Listen to the Episode — 67 min
Clara: The Ex-Worker;
Rebel Girl: An audio strike against a monotone world;
Clara: A podcast of anarchist ideas and action;
Rebel Girl: For everyone who dreams of a life off the clock.
Clara: Welcome back to the Ex-Worker. This is our fourth episode over the past ten days—that’s a record for us, surely—continuing our focus on the Turkish invasion of Rojava and the embattled social revolution there that the fascist Erdogan regime is trying to extinguish.
As we go to press, we’ve just read the news that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has concluded an agreement with the Turkish regime. According to the terms, the two authoritarian powers will collaborate against all “terrorists” and “separatist agendas.” Russian military police will team up with Syrian border guards and Turkish forces to expel the YPG from the proposed 30 kilometer “safe zone” and move in Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. Commentators agree that this marks a major victory for Putin, who has taken advantage of the United States military’s departure to extend its influence in the region. After years of squabbling, the four autocrats—Assad, Erdogan, Putin, and Trump—are now in alignment, with one goal in mind: eliminating Rojava, the one self-organized and minimally authoritarian force in the region. The lines have never been drawn more clearly: state tyranny versus popular resistance.
By the time you’re listening to this, we don’t know what else will have happened. We have confidence in the strength and determination of the resistance in Rojava, but we also know that the situation is ugly and likely to get uglier.
This is not exactly good news, but outrage at these developments stretches widely across the entire globe, and in particular in the US, people across the political spectrum are condemning Trump and the betrayal of the Kurds. For fuck’s sake, Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, introduced a resolution condemning the troop withdrawal and calling on Trump to un-invite Erdogan from his planned visit to Washington. A Democratic senator even called the Turkish plans “ethnic cleansing.”
Lest you worry that we’re going to propose a tripartisan alliance linking Democrats, Republicans, and anarchists, rest assured: we have no faith in the moral compass of the political class of any country, and we know that military intervention could never provide anything more than a temporary tourniquet against the bloodshed of other authoritarian powers. The only thing that could save Rojava is the only thing that could stop the deportations, mass incarceration, repression, poverty, gendered violence, and environmental destruction rampant here in the US, or in Turkey or in Russia millions of people self-organizing and rising up against their rulers and collaborating horizontally across borders.
We’re heartbroken and burning with rage watching all of this unfold. It’s hard to fight the sense of futility and helplessness we feel as we struggle to find something we can do. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve accumulated a number of interviews about life and struggle in Rojava, which shed light on different aspects of the experiments in autonomy that have been going on in the region these past years, as well as the current crisis. We offer these to you in hopes of continuing to inform and inspire as we struggle against fascism all around the world.
First, we’ll share a short interview originally published on the CrimethInc. blog with folks from the Internationalist Commune, which participates in collective educational, ecological, and other projects.
We’ll also share an interview with an anarchist who lived for a year in Rojava and participated in the women’s movement. Their story offers an interesting perspective that sometimes contrasts with ones we’ve heard thus far, exploring the successes and limitations of the revolution’s impact on gender, politics, and culture.
Next, an anarchist who participated as an international volunteer in the YPG discusses their experience of the struggle against ISIS and their perspective on the Rojava revolution and what anarchists from elsewhere can learn from it.
And finally, we’ll offer an excerpt from an interview conducted by our friends at The Final Straw with two anarchists serving as combat medics in the war zone.
As ever, you can find the transcript and links at crimethinc.com/podcast.
INTERVIEW WITH THE INTERNATIONALIST COMMUNE
Rebel Girl: On October 8th, CrimethInc. published the following short interview with participants in the Internationalist Commune, one of several projects in Rojava that involves participants from around the world, to offer visibility to some of the many people who may be murdered in a Turkish offensive and to the worthwhile projects they are undertaking. The interview was conducted two days after Trump gave Turkey permission to invade Syria, with death’s scythe hanging in the air. In the midst of this terrifying situation, some of our comrades spoke with the Internationalist Commune, a revolutionary enclave in Rojava that welcomes volunteers from all over the planet interested in ecological, horizontal, and communal practices.
CrimethInc.: Describe the work of the Internationalist Commune of Rojava. Where are you located and what is your relationship with the surrounding communities?
Internationalist Commune: The Internationalist Commune is a place of communal living and learning situated near Derik, in the Cizre canton of northeastern Syria. Its aim is to be a place where internationals first learn the bases of the revolution, such as jineolojî and the history of Kurdistan and Middle-East, as an introduction to the activities in which they will participate then in other places. This educational aspect is organized through the Internationalist Academy Șehid Helîn Qereçox, which is located inside the commune. This is one of the main activities of the Commune. But it is also a place that serves as a base for internationals involved in variety of activities, where we can discuss our experiences, exchange on ideological topics and further our understanding of the revolution. Practical activities are also carried out with the Make Rojava Green Again campaign, which implements ecological projects.
CrimethInc.: What are the main principles and values of the commune? How is it connected in people’s daily lives there with other forms of struggle such as anarchism, Zapatismo, feminism, and ecology?
Internationalist Commune: One ongoing discussion at the Commune is—what does it mean to be an internationalist? So we can say that it is behind this word that a lot of our values are placed, such as international solidarity, remembering our şehids [martyrs], and the desire to learn from this revolution as well as from all revolutionary history.
