We, a group of women from the Women Defend Rojava campaign, are on our way to Til Temir (Tell Tamer). I have always known Til Temir as a town in Northen Syria where many different population groups live together. We are going today to conduct interviews and talk especially with Assyrian women to see how they experience the current war situation and how they resist. On the way between Hesekê (al-Hassakah) and Til Temir we drive along the Xabûr river, where many Assyrian villages are located. The farther we go, the more clearly we see black clouds of smoke rising. “That’s Til Temir,” says our driver, “and that’s where the front line is.” She points. The wads of smoke come from car tires that are lit so that the thick smoke will make visibility difficult for the Turkish air force. In the last few days the area around Til Temir has been bombed several times. Fierce battles are taking place between the Democratic Forces of Syria (QSD) and Erdoğan’s occupation forces. Villages are taken by the invading troops and liberated again. The last few days it’s been back and forth. Now the front is only four kilometres from the city. We arrive in Til Temir and see life in the city. Shops are open, taxi drivers stand at the roadside and people buy vegetables at the market. Only a sense of hurry reveals that war is very close.
We meet Gulistan, a friend of Kongreya Star, who lives in Til Temir, speaks Kurdish and Arabic and will translate for us. We want to interview Assyrian women and walk with Gulistan through an Assyrian quarter. Some houses are empty, as the families have fled from the approaching occupation troops. While we are walking through the quarter, we suddenly hear noise from the air; loud and just above our heads. There are two huge helicopters. They keep spinning above us and flying complicated manoeuvrers. People come out of their houses and look into the air, scared. After a few seconds comes the first relieved shout, “It’s America!” – Russians or Americans. A woman holding a phone turns to us. Relatives would call and ask if they were bombing. “No, no, it’s the Americans,” she had told them, “they’re not bombing.” The fear of air raids is great. In recent days, unmanned drones have bombed from the air several times. This time it is the Americans who are scaring the population with their manoeuvrers.
After walking around for a while, we meet an elderly Assyrian woman who says that she is willing to give us an interview. She is 71 years old, has only a few teeth left in her mouth, and the deep wrinkles on her face show that she has lived a long life. She invites us into her house, where we meet her son. They live here together. He is unmarried and takes care of her.
The little Jesus pictures and the way the woman wears her headscarf remind me of my grandparents’ apartment in Bavaria. Even the furniture feels familiar. It is more similar to the way the houses are furnished in Germany than to the Kurdish and Muslim Arab families I have often visited. We sit down on a couch and without having to ask much, the woman starts to talk. Since we do not speak Arabic, Gulistan translates for us. Nevertheless we understand what it is all about because of her distinct facial expressions and gestures. She points to a wedding photo on the wall. “Australia”, then she makes a twisting gesture, which is supposed to refer to the neighbourhood, and says: “Holland.” She talks about how many Assyrian families have left. And again and again the word “DAEŞ”, Islamic state. We ask her about her past and life in Til Temir.
“Our neighbours are Kurds. We have lived peacefully side by side. I can’t speak their language, but I do understand them,” she says and laughs out loud. She puts her hand over her mouth, laughs even louder and says that we shouldn’t film how few teeth she has left. She laughs even louder and we have to laugh with her too. After we have calmed down again, she continues. She speaks so fast that our translator cannot keep up. But we don’t need a common language to understand what she means.
She keeps pointing to the floor with her index finger and has a determined expression on her face. “I’m staying here. Even if I die here. I am not leaving. This is my land. They can’t evict me. I’m not going. Let them come,” Gulistan translates for us. I am impressed by their determination and at the same time I wonder what it would mean if Erdoğan’s jihadist gangs met an old Assyrian woman here. We notice how happy she is to be able to tell us her story. Whether she knows that she too has given us much courage, I do not know. As we leave, she waves us off for a long time and says we can come back anytime.
We drive to the hospital Şehid Lêgerîn and meet Jamila, the co-chair of the Kurdish Red Crescent (Heyva Sor a Kurdistanê). She is just coming back from a trip with the ambulance car and looks exhausted. Nevertheless she is willing to give us an interview.
Since the front is so close by now, the Şehid Lêgerîn hospital is the closest medical supply point behind the front line. There are 12 ambulances, which pick up the injured and take them to the hospital. Jamila suggests doing the interview in an ambulance car. She sits down in it and after we have the camera she starts talking. She tells how it was when the attacks began in Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain) and how they treated a number of injured people. “They were Civilians. Most of them were civilians,” she says with an angry look on her face. She talks about the injured children. Talks about Sara, an eight-year-old girl who had her leg bown away by Turkish bombing on Qamişlo. Her brother was killed in the attack. Jamila tells how Sara said she would give her second leg if it would only keep her brother alive. She swallows, looks at the floor and takes a short break.
