North Africa, West Asia

A new kind of freedom born in terror

The revolution which has been taking place across Rojava (literally, ‘Western Kurdistan’), where three cantons were set up in January this year, has a grassroots democratic model.

Yvo Fitzherbert
26 August 2014

Yezidi refugees gather in front of a food distribution center in Sharya, Iraq. Martin Bader/Demotix. All rights reserved.

When, in early August, the Islamic State, IS (also known as ISIS) entered Iraqi Kurdistan and seized Şengal, an ancestral home for Yezîdîs, many were shocked by the relative ease with which the peshmerga (the military force of Iraqi Kurdistan) capitulated. Masoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdistan president, had eased Yezîdîs concerns a few days earlier by promising the peshmerga would protect them. The peshmerga (literally, “those who confront death”) were originally Kurdish rebels from the mountains who resisted the brutal Baathist regime under Saddam Hussein for 40 years until the no-fly zone was created in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. Due to this, their bravery and hardiness were legendary, strong enough, many hoped, to fend off the Islamic State. But the peshmerga were easily routed in Şengal. It seems that the peshmerga were no longer the force they had been: they had lost touch with their fighting roots over two decades of relative stability. Some claimed that the peshmerga fled Şengal out of fear. Others aver that they didn’t have the necessary weapons to fight IS. Either way, the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) was roundly condemned for its negligence.

The Yezîdîs, with a population of about 700,000, are a Kurdish religious minority predominantly located in the Ninevah province of Iraqi Kurdistan. Their ancient religion is claimed by some to be the ancestral religion of the Kurdish people before the spread of Islam, and they have faced centuries of persecution. After IS stormed into Şengal, reports emerged that many were slaughtered, and that women were raped and sold as sex slaves. Others were trapped, forced to convert to Islam or face death: the lucky ones escaped. Those with vehicles left with nothing, whilst many fled to the mountains where they were stuck for days without food or water. Eventually the YPG, the PKK-affiliated guerrillas who have been fighting Islamic insurgents for two years from their semi-autonomous region of Syria known as Rojava, came to their rescue by creating a ‘safe corridor’ into Rojava. Many have stayed in this Kurdish autonomous region, whilst others have re-entered Iraqi Kurdistan further north.

Refuge in Turkey

In the last few weeks there has also been a steady flow of Yezîdî refugees seeking refuge in Turkey. With the help of the BDP (the Kurdish party in Turkey) and the municipalities in the Kurdish region of Turkey (often referred to as ‘northern Kurdistan’), these refugees have been welcomed. About 2000 Yezîdîs are thought to be in eastern Turkey right now, dotted around various Kurdish cities. In Diyarbakir, the biggest city of the region, 250 Yezîdî refugees are currently being looked after. The refugees are housed in Sümerpark in the centre of Diyarbakir, where they have been given use of an attractive municipal building. The soup kitchen is entirely dependent on donations and staffed by volunteers, both locals and other refugees. Amongst the bustle of children playing football and groups sitting in huddles, I met Xal İsmail Ferhad, one of the refugees staying in the park. Ferhad was one of the earliest Yezîdî refugees to come to Turkey, and he explained that prior to the support of the municipality, it was the Kurdish public in cities across eastern Turkey who had offered help.

Ferhad was keen to express his gratitude: “We were not expecting this hospitality - that people would help us so much. When Iraqi refugees last came to Turkey in 1991, we were treated like dogs. Now, we are treated as guests.” In 1991, after Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, many fled to Turkey, where the Turkish army organised them into camps. The Turkish state was at that time locked in conflict with the PKK, and incoming Kurdish refugees were placed in refugee camps along the border in terrible conditions. Journalists and fellow Kurds struggled to gain access; reports of violence were commonplace. The situation today is quite different mainly because the Turkish government has allowed the Kurdish population to take control of the refugees. So Kurds in Turkey are free to show their solidarity to their Kurdish brothers across the artifical borders that have separated them since 1923. Ferhad insisted on referring to his fellow Kurds in Turkey as “heval” (literally, “brother” in Kurdish), stressing the shared identity between Iraqi and Turkish Kurds. The generosity offered by the BDP (the pro-Kurdish party in Turkey) and the Kurdish public has indeed been remarkable - not only have they found housing and food for the refugees, there is also an entirely-voluntary organisation set up to send supplies of food, clothes, blankets and whatever is needed to Şengal and Rojava.

Ferhad was an elementary school teacher in Şengal. He described how he left with nothing but what he was wearing, not even having time to bring his telephone. “I came with my children, wife, mother, and brothers’ wives and children. My four brothers stayed behind to defend our land”. Ferhad was lucky, he escaped quickly by car after he had received a phone call from a friend who saw IS jihadists murdering children on the street and who told Ferhad to “run and take your children as they are killing us here. If you don’t run away your family will be in trouble.”  When asked about the whereabouts of his brothers, he pressed, “Look, I don’t even know where my brothers are, but I know they are there.”

