Revolution in the mountains
A new wave of international volunteers is flocking to Kurdish territory in Rojava, Syria to play their part in building a new society. Here, one young British activist tells of his reasons for travelling to join the revolution, and what he saw when he got there
1. Call And Response
Tonight we wait to cross. I attempt to copy the guides as they expertly cup their hands to hide the glow of their cigarettes and burn my palm as I draw in. Looking at my watch I see we’ve been here for four hours now. Can we relax or should we stay ready? Even if I spoke Kurdish I’m not close enough to our guides to ask, and cannot risk moving. In the valley an armoured car rumbles slowly past, scanning for us with its searchlight.
Next to me Ernst has already begun to snore. We are each other’s responsibility when the time comes to make the 100m dash to the razor wire, under it, and away. He is the oldest in our brigade, celebrating his 76th birthday in our work camp in the ruined city of Kobane, away from his wife and grown up daughters. Are they political too? I asked him one night on guard duty.
“No. No. But they appreciate their daddy, their old revolutionary.”
I share his faith, and somewhere with us in the darkness too is Kris, just 18; are we a new breed or just echoes of the past? Was our time here supporting the revolution in Rojava, a tiny strip of land in Syrian Kurdistan,a pilgrimage for red devotees – or is it part of a modern wave of internationalism? I pull my hood up and sleep.
The sheer barbarity of ISIS seems to go hand in hand with their rapid, unchecked expansion, like an elemental evil. When they were beaten on mount Sinjar by the Kurds, the world united in admiration; the images of the Women’s Defence Force (YPJ) felt like history’s answer to the misogyny of ISIS. On the London left support was unanimous, though what exactly we were supporting seemed unclear. In the 2013 Rojava Revolution the region declared not independence from Syria, but autonomy; there was a contradiction between the Rojava’s formally elected government, led by the largest Kurdish party, the PYD, and reports that, following the teachings of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, networks of popular assemblies ran the region, as anarchists such as David Graeber have argued. Some even called it a stateless democracy.
Just north of Rojava in Iraq, the similarly-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government had facilitated the US invasion in 2003, and the international YPG volunteer battalion the "Lions of Rojava” includes ex-US and UK soldiers, some of them calling for more western military involvement; along with the painful recent memory of left-wing enthusiasm for the rebellion against Gaddafi, that had ended with NATO bombs and Libya destroyed, fear of supporting the prelude to yet more imperial bloodshed tempered my commitment. That changed in early March when 19-year old German Ivana Hoffmann fell fighting ISIS in Til Temir. She had no western military background and as a communist, there was no mistaking her stance on western intervention. So when a new call for international volunteers went out, I decided it was time to respond.
Kobane from the overlooking hill, a scene of fierce fighting during the six-month siege
Despite the fact I’d be joining a workers’ brigade, helping to rebuild civilian infrastructure in Kobane rather than fighting, simply going to Syria provoked some extreme responses. Two people who’d like to think of themselves as “of note” to MI5 for their thoroughbred leftiness blocked me on Facebook for “security reasons”, and an ex-partner threatened to report me to the “the government” – despite no laws being broken; others on the left seemed to go into denial, deciding I was a fantasist. The fact that you could simply use the internet to make contact with all manner of international struggles and offer your actual, physical, support, outside of social media proclamations of “Solidarity with X” was a truth they did not want to accept.
Then there were the objections from the painful place the left had found itself in the last few years – the intersection of politics and personal angst: how could a westerner possibly understand the complexities of the Kurdish struggle? Surely I recognised how problematic a white male “going to save” the “people of colour” was? Wasn’t I worried about the way anti ISIS “hysteria” in the media supported Islamophobia? The reality of possible death allowed me to put the risk of being called a #patronising #whitesaviour #adventurist into perspective.
