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(en) TRAVELS IN ROJAVA (PART 1): CIZÎRÊ CANTON (Anarchism & Activism, Kurdistan, Syria)
Tue, 9 Feb 2016 15:56:22 +0200
Walking to a commune meeting in Amûdê with friends ---- “We’re solidarity activists,” we
say to a man who greets us as we cross the border into Rojava. ---- “You’ve come too
late!” he replies. ---- Nevertheless, he smiles widely, welcomes us and shakes our hands.
In a way, I agree with him. We have come too late. We are only visiting Rojava when there
has been a revolution; only after the people have successfully formed their own autonomous
region. Where were we when the Kurdish population of Syria were fighting for their rights,
for their own self-determination, under Assad? ---- As we drive from the border, I’m
surprised to see small oil rigs everywhere on the landscape, some functioning, some not.
But why am I surprised when I’m in the oil rich Middle East?
An oil rig in Rojava, on the road from the border
A view of Amûdê. In the distance (on the right of the photo), the city of Mardin, over the
border in Turkey, sits on the mountain
Rojava, which means ‘west’ in Kurdish, is a region in the north of Syria. Rojava bases its
politics and principles on a system of collectivism and grassroots organising, known as
democratic confederalism, heavily influenced by the writings of imprisoned PKK leader
Abdullah Öcalan, who in turn has been influenced by anarchist principles and the writings
of Murray Bookchin.
The Rojava Revolution began in July 2012 when the People’s Protection Units (the YPG and
YPJ) took control of the predominantly Kurdish towns from the Assad regime, starting with
Kobanê. In January 2014, the constitution of Rojava – and the declaration of the autonomy
of the three cantons of Cizîrê, Kobanê and Afrin – was announced. In 2014, Kobanê was
attacked and beseiged by ISIS, but I’ll talk more about that in my next blog post.
Although the majority of Rojava’s population is Kurdish, there is a large Arabic
population, especially in Cizîrê canton, as well as numbers of Syriacs, Turkmens,
Armenians and Circassians. The autonomous region of Rojava is multi-ethnic, multi-religion
and multi-lingual, and everyone now has the right to be taught in their own language, and
a new curriculum is in the process of being implemented. (But as one anarchist comrade
critically points out, it’s hardly a radical step to be switching one compulsory
curriculum under Assad for another compulsory one). We speak to members of the Education
Body of the legislative council, who tell us that “we are against discrimination. We
accept the rights of everyone to live in peace.”
There are strong movements for the equality for women, as well as for youths. “Youths take
part in society and improve things themselves,” says Bedran Gia Kurd of TEV-DEM (the
political coalition governing Rojava). I’ll talk more about the women and youth movements
in my next blog post.
a beautiful church in Amûdê
My travel companion Martin!
On the streets of Amûdê
Chris with our lovely translator
An aim of the Rojava administration is to ensure that everyone is involved in the politics
of the region, and to give all citizens a say in how their neighourhood is run. We are
lucky enough to visit a ‘People’s House’ in the town of Amûdê, where locals meet weekly to
discuss and make decisions. We’re told that the functions of this commune are to:
* resolve conflicts within the neighbourhood
* teach Kurdish to Kurds who never had the opportunity to learn
* support people by distributing clothing and food
* make economic decisions
* organise an armed defence unit, and to train people to protect themselves.
Locals from 400 households participate in this particular commune. In Rojava, decision
making happens on four levels, in an attempt to enable all citizens to participate. These
four levels are:
1st level: The commune (as described above), which can include a whole village or up to
about 400 households.
2nd level: The neighbourhood council, consisting of representatives from the communes.
3rd level: The district council, which includes the whole city and its surroundings, and
where boards from the second level represent at the district level.
4th level: the People’s Council, made up of all district councils.
This method of organising started taking place before the Rojava Revolution of 2012. Back
in 2011, the structure of councils and assemblies was set up in Rojava and in
neighbourhoods in Aleppo. These movements in Rojava were directly influenced by Kurds over
the Turkey border, who, despite being oppressed by the state of Turkey, had been setting
up council systems of democratic autonomy since 2007.
Whilst in Rojava, we meet members of the legislative and executive councils, or
government, so to speak. But Rojava is supposedly democratic, and decisions should come
from the very base, grassroots levels of the communes. So where does this government fit
in? My travel companion Chris says:
“Since 2014, legislative and executive councils have been added to the system in Rojava.
In the theory of democratic confederalism, these government bodies should only carry out
administrative tasks on behalf of the councils. It remains to be seen who will really have
the power – the government or the people.”
We’re told that this graffiti says “don’t migrate from Kobane!”
Whilst in Cizîrê canton, we also attend a neighbourhood meeting in Amûdê, where a man
gives a speech (in Kurdish, which is translated into Arabic) to members of the community
about anti-capitalism, slavery and imperialism. He says:
“The ruling class enforce decisions on others. The democratic self administration of
Rojava is different: decisions are made by people and for people.”
But mostly he speaks about the role of women in society. It’s amusing, but very refreshing
to see a man lecturing both women and men of the community about feminism!
In a neighbourhood meeting about anti-capitalism and feminism
The man on the left lectures in Kurdish about feminism and anti-capitalism, whilst the
older man translates into Arabic
At the People’s House, a student stands with his certificate for learning Kurdish. His
teacher (our translator) stands next to him
Currently the Rojava region has its own police force called the Asayîs. We want to set up
a meeting to talk to them, to try to understand whether this police force is different to
other police forces, which are inherently violent against those who don’t abide by the
rules of the state. Unfortunately we don’t have enough time to make the meeting happen.