Thoruhgout our conversation this gentle, openhearted man in his sixties kept on repeating, “I want the world to know what the Arabs did to us.” The reference to Arabs as the enemy was a continuous theme: “Arabs did this, they insulted us and killed our women and children”, “We don’t want to live with Arabs again after this.”

Shenah Abdullah, an academic living in Sulaymani, Iraqi Kurdistan, has also noticed this sharp rise in religious and ethnic tensions throughout Kurdistan as a result of IS activities. Ferhad later told me, “as long as we were living on this land, there was no problems between us until al-Maliki and ISIS came.” Al-Maliki, the recently ousted Iraqi Shite prime minister, carried out pro-Shite sectarian policies which have been a driving force behind some discontented and marginalised Sunnis now seeing IS as their saviours. It seems as though the relations between the different identities in the region have been irrevocably damaged. This development of course suits ISIS down to the ground.  

Ferhad explained how he had been one of the lucky ones because he had a car, packed with his various family members, and had enough warning to leave. He described how all those without cars had headed straight for Mt. Şengal where they were stranded. Immediately the world’s attention was brought to the plight of the Yezîdîs by this image of thousands of desperate refugees trapped on the mountain, surrounded by IS militants, without any food or water for days. The rescue operation which followed was entirely conducted by the marginalised YPG. The YPG (People Defence Unit) and YPJ (Women’s Defence Unit), both PKK-affiliated guerrillas, have been resisting the Islamic State and other Islamist groups from Rojava in Syria for two years. Battling through IS lines from their Syrian base, the guerrillas managed to create a humanitarian corridor into Syria. Whilst refugees started the long trek (100,000 refugees are thought to have escaped along this route) to relative safety in Kurdish-controlled Syria, guerrillas guarded the corridor by continuously fighting off IS jihadists less than one kilometre away.

“If the YPG hadn’t come to the mountains, our people wouldn’t have survived. They are our saviours”, Ferhad passionately explained. It was a point Ferhad kept on emphasising, how YPG have won the heart and trust of all Yezîdîs. When asked if he trusted the YPG more than any other forces, specifically the peshmerga, he said, “Of course. We will give all our boys to them. I will go myself... We are the same mentality as the YPG and PKK.”

As Ferhad explained, Şengal is presently in the hands of YPG, who were the first to re-enter the town. Many of IS’s jihadists in Kurdistan have retreated, and they now only occupy just a few villages, “They are on the retreat, they’re afraid of YPG”, a volunteer explained to me. YPG’s heroism is indisputable, and as Ferhad reiterated, “We don’t accept anyone except the YPG.” Because of his faith in the YPG, Ferhad now plans to return to Şengal sooner than he imagined. “We will go back in September. YPG and PKK are there, if they are there, we are safe. The Islamic State won’t come back.” Other activists have explained to me that this is part of a wider strategy whereby the YPG, YPJ and PKK guerrillas hope to expand their Rojava revolution, also taking advantage of the fading Syrian-Iraqi border.

Rojava revolution

The revolution which has been taking place across Rojava (literally, ‘Western Kurdistan’), where three cantons were set up in January this year, has a grassroots democratic model.  Representatives are made up of Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians, with at least one third of all representatives, female. The ideology behind this progressive autonomous structure, which has a secular constitution, is that of the PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. His vision of ‘Democratic Confederalism’ builds on a concept espoused by the American anarchist Murray Bookchin. Since Öcalan’s arrest in 1999, the PKK’s ideology has changed considerably, so much so that they have all but denounced nationalism in favour of a form of libertarian socialism. From his prison, Öcalan wrote, “the nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us. Even though we opposed it in principle and rhetoric, we nonetheless accepted it as inevitable.”

This opposition to nationalism has extended to an opposition to the concept of the State. To quote a senior PKK commander, Duran Kalkan: “The state is a system, to be a state means to be a part of the system. This means dependence and collaboration. Small states are dependent on larger states, and they are all dependent to the state system. It is very clear that the state cannot be free and independent.”

Democratic Confederalism, which Öcalan simplifies as essentially “democracy without a state” has already begun to be put into practise in Rojava. It seems that Şengal has now become part of this revolution, and as far as Ferhad is concerned, he hopes it is something which the Yezîdîs of Şengal will embrace. Whether the US-backed Kurdish Democratic Party like it or not, the guerrillas are there to stay. And they are fighting for a new kind of freedom.

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