There were no such qualms from my trade union comrades: one stuffed my pockets with cigarettes as if I was going to prison, and another gave me a bullet they claimed was from the Spanish Civil War battlefield of Jarama: someone joked that taking a bullet to Syria was a bit like taking coal to Sheffield. The memory of 1936, when 4,000 socialists, communists, and trade unionists travelled from the UK to fight Franco is well honoured in my union.
This was a context my family lacked.
“No one will think any less of you if you pull out now” said my dad two days before I left, making me wonder how many people would think less of me if I pulled out then.
He had been initially supportive. But then on 20 July the SGDF, a socialist youth group taking part in the same project in Kobane I hoped to join, was targeted by a suicide bomber in the border town of Suruc. Thirty-three people were killed. Allegations the bomber was aided by the Turkish state were followed by mass arrests not of ISIS but Kurdish activists, and the breakdown of the PKK/Turkey ceasefire.
My sister rang me just as my departure gate came up. She’d heard back from a friend in working in the British Council in Turkey. “They have pulled out of the region; she said it’s not 'a risk', but that it’s likely – likely – that you will die. Do not go.” I spent some time processing this, came to in the perfume section of duty free, and got on the plane.
I joined the brigade in Germany, meeting some of the other volunteers at their annual summer camp. Despite the English name and European location “Young Struggle” is a Turkish group connected to the SGDF; after the 1980 coup thousands of Kurdish and Turkish revolutionaries fled to Europe, bringing their politics with them, and in the first significant difference I noticed with the western left, handed those politics down to their children. The kids were not overt rebels who had picked their path deliberately to oppose their parents' values. Only if you looked hard would you notice small symbols, like Che wrist tattoos, or the silver hammer and sickle pendants the girls wore like crucifixes. On the first night they put on plays they had written about gender inequality: in one play, gender roles were swapped, with the girls taking great delight in cat-calling and groping the boys; in the second play the girls responded to street harassment by mobbing up, tying red bandanas over their faces, and beating the perpetrators unconscious with red flags on heavy sticks. Taken together the performances represented an impressive union of German political theatre technique and Turkish political method.
The main hall in the Young Struggle summer camp. On the walls were tributes to those who had died in the Suruc bombing or fighting ISIS in Rojava, including Ivana Hoffmann
On another night they each spoke as a victim of the Suruc bombing, introducing themselves and saying how old they were when they died; everywhere the presence of “the martyrs” who died in Suruc or fighting in Rojava was felt, in their speech and on the huge banners on the walls. Biggest of all was a ceiling to floor portrait of the woman who gave this years camp its name: Ivana Hoffmann.
Born to German mother and a Togolese father, at only 13 Ivana became one of the increasing number of Young Struggle members from a non-Turkish background; as a mixed race kid in the tough industrial city of Duisburg, it is easy to see how she found common cause with migrant youth in an organisation well regarded for its militant anti-racist and anti-fascist activities. As I learnt from her friends at the camp she was an outstanding athlete, and even had trials for the German women’s football team, but had dedicated her life instead to revolutionary politics. Speaking Turkish and Kurdish, in 2014 she joined the Marxist Leninist Communist Party of Turkey and North Kurdistan (MLKP) fighting with the YPG/J in Rojava. Her friends told me she fulfilled her ambition of manning a “bixy” – an SUV mounted heavy machine gun, and her final letter to them is full of similar enthusiasm:
“I will experience what it feels like to have a weapon in my hand and to fight for the Rojava Revolution, against imperialism. I will experience life in a different way, more intensive and organised. … I can’t look passively at how my sisters, brothers, friends, mothers, fathers, comrades are fighting for independence from capitalism. I will represent the Internationalism of the Party and be a part of the armed and organised movement.”
After holding her position under fire from ISIS for 48 hours, Hoffmann died from gunshot wounds on 7 March – a day before International Women’s Day.
