Locals standing on a Turkish hill observing the battle in Kobani. Photo by Iskender Dogu.
After almost two and a half months of fierce fighting between the Islamist militants of ISIS and the local defence units protecting the city, the odds in the battle for Kobani finally appear to be in favour of the defenders. The fighting has left the city in ruins and forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes.
When I traveled to the Turkish border with Syria, I spoke with local activists, refugees and international volunteers ready to join the resistance of Kobani. Their stories are without exception tales of courage and suffering; of hope and despair; and of broken dreams and a determination to survive against all odds. The personal histories of these people put a human face on the consequences of the geopolitical currents in which their lives have become entangled; involuntarily they have come to represent the struggles and challenges everyday people face when forces beyond their control start shaping the world around them.
Firat’s support for the revolution
Firat* is a 31-year old local Kurdish activist from around Suruç. At night he works as an electrical engineer in the nearby town of Şanlıurfa and during the day he dedicates his time to support the resistance of the People’s and Women’s Defense Forces (YPG/YPJ) that are fighting with ISIS for control over the Syrian border town of Kobani. He spends most of his free hours in the villages dotting the border, as part of the ‘human shield’ that aims to prevent aspiring jihadists from illegally crossing the border into Syria and at the same time he helps those who want to join the resistance doing just that.
For Firat, as for many Kurdish people across the border in Turkey, the battle for Kobani is perceived as a domestic rather than a foreign conflict and should be placed in the context of the Kurdish freedom struggle, rather than that of the Syrian civil war.
The local Kurds perceive the border between Syria and Turkey as an artificial demarcation that carves up their historical homeland which they refer to as ‘Kurdistan’. The Kurds, with a population of 30-35 million, are often described as the largest stateless nation in the world, forming significant minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In the frontier regions, single families can be found living on both sides of the border and the local Kurds often feel more closely related related to their comrades abroad than to their compatriots of other ethnicities at home.
Firat says he is proud of his 24-year old cousin Mahmut who is fighting on the side of the resistance in Kobani. “Rojava [Kurdish name for Syria’s northern, predominantly Kurdish regions] is a living example of what a future, united Kurdistan could look like,” he explains, referring to the so-called Rojava revolution in which the Kurdish-dominated northern regions of Syria declared their autonomy from the central government in the summer of 2012.
Rojava is a living example of what a future, united Kurdistan could look like.
The canton-system of the Rojava revolution is based upon the principles of direct democracy, gender equality and environmental sustainability and has become a beacon of hope for peace in the Middle East. Many believe that given the chance, the Rojava revolution—characterised by its secular nature, ethnic pluralism and local governance—could provide a viable alternative to the dictatorial regimes, Islamic radicals and other religious conservatives that currently pull the strings in the region.
Despite being imprisoned for three years for “subversive activities”—which in Turkey often translates to nothing more than participating in a peaceful protest demanding democratic rights for the Kurdish population—Firat is of no mind to give up the struggle. “I’m not scared to go to prison,” he admits. “For Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran the canton system is the best solution. In this globalised world only local organisation in the form of a confederalist system can provide true freedom.”
For many Kurds in Turkey, the successes of the Rojava revolution in terms of gender liberation and local, decentralised organisational structures provide a guiding light for their freedom struggle at home. Supporters of the Kurdish freedom struggle believe that this is one of the main reasons why the Turkish government has refrained from actively supporting the resistance in Kobani: it fears that the revolution in Rojava could inspire its domestic Kurdish population to make similar demands, hoping to increase their independence from the central government in Ankara.
Ahmet’s determination to fight
The attempts of the Turkish government to contain the Rojava revolution inside Syria by sealing off the border and standing by idly while the Islamist radicals conquered major parts of Kobani have backfired. The resistance fighters of the YPG/YPJ earned the respect of the international community when they managed to bring ISIS’ advance to a halt with little more than some light arms, grenades and an unwavering commitment to the cause. Rather than dying out like a candle in the night—as some believe Turkey had hoped—the fire of the Rojava revolution is burning bright and is attracting more attention than ever before.
Volunteers from as far away as Europe and the United States have left their homes behind in order to join the People’s and Women’s Defense Units in Kobani and the two other cantons that together make up Rojava: Afrin and Qamishli. Non-Kurdish foreign fighters attract a lot of media attention, as proven by the case of Jordan Matson, an ex-U.S. soldier who joined the YPG in late September. The hundreds of Kurds from outside Syria that have joined the ranks of the defense forces have drawn less attention from the international media, but in terms of actual support have been much more effective.
When I make my first visit to the border in early October, I meet with Ahmet, a 38-year old father of eight who has come all the way from Germany to join the ranks of the YPG. He describes his feelings when he was following ISIS’ advance into Kurdish territory online from the comfort of his Stuttgart home and he realized he could no longer be just an observer of the situation and that he had to take action: “I have seen how they killed the Yezidi women in Sinjar, how they sold them in the market of Mosul. I also have sisters, daughters and a wife – I can’t take it anymore. ISIS is not just the enemy of the Kurds, but of Christians too—of humanity!”
I’m ready to go to Kobani, I’m ready to die.
Ahmet, who is originally from the south of Turkey but has been living in Germany for more than twenty years, made up his mind and called his children and his wife to the living room to inform them of his decision. With tears in his eyes he tells how he received blessings from his children and a last kiss from his wife before he packed his bags and got on a flight to southern Turkey. “I’m ready to go to Kobani, I’m ready to die,” he conveys. “I’m just waiting for a chance to cross the border.”
