On the day that Mosul fell to ISIS, Botan Sharbarzheri decided he was willing to die.
The 24-year-old university student smiled as he left his parents’ home in Slemani, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan, bought cigarettes, made a few phone calls. He and many of his friends were on summer break, so he had no trouble raising a group of like-minded young men, would-be warriors, eager and untested. Together, in a haze of smoke and text messages, they sketched out a plan. Questions arose and were quickly settled. Everything seemed clear, righteous. All agreed they would die for their homeland—not for Iraq but for Kurdistan. They would die to protect their families against a brutal enemy, just as their fathers had once done against Saddam Hussein’s army. All they needed was a battlefield on which to prove themselves, a direction in which to charge.
Before the Islamic State (ISIS) tore into Iraq, Sharbarzheri had been restless, slouching toward an engineering degree. He stayed up too late. Never studied enough. Yawned at equations and statistics. Music was his love, and the oud, a relative of the guitar with a slender neck and a deep, round belly, his instrument. Some days he practiced the classical Middle Eastern scales, the maqams, for seven, ten, fourteen hours, his hand leaving the instrument only long enough to light another cigarette or lift a glass of tea.