2. 'Men cannot just change reality with words'
I was standing up from dinner when I heard the first two shots. The unmistakable “pop pop” of rifle fire, higher and quieter than a handgun or the crack of countryside shotguns.“That’s not even a block away. That’s definitely – gunfire right there – other side of that building – gunfire” I said quickly but relatively calmly to Hanna, our only French brigadist, who remained seated. She didn’t seem to return my concern until a YPG fighter rushed past us down the road pulling his camo vest over his pajamas, AK in hand.
“OK,” Hanna conceded, standing up. “OK.”
The area began to come alive with shouts in Kurdish. Parents peered from doorways and children climbed onto roofs.I went to my container, a metal box with probably the only sit-down toilet in Kurdistan, and noised up my roommate Fiks.
Fiks, like most of the brigade at one point or another, had fallen ill due to a combination of dodgy water and working in 40° heat. Fiks, like roughly half the brigade was German. They could all speak some English, but he and I had a special bond: through his love of Brit culture he could swear in English.
“Fiks. Fiks. FELIX!”
“What the fuck do you want, you bloody bugger?”
“There’s shooting. Nearby.”
He groaned and rolled over, moving the damp towel back over his head.
“What? Fuck off! No!”
Pop pop. Two more shots, a cacophony of shouting, a maelstrom of pointing and peering in the darkness.
Our evacuation plan didn’t provide for fighting starting in the same block as our site. What was I going to do with Fiks? And all the other, bigger, iller comrades? We’d struggle to carry them.
I remembered we had four wheelbarrows. Some of the sick were way too tall, offensively, Germanically tall, to fit in a wheelbarrow – but I’d easily dump Fiks in one. I’d rather be kidnapped with the foulmouthed Bavarian bridge troll anyway.
I kicked off my sandals and pulled on my Syrian Nikes – already coming apart, but a steal at nine euro, and probably the best day’s business the shoe shop had seen for a while. “Pop-pop pop-pop” rang out from the same place again. Was that an exchange of fire? It sounded like the same gun, but then again every side is using Russian AKs.
ISIS’s last attack on 25 June killed 233 people, but the workers’ brigade had survived and decided to stay, making us by this point the only big group of internationals in Kobane. The building site we lived and worked on was a prime target, but was well protected behind a network of checkpoints; how did they know where we were? How did they get so close?
Shouting came from behind the wall now.
Then laughter and more shouting.
Three YPG fighters lowered their rifles and as our neighbour came round the corner looking sheepish, carrying his gun by the barrel as he made his explanations: in his other hand something I couldn’t make out. Mehmet, who guarded the site most days, came over, trying to explain between laughter to Devlet, one of the Kurdish speakers in the brigade.
She listened and frowned. “There was…a snake?”
Mehmet spoke again. “Yes, there was a snake. The neighbour he was shoot at the snake.”
More Kurdish. “The snake is dead.”
“He shot it? With an AK? Jesus! I’m not surprised it’s dead. Jeeesus.”
We all broke into laughter as the tension in our chests dissolved.
Fiks stumbled from the door of our container, half clothed, wrapped in bedding.
“What the fuck is going on, you wankers?”
He reeled slightly.
I gestured to our neighbour who was now proudly brandishing the dead snake.
“Mein Gott. This explains nothing,” said Fiks, shaking his head and grasping in his sheets for a cigarette.
I was surprised to find my nerves running high an hour after the shooting. On our way across the border I had not been affected by gunfire from the Turkish army.
“Warning shots,” Simon, a brigade leader, pronounced hopefully when we had stopped running somewhere in Syrian territory that night.
"Warning shots don’t hit the ground in front of you," Fiks had muttered.
But it hadn’t troubled me. Perhaps the snake incident released prolonged tension, from being constantly alert for truck bombs and snipers for weeks.
