Interview with an anarchist and feminist from Catalonia, who after learning what was happening in the North of Syria decided to join the revolution and who participated in the Serekaniye resistance until the moment she received the order to withdraw.
One of the first towns attacked during the Turkish invasion started on the 9th October 2019 was the municipality of Serekaniye, where a tough resistance of 10 days was carried out, until the agreement of a ceasefire – never fully complied with – that implied the withdrawal of the democratic forces from Serekaniye.
Why did you decide to go to Rojava?
I think basically because of the role that I understood women were playing in the revolution, because of their position in the vanguard and all the historical struggle that they have developed over so many years. The reference that they have created -and still are- of the construction of a society that walks in a horizontal way. Because it is true that from home we listen, read and discuss what is happening in Rojava, but you have to come and see it, and this is something I understood after the experience of other comrades who went and came back. Seeing how a territory punished by oppression and totalitarian regimes is reconstructed and agreed upon in an autonomous territory, in a democratic system, has been and continues to be an experience that today forms part of the steps that I wish to continue walking. All those who believe in the struggle and the liberation of the oppressed territories must come to Rojava, to support and participate in this revolution.
I saw in this revolution many things that we lack in Europe. How do you build a strong revolutionary project, with continuity, that is rooted in society and that includes women, a project where women are the vanguard? And how do you defend all this? How can we do it at home? For me, coming here was a logical and necessary step.
How did you end up in the battle of Serekaniye?
At one point, after spending some time getting to know the society and working in it, I decided to take the step of joining the YPJ (Women’s Defense Units). I could see how women were suffering, joining the YPJs to free themselves, because the only perspective on life that is socially possible for many women is to marry a man chosen by the family and be locked up in the house. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time but after working a lot with women in society, I started to connect a lot with this. I wanted to know more about the ideological and life process of Kurdish and Arab women raised in Rojava.
When you live here for a while, at least this has been my experience, you end up loving somehow all the history of this land, not only for what it teaches you day by day but also for the connection with history and the struggles where I come from. I also felt that as an internationalist part of my involvement had to be with the defence of this land, of these ideas, of this history. So I decided to do my military training in the YPJ and join the defensive tasks of Rojava. One of my first jobs was at Serekaniye. I was sent with a defense group, and we arrived 2 or 3 months before Turkey started with the first threats against the city. All this time we were preparing the city, doing guard duty and all that.
What do you mean by preparing the city?
On the one hand, to prepare the city on a physical level, on a military level, to be able to defend it from an air and land invasion, to do all the necessary construction. On the other hand, to prepare the city on a social level. On the other hand, many of us did not know the city well, so we had to spend time getting to know it, and also getting to know all the other groups, helping them in whatever was necessary, logistics, surveillance…
How did society react in this situation?
You spend 24 hours with them, you live with them, in their neighborhood, and you end up knowing everyone. Serekaniye had lived through the war in 2012, they already knew what it was, so the atmosphere was a bit tense, quite tense. When you go to talk to families, you have to go strong, with high morale. There are all sorts of reactions. But I must say that during the preparation time, people were very animated. They said: “It’s our land, we’ll defend it”. The people would open their doors to you. A large part of civil society was involved in preparing the city. In the logistics, the food… the people were very animated, there was a lot of bawerî [faith], a very strong belief in what they were doing. They knew that one task was not more important than the other, that if one didn’t cook the other didn’t eat and couldn’t fight, and if one didn’t fight they couldn’t defend this, and nobody would eat. That if they as a society don’t exist YPJ don’t exist either and vice versa. And a very strong feeling, that united everyone, the feeling of bonding with the land, of wanting to defend it. Everyone saw Erdogan’s fascism, everyone. There was also a lot of discussion about the role of the U.S., there was a lot of discussion around the idea that America is the enemy of Rojava. This has been very important for me, to be able to have these political discussions.
