Keith Broomfield, of Westminster, Massachusetts, was born in 1979 and buried this week. He was 36. Keith was killed in a firefight on June 3rd with the Islamic State organization near the town of Kobani in northern Syria. He had been serving as a volunteer with the Kurdish YPG militia since February.
Keith was a brave man, and a good friend. And his death wasn’t for nothing. The Syrian Kurds, with the help of the U.S. Air Force, are pushing the jihadis back across north east Syria now. Their successes are paving the way for a coordinated assault on the heartland of the Islamic State in Raqqa Province. Keith died helping to make that happen. He would have regarded it as an exchange worth making.
I met Keith Broomfield in Suruc, on the Turkish side of the border, in late February. I was trying to get across to do some reporting in the Kobani enclave. Keith was trying to cross the border too — to join up with the YPG. We were stuck for five days in a Kurdish community center in that border town. The Turkish army had deployed in unusual numbers along the line, making unauthorized crossings temporarily impossible.
The center was filled up with European supporters of the Kurds. I initially assumed that Keith was another of their number. It rapidly became clear that he was not. I listened in silent astonishment as he laconically described an unsuccessful solo attempt to cross the border into Syria a few days earlier.
The area north of Kobani is heavily guarded by the Turkish army and paramilitary police. It is also mined. I had made it across that border myself in the summer of 2014, but only with assistance from Kurdish fighters and smugglers and only with some effort. Keith had tried to cross it alone. Luckily for him, he had been turned back by the army before reaching the frontier. So he had wandered into Suruc instead. I liked him immediately.
Over the following days, with little else to do, we sat around, drinking the strong black tea that the Kurds make in gallons, and talking.
I learned that Keith was a devout Christian, of the Baptist denomination. Also that he’d been in all kinds of trouble as a youth, and had been close to motorcycle gangs, but had straightened himself out. We shared competitive stories of our wild younger days and laughed a lot.
He had come to fight with the Kurds because of what he had seen of what ISIS was doing. The slaughter of prisoners, the enslavement of women, the deaths of children as their families fled the murderous onslaught of the jihadis. All these seemed to him to be wrong. So he had come to help put an end to them. As simple as that.
It was the height of winter, and there was snow in Suruc. One evening, Keith and I and our friend Mizgin Acet, a young Kurdish woman who was volunteering in the town, went down to the refugee camp and spent the evening in the company of one of the refugee families, the Dabans from Kobani. Keith liked being with the kids. The old man, hearing that he was on his way to join the YPG, treated him with great honor. It was a happy time. We were all close. As people are on borders, in tents, in wartime.
After five days, we were still stuck in Suruc, and I was out of time. I had to head back to Gaziantep, then Istanbul, then back to Jerusalem. The weather had brightened up. The sun was shining but it was still cold when we shook hands, said farewell, and wished each other luck.
War is full of these brief, intense friendships. Like a strong current, it throws people together, and allows for rapid recognition. Then it pulls them apart again, equally rapidly.
I was in Baghdad when I heard about his death. In the middle of an intense reporting trip. Killed in a battle outside Kobani, the wires said. I didn’t have time to think about it and put the news to the back of my mind, until I got home to Jerusalem. Where I’m writing this.
We are living through history in the Middle East right now. Great events afoot, borders shifting, movements rising and falling.
Some, or many of the forces that have arisen in the ferment are malignant, savage, as close to pure evil as the human condition can produce. The Islamic State is one of those. I remember the Yezidi refugees in the Newroz camp in northern Syria. In the parched summer of 2014. Their stories of the marauding jihadis, slaughtering all before them. The haunted eyes of the children.
Keith Broomfield travelled all the way from Massachussets to Kobani, with one intention alone. To put a stop to that. By force, if necessary. At the cost of his own life, if necessary.
Islamic State are retreating across northern Syria now. The Kurds have taken Tel Abyad. The jihadis’ claw-hold on the border is broken. The Kurdish media is showing the fighters, beneath the summer sun, moving forward, all the time forward. Good work. But Broomfield from Westminster, Massachusetts, my friend, isn’t here to see it. The last, full measure of devotion. How very high the cost.