Day 1 in Northwestern Syria
My first impression in Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish area in northeastern Syria, is that everything seems quite normal. For a small region still engaged in the fight against the Islamic State (although only three people die on the front per day, as compared to 20-30 a few months ago) and in the stranglehold of Erdogan’s Turkey, the area is remarkably quiet, and even seems prosperous, with shops full of goods and the fields and herds well-tended to.
We wake up in a hotel with a stagnant swimming pool, but otherwise well kept, in the center of Derik, called by its Arab name Al Malikiyyah on maps, and drive to Qamishlo, the main town of Cezire. Cezire (pronounce Jezireh) is one of the three cantons of Rojava, along with the more famous enclave Kobane and Efrin, north of Aleppo. The drive takes us about 90 minutes along well asphalted roads, through endless wheat fields.
There are no signs of destruction or war, besides the many martyrs’ posters. Although it is cut off by Turkey and the border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan is only open sometimes, the region seems to be largely self-sufficient – for example, it refines its own oil, crudely but enough to supply its cars. Most supplies arrive from Assad’s Syria and beyond, through IS territory, which only taxes the basic supplies ferried towards Rojava. Relations with the Assad government amount to a pact of non-aggression. There are daily flights to Damascus and Latakia; but there is also a regular bus service to Raqqa.
In Qamishlo we meet political and educational institutions involved in creating a new polity based on Abdullah Ocalan’s ideas of democratic confederalism. This unchains all kinds of contradictory reactions in us. On the one hand, admiration for the courage and determination with which a completely new, and profoundly democratic, system is being built, without outside help, and faced by violent opposition. Ocalan’s ideal is of a ‘democracy without a state’ based, inter alia, on a profound gender revolution against patriarchal values, which he sees as ingrained in the concept itself of the state. On the other hand we experience a creeping fear of indoctrination, because we feel that such a unidirectional ideology, spread throughout society through education and political enforcement, is against our pluralistic instincts.
The small group of six foreigners I’m part of spends much of our time discussing these contradictory feelings, in the form of debriefings between meetings, and sometimes even during these meetings. That morning we have just read a report by Amnesty International accusing the authorities of Rojava of possible war crimes, as there are clear signs that villages populated mostly by Arabs have been ‘cleansed’. The population has been made to flee, and the houses burnt by the mostly Kurdish forces of the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, the political party in charge of the ‘Rojava revolution’, and which is so close as to be virtually identical to the PKK.
This report feeds into our fears that we are witnessing the beginnings of a new autocratic state, supposedly democratic but squarely against any other ideology than that of Apo, as the imprisoned leader of the PKK is affectionately called. But at the same time, we must admit that in our encounters, we feel or see nothing of such intolerance or indoctrination. For a people violently suppressed since at least a century, and engaged in a multi-front war, the politicians, educators and active citizens we meet are even surprisingly relaxed. Although everybody extols the system of communitarian democracy linked into larger networks by the principles of confederation, they field our critical questions with verve and candor, far from the media savviness that we are used to.
We are also very divided about the few foreign fighters we meet, who are engaged on the side of the YPG against the Islamic State. Are they nutcases in search of brainwashing, thrilled to find a purpose to their lives (and death)? Or are they idealists capable of what has become unthinkable for us armchair radicals, ready to give their lives for a just cause?
Are we even capable of escaping our postmodern perplexity, in which we are so comfortable? While the intellectuals amongst us ask untranslatable questions about ‘narratives’ and ‘counterhegemonic values’, a Filipino Marxist activist in our group relates easily to the necessity to urgently develop a coherent and functional political system on these new values. But can we even relate to her? Aren’t we, European and American intellectuals, truly more evolved in our rejection of such simplistic narratives? Could we honestly return to them without it being a sign of intellectual regression?
The ‘minister’ of women’s affairs of Cezire, after detailing how, by law and awareness-raising activities, and the occasional institutional set-up their limited finances allow, they enforce strict equality between men and women, and have taken concrete measures to empower the latter, draws the line when we ask about contraceptive measures available to unmarried women. We do not accept sexual relations before marriage, this very liberated and eloquent Kurdish woman tells us. Can we honestly relate to that, without caving in to some kind of politically correct cultural relativism, that, we feel, has done more damage than good?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we actually found duplicity or hypocrisy in the objectives, strategies and activities of our interlocutors. But on our first day we couldn’t really investigate whether they were there. We know that in the early days of autonomous Rojava, the PYD imprisoned many of its political opponents, making others flee across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. But could that be avoided in a society at war? In that sense, pace Amnesty International, one can even understand a certain degree of violence exerted by an army when faced with hostile population groups in the middle of a war. We met enough Arabs who were engaged in the Rojava revolution alongside the Kurds to prove that, in fact, one cannot speak of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
What we really faced was our own incredulity, our incapacity to believe in such a radical transformation of society, that we so ardently hope for – otherwise we would not be here, in Rojava, as part of this delegation.
More tomorrow, if the internet connection allows it