The internationals here come from very different backgrounds, so we can say that these struggles are part of this new internationalism, and we learn from all of them every day through discussion. More concretely, here, women have their own space and are organized autonomously. People who want to take part in ecological activism can do so through Make Rojava Green Again, but also everyone at the Commune is involved in the ecological works. Our connection to anarchism and Zapatismo is expressed by the portraits of figures from these movements that hang on the walls, such as Comandanta Ramona or Federica Montseny, and their achievements are discussed in education or more informally. Also, through our media projects, such as the Internationalist Commune website and the RiseUp4Rojava campaign, we share information and perspective on radical movements around the world and maintain solid bonds with them.
CrimethInc.: What has changed in the context of daily life and grassroots organizing since the collapse of ISIS as an organization that controlled territory?
Internationalist Commune: The fall of ISIS has made it possible to go further in organizing society in a communal way and with a longer-term perspective than we could while facing the constant threat they posed. But some hidden cells still exist and terrorist attacks are happening regularly. In addition, the presence of many members of ISIS in the region, for whom it is unclear whether they will be judged in their home countries, poses a serious security threat.
CrimethInc.: Turkey has openly declared itself the chief enemy of the achievements of the revolution in Rojava. How does this impact the region and the politics there? Is this threat indeed the greatest so far?
Internationalist Commune: Right now, as we write these lines, we are facing the threat of an immediate invasion, as Erdoğan has announced that Turkey is about to attack and the USA is removing its troops from the region. These threats have been made several times, with increasing intensity over the past year, peaking before in December/January and July/August, when we thought a war could start any time—possibly as a total war, since we know what Turkey has been capable of in the past. Indeed, they’ve been announcing it: they want ethnic cleansing, they want genocide.
So yes, Turkey is the greatest threat in the region since the beginning of the revolution. In such times, when we have to freeze our projects to think about our security, it impacts all aspects of society. Everyone asks themselves: what do we do if war starts? So a lot of our activities are undertaken in relation to the context of war, and our politics become focused on finding a democratic [sic] solution to the Turkish threats and post-ISIS situation.
We communicate more about the achievements of the revolution, to show what is in danger. But we also try to keep life going as it should, and somehow this pushes us to be even more democratic, go further in the revolution, as a response.
CrimethInc.: What is your perspective regarding the future for the revolution and the legacy of the Internationalist Commune for revolutionaries around the world?
Internationalist Commune: The moment we are living now is historic: the revolution will either grow stronger or be annihilated. What is at stake is not only the revolution in North-Eastern Syria, but the possibility of a revolution in the whole Middle-East and worldwide. We hope the seriousness of the situation will push people around the world to express solidarity, rise up, and maybe come and join us. The Rojava Revolution should illuminate and inspire other revolutionary movements. The Internationalist Commune will keep on providing news and perspective on the situation here, with an international focus, and welcome expressions of solidarity from around the world.
CrimethInc.: Thank you very much for taking some time in this delicate moment. We hope this interview will convey to people around the world why it is important to support to the people in Rojava. Any final considerations?
Internationalist Commune: The Rojava revolution is a women’s revolution and it’s everyone’s revolution. Everyone should be concerned about what’s happening here because what is threatened is the possibility to live a free life, a democratic and communal life, with grassroots, feminist, and ecological principles. So talk to your neighbors, to your colleagues, to your grandmother about it!
Thank you for your solidarity. Down with all fascists!
INTERVIEW WITH MERVA
Clara: We also got in touch with another anarchist from the US who spent about a year living in Rojava and participating in the women’s movement there. We think their perspective is really important to add, in part because they lived there longer and have some more in-depth and less curated experience with everyday life in revolutionary Rojava, but also because some of their observations and perspectives diverge from what we’ve heard so far. We offer it in the spirit of critical solidarity, in hopes of building towards a deeper understanding of the transformations there without putting the movement on a pedestal.
The Ex-Worker: Tell us a little about yourself and how you first became interested in Rojava and the Kurdish struggle.
Merva: Hi, I’m Merva. I got interested in Rojava as I was beginning to re-engage with anarchist politics. I had been on a break for a while since I’d gotten kind of frustrated with the ‘scene’-like elements. As I started to re-engage, I was feeling generally inspired by the growth and energy of the movement, but especially fascinated by the developments in Rojava. I began to learn Kurdish to get a greater insight into the developments over there, and wound up having the chance to go over. Since the best way to learn is by immersion, I went! The Ex-Worker: What was everyday life like in the places where you lived in Rojava?
Merva: During most of my time there I lived in the biggest city, Qamislo. It’s an amazing place. Even though it’s one of the most urban places in Rojava, there’s a connected, rooted quality of life I haven’t experienced in other cities. I knew most of my neighbors and a lot of the people I’d encounter along my walk to work. On Fridays, my day off, I’d see a lot of people hanging out on the sidewalks and visiting with friends and neighbors. Right now it feels really urban: a lot of multi-story apartment buildings, a diverse population, car traffic, collective taxis that take routes like buses, and so on. I had friends there who had lived there since it was much smaller. The current edges of the cities were like separate agricultural villages; you could even tell which side of town someone was from by the way they spoke. A majority of people I met had family that lived in villages nearby, though this isn’t the way the city is any more. There weren’t a lot of entertainment options, so people spent a lot of time with friends and family doing things like cooking, chatting, calling friends, or playing PUBG [a first-person shooter video game people play on their phones]. I was really lucky because I got a lot of time to just be a civilian. Often internationals are watched pretty closely, since in the past they’ve caused trouble and there is a fear of kidnapping or ISIS attacks. When I was done with work I could go home, visit friends, and do more or less whatever I wanted, so I got to experience what normal life was like for my friends in the city. Qamislo has been historically populated by people fleeing genocide and repression from Turkey. It began as an Assyrian village in the 20s and was subsequently populated by Armenians, Syriacs and Kurds who migrated from the north. When there was the threat of Turkish invasion this past December, NOBODY wanted Turkey to come. I spoke to people of different backgrounds, including one guy who worked as a soldier for the Assad regime, and the dread that Turkey would take over was a unifying factor. Although it’s less well known, the Turkish state represses Assyrians and other minorities much as they do the Kurdish population. Despite political and ethnic differences, there is an overwhelming desire in the region NOT to have Turkey in Northeast Syria.