The actions of people like Ahmet, who are prepared to sacrifice their own lives so that others might live, illustrate the central role Kobani has come to occupy in the collective imagination of the Kurdish people. The symbolic and strategic importance of the town can hardly be underestimated. As the birthplace of the Rojava revolution and due to its central position between the other two cantons in the northeast and northwest of Syria, respectively, the fall of the city would most likely mean a premature end to the social revolution.
Moreover, the consequences of an ISIS victory would not be restricted to Syria alone: Many Kurds in Turkey, and the PKK in particular, have stated that Kobani is the red line, and without the city under Kurdish control it would be impossible to continue with the peace process which seeks to bring an end to the 30-year long civil war between the Turkish government and the PKK.
Ahmet claims he has seen with his own eyes how the Turkish army helped ISIS members crossing the border, from Syria to Turkey and back again. While it is impossible to verify these claims, the sheer quantity of similar observations by people on both sides of the border leaves some uncomfortable questions lingering. The Turkish president Erdoğan has declared on several occasions that for him ISIS and the Democratic Union’s Party (PYD)—the political wing of the YPG/YPJ and key organiser of the Rojava revolution—are two sides of the same coin, and that an autonomous Kurdish entity at its doorstep would pose a significant threat to Turkey’s national security.
Medya’s shattered dreams
When ISIS advanced towards Kobani from mid-September onwards, hundreds of thousands of people fled before them. The 350 villages that surround Kobani were abandoned, and its populations flocked to the town before crossing the border into Turkey. The YPG/YPJ claim that the relative ease with which ISIS conquered Kobani’s countryside was due to a ‘tactical retreat’ by the defense forces. This was part of a strategy that lured the Islamists into the small streets of the town where their heavy weapons would have less supremacy over the light arms of the resistance fighters.
However, when I speak with a group of villagers from Kobani who are now living in one of the refugee camps in Suruç, they tell me a different story of why they left their homes.
One day two men on a motorbike entered their village. They were covered in blood, and with voices trembling with fear they warned the villagers that ISIS had just overran their village and killed everyone, and that their village was next. Upon hearing this worrying news, the people wasted little time in gathering few possessions before setting out for the relative safety of Kobani. Yet, when they arrived in town they heard similar stories from the people from different villagers and they realized that they had been tricked. The two men had been ISIS-members, and the act had been an attempt to spread fear and terror among the population, forcing them to flee and thus occupying the defence forces with protecting the fleeing population rather than stopping ISIS’ advance.
ISIS destroyed my dreams.
18-year old Medya from Kobani saw the approximately 150,000 refugees pass through her town on their way to Turkey, before she and her family decided to join the stream and escape the town too. “ISIS destroyed my dreams,” she tells in remarkably good English in the ‘Rojava refugee camp’ in Suruç, where she approached me to have a little chat and practice her language skills. “I love to play football and I hoped that one day I could play for the Syrian national team, but now this is impossible.“
For the past three years the Kurdish-dominated northern regions of Syria remained relatively untouched by the civil war. Even now, life in Cezire, the northeastern canton of Rojava, continues more or less the way it has done for years but for the thousands of refugees who have arrived from other regions now under ISIS control. The most significant change is the fact that the monopoly of violence has now almost entirely come into the hand of the Democratic Union’s Party, rather than the security forces of Assad’s regime. It was the same in Kobani, and Medya explains that she only started to experience the consequences of the civil war when ISIS knocked on the gates.
Medya loves to read and would like to improve her English and learn German next. She hopes she can go to Germany one day, but for now she has set her hopes on Istanbul, far away from the war and where she “can live in a real apartment and not in a tent.”
Medya and her family are part of the 200,000 Syrian refugees that flocked into Turkey when Kobani came under siege. Despite the fact that the Turkish government has used the temporary opening of its borders for Syrian refugees fleeing the violence s an argument against allegations of neglecting and discriminating against the Syrian Kurds, a mere 3% of these refugees are actually being housed in government-run refugee camps. The majority of the refugees have found shelter either in one of the tent camps run by the pro-Kurdish municipality of Suruç or with locals in and around the town. These people are dependent on the charity of the local government and the hospitality of the people in the region.
The struggle continues
Now that the battle for Kobani will most likely be won by the city’s defenders, it is only a matter of weeks, if not days before it will disappear from the headlines of the world’s media once again. But while the battle is won, the war rages on. It took the siege of a city on the doorstep of a key-NATO ally, hundreds of thousands of refugees and more than two months of resisting fierce attacks by ISIS militants before the world opened its eyes to the plight of Syria’s Kurdish population.
While the defence forces of the YPG/YPJ continue to fight with ISIS and other armed factions that have turned against them, behind the frontlines an even more important battle continues to be fought. The Rojava revolution is a fight for true democracy, gender equality and environmental sustainability, and, as some would argue: it is the only hope and solution for sustainable peace in Syria and the Middle East.
What Firat, Ahmet and Medya have in common is that they believe in a world where people can determine the course of their own lives, with freedom and equality for men and women and people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Their lives have been shaped by the decisions made by individuals in far-away palaces and parliaments, and now, finally, history has provided them with the opportunity to take control over their own destinies. Theirs is a struggle against all odds, but filled with hopes and dreams that one day not only the Kurds but everyone, everywhere can live free from oppression and persecution, in dignity, equality and true freedom.
-* All names in this article have been changed in order to protect the identity of the interviewees.
<em><em>Iskender Doğu</em> is an Istanbul-based freelance writer and journalist. He has a background in anthropology and political economy and is currently an editor for ROAR Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @Le_Frique</em>.