An eyewitness account of life in the cantons of Rojava under the PYD, transcribed from the now-censored Lions of Rojava recruiting website for foreign fighters
[The following was transcribed from the old Lions of Rojava website, which was used to recruit foreign fighters to Rojava from 2014 to 2016. The site was preserved in the Internet Archive but has subsequently been blocked: at the time of this writing, 22 February 2018, the Internet Archive redirects you when you try to access the link, and attempts to link the page on Facebook are met with a message saying it’s a “blocked link.” To preserve this eyewitness account of life in the cantons under PYD rule—which, because of its even-handed and critical observations, is both an important piece of evidence in debates about whether the Rojava Revolution was truly libertarian socialist and will be of enormous interest to posterity—I have used a workaround to transfer the text of the website into this document.]
In light of what has happened and what is going to be it seems to me that the time has come for an assessment of the state of affairs in Rojava. Doubtless it will be highly subjective and based on individual experience, still I hope it to be of some help for people within the revolution and outside of it to further their understanding of the current situation. My analysis is mostly derived from my impressions of Cizîre canton as I have never visited Afrîn and Kobanê.
Three years into the revolution Rojava has stepped into a world of unapprehended possibilities. Change is happening rapidly in all spheres of society. The unprecedented freedom created a highly diverse and in many ways paradox socio-political landscape. Rojava is at the moment in a strange limbo between a revolutionary community movement and a federal state longing to be taken under the wings of the European Union. Currently revolutionary and more bourgeois instituitons exist parallely, while both the revolutionary and the liberalist development remain options, the essential question still being if the revolution can expand to larger groups outside of Rojava.
Under the Assad regime, Kurdish people were denied basic rights and citizenship. They were largely prevented from legally owning property and disenfranchised economically. These policies put pressure on Kurds to migrate away from Rojava, while the regime colonised the area with Arabs. Kurdish language teaching was illegal, children were not allowed to speak it in schools and Kurdish media wasn’t allowed.
Kurds were not allowed health services, to have their own industries and to get support from the state. Due to this and many other issues, some of the Kurds wanted to leave Syria, however, it was not deemed legal as they did not have a right to travel to other countries.
The area was deliberately kept poor with no small independent business allowed to flourish. The only industry was large government owned enterprise, usually oriented around oil. The other dominant sector being wheat which supports the rest of Syria. The land in Rojava is very valuable but the economy lacks diversity.
In 2004, during the start of a football match between Kurds from Qamishlo and Arabs from Deir al-Zor (now an ISIS stronghold) in Rojava, Arab supremicists were waving pictures of Saddam Hussein shouting “The second Halabja [mass genocide in Iraq by Saddam] will be in Syria”. Fighting broke out and it spread to the entire city but was later heavily suppressed by the Syrian army. After this failed attempt, there begun the period of underground organising and preparation. Self-defense forces were setup that later in 2012 were announced as the YPG (People’s Defense Units).
In 2012, the Rojavan forces began to take over cities, setting up headquarters creating autonomous self-governing administrations in line with their philosophy.
Areas are given a lot of local autonomy, especially around economy. For small business owners there’s no tax. Common resources have some kind of democratic mechanism regulating some parts of how they’re distributed (rather than flowing to central government). Also there’s the TEV DEM which is a big political support network that assists civil society. Land is allocated or put to use through local democratic councils. They are also encouraging cooperatives and providing resources to small independent groups. Large industrial vehicles have been collectivised in large repos that are lent out to small cooperatives to help support them. There’s a major shift in education where the role of teachers is as a facilitator, not dictator and a large emphasis on culture, language, history and politics.
A large part of the Kurdish population of Rojava, especially in Afrîn canton, supports the revolution and its structures. On the other hand there are many people who are indifferent or opposed to it. Many of the christian families still express strong loyalty towards Assad, more than a few of their children are currently fighting in the regime’s army.
There is also a consistent level mistrust between next to all of the peoples inhabiting the area that has very deep roots and was manifested by countless oppressions and massacres in the last millenia. Muslims against Christians, Arabs against Kurds, Kurmancis against Ezidis, Turks against Armenians – while this is certainly not a problem of the Middle East alone but rather of civilization in general, the proximity in which these peoples coexist and interact is one of the features that have created such a unique situation in Rojava. It is true that since the revolution relations between different ethnical and religious groups have drastically improved.
Firstly this is mainly due to firstly the lack of ‘divide-and-rule’ repression arbitrarily enacted by the Baath regime. There was large-scale forced resettlements to split Kurdish territory in Syria into smaller parts, massacres of Kurds by Arabs that were organized and paid for by the regime, and also a de-facto ban on growing trees as well as systematic destruction of forests in the Cizire region. This was to prevent opponents of the regime from moving to these once paradisical outskirts of Syria, just to name a few examples.
Secondly the council system that gives all social groups a high degree of autonomy, public recognition and a platform to interact as equals with each other. Nonetheless: while open hatred has considerably dropped behind the frontlines, traditionalized animosity, tribal allegiances and strong propaganda have driven lots of people into the arms of Bashar and Daesh respectively, both of whom (especially Daesh) use the new political freedom to more and more openly rally for their causes.
