The Life & Death of a Revolutionary Hero in Syria
By Lucas Chapman, NAKA Board Member & YPG Veteran
One year ago today, a man who can only be described as a hero lost his life in a Turkish airstrike outside the Syrian city of Manbij. Though an American citizen dying in the Middle East usually draws far more attention and calls for justice, the world remained silent after the death of Michael Israel, nomme de guerre Robîn Agirî.
The young revolutionary spent his early days addressing the rural poverty he saw growing up in the foothills of California. As an activist, his resume is nothing short of impressive. In 2007, the day after his 18th birthday, he began an over 3,000-mile “March for Peace” from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Michael started leftist reading groups with his friends, raised support for striking workers in the sawmill and grocery industries, served as co-chair of the Sacramento Democratic Socialists of America, and worked as a union organizer for county workers. Michael can be seen smiling proudly during his arrest for civilly disobeying a dispersal order during a 2011 protest in Sacramento. He was arrested multiple times for his activism and civil disobedience.
It was no surprise that a lifelong activist eventually ended up alongside the Kurdish-led revolutionaries of Northern Syria. His fellow YPG comrade, Metin Bahar, was immediately drawn to Michael. “He was a real revolutionary who believed in international solidarity and was willing to put his life on the line to defend the people of Rojava and to defend those who were not able to defend themselves.” Even during his early months in YPG, Michael was a strongly principled leader among his fellow soldiers. One day, Michael discovered that a YPG soldier was singing an anti-Semitic song in German. “Michael was righteously furious,” Metin explained. “…Michael convinced me to go to the commander…[the Nazi] was eventually told to leave…Michael taught me a great lesson: as revolutionaries we should never sacrifice our principle[s].”
By his second tour in Rojava, Michael had all the humility and confidence of a true freedom fighter. “When he came back from Rojava after his first stint of active duty he seemed much more at peace with the world than when he left,” his best friend David Roddy recalls. “He said that his time in the YPG showed him the potential of a revolutionary society that directly challenged patriarchy and capitalism in a way Americans like us had only fantasized about.”
Michael was undoubtedly one of the most beloved internationals to have set foot in Syria. His warm smile, revolutionary spirit, and caring personality was immediately apparent to those who knew him for even a short while. Many say that when Michael was around, they felt as if they were in the presence of a great revolutionary. “Speaking to him about Rojava made his eyes light up. He had such enthusiasm about being a part of the revolution,” said former YPG fighter Ozkan Ozdil. “All he wanted was to help people – he would smile as he spoke about things that could be done for the less fortunate.”
On November 24th, 2016, Michael’s tabur (unit) was in the midst of intense clashes with Daesh. The tabur had been ordered to reinforce a group of fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces’ Manbij Military Council, who were holding their own in the recently-liberated village of Erîma. By multiple fighters’ accounts, Michael, armed with only a Russian PK machine gun, had successfully stopped two explosive-laden vehicles from reaching his base. After a hard day’s fight, Michael had retired for the evening, awaiting his next nightly guard shift. Anton Leschek, his German companion, had just ascended onto the dark roof of the building next to Michael’s to start his shift. The night sky above Erîma on the 24th was pitch-black. Between the moonless night and the average Turkish fighter jet’s optimum speed of over 600 miles an hour, it was unlikely any of them could have possibly seen the fate that awaited them. The US-made Turkish F-series jet fighter screeched overhead, dropping its payload squarely onto the roof where Anton stood, killing him instantly. Ryan Lock, the British YPG fighter who would later turn his gun on himself to avoid capture by ISIS, was wounded, escaping death after an Arab comrade dragged him from the rubble. Michael was killed by a separate strike. According to his squad leader, the roof collapsed on him while he stayed behind to ensure his comrades escaped safely. Former YPG volunteer Josh Walker was only a few hundred meters away when Michael was killed, and recalls seeing the remnants of his tabur emerge from the dark night, an hour after the strikes, to deliver the news. “Everyone was absolutely gutted. Everyone really liked him. He was the kind of guy who would, just completely off his own back, come and bring you chai and a snack on [guard duty]. He was very helpful…he was always the voice of reason.” While the bulk of the YPG knew that Turkish attacks were a looming reality, they were still caught off-guard. “It was a shock. No one expected the Turks to have the gall to airstrike us as we were fighting Daesh (ISIS),” explained YPG fighter Heval Andok.
Michael Israel will never again defend freedom and democracy with his PK machine gun, nor will he organize the masses of California to his righteous cause. The most crushing thing about this is that Michael is far from the only bright, young revolutionary murdered by the Turkish state. He is one of many exceedingly brilliant young minds needlessly killed by the genocidal military strategy of the Turkish military. It was for this reason that I chose to use his visage during an action against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The ballroom in which Erdogan was to make his speech was chilly, but my hands trembled and my body and forehead were moist with sweat. Being shot at and mortared had barely fazed me, but right now I was just one completely defenseless man in a sea of extremist drones all buzzing happily for their leader. The Sultan himself finally stepped up to the platform and raucous applause and shouting arose from the entire room. I felt sick with anger as I saw him ascend to the stage. Did he even know how many lives he had destroyed? Did he care?
His minions stood on their chairs cheering loudly. My mouth was bone dry and I crossed my legs and arms to keep from shaking. The noise died down and he began to speak. It was time. I pictured Michael, cool and collected, barely breaking a sweat as he fired hundreds of rounds downrange at the explosive vehicle hurtling towards him and his men. The thought of his grinning face on the back of my shirt incensing a room full of fascists and Islamists was the final push I needed. Here we go, Mike, I thought to myself. I leapt onto my chair and tore off my dress shirt, feeling a thousand feet tall while shouting down the murderous wretch.
A couple days later, I messaged Michael’s parents online, apologizing for not consulting them beforehand and hoping that it was okay that I had used their son’s image in my protest.
“I want [Erdogan] to see Michael’s image everywhere he goes, preferably associated with being inconvenienced, humiliated, [and] shamed…”
Their message brought tears to my eyes. Their son may have left the world that mortal men and women understand, but he was far from dead. It was at this point that I truly came to understand the common Kurdish phrase Şehîd namirin – “Martyrs never die”.
To this day, there has been no investigation into or even comments on the November 24th incident by the United States, Germany, NATO or the UN. A year on, the friends and family of Michael and countless other martyrs continue to struggle with the lack of both information and accountability. Turkey continues to bomb the Rojava – Northern Syria area indiscriminately and without any consequence. On April 15th of this year, 20 YPG-YPJ fighters were martyred during an attack on the YPG General Command Headquarters in Qereçox – a peaceful region of Syria that has never been subjected to any sort of ISIS presence whatsoever. Out of all this comes one vitally important question: How many more extraordinarily young lives, so full of potential, have to be snuffed out before the Turkish state is held accountable for their murders?
Thank you to Michael’s parents for bringing such a beautiful and beloved human into the world and for continuing to keep his legacy alive. Special thanks also to David Roddy, Josh Walker, Ozkan Ozdil, Heval Andok, Metin Bahar, and to all of the other people who knew Michael and helped make this article possible. I hope I did some justice to his legacy. Rest in Power, Michael.