The mothers… the mothers are the ones you see who suffer the most, because they don’t have economic resources, they have many children, few possibilities to move… But I also saw that concretely the presence of the YPJs helped the women a lot. Because you talked to them and they told you: “it’s good that you are here,” and that was a beastly experience, to create this bond, to give strength and morality to society. For me, seeing the mothers was a very strong thing because you see, when the daughters joined the YPJs they were afraid, in a way you steal their heart, don’t you? But they know that their daughters are joining to defend them, to defend their mothers, and they are very proud. I had a lot on my mind about my mother, Catalonia, my companions from all over…
How do you remember October 9, the day the attacks on Serekaniye began?
the day before there had already been an attack, a bombing, but it had been decided not to answer. So it was a bit of a conversation behind the scenes, among the comrades who were in my small group. We were saying, “What’s going to happen?” Two days before, we were on the street doing night duty and everything was too quiet. At one point the body feels it, because the tension increases and the body feels it.
And on the 9th, I remember it was past noon, we were in our normal position when we heard the first bombing and from our position we could see the smoke. I remember my whole body, my whole blood telling me: “now, come on, let’s start”. And of course, I hadn’t yet experienced such a strong sensation, and to see it physically… We all gathered at home and our commander told us: “everybody get ready, get your backpacks, take position”. From that moment on, it was as if things were slowly unraveling… Suddenly, there are many noises that you don’t understand… There was a lot of smoke, the city was prepared to avoid observation from the sky by drones, and moving under this smoke psychologically affects you. Then all the cars full of families, marching with what they could take in ten minutes…
I guess the sky factor was very important, wasn’t it? What was it like to fight an army that is supported by war planes?
The first days were very hard, because with the first bombings the first mass casualties arrive. They are not war casualties from a city war, they are casualties from explosions, whole groups of people, it is another type of war. At first, for example, transporting wounded from Serekaniye to Til Temir was a lottery. Ambulances and civilian convoys, which posed no military threat, were bombed. People were bombed, and then people who went to collect the bodies that had just been bombed were also bombed. There were no scruples, just a desire to conquer the territory.
When there were airplanes, at first we made jokes with our mates. When we felt the noise of a plane or a drone, there was always someone who would say: “It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen!” But it’s really the uncertainty of thinking if they’ve detected you before, if they’re going to shoot where they know they have to. The uncertainty of saying, “where will it land?” The first feeling is that of running away, but of course, the point is that when you run away is when you are detectable. We kept our blood cold, when we saw them nobody moved, we controlled the fear, the uncertainty, that voice that told you if you had done well before and they had not seen you, mixed with the fullest and deepest trust with the companions I had by my side fighting the invaders and fascists.
I had a lot of confidence in the comrades with whom I shared the first days, because they have experience in the city, in the mountains and have lost many people, precisely because of bombings, so they are very integrated. They know that with this war machine we don’t have great possibilities, but we have the strategy, the courage of all these years of resistance, we know that air aid should not be feared, we know that it is a machine against which we cannot fight in a frontal and direct way, but that is why there are other strategies. Knowing how to move, sharing fears and doubts and having a lot of patience. It takes a lot of patience: waiting and waiting.
What else would you say you have learned from your more experienced colleagues?
The story of Rojava has a set of values, but I’ve started to really understand these values when I’ve been with them. Everyone is afraid, but I’ve never seen my team-mates hesitate. Their struggle is something that they carry so deep inside them, that comes so much from injustice, from the decision that they made to give everything to the struggle, to the defense of the land, that when it came to fighting, I saw it on a daily basis.
I saw it in how they looked after each other, in how when one was tired, the others looked after her. I saw serious injured companions fighting, very young companions fighting, all of them always aware of where the others were… There were moments when we had to continue, but if there was an injury, the first thing was the injured companions. And those who fell wounded, the only thing they wanted was to be repaired and to return, to be cured as much as possible and to continue on the front lines. I have seen companions not sleeping for three days, not eating for three days, not taking off their shoes for days, sharing everything, not having food, not having water and sharing what little they had… No one was left behind. I haven’t seen anyone stay behind.
