Kurdish Peshmerga are being trained in Germany, honing their weapons and tactical skills. The battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq is a matter of life and death. Wolfgang Dick reports from Hammelburg.
Mines have become the greatest challenge in the bloody conflict against "Islamic State" (IS) militants. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), typically used as roadside bombs, are radio controlled bombs with enough explosive power to turn even tanks into rubble.
Meanwhile, in the grasslands of the Bundeswehr's large army training center in the Bavarian town of Hammelburg, ten Peshmerga fighters and their German instructors carefully traverse mud tracks. The Peshmerga group is supposed to learn how to "see" things. Their objective is to find hidden explosives, which are, of course, inert for military training. Radio bomb antennas are often hidden in blades of grass or bushes. Stones piled up in an inconspicuous manner mark targets for passing vehicles to be blown up. Everything seems to be inconspicuous here.
It is the last of four training sessions in two weeks. First, there was target practice with the anti-tank guided missile known as Milan, then the warriors learned about medical services in battle and then about maintenance of vehicles and small arms. After that, it was time to identify and eliminate weapons. Suddenly, the instructor stopped the camouflage-clad Peshmerga and pointed out a deceptive track. The grass in one spot of the meadow was darker than the surroundings because of the increased humidity between the grass and the container for an explosive charge of some 20 kilos of TNT. The Peshmerga eagerly pick up valuable tips like that. The Kurdish translator has a lot of work to do.
Help for 1,000 fighters
The Peshmerga are trained by experienced German soldiers who have worked in military missions abroad. They do not teach absolute beginners: they only work with soldiers chosen by Peshmerga leaders and sent to Germany. Main criteria: the Peshmerga must be able to pass on their new skills so others can easily understand.
"It is a snowball system of self-help so that we can achieve the maximum effect in Iraqi Kurdistan with the few soldiers we have here," says Colonel Hans Sahm from the army training center in Hammelburg. A total of 30 Peshmerga make up the group that has just completed training this weekend. The first team to be trained in Germany in October 2014 was roughly the same size.
Even late in the evening when the exercises have long been completed, Colonel Sahm meets the Peshmerga in their accommodations, where they are still studying their notes. For these people who have gone all the way to Germany, this is not just some theory; this is about their lives and their homeland.
"They come from a war and are going back there," says Colonel Sahm. He sees the Peshmeraga as disciplined, focused and pragmatic - they are neither wrongly motived angels of vengeance nor mindless daredevils.
The Peshmerga actually help the Bundeswehr contain training costs for anti-tank weapons because aiming missiles with the Milan type of equipment takes getting used to. The weapon's first gun sight must be held over the target. A second gun sight has to track a moving target in order to properly control the missile. This requires a great deal of practice. However, one single warhead costs around 8,000 euros. So the fighters first practice with training equipment without real missiles and then ultimately spend 36 shots of valuable ammunition.
Guard the weapons with your life
Colonel Sahm gives the Peshmerga a great deal of credit for what he calls a "strong sense of community and a special spirit of solidarity among them." Even in the context of their history and culture, Sahm believes the training has been successful.
Sahm is open with the press but otherwise he is happy to remain discreetly in the background. He is not a man of many words. For security reasons, Sahm is cautious about providing details on the training. The same goes for the head of the Peshmerga. He does not tell anyone his name and only introduces himself with his rank of captain. The Peshmarga have a strong fear of persecution or acts of revenge on their families. Even in Germany, the trainees do not really feel safe so they often change exercise grounds and accommodation.
Rising German concern that weapons delivered to the Peshmerga could fall into the wrong hands are vigorously opposed by a Peshmerga colonel. He says, "We will do all we can and even sacrifice our lives because it's the only way we are able to fight against IS."
They are very grateful to Germany for this form of assistance. The captain says the training was characterized by a great deal of respect and mutual trust. When asked what part of the training was particularly helpful, he declined to answer. His statement said it all: "We have learned a lot. "