A revolution for our times: Rojava, Northern Syria

Travelling in Rojava is to witness a revolution experimenting with a form of stateless, direct democracy with women’s liberation, race and class equality at the heart of it. Part 1.

Rahila Gupta
4 April 2016

Part One.

When the ‘Arab Spring’ spread to Syria in 2011, Bashar Al Assad withdrew most of his forces from the predominantly Kurdish areas of Northern Syria to concentrate his firepower on the rebel forces in the South. The political freedoms of the Kurds had been heavily restricted by Assad, expressions of Kurdish identity were criminalised and their demographic density was diluted by Assad’s ‘Arabisation’ policy in which Arabs were resettled in Kurdish areas. The Kurds took advantage of Assad’s distractedness; under the direction of PYD (Democratic Union Party) which was influenced by the ideology of ‘democratic confederalism’ propounded by Abdullah Öcalan, jailed leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) across the border in Turkey, the Syrian Kurds set up a secular and ethnically inclusive, genuinely bottom-up democratic system. It is valiantly defended by men and women soldiers (YPG/YPJ) against ISIS which is unsuccessfully attempting to erode its Southern border.

This is part one of the diary I kept on my recent visit to Rojava:

I am making preparations for going to Rojava, the Kurdish enclave, in Northern Syria against a backdrop of anxious family and friends, mostly anxious about bombs and shrapnel, while some are concerned that I haven’t informed the British foreign office and may be arrested as a potential terrorist. I am relying on my press card and history of journalism in the UK for my ‘get out of jail’ card. Meanwhile I’m more worried about reported shortages of electricity and water. I am going there to research my forthcoming book, Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die?, co-written with Beatrix Campbell. I have discovered that there is a revolution going on (in the middle of a war?!) which both ideologically and in practice puts women in the driving seat.  


Commander and spokeswoman YPJ Womens' Defense Units, with Amina Ossa, Foreign Affairs, Rojava. Photo: Rahila Gupta

I have to fly to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurdish Regional Government) and then take a four hour drive to the border at Peshabur on a road that skirts Mosul, the ISIS stronghold in Iraq. This is the only part of my journey that worries me. But the journey turns out to be dangerous for very different reasons: the driver smokes at least 20 cigarettes; jiggles around and sings along to a Hindi film DVD that plays on a small screen on his dashboard so his eyes are rarely on the road even when overtaking; simultaneously juggling a phone and munching on the cashew nuts I offer him which leaves only his little finger on the steering wheel. When I see a plume of smoke in the distance and mime an explosion saying ‘bomb?’, a universal word, the driver goes ‘Naaah’.

The next worrying thing is the border. I had been told by almost everyone connected with Rojava that the KRG is making it very hard for people to cross because they are opposed to the revolution. I have written as often as is polite to the border control. The first email says I can cross if I have a press card but can only go once. The second email says in English that the rules have changed and under the new rules I would not have been allowed as a freelancer but "edition happened after agreement” so they would honour the arrangement. The border is ‘manned’ by a young woman, who asks me why I am going to Rojava. When I say to research a book on why patriarchy doesn't die, she asks what patriarchy means. When I explain it, she says “good, I hope it dies and never comes back”. This is what they must mean by soft power – she is gentle and lovely but would have no reservations in applying the rules.

She then walks me to the border. The border is the river Tigris.   For some reason, it brings a lump to my throat.  I have never been to a physical international border before unless we consider airports to be such. You can see Syria across the river; a little ferry takes people back-and-forth for free. Not everything is commodified here – one of many correctives to my Western mindset. We wait for about ten Syrians to load about sixty bits of luggage. There are more people returning to Rojava than leaving, an indication that it has a refugee problem of its own which is little known in the West. When we get to the other side, the contrast couldn’t be sharper – a steep bank from the river’s edge covered by slippery pebbles and small rocks with families sitting and waiting with their luggage – compared with the smooth concreted over jetty on the Iraqi side.

Border crossing, Peshabur, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo: Rahila Gupta

With great difficulty I manage to clamber up with my two rucksacks wondering how I’m going to lug them to the top whilst anxiously scanning the faces of the men hanging around to see if anyone looks like they are waiting for me. As my hosts in KRG had so little English, I have come across equipped with just a name, Mr Karawan. I have no idea what I will do if Karawan doesn’t materialise. My hosts, Peace for Kurdistan, who have helped organise the trip have told me that I will be totally taken care of in Rojava. But nobody takes the slightest bit of interest in me apart from a helpful young man who sees me struggling with my luggage and carries it up for me.  What I don’t know at this point is that Karawan is the head of the border service and is unlikely to come to the water’s edge to pick me up.

