Remembering Heval Rustem


On the 22rd February, my dear friend, Rustem Cudi from Germany, was
martyred in combat. We spent the last three months of his life together.
In these immediate moments of his passing, it is hard to know how to feel
without recycling the clichés and pastiches that abound such realities of
warfare. But the truth is, in the war-zone you meet incredible people,
people like Rustem: full of warmth, kindness, bravery and countless other
benevolent attributes; and seemingly by chance or with little reason they
are taken from you. But it would be mistake to assume he died without
reason. For Rustem, better than many, understood why he took such risks.

Rustem was a truly remarkable man. He radiated warmth and sincerity,
impressing these qualities on everyone who crossed his path. He took an
interest in people, regardless of who they were, and instantaneously
strangers would become friends upon first meeting. Towards the end of
January we arrived in Kobane city to stay. We settled down that first
evening in a room of the YPG house, sharing with a lone aged heval. Even
though Rustem's Kurmanji was limitedly basic, he managed to delight this
heval and light up his face as they spent the evening sharing cigarettes
and exploring their way through a stunted  conversation about mutual
friends and previous operations. Rustem had many friends in Rojava and his
absence will be felt by many.

Rustem had been a soldier all of his life. He spent eighteen years in the
German army, ten years in French Foreign Legion, serving in Kosovo, and
six years working as a private security contractor across the world,
including Africa and South America. During the time between his service in
the Foreign Legion and contracting, he had an epiphany; he came to the
realisation that though he knew how to fight, for many years he did not
really know why he was fighting. The revolution in Rojava became a perfect
fit for Rustem; it gave him deep meaning and reason to support his expert
life-long trade. He embraced the revolution whole-heartedly, reading the
writings of the thinkers, getting to know the people on both a
professional and personal level and spending many hours having long and
deep conversations and debates about Rojava.  Though a life-long
professional soldier, Rustem's way of understanding the world and his
daily interactions far surpassed that grounding. He possessed the
wisdom-rich knowledge and gentle assurance of a seasoned revolutionary.
For him, the difference between the revolutionary fighters of Rojava, and
the professional soldiers of western militaries is that the later “do not
know why they pull the trigger.” “It is easy to pull the trigger...” he
would say “...but to know why you do this is the most important.” Rustem
was happy to live the life of a Kurdish guerrilla, fully aware he was
serving their cause, but also kept his own critical and
experience-enriched perspective on things. He was proud that he understood
the writings of Serok Apo, telling me that if someone did something wrong,
he was prepared to criticise them, no matter of their importance, and he
would “...use the words of Serok Apo to do so.” He was thoroughly
committed to the revolution, seeing it as the most important war he had
fought, and he had many plans and ideas for the future. He would say to
me, “the military fight is a small part of what is going on here. It is an
important part, but a small part. What is more important is what comes
after, and the society that is built.” Though he spent the majority of his
time involved in the war effort, on a philosophical level it was not his
priority. Rustem once told me that the social and civilian work that is
badly needed in Rojava is “the most important work.”

Though he had the staunch demeanour of a weathered and grisly soldier,
behind this lay a thoroughly caring and compassionate nature. He cared
about the people he lived with, wanting both the best for them and them to
do their best. He went out of his way on countless occasions not just to
talk and council people with problems, but find practical solutions or
speak on their behalf to resolve issues. He believed that criticism was a
positive thing, “all the time you must criticise” he would say, “this is
how people learn.” At times he would work himself up into a state of near
frustration at the irresponsible behaviour of some. A feeling that came
deep from the heart, as he spent many hours consumed in pensive thought
about the concerns and problems of others.
	Rustem took responsibility for the young or new who were with him. For
him, the background of a person was not important, neither the matter of
whether they were an experienced fighter or not. What was important for
Rustem was a person's sincerity, if they had a plan in life and knew what
they wanted. And when he was your friend, he would look out for you. I
can still hear his cautious voice in my mind, coming across a crackly
radio from an evening some time ago when there was intelligence of a
particular enemy threat: “Be careful tonight”  he warned, repeating “Be
careful.” Once he told me a story of a particular hevala who came to him
before an operation concerned of a feeling that she would be şehîd.
“I told her...” he said “ be careful. For if she died for a stupid
reason, I would kick her arse!” He joked. The hevala was later injured,
but did not die. He would always stress for people to be careful, and
sensible and that, in his words, there was no need “to be a hero, to die
for stupid reasons.” A perfect representation of his kindness would be
when ever he came across a dog. In those moments, nothing else in the
world existed, as he would break away from conversation or human company
to experience pure joy playing with the animal. His serious and staunch
manner would evaporate into an excited melee of enthusiastic and excited
noises as he cuddled and made friends with the dog. He would joke “if
anyone hurts an animal and I know they have done it, I will hurt them!”
Really a man who saw his role in life as a protector of those who needed

