Driving through the beautiful countryside of northern Syria, the tranquil atmosphere doesn’t reveal the slightest possibility that this is a country that is at war, or that this area was one of the front lines of that now six-year conflict just a short time ago. In fact, the thought that the most extreme of fascist organizations not long ago controlled this serene landscape seems impossible. But arriving from the east into Kobane canton, a destroyed school soon jolts one into full sobriety. A memorial in front of the remains of this center of learning pays homage to the thirteen fallen comrades of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) who perished here in the fight against barbarism. At the beginning of the battle for Kobane, these courageous young women and men held this school for an entire night of battle with the advancing forces of the so-called Islamic State before running out of ammunition. When they realized that all of their possibilities of fighting back had been exhausted, they made the decision they would never be captured alive. Instead, they huddled together, sang a revolutionary song over the radio to their comrades, and with their last grenades blew themselves up. This was the spirit of resistance that made possible the victory of the YPG and YPJ in the epic that began on that night.
Free Abdullah Öcalan!
A few days after my first impressions of Kobane, I find myself in the heart of the city with a group of internationalists. We are looking at the destruction left behind by Islamic State group and the fightback waged against them by the Kurdish revolutionaries. It’s hard not to feel like little more than a “revolutionary tourist” under these circumstances. It’s easy to feel nauseous, in part because of the stench of death – real or imagined – still lingers. The border of Turkey is just meters away, a flag representing that country that is sliding into fascism itself hovering above a newly constructed border wall. At the time of the battle between September 2014 and January 2015, that wall didn’t exist, meaning that forces of both Islamic State group and the Turkish state could enter and exit Kobane as they saw fit. The stories of Turkish complicity and involvement in the Islamic State group siege of Kobane are endless here – tour guides and YPG/J militants alike don’t shy away from letting it be known how deeply Ankara was involved in support for ISIS at that time. Now the wall exists, one that for me conjures up images of both the apartheid barrier in Palestine and the “beautiful wall” promised by President Donald Trump. This fortification keeps Kurdish families apart from one another. But it also cements the idea of Turkey’s major worry that the Federal Democratic System of Northern Syria, and Kurdish self-administration, is here to stay.
The scenes along the border in the city’s east are indescribable. Burnt-out cars that were used as mobile explosives by the Islamic State group are everywhere. What were once homes now resemble mostly rubble with the occasional structure and wall still intact. Bullet holes, no doubt, are omnipresent. Occasionally, the seemingly random piece of clothing appears out of nowhere. Apparently, the bodies of killed terrorists are still under the rubble in many places. But miraculously, some families continue to live in this area despite all of the reminders of the horror that once engulfed these streets. This area is now somewhat of a museum – signs all around mark the names of martyrs who died street-to-street. The fighting here was often door-to-door, or even wall-to-wall. As our Kurdish friends never hesitate to point out, this wasn’t just the scene of the Kurds' battle with the Islamic State group, but the front line in humanity’s war, whether the governments of the so-called international community recognized it or not.
Meeting the Comrades
The next day, we are taken to the YPG/J command post in the city center. Berxwedan seems at first to be an unimposing man, a spirit whose aura of calm and composure gives away little about the previous years of his life. It’s impossible to detect how old he is – I think to myself that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was in his early twenties, but he could also easily be over the age of 30. As it turns out, he’s somewhere right in the middle, a man who has spent just over a quarter of a century on this earth. But the initial sense of mystery that seems to surround him gives way rather quickly when he comes to greet me. It’s the way that he embraces me with the most genuine, firm handshake while intensely yet cheerfully looking into my eyes that reveal that despite his relative youthfulness, he’s seen far more than the majority of people will ever witness in a lifetime. He has “that look,” one that I’ve only ever come across a handful of times before. As it turns out, he wasn’t supposed to live to even see this age. After all, the vast majority of his friends passed away sometime in the few months between September 2014 and January 2015, their blood helping to write perhaps the most epic anti-fascist story of the 21st century to date.