The Ex-Worker: Tell us about the structure of the women’s movement in Rojava as you encountered it. How did the reality you experienced align with the feminist values articulated by democratic confederalism? Merva: In most places, there are parallel women’s structures that exist alongside with the normal civil structures. Like if there’s Asayish (police/security forces), there’s a corresponding Asayisha Jin. And then there are also mixed gender structures where, as far as I experienced, women do have an equal voice. Sometimes it can be a struggle to staff women’s organizations with people with an equal level of technical skill—that’s how I wound up working in web/graphic design—partly because there’s a higher turnover for family reasons. But there is a genuine level of social equality backed up by the strength of the other women’s structures and the movement as a whole. It’s really something that’s taken very seriously by all parties involved. For example, I met one guy who had been involved in quite a lot of military operations. He was a visitor coming to teach some younger recruits, and we were chatting about his hometown. It’s totally normal and acceptable for men to interact with women like this on a basis of ‘hevalti’—something like ‘comradely friendship.’ He ended making advances towards me; maybe because I’m an American he thought it might be a go. I ended up talking to his commander because he wouldn’t drop it. I wasn’t really offended, but I wanted to let them know because I didn’t want him trying things with other women. His commander was really great to deal with and the whole issue was handled very well. They saw it as a very serious issue and agreed that the guy in question needed reform, that he hadn’t been taught well enough by the men around him. In my time there, I never heard anyone else make even one accusation of sexual misconduct among the SDF—which is in stark contrast to the way the other military forces operate in the country. The Ex-Worker: How does the struggle for the liberation of women fit within the broader social revolution in Kurdistan? Merva: I think the main thing is that it pushes changes into rural areas and into social spaces that wouldn’t have accepted change before. Young people have grown up with different expectations of what’s possible in their lives, and there’s social muscle to back it up. In the summer of 2018 there was a Jineolgy Ciwan (Young Women) Camp; it was a lot of girls’ first night away from home, ever. Having social institutions that were respected by the local people allow girls and women to push more for their own freedom; if all else fails, some girls run away from home. I met some teenage girls that had fled and were spending time with internationals to learn English, with the eventual goal of attending university when they were old enough. I saw one of them a few months later at al-Hol assisting someone who was dealing with ISIS prisoners there. She wasn’t enjoying it there and had decided to transfer to work somewhere else. It was really great to be around young women that had grown up under the conditions of the Rojava revolution. Also, because families are so tight-knit there, having parents that support young people being socially engaged is incredibly important, and can lead to whole families of people that are active in the movement. I have a few friends having kids now and I’m really looking forward to see how these young women who have done so much for their own freedom raise the next generation of young people in Rojava. People also are growing up speaking their own language within a framework that emphasizes equality and cooperation between ethnic groups, so they have an identity that they’re proud of that was previously suppressed. There’s a lot of great cultural work being done uncovering Kurdish history, the significance of folklore, and so on. The theatre movement there is really awesome, too: super creative and often really funny youth-driven plays are coming out that deal with the world they’re growing up in. In my experience it often included a lot of non-Kurdish kids too. In general the youth movement seemed to have the most social integration between people of different ethnic backgrounds. The Ex-Worker: Among what you experienced, what aligned most with your values? What did you find most challenging? What do you think radicals in the US and beyond can learn from the Kurdish struggle? Merva: In general, the women’s movement was the most powerful thing in my experience of Rojava. I felt a bit underwhelmed by the functioning of democratic confederalism. From what I saw, there seems to have been a shift toward more state-like ways of functioning. An example of this could be the motorcycle bans that happened around a month ago in Heseke and Raqqa, which spurred big protests from local motorcycle riders. I assume it was security-related. It was an idea that was being discussed when I was there, but it was never implemented, because most people can’t afford a car so whole families rely on motos for transport. Talking to civilians, people’s perception of the revolution was mixed. But I got the most uniform positive feedback about the women’s movement; it made real changes in the lives of everyone. In the women’s movement negative things like informal social hierarchies were minimal, whereas in male-dominated spaces I saw or heard of a lot more of that kind of stuff. There’s also a lot of hopefulness with regard to the ecological aspects of the revolution. There’s not a ton of knowledge or resources, but in general people in Rojava are more closely connected to the land. As I mentioned before, most people have some connection to agricultural villages in their families. The women’s movement has its limitations with regard to gender identity and sexuality. When I was over there, I guess I could say that I reluctantly identified as a woman. At first I was a little disappointed that I was expected to work with the women’s movement just because I was female-bodied, but my feelings changed really quickly once I saw what the women’s movement was doing. I had the space to have some conversations about queerness and similar topics, which a lot of people are interested in because they hear about things happening in the West like two women getting married. In one particular case it was more shocking that two people would choose to get MARRIED than the fact that it was two women. Like, if you’re two women in the West and can do whatever you want, why are you going to settle down and start a family? In general, it was challenging navigating the structures of the Autonomous Administration, both on a practical level and as an anarchist interacting with a lot of state-like institutions. Like one time there was a protest against the possibility of Turkish invasion, and people were really hyped because it was a grassroots initiative of the local people—which was great, but a little disappointing to know that the bulk of the other events were directed by someone in one of the structures, likely coordinated by someone in a more central role. And of course it’s kind of weird being somewhere where you’re on the same side with the ‘cops’… Eventually I shifted my perspective to one of solidarity, more like with Palestine. It’s a really different cultural context. There’s been a lot of inspiring work done by the people struggling here who have a ton of legitimate grievances against the state(s) they’ve been struggling against, even if it’s not a fundamentally anarchist project. A lot of the more anarchist elements already existed within society, and now are just being rearticulated through democratic confederalism, such as the interconnectedness and mutual aid that takes place among villages and extended families. I was really impressed by the ways in which local people could engage with the movement, though. People in all different roles in life found meaningful work to do, whether fighting on the front lines, patrolling the streets at home as part of a civilian defense force, hosting travelers from the movement, being involved in local cultural projects, and so on. Everyone from the youth to elderly grandmas were involved, with the grandmothers often the most committed and involved. The intergenerational dynamics were great to see, too, with whole families taking part in revolutionary work together. The Kurdish movement is really successful at putting in the massive amount of work it takes to build up, facilitate and maintain the many thousands of individual relationships it takes to build a revolutionary struggle of this scale. People are very conscious of this and take time to make sure they visit people and stay connected.
