serê Kaniyê, but they are not active, and here in Tall Abyad we are twenty-five. We have a total of fifty to sixty fighters. Soon we will be active in other areas.

KurdWatch: Many see it as a grave mistake that you marched into Raʾs al‑ʿAyn with Salafists and other terrorist groups, many of which came from Turkey. This is said to have led to the fact that many Kurds have rallied around the PYD.
Usama Sulayman Mansur Hilali: When the various groups marched into Raʾs al‑ʿAyn, we were not there. We came later. Most of the groups did not come from Turkey, but from Tall Abyad. We have nothing in common with the terrorist groups. For example, we do not work with the Jabhat an‑Nusra, which is on the US terrorist list. In principle, we only work with groups that are members of the FSA’s Military Council. We see the regime as terrorist, not the Free Syrian Army’s groups.

March 9, 2013