WAR AND PEACE
David Pratt on the courageous women bringing hope to Syria’s nightmare
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
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.