INTERVIEW WITH INTERNATIONALIST VOLUNTEER IN THE YPG
Clara: As we’ve seen, anarchists from around the world have visited and participated in many aspects of the revolution in Rojava—ecological projects, the women’s movement, educational exchanges, and lots more. But they’ve also participated in the armed forces, fighting with the YPG/YPJ and affiliated militias against ISIS. We wanted to add this perspective to our coverage to get deeper insights into anarchist participation in the Kurdish resistance, as their forces come under attack from the Turkish military and affiliated militias in Sêre Kaniyê and other places.
We conducted this interview with an internationalist anarchist from the West who spent a year there and participated in the fight to reclaim territory from ISIS and to defend Rojava.
Q: Tell us about how you first got interested in the revolution in Rojava and what led to you going there to participate.
A: I first started following the struggle in Rojava around 2014. Then there was the siege of Kobanê, which obviously drew international attention. And I just continued to kind of follow the developments that were occurring there. And as it became more evident like, the radical elements with the women’s movement and the influx of internationalist volunteers, coupled with the revolutionary history of the YPG and other aligned parties, such as the Turkish left and what not, I became more invested in the situation that was developing there. And as time went on I became more interested in going. Once it was like—there were international volunteers in 2015 – there were some in Kobanê. However, it became more prevalent, more common for them to come over, and a more developed route that made traveling there more accessible.
Q: What were some of your first impressions when you arrived in Rojava?
A: Well when I first arrived, obviously you have to cross over from the Iraqi border. And one of the things that I had initially noticed was how intricate their logistics system is. Just the simple capacity that they have connections in such places as Suleymaniyah. They then are able to bring people up to the mountains and then have them cross over. So I thought just seeing the infrastructure that they had built was itself incredibly impressive and clearly, they were a capable organization. That was kind of my initial perception of it when I got there. But beyond the first day, and stuff like that, I can’t really recall what my initial impressions were, in terms of like, the daily life and what not. Because I immediately went to an academy there and spent the next couple months there, and didn’t interact with civilian life a lot the first few months and stuff that I was there. But I guess being in the nokta [base] that I was in and cooperating and working with people, the impression I got, or what I realized very quickly is the necessity of daily life. And the necessity of cooperation amongst all the individuals involved in order to make what we’re trying to make happen, to actually make that happen. And make it function relatively smoothly as much as it can within such a dynamic environment. I don’t know, I think that’s probably one of the things that I thought was incredibly useful there, is learning how to live like, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with other comrades. And develop yourself, but also develop with other people. I thought that was an incredibly important experience, and something dramatically different than the experience here. That it’s like, oh we just go to our meeting a few days a week, oh we do this action. This was, it was like, 24 hours a day, you’re always with the same comrades. You don’t really get a break from it.
Q: In the course of participating in the international solidarity efforts there, I’m sure you must have had to interact with people from various political perspectives—sharing some key values for sure, but coming from different backgrounds and ideologies. How did you negotiate political differences in the context of the struggle there?
A: Yeah, I mean, I primarily was with people that were specifically anarchist. But also, you know, anarchism is a diverse spectrum of varying ideologies, or rejection of ideologies. And we had a lot of discussions and stuff like that; we would have perwerde or we would have education. And we were able to recognize the commonalities that we have. Like we had, principles and stuff that everyone for the most part agreed with. We had a revolutionary and militant internationalism, feminism, things like this that were uniting factors. The differences were comparatively little. We did have social anarchists. We had insurrectionary anarchists, individualists, things like this. However, obviously outside of our nokta there were a much larger diversity of differing political opinions. Particularly, we had some Marxist-Leninist comrades who occupied a space close to us. We obviously had very severe differences in terms of our political outlooks, however, we also were able to find commonality, that we did share some values. I mean, they had a very, very different approach, but when you’re put in that type of situation where you have to rely on your comrades, and stuff like that. Because there are potential existential threats, but also to grow together, and to develop and to learn and what not. There were quite a number of arguments with the Marxist-Leninist folks but at the end of the day, they were friends and they saw legitimacy in what we were doing as well. And they didn’t try in any way to—I don’t know if overpower us or whatever is the correct word—but they respected our autonomy.