There was a very strong feeling that we were defending the same thing. That it was a fight to defend the land, a fight against fascism, a millennial fight. Because what these people are experiencing is an attempt at ethnic extermination, of a culture and also a movement that is led by women. To see that everything that you had built, that had cost so much pain, at the level of organizing society, women, that everything is democratic, confederal, that there are structures… to see how all this can be destroyed in two days… well of course, the spirit was not to stop, nobody rested. There was a strength and courage, a courage that if it did not come from the heart and the feeling of “enough”, Serekaniye’s resistance could not have been like it was, because everyone had reasons to run away. Why with the machinery of Turkey, the second largest NATO army, who can stand against this? Only history, ideological conviction, the defense of the land, the defense of the women’s struggle, can cope with all this.
And I have not only learned from the most experienced comrades, for me it has been incredible to share this time with girls of 18-19 years old, Kurds, Arabs, who have joined the fight to rebel against a life that condemned them to be women of the house and to have a man, or who have joined because of ideological conviction. That being so young they have summoned up the courage to join the armed resistance, with all that this entails for society… I was thinking of the Spanish civil war, of the women of the CNT-FAI. Elissa Garcia, for example, who died on the front at the age of 19… And to see how the militant women of the movement open the way for other women, for young women. It was incredible. There are also many things that I cannot explain, because there are many feelings that are like images that I remember, that I cannot express in words…
What images come to mind when you think of Serekaniye?
[Long silence…] Many. From the beginning, I remember when my group was separated into two smaller ones. I have the image of when the other group’s comrades were going to take their positions and we were going somewhere else. I thought, “maybe this is the last time I’ll see them,” and that stuck with me. I remember that day very well, the columns of smoke. And how they were carrying their biksi [a name popularly used to refer to the PKM light machine gun designed in the USSR] and their backpacks.
And then I have many images of the hospital, because part of the resistance was done in the hospital, which at one point became part of the front. It was five days, but I remember it as if it had been 10 hours. I remember the hospital, in the dark, because when the çete [a term that literally means “gangs” or “mercenaries”, used to refer to the jihadist groups that take part in the offensive of the Turkish state against Northern Syria] were approaching, there was no electricity. And in the midst of the darkness, the light from the cigarettes that the comrades were smoking. And the gates, because the light was coming through the gates. I was checking on the wounded, asking each one: “How are you? Are you all right? – Yes, yes, I’m fine.” And the wounded fighting. Because we all knew that we were surrounded, that we were going to be trapped in the city. And we gave each other courage, we said “nobody is leaving here, because here we are defending everything”. In the end, when we had to retreat, the last image of Serekaniye, the city burning, everything burning…
You were surrounded and due to diplomatic agreements with Turkey you were ordered to withdraw. How did you receive this order? How was the withdrawal for you, after so many days of fighting without rest?
The order comes in the morning and we don’t believe it. We didn’t believe it at first. But I remember how quickly the feeling of being devastated comes. They tell us to leave, to prepare all the material. The whole convoy, all the cars filled with all the defence forces, we go out little by little and discover that the enemies have taken to the streets. They all abandoned their lines of defense and came down to the street, came out to the balconies, to make the corridor for us to see them. You saw the Turkish soldiers and the jihadists, some in military uniforms but others camouflaged as civilians, all the way to the hospital. We saw the faces of those who until recently were attacking us, hiding 100 or 200 meters from the hospital. I remember one of the commanders telling us: “let’s not shoot, let’s not shoot because the war is not over”. It was very hard, we didn’t expect it. All the adrenaline of so many days, all the emotion contained… but you see the comrades who have been fighting here for 7 years, plus some 10 years in the mountains, and you feel that you don’t want to be sad.
Do you feel that you have no right to be sad?