As we sit down inside of the YPG command center in Kobane, Berxwedan is soon joined by a woman a few years his junior who goes by the name of Newroz. Their names are suiting, to say the least. Berxwedan means resistance, and Newroz the new year. I’m soon drawn by the similarities between these comrades. Their smiles are genuine, no doubt. Yet it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that a part of them is with their fallen friends, physically lost in the struggle against Islamic State group. Berxwedan ashes his cigarette and recalls the final days of the battle that saw the so-called Islamic State expelled from this Kurdish city of resistance. He is visibly upset by my question about the so-called “international community” – in reality, the United States – wanting to claim the glory in this struggle, saying “The international powers ignored what was taking place here until only a tiny section of the city was still left in our control. Then they intervened at last – not for us in the YPG and YPJ, but for both their geostrategic interests and because they themselves perhaps finally saw the danger to Islamic State group could pose even to them. But we know they didn’t give us air support because they actually support our struggle. They certainly don’t support us politically. That hasn’t changed more than two years later.”
Newroz chimes in, talking about how the western powers ignoring the battle of Kobane provoked “a lot of anger.” She also insists, “how dare they try to take the credit for the liberation of Kobane when they have contributed nothing to the rebuilding of the city?”
A City Under Construction
Despite the lack of infrastructure development in some parts of the city, including the aforementioned eastern part that is being maintained as a museum, Kobane today is a place where rebuilding is palpable. The day before my meeting with Berxwedan and Newroz, a brand new youth center opened just streets from where the most intense combat took place during the battle. The youth sang and danced in the streets in front of the new center before the ribbon was cut to inaugurate a place they’ll begin practicing both traditional and modern Kurdish art. It’s not only symbolic that their new home for cultural expression was not so long ago held by the forces of darkness who wanted to rename the city Ayn al-Islam, reflecting their misuse and abuse of Islam (the religion that most Kurds also follow), but also that the center itself was once a Syrian state institution for culture when the city was officially known as Ayn al-Arab despite it being overwhelmingly Kurdish. The evening of the opening of the center, I meet a man in his late fifties who with tears in his eyes recalls how he used to try coming to the center in previous decades only to be told “you don’t belong here.” He was a poor peasant and an “ignorant Kurd,” not one of the assimilated and “cultured” ones who threw in their lot with the Syrian Arab state. Now he feels overjoyed that his city is freely free from both Arabization and from the Islamic State group – that it is uniquely Kurdish, that he can walk the streets speaking his native Kurmanji, and that the youth will within days begin the process of both practicing and developing their revolutionary culture within these walls as they have been doing for the past five years across the Rojava region.
Elsewhere in the city, homes are being built up and new institutions that house communes, cooperatives and women’s organizations spring up with immense vitality. But on the outskirts of the city, a more solemn and sobering kind of construction is taking place. At the cemetery of the martyrs, a museum is being built that will commemorate the six-month siege of the city and the more than 1,000 comrades who sacrificed their often very brief lives for the freedom of their people. It’s this museum that means so much to comrades like Berxedan and Newroz, since far too many of their friends are buried there.
The Ultimate Sacrifice: Coming to Kobane
As Berxwedan recalls, the decision to come to Kobane was one that didn’t need even the most basic thinking over. Like many who came to fight in the city, he is from Bakur (Northern Kurdistan) within the present day borders of Turkey. He says that for his group of 24 friends who decided to cross the border, coming to defend the people of Kobane felt like a basic duty. He knew the risk of death was massive, as is evidenced by the fact that today only four of the group are still alive including him. For Newroz – a native of the Rojava region – of her group of ten comrades (five men and five women), only four remain alive today. Two are missing their legs. Only her and one other comrade are able bodied and continue to serve in the YPJ. Berxedan puts into one sentence the level of sacrifice that coming to Kobane entailed: “there are many stories of those crossing the border from Turkey at night. They came over, were divided into units, and went straight into battle. Many of these comrades didn’t live to see the sunrise the next day in Rojava.”