Q: How do you think the time you spent in Rojava has impacted your own politics?
A: Well I think, to be quite honest, my animosity towards communism has dramatically increased. I think there is this tendency in a lot of projects that are very much focused on like, “the people” in this ambiguous kind of sense, often undercuts the individuals that comprise that community. You see a lot of this rhetoric in like, communism and other positions where it’s like, “Oh, the people, the people, the people.” And it’s almost like an animosity for people as individuals. And whenever there’s something wrong with this amorphous blob of the people; or something goes wrong, it’s always a problem with the people. Like, the people need more education, they need this, they need that… if they aren’t living up to the expectations of this group, or project or what not.
Q: Coming from the West, what did you find most challenging to adjust or adapt to in Kurdistan?
A: There’s a lot of cultural things that you have to adhere to. When you first get there, you obviously have no idea. Maybe you’ve heard a couple things from friends that have gone over. But they’re mostly just like cultural politeness – like things that are acceptable in certain areas that are not acceptable there. Such as like, crossing your legs, you’re not allowed to do that. You stand up when someone enters the room and shake their hand. You don’t ask to—you don’t mention the bathroom in front of heval jin, in front of women. You don’t enter their rooms, obviously. Also there is kind of, to some extent, I don’t know if conservatism, like conservative is the correct phrasing of it. But there are these things that in the west, we don’t seem to have a problem with, but that are not polite there. And would be viewed as being inappropriate. So I mean there is certainly that element. But those are things you sort of learn very quickly. But I mean there’s also, kind of going back to what I had mentioned earlier, that coming from a place where it’s not like, you spend your entire day with people all the time. And that the only thing you’re primarily doing there is trying to learn, develop, prepare yourself for the front, things like this. So it’s the level of dedication there is very impressive. And the discipline is something to be admired and something that is often lacking from the anarchist milieu or whatever.
Q: What was the process of training like for you and the other international volunteers as you joined the forces there?
A: So a lot of that had to do with political education, and stuff like that. There certainly were the more technical types of things to prepare one to engage on the front. But I think what they often place a lot of importance on is the political education. And so there are certainly a lot of perwerdes, or educations, trainings and such, about Apoism [the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan] of course, seeing as it is such a big core thing of the movement. There’s also of course, jineology, which is education of the women’s struggle there. And these are all kind of things that are considered to be very important. To have an understanding of the social situation, the political framework and what not that has allowed for the situation in Rojava to happen.
Q: What was the military situation in Rojava around the time that you joined the forces there?
A: I went there right after Afrin happened. And this was, I had mentioned earlier, that I had been following the developing situation there for quite some time. And when Afrin happened, I was like, okay I need to move on this. If I really support the struggle there, then I need to go participate in it and this very critical moment. So when I got there, the understanding was that they were going to attack Manbij. We thought that Turkey was going to move further east out of Jarabulus and come over and launch an operation on Manbij. That never ended up happening, obviously, until this situation has developed. But there was always kind of the hearsay and the rumors in Rojava are very common. There was also, shortly thereafter, rumors that we were going to make a deal with the regime, and that we would go and fight in Idlib. And in exchange, we would take Afrin. So there’s a lot of rumors circulating around, sometimes they turn out to be true. Sometimes they’re not true. But then when that wasn’t happening, the Deir Ez-Zor front was still open, but it was stagnant. There weren’t any operations being launched, they weren’t really moving, etc. And then I think, the impression that we got was that they were utilizing the Deir Ez-Zor front to be like, [this is] the fight against ISIS, the U.S. needs to stay and protect us. And then eventually the U.S. seemed to have exerted pressure on them to say, OK, you need to finish this up, you need to finish up Deir Ez-Zor. So the front opened again, and began to be more active than it had previously been. That’s when they started taking Sousa, Hajin, all those places. So when we heard that the Sousa front was going to open, we went and petitioned our commander to go to a different commander to ask if we could join in on the new operation that was happening. After almost a few months of back and forth, trying to talk to this person, who had this connection who would let us go… eventually they did let us go. But a lot of things there are done based on your diplomatic relations with people and what not. So essentially at the time, there was that final front, Deir Ez-Zor, which then ended I believe in late March was when they took that final little camp in Baghouz.
Q: How much time in total did you end up spending in Rojava?
A: I was there for a year. But I was just going to say, also I guess this kind of relates as well. In December of last year when I was there, it seemed that Turkey, because of the United States pulling out and stuff like that, that Turkey was going to invade. And it seemed… there were always these rumors with the shelling and everything that oh, Turkey is going to launch operation, they’ll launch operation. And sometimes it’s taken more seriously than other times. And in December of last year, it seemed very, very serious that this was going to happen. Much more serious than any other time I had heard it. So we began to make preparations for that. I think, other internationals have mentioned this, where they had like, a warning of an air strike, or war planes had been spotted. And they evacuated our village at one point. There was, you know an (??INTISHA??) that was in place, which is kind of an alert to be concerned about potential air strikes, and what not. But as I said, I never, as we all know it never happened. Until now.
Q: I imagine that as an anarchist volunteer from the West, it must have felt pretty strange to be participating in a military effort that was at the time allied with the United States military. What was that like for you?
