David Pratt on the coura­geous women bring­ing hope to Syria’s nightmare

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HE cut a lonely fig­ure in the oth­er­wise near de­serted ceme­tery. Around him stood some 1,300 head­stones, mark­ers to those who had fallen in the bat­tle for the north­ern Syr­ian city of Kobane.

Al­most four years have passed since that bit­ter siege in 2014 when Is­lamic State (IS) ji­hadists over­ran most of this city near the Turk­ish border, only to be beaten back by the de­ter­mined and near-leg­endary re­sis­tance of mainly Kur­dish fighters.

In­deed, many to­day con­sider the bat­tle for Kobane as a turn­ing point in the war against IS. For the Turk­ish fa­ther I met just last week in Kobane’s Mar­tyr’s Ceme­tery it was cer­tainly a turn­ing point in his own life. For it was in this bit­ter strug­gle that he lost his son, whose grave he had come to visit that af­ter­noon.

“He was a com­mu­nist like me,” the man whose name was Hik­mat told me, paus­ing mo­men­tar­ily and glanc­ing at the young man’s picture on the head­stone in front of him be­fore con­tin­u­ing.

“He left his stud­ies at Columbia Univer­sity in New York to come here and stand with the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG) and the Ro­java Revo­lu­tion against Daesh,” Hik­mat said proudly, us­ing the Ara­bic acro­nym for IS com­monly adopted here.

In one hand Hik­mat held a trowel, which he was us­ing to ce­ment an en­graved mar­ble plaque into place on top of his son’s grave.

The words on the plaque, he ex­plained, were those from the last let­ter he re­ceived from his son shortly be­fore he was shot dead by IS back dur­ing those dark days in Kobane in 2014.

To­day Hik­mat, his wife and re­main­ing fam­ily mem­bers have stayed on in the city un­able to re­turn to Turkey, where their son’s in­volve­ment in the ranks of the YPG would mark them out as po­lit­i­cal undesirables.

In the past few months Turkey has launched a ma­jor mil­i­tary of­fen­sive against the north­ern Syr­ian en­clave of Afrin, pitch­ing it­self and its Syr­ian mili­tia al­lies against the YPG. This is a front­line in the Syr­ian civil war that rarely makes the head­lines.

For Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, the YPG is the devil in­car­nate.

This is mainly be­cause the Ro­ja­van rev­o­lu­tion­ary party, the PYD of which the YPG is the armed wing, works in al­liance with Turkey’s Kur­dish Worker’s Party (PKK), a Marx­ist guer­rilla move­ment that since the 1970s has been en­gaged in a long war with the Turk­ish state.

But if the Ro­java Revo­lu­tion is a threat, then it’s a threat of a good ex­am­ple in the Mid­dle East. Time and again dur­ing my stay I wit­nessed how those who live within its ex­pe­ri­ence are or­gan­is­ing them­selves in grass­roots peo­ple’s as­sem­blies and co-op­er­a­tives and work­ing to­wards real democ­racy.

Those in the Ro­java Revo­lu­tion in­sist their ideas are in­spired by a new con­cept: demo­cratic con­fed­er­al­ism. At its heart lies an egal­i­tar­ian, plu­ral­ist en­gage­ment that in­volves a care­ful eth­nic and reli­gious bal­ance within its po­lit­i­cal struc­tures, one that in­volves Kurds, Arabs, Assyr­i­ans, Christians and many oth­ers in the de­ci­sion­mak­ing process.

Within the revo­lu­tion’s con­sti­tu­tion is en­shrined gen­der equal­ity and reli­gious free­dom. Women, es­pe­cially, play a cru­cial role in shap­ing the revo­lu­tion’s po­lit­i­cal direc­tion. Dur­ing those dif­fi­cult times as IS closed on Kobane, women fought on the front­line, just as they do to­day on those bat­tle­fields sur­round­ing Afrin and other con­tested ar­eas where ei­ther Turk­ish forces and their al­lies or IS threaten.

But, per­haps even more sig­nif­i­cantly, Ro­java’s women find them­selves now on an­other front­line too, work­ing within the revo­lu­tion’s newly cre­ated po­lit­i­cal and so­cial in­sti­tu­tions in a way rarely seen be­fore in the Mid­dle East.

At ev­ery level women are key to the prin­ci­ples on which the revo­lu­tion is based and evolv­ing. While in Kobane I met those run­ning lo­cal com­mu­nity defence groups and “Women’s Acad­e­mies” to ad­vance equal op­por­tu­nity in ed­u­ca­tion.

Oth­ers, too, have set up “Women’s Houses” where those who have ex­pe­ri­enced do­mes­tic vi­o­lence can find shel­ter, sup­port and le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. I met the lead­ers of the Kobane’s Women’s Congress, whose elo­quent, im­pas­sioned rea­son­ing and de­ter­mi­na­tion to ad­vance women’s rights was truly in­spi­ra­tional in a part of the world where so of­ten such things are re­garded as be­ing a lost cause.

In­deed, ev­ery­thing I saw in the Ro­java Revo­lu­tion was the ut­ter op­po­site to the re­ac­tionary, hi­er­ar­chi­cal, misog­y­nist, vi­o­lent and ve­he­mently anti-demo­cratic dik­tats es­poused by the ji­hadists of IS and sim­i­lar groups within parts of the Mid­dle East.

That the re­mark­able achieve­ments of the Ro­java Revo­lu­tion are not bet­ter known and recog­nised for the pos­i­tive thing they are, is pre­cisely be­cause they present the threat of a good ex­am­ple.

Within the Mid­dle East and beyond to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, the Ro­java “ex­per­i­ment” sends out a mes­sage pro­claim­ing that peo­ple can do things for them­selves. It’s also about a pop­u­lar body politic re­fus­ing to be ma­nip­u­lated as prox­ies by “lead­ers”who view the re­gion purely in terms of a geopo­lit­i­cal arena in which they pur­sue their own vested in­ter­ests.

This is gen­uine peo­ple power at work and, as such, it can ex­pect lit­tle sup­port from those pup­pet masters yank­ing on the strings of their lack­eys in the Mid­dle East.

In a re­gion so long choked by reli­gious strife, sec­tar­i­an­ism, con­flict and de­struc­tion, the Ro­java Revo­lu­tion is a breath of fresh air. That it strug­gles to sur­vive and will con­tinue to do so is a cer­tainty.

Meet­ing and speak­ing with many in­volved, I couldn’t help think­ing of those lines of verse from Ge­orge Or­well’s book on the Span­ish Civil War, Homage to Cat­alo­nia.

But the thing that I saw in your face No power can dis­in­herit:

No bomb that ever burst

Shat­ters the crys­tal spirit.

So of­ten in the mind’s eye of many the Mid­dle East is seen as a hope­less bas­ket case where lives are noth­ing but blighted. But as the past few weeks have again re­minded me, there will al­ways be those de­ter­mined to think oth­er­wise. From Ro­java to Gaza it’s time to recog­nise their courage and the sac­ri­fices they make. We must do what we can to sup­port them in mak­ing their lives bet­ter.

Women, es­pe­cially, play a cru­cial role in shap­ing the revo­lu­tion’s po­lit­i­cal direc­tion

Picture: David Pratt

„ Women from the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units pay homage to their fallen com­rades at the Mar­tyr’s Ceme­tery in Kobane, north­ern Syria.

„ Left: A woman stands in front of her de­stroyed home in Kobane in 2015. „ Right: A car driven by a IS sui­cide bomber ex­plodes in Kobane in 2014.

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