Border crossing, Semalka, Rojava, Northern Syria. Photo: Rahila Gupta

This was to be a constant feature of my trip. One person would deliver me to a point in my journey with scant information, made more precarious by lack of a common language and then I’d wait, mouthing a name to anyone who’d listen and hope for the best. So I go to this desultory looking hut and throw the word "Karawan" at the man inside, he looks like he knows and I feel instant relief. I am directed to put my luggage in a van. Looking around I see how undeveloped this place is, the work of reconstruction of the revolution is already noticeable. In the distance I see a makeshift bridge which has lorries travelling in both directions, evidence that there is some border trade going on although I am told later on that the KRG has imposed a trade embargo.

Border crossing, Semalka, Rojava, Northern Syria. Photo: Rahila Gupta

As I get into the van, a random woman comes and shakes my hand and kisses me on both cheeks repeating warmly "welcome to Rojava", a greeting that is also repeated raucously by the driver of the van and the family that he is transporting. I’m immediately on a high. The road is uneven and rocky but in less than a quarter of a mile I am dropped off again at a half finished brand-new building and told to wait there and someone will take me further. Here I meet Daham Basha who speaks a little English which gets better as the day progresses. He is there to sort out my entry clearance. When I mention the name “Karawan”, it’s like saying “open sesame”; suddenly I go from being a random visitor to a guest.

Karawan, in charge of border control. Rojava, Northern Syria: Photo: Rahila Gupta

I get taken in to see the head honcho, the man in charge of border control. He spends the next couple of hours discussing world politics with me through Daham’s translations. Where in the world would the head of border control give me the time of day? I put to him my theory that once the Kurds have destroyed ISIS, the Americans who are providing air-cover ever since the battle of Kobanî, will turn on them because their ideas are dangerous to Western capitalism. Either things are lost in translation or his glasses are even more rose tinted than mine – he says that the alliance with the US is strategic, that they need the Kurds, that without US support they would lose even more people to the conflict. I say I am not criticising them for the alliance, just pointing out the dangers. He says that the Rojava revolution has the potential to influence the US, Russia and even the world. I ask him how come Rojava has brought the US and Russia on the same side when they are bitter enemies. He crinkles his eyes and laughs heartily. He says they want to live in peace with all their neighbours, they have no beef with anybody, not even Israel. He talks of the dangers of sectarianism, of Sunni versus Shia, of how the US has encouraged and promoted political Islam and then I hear a surprising analysis: what the US labels “Arab spring” in Syria is mostly an opposition organised by the Muslim Brotherhood and armed by the US. I object that there are democracy loving secularists in the FSA (Free Syrian Army). But I sense a deference in Daham, a reluctance to argue with his boss even though he’s just conveying my arguments. So I don’t push my point of view.

I ask Karawan about his female counterpart. Daham thinks I’m asking if he is married.  No, I’m talking about the much vaunted gender equality of co-leadership between men and women. Karawan says they couldn’t find a woman for this post out here on the border. I ask if it’s a question of money – perhaps there’s not enough work for two people. He brushes that off airily saying money is not important where principles are concerned but I persist – an economy has to be viable. When pressed, he says the border makes money - fees on entry and taxes on goods. Yet later Daham tells me that they have no Wi-Fi because they have used up their allowance of 40GB a month.

Then Daham takes me to lunch in the staff canteen where a couple of YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) fighters, celebrated for their courageous release of Yazidi women and children trapped by ISIS on Mount Sinjar, wearing colourful headbands enter in military fatigues. There is a YPG/YPJ outpost nearby. I discover that Karawan is ex-YPG (People’s Protection Units), a soldier with a prosthetic leg, although I hadn’t noticed. I also find out that he earns the same as Daham and 16-year-old Mohammad  who served us tea (less than $100 a month).

Equal pay1(2).jpg

Daham Basha, border control officer with Mohammad, tea server. Photo: Rahila Gupta

I am in the presence of a revolution. I had been raised in a Communist household where adult conversations had soared with aspirations for another world even though, unknown to me,  the Soviet Union experiment had begun to sour by then with the invasion of Hungary. I never thought I would have the opportunity of seeing a revolution unfold in my lifetime, especially not after the bottomless consumerism and individualism of life in the neo-liberal West makes equal pay sound like a fantasy. I feel privileged. And I haven’t even left the border.

This is the first article by Rahila Gupta in a six-part series from Rojava, to be published throughout April and May 2016 on oD 50.50


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