A: Yeah, I think that’s one of the most complicated things about the situation there. That they kind of had this deal with the devil to some extent, which is quite unfortunate. And as many people had speculated, a nonsensical deal to make. Like, strategically, the Kurds don’t hold that much, or YPG or the SDF, or what not, doesn’t hold enough leverage to make them function as a shield against Turkey. So it was kind of quite well known that this was a temporary relationship. That they had to figure something else out, whether that be a deal with the regime, or some sort of deal with Russia, or what not. It seems that’s kind of what has happened, now. But it was certainly strange having the U.S. presence there, because I mean, we would see U.S. convoys go outside of our village. Or we actually, one day when we were out on the front, they just came down in a convoy and started shooting off artillery near us. So yeah, it was strange, also, a lot of the people there, when they saw internationals, they would call a lot of internationals, like, “Oh, the tabur Ameriqqi.” They just assumed all internationals were Americans; the civilians didn’t really quite understand what the internationals were doing there. They thought a lot of us were from the coalition or something. So it was a weird dynamic, for sure.
Q: Did you get any sense of the perspectives of the civilian populations in the areas where you were about the YPG/YPG or the politics of the revolution in Rojava?
A: So I admittedly didn’t speak Arabic and unfortunately, my Kurmanji is not very good either. So I wasn’t able to converse extensively with a lot of civilians without a friend translating. However, I did meet a number of civilians who spoke fluent English. So those are people who I made friends with, and was able to hang out with in Qamishlo and other areas. And he introduced me to some of his other friends who also spoke some varying degree of English or would have been able to more effectively communicate through his translation. So mostly young people, in their early twenties. So I did go to Qamishlo to hang out with civilian friends there.
I think, I mean obviously I can’t speak for the entire population, but based upon insights that I’ve gotten from friends and other people, I think a lot of the civilian population isn’t entirely sure what’s going on. You know there are certainly people who were involved in the movement to varying degrees, so that’s different across different populations and what not. But it seems that there is to some extent an element of confusion because you also have to consider a lot of these territories, like Al-Nusra Front came through there at one point, ISIS came through there another point, now YPG is there. What I can say definitively is the YPG and QSD [Arabic acronym for the Syrian Democratic Forces] and stuff like that have given them an element of safety, which I think that people very much appreciate, or appreciated within – to be able to give the civilian population that within the context of a brutal and prolonged civil war, is in itself pretty significant accomplishment. And that they weren’t terrorizing and brutalizing people like Al-Nusra Front was or ISIS.
Q: How did you actual experiences of Rojava during your time there line up with your perceptions of it beforehand or the expectations you had going in to the trip?
A: I had a few friends who had gone before me. So I had already had feedback and heard from their experiences there. So I think that what I was thinking going into it was a lot different than someone who hadn’t heard much firsthand experience would be thinking. I don’t think that there was a dramatic distinction between my perception of what was transpiring and my experience of what I saw there. I think it’s an incredibly different, difficult situation that they’re attempting this project in the middle of the Syrian civil war. And they have the existential threat from Turkey, they have the, I mean now that they’ve defeated ISIS, they have the insurgency being launched by ISIS, as well as other factions with various interests attempting to be subversive. With all these factors in play, I think in terms of what I saw as far as a project was something certainly admirable.
Q: What was it like for you coming back to the West after your time in Kurdistan?
A: I feel like people adapt to things very, very quickly. Like when I first got to Rojava, I adapted there relatively easily and then now that I’ve been back, it seems like, almost it never happened to some extent. Life has just kept moving on. But it’s certainly difficult having to consider all these annoying elements of everyday life here, with work and what not, and not being able to be focused on the more political all the time.
Q: Are there lessons you’ve taken from your time in Rojava that you would apply to politics and organizing here in the West?
A: I think one of the primary takeaways is the discipline that they have over there, and the level of seriousness and commitment that they act with. Here there’s a lot of, people kind of pick up projects, put them down. There, they’re incredibly serious, incredibly dedicated. And they have the discipline to actually make these things into reality. Also, all of this happened out of a particular context. Because YPG had already built capacity prior to the Syrian civil war. And once the Syrian civil war started, they were able to mobilize their people, and build the movement they currently have. In the west, and a lot of different places, there’s a lack of strategical or tactical thinking, and I believe that’s something we need to be considering a lot more gravely. And begin to think in these things, not just this very reactive way where, oh, X Y and Z happens, we do a demo. Then we wait for the next thing, and do a demo for that.
Q: At the moment it appears that the SDF has struck a deal with the Assad regime, though we’re not sure about the details or how it’s going to impact the armed forces or civil society there. Based on your time there, do you have any perspective on how this deal is likely to impact the social and political experiments in Rojava, or any sense of how people there may be reacting to these developments?