I have the right to be sad because Serekaniye has been my home, because I have seen my companions die, because we have defended the streets, because I have met the families, like everyone else. But on the other hand, I feel that it has been a hard but beautiful resistance, that what we have done is part of history. And if you don’t keep this in mind, you go down fast, your morale drops, the word “defeat” enters your head. Yes, militarily maybe it’s been a defeat, but ideologically at no time. Serekaniye has been a reference point, also for the population. Many people took up arms, especially young boys and girls.
Historically, weapons and armed struggle has been a closed field for women. How has it been for you to come into contact with this?
I think that women have always been present in the armed struggle, but more invisible. Perhaps in lesser numbers, but throughout history there have always been references to women who have participated in the armed struggle and have built a little bit of the base and the road for many of us to consider it something possible, a road that is also our road.
In any part of the world and in any social and political context, as women and because of the specific oppression imposed on us, we have always developed forms of self-defence, we have always had to use the tools we had at our disposal to defend our bodies, our thoughts, our life, the territory… As women, we are tried to introduce that this is not our role, but history shows the opposite, it shows that we have always been able to look for ways out, solutions, ways of fighting and that is what happens in Rojava. Women have organized themselves to build structures, learning spaces, support, mechanisms to fight and defend all this. Why… if we don’t do it, who will? We can’t wait to leave the decision on how we should fight in the hands of others, we can’t entrust our future to structures that are oppressive. I think, therefore, that self-defense is something that defines us as revolutionaries and as women in general, it has always been part of our lives because we have always been the object of oppression by the patriarchy, by the state, by all social institutions. So I consider that in Rojava, weapons are one more method of defense, one more element to protect the spaces where we grow up, and a way to defend collective life and oppressed peoples, of which women represent the vanguard. For me it has not been easy to assume this, it has been a great learning process.
Within my family, only men have participated in this form of resistance against Franco, basically my grandfather. But having the reference of my mother, of my grandmother, of the women of my family that during Franco’s regime and after Franco’s regime have been oppressed, that some have organized themselves and others have not, but if they had had the possibility, they would not have discarded this path, as I did, that having the possibility and having beside us comrades that can introduce us, how could I not participate in this struggle?
And it has been a process, a hard learning, very hard. Because the most important thing is not to take the weapons, but to know why you take them. At one point you think: “maybe I’ll be a martyr here”, and the feeling was “we’re fighting for life”. It’s a learning process, and I continue to learn.
How was the relationship with your male colleagues? Was there any difference in treatment?
Most of the battle of Serekaniye, during which I was in the line of defense, I must say that we were mostly women. There were men in our group too, but we were mostly female partners. At no time did I take orders from a man, my leader was always a woman. Yes, there were certain moments when I felt overprotected, but I think it was more because I was international. At the beginning, these moments would occur, but they would quickly disappear due to the harshness of the war and because of daily sharing.
I was surrounded by women and there was no room for gender differences, at least this is what I have lived. In all politicized environments there is always a task that the partners should do much more than giving women the space at the level of militancy that they deserve, and here it is not that I say that it is not necessary and that there is no domination of the male comrades towards the female comrades, but that it is seen that there is a work of years in this aspect. Why do we often place ourselves in this role? We have internalized it. The women here have an attitude of not accepting this role, an attitude of saying: “we will not wait for men to change, we are the motor of this change”. And this attitude has also helped men a lot to understand the change of attitude they should make when they are fighting with women.
Once in the hospital, for example, where there were more men, I did notice more of a difference, but we weren’t fooling around. We couldn’t. We were 4 or 5 people taking care of 40 wounded every day, apart from the martyrs, and it was all about functioning, working and working, and in the moments of rest, standing guard and fighting.
In a war context, everyone is very clear about who the enemy is. This is what I have sometimes missed at home, in myself and in others. We have so many open fronts and so many enemies that we are not able to build something solid.
During the clashes in Serekaniye, in Europe and, for example, specifically in Catalonia, there were demonstrations, actions, displays of solidarity with Rojava… Did this reach you? How did you receive it?
