Nom de guerre: RUSTEM CUDİ
Real Name: GUNTER HELSTEN
Place of birth: 0.11.1960/ALMANYA
Name of the Mother: MELTA
Name of the Father: JUHANNES
Date and place of martyrdom: 23.2.2016 / Şedade
YPG volunteer fighter Guenter Helstein, pseudonym “Rustem Cudi” lost his live in clashes against ISIS gangs on 23rd february 2016 in Shaddadi.
In an Interview he said: “Revolution is not only war and acrying weapons, revolution means to understand life right. To defend this life and the values of humanity, we are ready, for a the victory in this heavy war.”
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 “…to 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 it.
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.