Children grow up fast in Kobane, but it was hard to get used to kids of about 13 driving
Kobane is so close to the border there is actually a grand gate to Turkey in the centre of town. It remains closed, as it was during the six month ISIS siege. Even though their Peshmerga army fights ISIS too, Iraqi Kurdistan also embargoes Rojava, threatened that their revolution will spread. The liberation of Kobane from ISIS in these circumstances was remarkable; the devastated city, with 80 per cent of its buildings destroyed, became a symbol of Rojava’s commitment and self reliance. Its reconstruction became a further act of defiance to its enemies, and a demonstration of its support internationally as a beacon of hope for the left. ICOR, a relatively new international alliance of 49 communist parties, responded: led by the German section, the MLPD, a new hospital would be financed by member parties, and built by international volunteers.
“Kobane is Stalingrad!” said Azira, one of a group of young Kurdish Médecins Sans Frontières workers, unintentionally playing the unreconstructed commie crowd during a visit to the site.
“Did you hear Stallone is coming here to make a movie?” one of her colleagues asked excitedly, bringing us back to the reality of western cultural hegemony.
They were incredibly well turned out for citizens of a city without surfaced roads or electricity. Each housing block still standing ran a generator, using the one resource Rojava does have: oil.
“You look like… Leonardo DiCaprio.”
I’ll happily take that, I thought.
“And your friend…” they considered Fiks. “Bruce Willis!”
“Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker” Fiks deadpanned.
Having dealt with the boys they turned to Marlene, a 66-year-old brigade leader. “Are you married? You have children?”
She was married, but no children. A dog though, they were reassured. They began to talk more seriously about their families and the war, showing her pictures of their martyred brothers and sisters on their smartphones. The Kurds always seemed to talk about their martyrs with pride and calm; only in the new, secular graveyard – watched over not by a crucifix or crescent moon but a flag bearing the image of Ocalan – did they seem to let go. Bereaved mothers shared their grief with the women from the brigade, whilst their children somberly handed out sweets.
|The Women's Asayish are a regular police who have extended powers to deal exclusively with some cases such as honour killings and domestic violence, along with the Women's Courts|
Before they left, Marlene invited them to the next World Woman’s Conference, a defunct UN entity that has been recently revived by Marxist women’s groups.
The next one would be in Nepal. Did she really think women from Kobane could come, and would come all that way for a conference?
Someone else suggested the conference should be held here instead, given that Rojava was being called “the first women’s revolution”. There was now Jinology, Rojava’s new “science of women”, from the works of Ocalan, who had said a new history was needed to give women a leading role in human society.
“Men cannot just change reality with words” Hanna sighed.
“Women were and are oppressed; their liberation will only take place through the class struggle.” Some of us balked a this trite dismissal, but others concurred that we needed to look at social structure rather than ideology; the MSF visitors had been some of the few women workers we had met outside of the military and police; we had seen no women shopkeepers in Kobane, and it was more common to see a 13-year-old boy driving than a woman. When the brigade was invited to dinner by a local politician, our group brought the only women at the table.
These observations didn’t sit well with Nico, an Italian: “Surely that is exactly what the Kurdish movement addresses: structure! For every delegate position there must be one woman and one man, and that goes right up to the leadership of the of the PYD in Rojava, and the HDP in Turkey.” Someone admitted they could name the male co-chairs, but not the women; the men did seem to deliver the important interviews and speeches in both cases, we agreed.
“Rojava is a women’s revolution probably more than it is any other kind”, said Karin, mounting a defence.
“It is a rebellion against the increasing misogyny in the Middle East since the historic defeat of the left. The quotas, legal changes, the women’s defence units and the specialist women’s police force – these are all very significant, in some ways more advanced than anywhere else. Okay, “Jinology” was formulated by Ocalan, a man, but it comes from the struggle of women in the Kurdish movement. 'Opposition to patriarchy' is in the Rojava constitution, the core aims of the YPJ, and is discussed by men and women far more than in any previous revolutionary movement I can think of.”
“Yes”, replied Hanna, “instead of words like imperialism and capitalism.”
In a group of headbanging Marxists, Hanna’s head banged hardest. As we shopped for the party we were throwing for the children in the neighbourhood I asked her: "Are you a feminist?"