As she continues to speak, she reports how in the last few days ambulances have been attacked from the air around Til Temir. “We can’t go out because of this.” She shakes her head. “We can’t pick people up. Our friends are dying of minor injuries because we can’t get to them.” Her voice stops for a moment, but she continues talking. We realize how important it is for her to share what she has experienced. She talks about international law, which protects medical facilities in war zones. She looks questioningly into the camera and asks: “What do these laws mean? Who’s responsible for enforcing them?” Again she looks at the floor. We ask her if she has anything to add. She nods and her gaze becomes determined. “We made a promise. We will not leave anyone hurt. It is we who protect their rights. And we will give everything to leave no one behind.” We turn off the camera and at the same time we are gripped and strengthened by her words. She says she’ll go to sleep now as she’s had a long shift. Tomorrow we’ll continue.
Our next meeting is with women of the Women’s Defence Units (YPJ). A friend of the YPJ will pick us up and take us to their base. We get a warm welcome and can immediately see how much love has been put into this place: There are many plants, a small garden and under the shade of a big tree there is a small table where we sit down. While some of them are preparing tea, more and more other friends come out of the small house and sit at the table with us. The way they greet us, how they sit down next to us as a matter of course, link arms with us and ask us how we are, we immediately feel comfortable. We drink tea and talk about the current situation. One of the friends puts her index finger in front of her mouth: “Shhh!” We are quiet. “Keşîf”, she says and points up – drone. We hear the soft hum of the drone, but after only a second they get back into the conversation. They tell us that drones have been in the air almost continuously for the last few days. A friend is ready for an interview. Her name is Beritan, she comes from Deir ez-Zor, is Arab and joined the YPJ two years ago. As we set up the camera, we suddenly hear a loud “WUUUMMMM”. We flinch together. Beritan looks at us and laughs: “There’s probably no such thing in Europe.” Now the others laugh too. They walk with us to a wall and a friend points her finger in the direction from which the sound came. “Çete,” she says – that’s what Erdoğans gangs are called. Behind a far hill, she says, is the enemy. The idea that there are straight battles just a few kilometres away seems almost surreal as we sit down again in the sunny place in the garden.
We begin with the interview. Beritan talks about the necessity of women’s organization, why we can only rely on our own strength in defence and why we as women must resist the inhuman, patriarchal attacks of the Turkish state and its jihadist allies. Time and again she emphasises that this is above all an ideological struggle. We have to fight it ourselves in order to free ourselves from this ideology that tries to make us small. She radiates clarity and determination and I draw much strength from her words. The artillery strikes can still be heard a few times during the interview, but Beritan is not upset by this. At the end she says that neither the Turkish state nor its mercenary gangs can destroy what the women’s movement has built up here – namely the hope for a free life.
When our friends bid us farewell, they tell us to come back again. We wish them good luck and hug each other. I this visit stayed on my mind for many days because it made me think a lot. The loving interaction between the friends, the collective life among women and the common struggle for a free personality, away from patriarchal thinking, have created something great. Something that no air raid in the world could ever destroy. To be confronted with the brutality of the enemy and the real possibility that one of my friends might not be able to return from the front creates a feeling that I see as an incredible strength of the women’s movement. In times of difficulties, attacks or war, something worth living is created and every second is given meaning and beauty.
On our way back, we will make a final stop at the Xabûr Guards – an Assyrian military council that is part of QSD and is involved in the defence of Til Temir. Four women in uniform welcome us. Three of them are about the same age, perhaps around 30, and another is considerably older. One of the younger women has her two-year-old daughter with her, who, while we exchange information about the current situation of the Assyrians by means of translators, walks back and forth between our chairs. Madlein, the spokeswoman of the unit, tells us about the massacres of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 in which thousands of Assyrians were killed. She talks about the IS attacks on the Xabûr region in 2015 and that they see the current danger from the Turkish state as the danger of genocide against their people. After a cup of tea we will walk through the Assyrian village. We pass a statue of the Virgin Mary. Madlein puts her hand first on the feet of the statue, then places it on her forehead and makes a sign of the cross in front of her breast. We walk on to a church, and I walk a little away from our translator next to a fighter. I communicate with the little Arabic I know. It is quiet, the sun is shining and flowers are blooming along the way. Birds are flying from the garden gates of the small houses. I point to our surroundings and say “cenet e” – it is paradise. She looks at me and makes a hand movement that means “earlier”. Then she points to the empty houses and says “Europe.” All the houses are empty. The gardens are overgrown, some windows are broken and in some houses the doors are open and we can see the sunbeams dancing in the dust. She keeps talking and again I hear the word “DAEŞ” – Islamic state. We set up our camera and Madlein tells us that as Assyrian women they do not accept that 1915 and 2015 will be repeated again. She talks about the atrocities committed specifically against Assyrian women and says that it is their duty, especially as women, to defend their existence and their culture. She has a proud look on her face. After the interview with her, we ask the individual women how they came to take part in the military
units. The fighter I spoke to earlier points to the oldest uniformed friend. It’s only when our translator says she’s her mother that I see the resemblance. After we say goodbye and drive back by car along the Xabûr River, I have to think about the mother and her daughter for a long time. Both are ready to lay down their lives in defence of their country. All the strong women I met that day, each with her own colour and her own history, strengthened my belief that resistance is the only way. Not just to resist… but to bring out in us as women the strength and beauty that the enemy is trying to destroy with all his means.
29 November 2019
Lêgerîn Sterk, internationalist – Rojava
First publication of article in German in Kurdistan Report Nr. 207 [link]