It’s these words that stay in my head for hours, for days, for weeks … probably in all earnest, for a lifetime. At the martyrs' cemetery, I was struck by the birth years of so many of the fallen. 1995, 1996, 1997. It feels haunting to an outsider, but I was impressed, even a bit confused, at how Berxedan and Newroz seemed to retain their calm in recalling such stories. That evening after leaving their company, I speak to one of my fellow internationalists about something we both noticed – our hesitation to ask certain questions that we were afraid might trigger painful or tragic memories, and their complete willingness to discuss any subject. I think of war veterans I know from the United States, for instance, who shy away from talking about the experiences in wars abroad. Perhaps it was out of shame, we both suggest. Maybe, though, it also has something to do with the collective nature of the society that is being built and defended in Rojava. The next day, we got at least part of that answer.
A brand new youth center | Photo: Marcel Cartier
Institute for the Families of the Martyrs
Just as the smiles of Berxwedan and Newroz don’t necessarily give away the extent of the struggle and torment they have been through, neither do the faces of the dozen or so members of the institute that handles the work related to the families of the martyrs who I am fortunate enough to meet with on one of my mornings in Kobane. The institute is called Saziya Malbaten Sehiden in Kurmanji. All of those who work here have lost sons or daughters to the war over the past five years since self-administration was proclaimed. At this center in the heart of the city, the bodies of the fallen YPG and YPJ comrades still pass through here on what seems like an almost daily basis. They are prepared here for burial, but the main work of the institute begins after this, in making sure that the families of the comrades are taken care of in light of their passing. Currently, there are 300 wives of martyrs and 1,000 children who receive services from the institution. As they point out, these families are not just Kurdish, but are also Arab, Assyrian and Armenian, reflective of the multi-ethnic composition of this region of Syria.
As we sit out back in the courtyard of the center and discuss concepts related to internationalism and how important it is that leftists and socialists from around the world come to Rojava to witness and take part in the revolution, one of my fellow foreigners proceeds to ask about the issue of psychology and mental health in light of the tragedy of war and loss that people in Rojava deal with constantly. The answers are not really forthcoming – not because they don’t want to deal with the question, but because of the question, which is one I also had, contains in it strong elements of western and individualistic ways of thinking and it somewhat confuses our Rojavan friends. In our self-centered societies, we often rely on such services perhaps almost exclusively in the place of strong, organic community support networks. But as one of our friends tells us, here the society is deeply communal and becoming more so through the revolution that is unfolding. Therefore, although a center for psychology has just opened in Kobane, the men and women who work at the institute know little about it. It’s the daily work that they do with the families of martyrs that takes priority in helping them cope, in addition to the sense of societal inclusion in all aspects of democratic decision making that is being developed here. These are the primary ways that mental wellness is taken care of and enhanced.
A practical way that this communal society manifests becomes clear when a constantly smiling man in his late fifties, Heval Gelhat, begins speaking about his son who died in the past year in battle. “I got the news that my son had become a martyr. The other members of the committee here said that it was too close to home, that they should take care of his funeral instead of me. But no! How could I not fulfill my duty to him when I have done so hundreds of times for others who have given their lives for our new society?” His sentiments are echoed by another story told by a woman about a funeral that she attended last year. “The father of this YPG martyr was standing there without a single tear in his eye. I later asked him why he didn’t cry. He said he hadn’t cried at any funerals before for the other YPG and YPJ comrades, then said ‘were those young men and women not also my own children?'” I feel overwhelmed with the strength of these fathers and mothers at this point. After all, every single one of the members of the committee who I am in the presence of has lost children to this war of liberation. After a short, somewhat uncomfortable pause, another opens his mouth and says, “this is our revolutionary approach to death.”