Asayîs are everywhere, guarding buildings and checking vehicles on checkpoints all over
Rojava. The YPG and YPJ are still fighting ISIS just one hour south of us, and many of the
areas that we travel to have only recently been liberated from ISIS control, so we’re
actually very grateful for these numerous checkpoints.
Me and Martin meet the female members of Asayis, probably the only police that I will ever
pose for a photo with!
An Asayis man, complete with his Abdullah Öcalan patch!
As anti-capitalist activists, my friends and I are concerned about possible US imperialist
plans in the region. So we ask Bedran Gia Kurd of TEV-DEM whether the Rojava coordination
with the US will continue (the US work together with the YPG and YPJ against ISIS). He
“There is daily coordination with the US military as our enemy is the same, but there is
no longterm agreement. There is no guarantee that this coordination will continue.
Cooperation in the future will be on the basis of how to protect our principles. So if
cooperation compromises our project, we will not agree to it…We will not accept any
pressure on us to change our projects. We have our own will and determination.”
Obviously, we leave the TEV-DEM meeting with big smiles on our faces, hopeful that this
beautiful people’s movement won’t be destroyed by the US and other imperialist states.
But my friend and comrade Zaher Baher issues a few words of caution in his latest article
He says of the US and western powers:
“The best way to defeat [Rojava] is to support it, and thereby to contain it and tame it,
without sacrificing any of their soldiers. Once this has been done, they can occupy it
He also quotes politician Salih Muslim, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) co-leader in
Rojava. In a September 2015 interview Muslim says:
“We seek to expand our relations with the US politically and diplomatically, and we hope
that we will succeed in doing so…America is a superpower that fosters democracy globally,
and tries to develop and disseminate it throughout the world, and the American people have
their own standards and fundamental principles for democracy.”
As Chris says, it remains to be seen where the power will lie, and whether democratic
confederalism will become corrupted.
Our visit to Rojava is very brief – ten days in total – and is far too short to fully
understand the structures and movements in this society. However, I’m inspired by the
organising of what seems to be the best large-scale attempt at a democratic society that
However, the only thing that makes me feel uncomfortable in Cizîrê is the amount of
militarist propaganda that’s everywhere, often portraying hundreds of soldiers standing to
attention in lines. These posters remind me of the militarist propaganda of oppressive
states that I’ve seen on my other travels. I wonder whether the Rojava administration
really needs this propaganda. “It’s understandable – they’re in a war right now,” Martin
says. Indeed, there are enemies all around: Turkey a couple of miles to the north, ISIS to
the south, as well as pockets of Assad troops in Qamislo. And the Iraqi Kurdistan
government to the east places a strict embargo on the border, barely letting anyone or
anything of use through to Rojava.
Our hosts in Amûdê constantly watch the propaganda on Rojava TV, so we find ourselves
watching YPG and YPJ music videos, which usually involve more dancing than shooting. And
damn it, those songs are catchy! As Martin and I walk down the street, we sing YPG songs
that are lodged in our brains! Chris points out that the music feels different to the
propaganda posters. He says:
“Understandably, people want to celebrate the sacrifice made by those who volunteer to
fight for the YPJ and YPG and commemorate those who have died fighting ISIS.”
Indeed. Every day, young, beautiful people are sacrificing their lives on the frontlines.
Military propaganda of the YPG
Propaganda roundabout in Qamislo
Back in England, anarchists often debate whether Rojava is ‘truly anarchist’, whether it
matches our ideals, or whether we should support Rojava at all. There are arguments as to
whether Rojava fits in with our ideas of an anarchist utopia (whilst we do barely anything
to organise society differently ourselves, other than running a handful social centres
across the country). These debates frustrate me a lot. As activists on the Rojava Plan
“Don’t expect things here to go your way. It is important to understand the culture and
philosophy behind this new emerging society. Things here might be done differently from
the way you’re used to.”
And then there are those activists in Europe who place Rojava on a pedestal. Writer Joris
“The radical left needs its own mythology as much as everybody else, and in this sense
Rojava, Barcelona and Chiapas serve as hopeful reminders that there is an alternative;
that it is possible to organize society in a different way.
However, by merely placing these instances of radical organization on a pedestal, as a
beacon of hope to be revered when times get rough, our support for these struggles is
often not very different from the support we display when we cheer on our favorite
football team on TV. The Zapatistas in the jungles of Chiapas and the Kurds on the
Mesopotamian plains have come a long way by relying on nothing but their own strength and
determination. Their relative isolation has allowed for the development of their radical
alternatives, but for these experiments to survive in the long run they need more than
supporters and sympathizers. They need partners.”
After five days in Cizîrê canton, we are driven for five hours to Kobanê. It’s incredible
to be doing this journey. Only four months before, ISIS controlled the area between Cizîrê
and Kobanê, and the two cantons were separate. Now, because of the actions of the YPG and
YPJ, we can move freely. Of course, songs of the YPG are playing on the car stereo!
As we drive parallel with the border of Turkey, a Turkish army tank points its gun just
metres from our car.
On our journey, we stop in Girê Spî for falafel, and we ask our driver if we can use the
“There’s only a toilet in the mosque, but you can’t go because we have no security for
you,” he says.
“He’s being far too cautious,” I whisper to Chris as I roll my eyes.
But because of all of the checkpoints and because of the kind people who have been looking
after us, I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security. As usual the locals know best,
and just one week later there’s an ISIS attack close to the town.
We visited Rojava in November 2015
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