Rustem joined the revolution over eleventh months ago. The day after he
made the decision to come to Rojava, he booked a ticket and flew to Turkey
on his own. With the guidance of some locals he crossed the militarised
border with Syria alone, crawling under the fence one afternoon and then
carefully and methodically across a minefield. Soon he saw two hevals
waving at him from the relative safety of Rojava.  Initially he assumed
they were a welcoming party but quickly realised they were alerting him to
two Turkish patrol vehicles approaching him from the rear. At that moment
he decided to run the last distance of the minefield. He commented to me
that “either I ran and risked hitting a mine or I got shot by the Turkish
army, but these are the choices of a soldier.”
	After making his way into Rojava, he was taken to Kobane city and warmly
welcomed, many of the locals amazed and inspired to meet the lone
European who crossed the border on his own to help the people. He spent
approximately two months in Kobane, working on projects within the
Ministry of Defence and making solid friendships with many people; from
those important in the administration to ordinary people in the street
going about their lives, working and supporting a family. Kobane held a
special place in Rustem's heart. He had spent a life travelling the world
and experiencing many diverse and exotic cultures, but he had a special
love for the people in Kobane, finding them uniquely open and welcoming.
Often, when hevals would ask him where he was from, with a bright smile
on his face he would answer 'Kobane.'

After leaving Kobane, Rustem served in two mobile fighting taburs, before
joining his third and last. Firstly Tabur Shehid Rustem, and secondly
Tabur Shehid Harun. He had a deep love for the hevals he lived
day-in-day-out with, and thoroughly enjoyed the simple, socially-intense
life of a YPG fighter. I held it in deep respect that this highly
experienced soldier who was repeatedly offered positions of authority and
importance inside Rojava, would prefer to stay with men and women half his
age, if not younger, moving from abandoned building to abandoned building,
helping them break up fire wood or make chai on an open fire. And he did
it not because he loved the adrenalin rush of combat, (commenting to me
that he “...felt nerves before every fight, like any sensible person
should”), but because he loved the people he fought with and felt at home
with them. And his hevals reciprocated this love.
	Because of his age and experience he held a special position in the
tabur. He played the role of a benevolent father or experienced teacher:
always prepared to offer help and guidance when it was needed, or deliver
criticism when it was deserved. I can still hear the shouts of the hevals
from around the campfire: “Heval Rustem! Heval Rustem!” they would cry,
as they competed for his attention, a humorous sigh or mockingly stern
look was all that was needed on Rustem's part to make the guys descend
into fits of laughter. He rated them as fighters, saying they were some
of the bravest he had ever known, that “they fight like lions but...”, as
Rustem was never shy from speaking in a frank and straight manner his
honest opinions, “...they have no discipline. But they can learn.” He
would say “I only make small, personal criticism”: when a heval wouldn't
get up on time for nöbet, would take two energy drinks instead of one or
use his gun-oil without asking, “but really, these are great people.” I
remember one particular comical camp-fire exchange when one person asked
Rustem to individually rate the discipline of each heval present:
'little', 'small', 'none' he responded in basic Kurdish, until a
particularly wild and mischievous heval was named. Rustem gave up in
exasperation, muttering “Oh la la” and rolling his eyeballs as the group
broke into deep guffaws.

Though he has gone, he is still with us and always will be. Those whose
path Rustem crossed will never forget his warmth and integrity. And for
those that never had that pleasure, this is why we hang portraits of
Şehîden in our streets and in our homes. They have gone to some other
place now, but these images act as a constant reminder, keeping their
presence forever in our lives. As we share stories and photographs of
heroes like Rustem, we keep the essence of their spirit with us; ensuring
that they are still here, that they are never forgotten and that they are
still part of the struggle. Our memory keeps them alive, today and in
history. Long live Şehîd Rustem.