“Yes. No. It is hard. We must be feminist like we must be écologiste: but not before we are Marxist. Oppression of women comes from property, from capitalism. If we do not say this then we cannot explain the oppression, the patriarchy with ‘men are just bad’.” Typically for Hanna, this needed the further explanation: “It divides the workers.”
She went on. Women’s liberation had become “a weapon of anticommunism” used by the likes of Hilary Clinton to hide the true role of imperialism and spread the lie that socialism did not liberate women.
Isn’t that true though?
“No. No! It is not the truth. Russia had voting for women and abortion first in the world. Chinese communists legalised divorce in 1950 and more women were liberated than by any other single law in history. And today – everywhere there is the armed struggle the women are fighting too, just like here – the Naxalites in India have women soldiers and women’s courts for men’s violence too, but nobody wants to talk about them because they are communist, and everybody knows communists hate women.”
By using ideas that could not be properly measured, she argued, like culture, identity, and gender, postmodernism had undermined the scientific rigour of socialism. We should have no part in anything except materialist politics.
This cause and effect, rational explanation for everything appeared useless in the face of ISIS though. Its appeal is that it was so much vaster than self-interested humanity, so stridently and deliberately irrational. The idea of a timeless and sympathetic “humanity”, the slightly mystical exaltation of women – it was not surprising the ideologies developing here to counter jihadism also used a little bit of the inexplicable.
Looking back on the last one hundred years of revolutions, the huge cost of those huge gains, it seemed fair to say “Even if it isn’t entirely logical, next time – can we just be a bit nicer?”
3. The New Noise
'Weaponised pacifism”? “Militant tolerance”? I was trying to think up a name for this thoroughly Kurdish political outlook, as I waited for the commander to finish speaking in Kurdish, so that Devlet could start speaking in German, and Marlene could start translating into English for me.
I asked about Turkish collusion with ISIS, and if he’d come across any British Jihadis (sorry about them, I added). He said he’d witnessed ISIS fighters crossing the border from Turkey during the siege of Kobane, and had seen evidence they received treatment in a special Turkish hospital when injured.
He refused to accept my apology for the British jihadists, firstly on the basis that we cannot be blamed for our countries, secondly saying no country was responsible for Da’esh’s “victims”, weak, unhappy people, who were misled and brainwashed.
His group ran a deprogramming facility to bring them back to humanity, and if they could, send them home to their mothers. “They get better food than the PKK guerillas in the mountains!” he laughed. Although he quoted Ocalan seven times, this didn’t include opposition to the state, capitalism or patriarchy. But there were hints of a revolutionary politics beyond defending Rojava:
“The revolution is not for Kurdish autonomy alone. We will spread it for all humanity, and especially for women. We accept all religions, not one religion, not one people. The world belongs to humanity as a whole, and humanity as a whole must dominate it, not one group.”
This multiculturalism and focus on humanity over nation states, was typical of the YPG. At times it really did lack critique of the global economic order, like when he said “tell your governments what Turkey is doing” – though this was probably rhetoric.
What was also absent though, was any talk of national ownership, of what the Kurds were owed, or how they had been wronged. Even when criticising Turkey he would make sure we understood he meant the government, not the Turkish people. Although the conception of imperialism seemed to have fallen victim to this “armed altruism”, it was also at odds with the zeitgeist in First World left, obsessed with national or racial collective guilt.
A Kurdish commanderon his way back to the front. The most senior military figure I spoke to, he was at pains to stress the humanitarian values of the YPG
“This is why you cannot ally with imperialism, it will always betray you!” said Hanna, as news came in of more Turkish air raids against Kurdish targets in Iraq.
“It’s not an alliance – America bombs ISIS using YPG coordinates, the YPG takes the territory. Why would that change what Turkey does?” replied Nico.