Serkeftin (To The Victory of the Struggle)
Back to Berxedan and to the YPG command center. He recalls a story about wall-to-wall combat during the battle in late 2014. He speaks of being five comrades strong in a room and being able to hear the Islamic State group taking a sledgehammer to a wall only separated from them by one other wall in the same building. “Fortunately for us, we had a small hole in the wall so as soon as they knocked down the wall they had been working on for what seemed like forever, we threw grenades over and killed them all.” He lets out a massive laugh as punctuation to his latest war story. It’s not that Berxwedan or his comrades are bloodthirsty or find amusement in tales of death and destruction. But clearly, in the horrors of war, victories like this were cause for a deep, nervous sigh of relief – and for temporary celebration. What’s tangible in stories like these is that there is a deep love for not only “his people” but for all of humanity and basic democratic sentiments. As he explained, “with every Daesh (Islamic State group) member killed, we knew we were a step closer to our children being able to grow up free and not as slaves, or worse. We knew this struggle wasn’t just for Kurds, but for all Syrians and all people.” Newroz echoes his words, saying “you have to understand the YPG and YPJ are not aggressive military structures. This is what separates us from the other forces in Syria, the so-called ‘rebels’. We are a movement of revenge, yes. But we are defensive, not aggressive. We are just trying to defend our people.”
Both Newroz and Berxwedan continue their service in the YPG/J, more than two years after the battle of Kobane. As the assault on Raqqa continues, I’m curious as to what comes next for both of them. Their answers seem somewhat choreographed, but by this point in Rojava I’ve learned that if it appears this way to me, it’s most likely because of my western individualistic prejudices, not because they are somehow lying to uphold the “party line.” Newroz says, “We’ll contribute whatever we can to this revolution. Maybe it’s on the frontlines. Maybe it’s in talking to people like you. But what we’re doing is bigger than ourselves.”
It’s now well past dusk, and our meeting has already gone on far longer than expected. I’m eager to leave by now, not because I want to leave the company of such beautiful comrades, but because frankly, I don’t know how to really process the extent of the stories I’ve heard from them over the last seven plus hours. In customary revolutionary Kurdish fashion, I embrace both of them with a “serkeftin,” translated roughly as “to the victory of the struggle.” I have just met two people who in western phraseology, I might refer to as real living heroes. In Rojava, however, there are countless Berxwedans and Newrozes. I feel somewhat ashamed to leave. I have called myself a revolutionary for years, but my extent of commitment could never rival what these comrades have shown me is necessary for the success of a revolutionary struggle. I leave the two of them, but without exaggeration and at the risk of sounding immensely cliché, the two of them could never leave me.
A few days later, I leave not just the comrades but all of Kobane behind. My week in this city of resistance has changed me beyond recognition. I think of my entire life, including of course my life in politics and where I need to be headed in the period ahead. Something profound was stirring inside of me en route here, and now that I was leaving it was even more pronounced. But this trip to Kobane wasn’t quite over yet. On the outskirts of the city after leaving, we made a quick stop at a place that had been used – depending on your point of origin -- as either the starting point or end of a tunnel that once connected Rojava and Bakur. The comrades used to send resources across the border through this tunnel, but it was most recently used by Islamic State group when they took control of this area. It’s now been sealed shut, but a memory of the war has been left behind – the skeleton of an Islamic State group member is apparent under a stack of rubble just inside the cave that leads to the now defunct tunnel. Outside, Kurdish children play carelessly as a shepherd smiles at us, struggling to control his restless sheep. I think of just how dramatically different life was here just a little over two years ago. The smile of that man, the playfulness of those children, has only been made possible through the sacrifice of the Berxwedans and the Newrozes, as well as their countless friends whose blood has nourished the soil here. I think of how somehow, some way, I hope that one day I can give even a fraction to the defense of humanity that they have sacrificed.
The author, Marcel Cartier