During Serekaniye we didn’t have much contact with the outside world. Most of the time the phones didn’t work, the internet didn’t work, but the few moments that did work were basically this: how was the situation of the territory, what were the movements, sharing how the other comrades were and looking at what was happening at home, in Europe. So of course, every demonstration, every text, every action, every photo, every story… in 5 minutes everyone knew.
Everything we saw we ran quickly to show it to the other comrades, because the morale was rising very much. For example, to see in Catalonia the photographs of the Eastelada (Catalan flag), black flags, YPG and YPJ flags… this was incredible for us. To see the union of all these struggles… and for the comrades of the movement here it was incredible. Many times they didn’t believe it. I would show them the photos of the riots in Catalonia, the banners, the flares, and it was exciting to share this and be able to say, “Look, look! Catalonia, my land!”.
The feeling was that you were not alone, that the people were connected to you… We have never expected and will never expect anything from the States, but at the level of society, at the level of the people, of empathy, of feeling the same oppression, this has been very important. I don’t have words to describe how the women’s movement, whatever organization it is, has reacted throughout Europe to defend and support Serekaniye. I can’t say enough about how the women have worked hard to give us the warmth and the responsibility that many people in Europe felt with Rojava.
What would you say are also the lessons that should be exported from here to the movements and struggles in Catalonia?
I believe that one of the most important things I have learned here is the value of commitment. The commitment to really decide to fight for the rest of your life. To make a decision that is not easy and to devote all your energy and time to building a base, to do so in the long term and with perspective. Not wanting to do things too quickly, but having perspective on what it means to build revolutionary territory, including society, people. I am not saying that there is no commitment in Catalonia, I am saying that there comes a time when, in the face of oppression, there is no possibility or going half way, it is one or the other. And sometimes we would expect to be well sunk to respond, but if we respond without having built the entire base at the social, ideological and structural level, the response to the attacks will be very short. It will not be long because it will not be ideological, it will not be based on common and shared values.
And then, of course… how should I put it in Catalan? Here there is much talk of bawerî, of faith. I believe that at home we do not have faith in our own steps, in our structures, in our commitment, also at the level of life. Because if we don’t start with ourselves, if we don’t fight against our sexist personality, against the competitiveness in us and the capitalist mentality that we have, if we don’t learn to live collectively, how can we consider a real change? This is what I have seen here, that life and struggle are the same, that we have to get people to believe again, to organise again and not be afraid of difference, because difference is what makes community. Look here, in Serekaniye the families and the sisters were Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Turks, internationals… sometimes we didn’t even speak the same language, and we all defended the same thing. And yes, here there is a context of war, but at home there is also war, society is also suffering from war, simply in a different way: in the form of wage labour, evictions, the patriarchy… and in Catalonia, after the referendum, with all the repression. The fortress of Europe continues to expand, we continue to have comrades in prison, evictions from historical projects, siege of the immigrant people, criminalisation of abortion, privatisation of health, world summits to decide the future of the population, control and police violence of all colours… And Russia, the Spanish State, Germany, the United States… at Erdogan’s side. War!
The anarchist ideas taught me the struggle of the revolutionaries of the civil war, the comrades I have in Europe taught me the strength and the need to interconnect struggles, of internationalist solidarity. The comrades in Rojava and Kurdistan taught me the importance of unity and commitment to build a land and defend oppressed cultures under mountains of ruins. And all of you have taught me the value of the struggle to defend the land and the freedom of mothers, sisters, comrades, as well as the construction of another society, of revolutionary values with a strong foundation. I look at the future in a different way… The destruction of the State, the overthrow of prisons and police stations, the isolation of banks and big companies, the confrontation with fascist and patriarchal policies… are tasks that deserve commitment, decision and courage.
Mutual support, collective decision making, organization of neighbors, defense structures, commitment, courage… We are ready, let’s start walking.