This neutrality towards the west also seemed to have paid off in YPG volunteers with military experience, like the German fighter in his 40s who had travelled from Iraq:
“I was a private contractor there. This is very different. This is the first time I really believe in what I’m fighting for. There is no pay, just food, but if you fight for six months they will pay for your travel.”
Do they really want volunteers?
“Yes, they can take anyone. You will be trained for two months first. They don’t just drop you at the front with a gun.”
We met other European YPG volunteers, from Norway, France and Spain, and medics too, like Jean. Are all these internationals in “The Lions of Rojava”?
“No, there are internationals in lots of different units” said Jean, a German in her 20s, “and the “Lions” recruitment page is run by different people now, more political activists. It’s not an actual unit.”
What are the internationals’ politics like? “There were some… really strange people, but they’ve gone now.”
A graveyard in Kobane. The secular memorial is topped by four flags: YPG (yellow),YPJ (green), in the middle the Rojava flag and above that a flag depicting Abdullah Ocalan
Medical volunteers are needed, but trained ones, ready to deal with frontline casualties.
What about the International Freedom Battalion, the leftist international brigade? She smiles. “These are good people.”
As the name suggests, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), started out in the far left, and only removed the hammer and sickle from their flag in 1995. Turkey’s 1980 military dictatorship saw the myriad Marxist revolutionary groups decline whilst the PKK grew, and although the PKK disavowed their politics in the 2000s, the close relationship continues, with hundreds of Turkish socialists now in Rojava.
Leyla, a comrade of Ivana Hoffmann, was in her early 20s and had been fighting for a year. What were their differences with the YPG, Hanna asked?
“We have different analysis but the same goal” Leyla replied. “We are united against the Turkish state and its fascist puppet ISIS.”
The postmodern pronouncements that interested the academics back home gave way to a straightforward stage based analysis; when someone asked simply how the revolution was going, she replied they gained territory from ISIS every day.
“I mean, politically?”
She laughed: “The bigger the space the revolutionaries operate in, the better the revolution is going, no?”
But what did she make of the economy here?
“It’s not socialist, but it is not capitalist either. It is critical of capitalism, and they are trying alternatives, but this is the first stage of the revolution – we must liberate the territory and build the economy before it can be socialist.”
The international left must not wait until the revolution is perfect before they join it – first it needs to win, she explained. “If you have these ideas you must come here, your influence is needed. If you are a feminist, or a socialist, what better way to make sure these ideas grow?”
Even amongst some brigadists, there was uneasiness with this call. Much of the European left practices conscious and subconscious non-violence towards the state: not fighting, or fighting in ways that will lose, is seen as keeping the moral high ground. Arms are only acceptable in well established, distant conflicts carried out by non-westerners.
The old adage that “We must support the comrades by building the revolution at home” has now been joined by “We must not patronise the oppressed with our direct participation”. In this era of global migration, how long can these attitudes survive? Migrant socialists will bring their cultures and causes with them, and they will not shun support from their new neighbours.
Already hundreds from the Turkish radical left have been joined by political compatriots from across the Middle East and Europe in Rojava. Leftist elements in eastern Ukraine, similarly borne of a civil war, have also attracted internationals. They have expressed their solidarity with Rojava, and some have already transferred. We may be witnessing the emergence of a left response to Jihadism, internationally mobile, committed to a universal ideology rather than a single territory, coming off of the internet and into the conflict zones of the world.
Suddenly we are awake and running to the wire. Half the YPG are gone, presumably staging a distraction, others with us now in civvies, unarmed. I reach the wire, stop to let a couple pass a baby through, get caught myself then pushed through from behind. Suddenly everything is lit up, but we keep running. I catch up with Ernst, grab his bag off him and as I put my arm through his- I think of linking arms on a demonstration, for a moment feeling part of something timeless, the endless struggle of the left against immeasurable odds. I pull us both up the hill.
Below us in the valley a black APC has arrived but no shots ring out this time as we disappear into the olive grove.
*Names have been changed throughout this article. The author writes under a pseudonym