A: I’m not entirely sure exact specifics of what is going on on the ground right now, because the communication is so finicky that… I heard from some friends yesterday, it seems that they’re alright, which is great. But I kind of speculate that, as I said earlier, there’s always a lot of rumors flying around and it’s difficult to determine what’s true, what’s actually happening, until you get some sort of confirmation. So I speculate right now that there’s probably a lot of rumors flying around as to what this deal with the regime means, if it’s a deal, if it’s a strategical military alignment, or what the situation is there. I’m sure people are not surprised whatsoever about the United States pullout, like they knew this would happen eventually. It was good that if you look at the defense of Serê Kaniyê that it seems that they’re making use of an intricate tunnel system as well as defenses and what not that they had prepared. Because they knew that this day would eventually come. And it has arrived. So I think, I’m not 100% positive, this is all purely speculative, but I would imagine that if the alliance with the U.S. isn’t done, it will be done very shortly. And also, if they were to make some sort of deal with the regime and Russia, it’s always been a stipulation that the U.S. has to leave. And this is what prevented them in the past from making these deals. And it’s really unfortunate that they are now going to make this deal when they have no leverage. Maybe not no leverage, but it seems, for example, that in Afrin they waited up until Afrin to make some sort of deal, and it was a symbolic deal, I believe the NDF went in and stood with them in Afrin. And then also last December when the U.S. said they were going to pull out, then they started scrambling for the deal with the regime. And now again, that they aren’t really holding very many cards, they’re trying to make some sort of military alliance with the regime yet again. They keep saying that this isn’t a deal, there’s no written agreement or anything like that. Obviously, we can’t know exactly what the arrangement they’ve set up is. I would say, however, if—the regime has always said they need unconditional surrender and incorporation into the SAA. I don’t know that that’s going to happen, or what they’ve worked out between them, if they’ve worked anything out. But I would guess that if a deal was struck with the regime, it will be incredibly compromising and that their hope for autonomy is probably slim to none.
Q: For those of us hoping to do something in solidarity with the people of Rojava facing down the Turkish invasion, what suggestions would you make?
A: I think we’re all sitting in a very difficult predicament right now, where we want to do something. I feel the same way myself, but in terms of what’s effective, what can actually make a difference on the ground there, I’m not sure what that would necessarily look like. I think the continued expression of our solidarity is important and something that should be continued. I don’t think this should drop off the 24-hour news cycle, just be forgotten in a few days. It is something that needs to be, people need to be consistently reminded of. I think one of the things that people don’t consider as being as important as it is, is that the morale of the troops is incredibly important. That’s what allows people to keep going through difficult circumstances, to keep fighting, you know – their convictions and their ideology and what not. And I think that these displays of solidarity can function to bolster the morale: that people still care, that people still are struggling with them. However, there are also, if people want to contribute financially, Heyva Sor is collecting money, and there’s very few organizations that are on the ground providing medical care, and Heyva Sor is one of the only ones that’s currently doing this. There are some others. But in terms of financial and material contributions, I think giving to Heyva Sor is something that is useful.
Interview with Anarchist Combat Medics in Rojava
Clara: Finally, we want to conclude with an interview with two international anarchist volunteers serving as combat medics in the war zone in Rojava. Huge thanks to our friends over at The Final Straw, who’ve also been doing excellent coverage of not only Rojava but a wide range of critical struggles going on around the world, for sharing this interview with us. We’re only presenting an excerpt; you can listen to the full interview along with lots more at thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org. In this segment, you’ll hear disturbing reports about the cruelties of Turkish allied militias and a resurgent ISIS, as well as inspiring stories about the resistance that residents have mounted in the face of overwhelming odds.
Medic 1: Hi. To briefly introduce myself, my name is Gulan; I’m an anarchist from the so-called United States. I’m operating here in northeastern Syria or Rojava in the capacity of a combat medic, under the general umbrella of the SDF, or the Syrian Democratic Forces. We organize with a collective of other combat medics and attempt to administer direct care to people in combat or directly outside of it, whether that be civilians or military, and render critical care in the time when there’s the biggest window for death or otherwise.
Medic 2: Yeah, Gulan pretty much said it all. I’d like to remain nameless, but I’m also an anarchist here in Rojava, operating as a combat medic.
Over the last week or two weeks, we have been traveling back and forth from Sêre Kaniye to Tal Temer, mostly in Sêre Kaniyê. There’s a hospital there, Roj Hospital, that has been surrounded at various points, attacked almost every day, while trying to provide medical care for a lot of injured people. Over the last week we have seen Sêre Kaniyê increasingly filled with Cheta (Turkish proxy forces), and seen it become more and more difficult to get to the wounded, and get the wounded to us. There was some time when the road in and out of Sêre Kaniyê was taken at several points by Cheta, and so we could no longer transport people to higher care facilities, and we couldn’t get more doctors in, more nurses in, or patients out. Some people fell şehid [died/became martyrs] waiting for the ability to leave the city while the powers that be were taking their time to come to some kind of agreement about this no-fly zone. We’re getting air struck almost every day. So that’s kind of the situation over the past week. Is there anything you would add to that?
Medic 1: I think to add to that, what we’ve been most surprised about is somehow our worst dreams coming true, and that being the dreams of a resurgence of Daesh, or ISIS. The tactics we’ve witnessed from Cheta, which is what the locals refer to the Turkish proxy forces as, we’ve witnessed them using a style of tactic that is very reminiscent of Daesh, in terms of executing civilians, executing military personnel, in many case people are being arrested or being taken as prisoners of war and then being outright executed. Civilians and members of civic organizations are being stopped on the road and pulled out of their vehicle and executed. Starting on the first day of the invasion, some of the first actual attacks we heard of were Cheta dressing up as YPG soldiers in uniforms, infiltrating checkpoints and carrying out attacks that way. And of course, the night that the invasion started, there was a very large scale Daesh attack in Raqqa, where about fifty Daesh militants were storming checkpoints and doing suicide vehicle attacks. So this all certainly feels coordinated somehow, even though there’s no direct evidence of that. There have been wounded patients that came into Sêre Kaniyê hospital who claimed they were fighting Daesh and quite heavily insisted on that as a fact. And again, definitely to point people to the Rojava Information Center, they’ve compiled a list of people with the Turkish Free Syrian Army or the Turkish proxy forces that are former Daesh militants. So the link is actually quite prominent. I think just in regards to what we’ve experienced other than directly being on the front line and trying to administer medical care in the best way that we’re able to, it’s rather unnerving to see the news and how people back in the US are talking about this Daesh resurgence when we’re somehow—as a possibility, when we’re actively seeing it. This invasion almost has the feel of being Daesh plus airstrikes and artillery, which is very unnerving and is I think quite a thing to consider.
