Maj. Gen. Abdulla Musla Boor is the sector commander of Kurdish Peshmerga forces around Tuz Khormato, about 50 kilometers south of the city of Kirkuk. He and his men are battling the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its fighters.
The 64-year-old has been a soldier for a long time. He first tried to join the Peshmerga in 1967 at the age of 17. Twice they told him he was too young. He tried again in 1968—this time with success.
Since then he’s fought in nearly every Kurdish war, from insurrections against Baghdad to internal civil wars between Kurdish political groups. In Kurdistan they call him the “Dark Lion.”
“I joined the Peshmerga because I felt that every country was against us,” Abdulla says. “When I joined, I didn’t do it for the money, just to save my land.”
A cadre of old soldiers joins the short, stocky general during our evening together. Many of the old fighters came out of retirement in order to fight alongside the old veteran. Abdulla says one is a lawyer. None of the officers in the room is younger than 40.
They’re from all over Kurdistan, but all of them have served with Abdulla in the past.
Forty-five-year-old Sherda once was a colonel under Abdulla.
“I first met Abdulla in 1991 [during the Kurdish uprising] when I joined the Peshmerga and went to military college,” Sherda recalls.
Sherda has spent the last few years living in England. He says he owned a fast food restaurant in London before moving to Bournemouth in southern England to work as a taxi driver. He says the conflict between Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki’s government and the Kurds drew him back.
But now—because he’s been gone—his official rank is lieutenant.
“Before this, I last fired a gun in 1997,” Sherda says. “I’m happy to fight and die for my land. We are fighting for Kurdistan.”
But official rank matters little. Younger Peshmerga, even those of higher rank, often defer to the old veterans. Sherda says many soldiers address him by his old rank because of his experience.
Abdulla is learning how to fight the Islamic State. “ISIS try to make us use up all of our ammunition before rushing us,” the Dark Lion explains. The militants seem to be exploiting Kurdish supply shortages.
“The majority of the weapons we have are all from the Iran-Iraq War,” the general says. “One of our tanks broke after firing three shells.”
But he says the Kurds are adapting to the militants’ tactics. “They try to draw us out and encircle us, but we have now countered that. We know how they fight.”
The old soldier says he doesn’t scare easily. As he tells it, he’s a very hard man to kill. “I have been wounded 40 times. A friend asked how do I not die?”
He says he will recount one of his many brushes with death. The officers in the room argue with him over which story he should tell. He decides on a skirmish near the Iran-Iraq border 30 years ago.
“It was 1984, the 20th of August at 22:05,” Abdulla says. “We were with four other Peshmerga, I was second in the patrol. We were near Rowanduz. The Iraqi army ambushed us. The soldiers were jash [“baby donkey,” slang for Kurdish collaborators fighting for the Iraqis].”
They were silent. I had a Kalashnikov in my hands.
When they started shooting, a bullet hit me in the chest and my right arm became useless. I told myself that I only needed one arm and started to fire back! They were 20 meters away and above us.
The grass was very dry because it was summer. It caught fire and scared the enemy and all the shouting went quiet.
Our leader was behind us and I say we must go back. He was hit in the leg and someone told me to carry him. I felt drunk. I saw black and red. All of this had taken just 10 minutes.
We got to a river and someone sent for a donkey. I wanted to go to sleep, but I wouldn’t without my friends as we were still missing Rashid, who had been the first man in the patrol. I said it was wrong to leave people behind.
I asked for some water and told them to wash out a pair of shoes to carry it in. I was still bleeding.
When I got to Gerowa [Abdulla’s home village], there was no doctor, just a nurse. He sewed up my wound and then my mother came to see me and started to cry. I told her to stop or she should leave. I believed I would be okay!
My father came and said last rites to me, but I refused to say them as well. Because I was not scared.
Abdulla lived to fight another day.
Now he oversees 45 kilometers of the front line with Islamic State.
“In some places the distance between us is seven kilometers, in others just 200 meters. Before the 8th of August we had a standoff, but then ISIS attacked and now we shoot on sight.”
He says snipers play a huge role on both sides.
In a recent battle, the Dark Lion’s forces killed 30 militants, including an infamous jihadist known as Saddam Farthil Turkey.
But the general says militants have seized a lot of ground. “This is a bad thing for humanity,” he warns.
He says that when French and American journalists visit, he always tells them to ask their governments to help the Kurds. “We can fight, we just need the weapons,” Abdulla says.
That help finally is starting to arrive.
“Yesterday we had two trucks of ammunition arrive. Everything from rifle ammunition to artillery shells. We also received some 81-millimeter mortars.”
He says he thinks the mortars came from the Americans, but with the influx of arms from the West, it’s hard to know for sure. “We have been told more will come,” he says.
He stresses that the Peshmerga aren’t the only ones in need of assistance.
“More support should go to the Sunni tribes who are against ISIS,” the general says.
“We make no difference between Shia or Sunni, Arab, Turkman or Kurd. We protect all of them,” Sherda chimes in.
Indeed, thousands of refugees of all ethnicities and faiths have sought the Kurds’ protection, including Sunnis fleeing the Islamic State’s harsh rule. Trying to protect them—while also trying to regain ground—has proved a challenge.
The Dark Lion has survived decades of war. He says he hopes he can pass his experience on to younger Peshmerga.
“If someone joins the Peshmerga, they love the land,” Abdulla says. “The young have much to lean, but now they join with the old. I meet with the new generation of Peshmerga every night.”
But passing the torch doesn’t mean the old soldier is ready to rest.
“I am not going to retire,” he says. The Dark Lion insists he will continue being a Peshmerga until the day he dies.