Rojava: the war on utopia

The Turkish invasion of the North of Syria threatens the most advanced experience of direct democracy and peaceful coexistence in the Near East.

There are check points every few hundred meters on the road. The Aşayis – internal security forces – check the documentation of the passing cars. They are alert, particularly since dozens of members of Islamic State escaped the prisons and refugee camps, aided by the Turkish attacks on the region. Islamic State sleeper cells never completely disappeared, but before the Turkish army’s invasion they were better controlled. Now there are explosions almost every day in the city of Haseke, in the South of Rojava; and with tens of thousands of displaced peoples arriving in the cities and towns on the border with Turkey, the city is a hive of unknown faces.

Sixteen days have passed since international and regional powers orchestrated this war against the region known as Rojava (Western Kurdistan), officially named the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The Turkish and United States governments have decided that the democracy that emerged during the Syrian conflict in this 750 km2 territory does not serve their interests in the Near East, and that the war should continue, to consolidate their geostrategic and economic interests. “We will decide what to do [with the oil] in the future”, stated US President, Donald Trump, when he announced that a contingent of 400 US soldiers would stay around the oil wells of Der Ez Zor and the strategic area of al-Tanf, in the East and South East of Syria.

Jihadi members who previously combatted in the al Nusra groups – the old al-Qaeda in Syria – and Islamic State, now flaunt uniforms provided by the Turkish Army. These groups record videos of how they plunder the population, destroy their property and cruelly assassinate them, and share those videos on the internet. The atrocious, torture and murder of the Secretary General of the Future Syria Party, Hevrin Khalef, and the mutilation of the body of the YPJ fighter Amara Rênas have moved the country. They demonstrate a culture of hatred towards women, already seen in the war for Afrin.

The crimes committed by the Turkish Army are spread across the internet. The media have published photographs of abnormal burning on the bodies of young people and children. Doctors in the hospitals of Qamishlo and Haseke confess they had never seen anything like it. The Autonomous Administration of Rojava confirms that white phosphorous has been used as a weapon against civilians and an international committee is currently investigating that claim. The Co-President of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, Ilham Ahmed, presented photographs of burned bodies to the U.S. Congress on the 23rd of October. He described Tayyip Erdogan’s operation as ethnic cleansing and denounced the fallacy of the cease fire agreed between Turkey and the US: “They are killing people, kidnapping them, confiscating their property and burning their trees”, said Ilham Ahmed.

Over the past two weeks, the Turkish army and their Jihadi allies – which a section of the press and the international community insists on continuing to call the Free Syrian Army – have killed more than 200 civilians and wounded more than 600. At least 300,000 people have been displaced from their homes. 85,000 children have been forced to abandon their schooling and more than 5,000 teachers are now out of work. In the case of the city of Haseke, 50 schools have been opened up to displaced people to offer them refuge.

The water station at Alok, which provided water for half a million people, was intentionally damaged. I open the tap and the water that comes out is greenish. In Haeske water is scarce and thousands of people in the city are drinking non-potable water. There are power cuts from time to time and the internet sometimes goes down, breaking our connection with the outside world.

Suddenly, the revolution

Rojava extends West from the region of Manbij and South to the Desert of Der Ez Zor. In this territory many religious and ethnic groups have lived together for hundreds of years: Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs, Assyrian, Turcomans, Yazidis, Chechens and Armenians. Under different empires and regimes, some groups and confessions were denied the right to freely express their identity. The democratic, ecological and women’s liberation project emerging in these communities since 2011 has respect for national pluralism and promoting multicultural and religious expression as one of it’s central pillars.

The city of Serekaniye in flames. Photo: Olmo Couto

Since 2011, Rojava has become a more democratic and respectful project than many European States. Each institution is headed by a co-presidency. This must be a man and woman, from different ethnic groups. Each body has a 50% gender quota and a quota for ethnic minorities.

Women are at the centre of this revolution. They lead in political and public spaces; they occupy the streets, institutions and communications media. They have their own, autonomous military force, known as the YPJ. Anyone who knows the Middle East will spot the stark contrast with other countries in the region. Women organise in a parallel, autonomous system, they have a voice and they apply their own strategic decisions to favour women. Popular organising in the streets in controlled by women.

The democratic organisation of Rojava is based on communes, neighbourhood and village assemblies where people self-organise and make decisions that affect their own lives, making policy from the grassroots up.

Leyla has five daughters and a son. Her husband left her to marry another woman. She is now responsible for the commune in her neighbourhood. Six days a week she is available to deal with the people who come to the commune office. She helps them organise basic necessities such as water, gas and electricity. She organises meetings to promote democracy and self-organisation among her neighbours. Leyla and her fellow women promote visits to sick neighbours, families of those martyred by the war and poor families. She tries to ensure that no one is forgotten, and that the solidarity between the residents reaches every household.

Leyla, and her fellow women, does not charge for this work. She subsists on the salary of two of her children, a daughter who is in the Aşayis forces and a son who is a combatant in the YPG. Leyla works for her community because she believes that the true way to organise a society is cooperation, not individualism and competition.

Funeral in Haseke, Rojava. Sara Ainhoa de Ceano-Vivas Núñez

The war against Islamic State has taken the lives of more than 11,000 combatants. The vast majority of them were Kurds. Tens of thousands have been mutilated of suffer chronic pain. Fawsya had two sons martyred in the war. One fell at Raqqa, the other at Afrin. The living room in her home is a mausoleum in memory of her fallen sons. Large posters with their photos decorate the walls. In a corner, three plastic trees are decorated with small portraits of other martyrs, men and women who have fallen in this long and horrific war.

These portraits are handed out at the funerals. Fawsya keeps them all. “I will not allow any of them to be forgotten”, she says, with determination, “even if I have to fill the room with these little trees”. For many politicians, the dead are just numbers, but for families in Rojava, every father, daughter, husband or fellow woman killed is an indescribable pain that can never be overcome. Fawsya explains: “You get used to the pain. You accept it. But it never leaves you. This pain will never pass”.

The international game

The plans the international powers had for Syria have been clear for a long time. In this complicated war, the Kurds were convenient when Islamic State were advancing in the region, but already in 2018, when the joint operation with the Syrian Democratic Forces and the U.S. Army reached its end, Russia gave the green light to the Turkish army to invade the Canton of Afrin, in the West of Rojava. That war, which lasted three months, took hundreds of lives and created thousands of refugees.

In the neighbourhood where I am there are many displaced people from Afrin. They lost everything and they know that while their lands are under Turkish control they will not be able to return to their homes. Kidnappings and extortion continue against the population of Afrin. Since the consolidation of the occupation, countless people have trickled out of Afrin fleeing to other areas of Syria or heading for Europe for fear of repression.

When the invasion began on the 9th October, families are asking themselves the same two questions over and over: “Why has the international community abandoned us again?” and “Are they going to bomb here too?” The population is afraid, particularly of aerial bombings. Everywhere you hear the same phrase: “We don’t want anything, we don’t want weapons or troops, we just want to be safe from the bombings”. The YPG and YPJ defence forces have proved their effectiveness on the ground. However, the inequality of arms becomes clear, when the troops are facing NATO fighter planes with Kalashnikovs.

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