As to popular resistance, because realizing a lot of this is really dark and bleak, and it feels like there’s not a lot of hope, I think for myself I am somehow gaining more of a hope and faith in humanity after seeing the popular resistance, especially in Sêre Kaniyê. What we’re seeing is a multigenerational, multiethnic, pluralist resistance to fascist aggression in every sense of that. We’re seeing everyone from what you would traditionally see as a hardened fighter of the SDF next to normal citizens of Sêre Kaniyê who have somehow now decided to, or have had to take up arms to defend the place they live from this fascist invasion, fighting alongside each other and giving each other the same amount of respect and love that they would expect. And it’s really inspiring and lovely to see, despite the hard circumstances.
For many people, the morale remains high and the hope in the defense still stays high. The morale gives me an increasing amount of hope in the situation, even when things seem really dark. I think one of the most inspiring things to me has been how many fighters will come in from the front lines and will be treated for injuries, and the whole time they’re being treated will be begging to go back to the front lines. I think we can all remember people coming back for treatment multiple times and going back out, sustaining multiple injuries. That’s because of their belief in each other, their belief in this project here, their belief in their comrades and their deep love for each other. But most of all, of course, that they didn’t have a choice in what they were doing, that this was a situation they’ve been thrust in to, and have been handling it with a really inspiring commitment. And it’s really beautiful to see. You phrased it as popular resistance and I think probably the best way to characterize what is occurring here.
Medic 2: Something that’s really struck me over the past few days in particular as things get rougher and rougher is the importance of hevalti among comrades, this concept of really deep camaraderie and friendship that has made it possible for me and for other people to do things that we never thought were possible. Like when somebody next to you is able to keep up their feelings of love and struggle to some of the extent that we’ve seen friends here resist: it really makes it possible for everyone around to do more than we could possibly imagine. And I think it’s also, there have been people who even in the darkest times are able to put on a good face and really—not pretend to be happy, but also find joy in even some of the darkest moments together, and find bravery together. And I think the most normal, average people who were living their lives in Sêre Kaniyê who are from Sêre Kaniyê who never wanted to be fighters have stepped up to defend their city. So if there’s anything that we can learn from this all over the world, it’s that anyone can be part of the defense of a movement from fascism, can be part of the defense of their city, can be part of the fight against Turkey. So if there’s anyone who’s listening to this or who’s looking at these stories of people, I would encourage everyone to find within themselves the things that we share with these people, like the very human spirit that allows us to resist.
Also, I want to echo what Heval Gulan was saying. This is a really multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered resistance. There are women of all ages involved in this, there are men of all ages involved in this. There are Arabic friends, there are Kurdish friends, there are people from many countries around the world, and we work together seamlessly. We love each other seamlessly. And I really mean that. Anyone here involved in this struggle is really loved and held as a true comrade by people here, without question. And I think that’s something that has really affected me and impacted me, is seeing that kind of unity in struggle.
Clara: If you want to hear more, we strongly encourage you to check out the full interview at thefinalstrawradio.noblogs.org. As of the last report we heard before going to press, it looks like all SDF forces have withdrawn from Sêre Kaniyê. We send our wishes of love and strength to everyone who is still there; please know that we’re thinking of you and drawing strength from the ferocity of your resistance as we pursue our own struggles for freedom.
SOLIDARITY SONG: GO ON HOME, TURKISH SOLDIERS
Go on home Turkish soldiers, go on home Have you got no fucking homes of your own? For over 40 years, we fought you without fear And we’ll fight you a few hundred more
If you stay, Turkish soldiers, if you stay You never ever beat the YPG Because the friends in Ras al-Ein Will kill you bloody swines So take a tip, and leave us where we be
Go on home Turkish soldiers, go on home Have you got no fucking homes of your own? For over 40 years, we fought you without fear And we’ll fight you a few hundred more
We’re not Turks, not jihadis, we’re no yankees We’re YPG, and proud we are to be So fuck you Trump and Pence We love our self-defense We want to see Rojava free again
So go on home Turkish soldiers, go on home have you got no fucking homes of your own? For over 40 years, we fought you without fear And we’ll fight you a few hundred more
Clara: So that does it for this episode. We hope it’s given you a window into the fascinating, complicated, inspiring, messy world of the Rojava revolution, and some sense of why we’re spending so much time discussing it in a moment when the entire world seems to be on fire. We’ll be back again soon with more coverage about unfolding global revolts, prisoner support, and plenty more. There’s a lot going on out there that deserves our attention, both globally and locally. If you’re feeling overwhelmed… well, friend, you are not alone. I know that I feel like I’m losing my fucking mind, trying to keep up with everything, trying to feel like something, anything I’m doing is worthwhile or making any difference in the face of the juggernauts we’re collectively up against. But when you’re feeling despair or helplessness swallowing you up, just remember—there are so many of us feeling that with you and fighting alongside you, all over this overheated planet, and a life of resistance is beautiful and meaningful and worthwhile. Hang in there, friends. We’re here with you.