There remains the considerable amount of people who are indifferent to any sort of change that doesn’t have direct impact on their material living conditions. Many look longingly to Turkey, or to Başûr (Iraqi Kurdistan) where the KRG has created a capitalist, pseudo-liberal oasis with shining lights, flashy SUVs and a flood of America’s finest cultural output that distract many people (especially those who only see it from far) from the social disparity, rampaging corruption and disappearances of government critics. The benefits of the revolution beyond the prospect of a raised standard of living are still beyond many people.
Also it is understood by many non-Kurds to be “their revolution” instead of “the revolution of all of us” – a claim that is vehemently denied by revolutionary Kurds. Still many Arabs, Assyrians and other minorities remain unconvinced as the imagery, art and music, as well as the characters driving the revolution, are almost exclusively Kurdish. While ties between the Kurdish and Assyrian political movement going back more than twenty years have led to a strong cooperation today, the alliances between YPG and some Arab tribes are more strategical than ideological and there is still lack of any effort able to fully incorporate society into the communal councils of the Democratic Autonomy system. This goes especially for Cizîre, the canton with the most diverse society.
One of the most interesting developments is definitely the new justice system. I am no expert on law or concepts of restorative justice but hope that my impressions will incline people to find out more about the approaches applied at the moment.
One of the main ideas is to diminish the need and with that the power of a centralized judiciary system by solving disputes on the communal level. All the concerned parties engage in dialogue mediated by especially trained people from the community, with the aim of finding a solution that is not focused on punishment but on reparation and rehabilitation along guidelines that are less strict and more flexible than penal code. If this fails the case will be forwarded to the regional level, and only in the last instance or in cases of the most severe crimes a more classical court with a jury will deal with the issue. The model seems somewhat similar to Rwanda’s Gacaca courts which were temporarily established after the civil war to deal with the huge numbers of genocidaires. In Rojava however it is less a matter of necessity than of the wish to create a free and fair jurisdiction, following the credo less laws, more justice.
Amongst the new practices is the so-called platform, which has tradition in the movement. In a platform, the accused and the damaged parties (e.g. a thief and the people she/he stole from or a murderer and the family of the victim) as well as representatives of different parts of civil society are given a forum to openly speak out. All the participants of a platform can then voice critique and self-critique on why the crime took place and how to avoid it in the future. The accused and the assembly then make suggestions for measurements to be taken or punishments, always oriented along the principles of restorative justice. Final decisions are voted on by the assembly and a board of mediators.
Prisons exist, however only for those who have committed severe crimes (many inmates are captured Daesh fighters for example). They are also nothing like the dungeons of the Baath state. Life is communal and centered around education, work and shared activities. Reflection and rehabilitation are essential parts of that. All inmates are encouraged to learn new skills, like languages or crafts, and are being credited for doing so, which can lead to an early release or other bonuses.
Education is very interesting. Teachers recognise students as equals and are seen more as facilitators. There are meetings where the students can criticise and suggest improvements to their teacher’s lessons. There’s an emphasis within schools on teaching culture, language, history and politics (all connected).
There is now work happening to create a network of free open spaces where students work on personal projects assisted by teachers, with subjects including ecology, culture, technology and students pushed to become independent self-organising enterprising individuals. They want to move away from a system that is about training students, to one which imbues values, and equips them with the tools they need. Encouraging and valuing self-expression is an important goal.
The people working within this new framework of justice are being trained in new academies. The academies (mostly for higher learning) are a cornerstone of the new education system. Students and teachers live together communally and the curriculum is very participatory, the daily program to a large part being shaped by the students. In the justice academies the first months are almost entirely filled with sociology, psychology and discussions on the philosophical and moral implications of the concept of ‘justice’, before continuing to the more legal questions and technicalities of implementing the new model.
The schools are still under control of the Baath state (with exception of those teaching outside its curriculum, like Kurdish language schools etc.) who pays the teachers and facilities. Training of new teachers is however underway and new curricula are largely ready to be applied.
Education is recognized as a key field in order to sustain a deep social revolution and altogether great efforts are being made to launch a completely new approach to the issue.
The medical sector is still maintained and paid for by the regime. The Democratic Autonomy institutions are making preparations to gradually take over responsibility during the next years. Local clinics and health centers are also being opened to provide free basic health care and a universal access to medical knowledge through training.
Politically Rojava is social anarchist, and economically it is market anarchist. Though these are not rigid definitions.
Regions are given local autonomy- think multiple dozens within each canton. They have their own local council, maintain their own internal checkpoints and controls, and make decisions on who they buy and sell from.
Right now a lot of economic philosophy is centered around developing an economy based around unions of local businesses under a cooperative umbrella to serve their needs. Inside people buy and sell from one another and use the umbrella to interact with other groups. This then provides a mechanism whereby by local governments are able to offer their resources (such as industrial equipment) and investment to the umbrella organisation. People inside the organisations make decisions amongst themselves.
I’ve spoken with various people and there is no tax. People tell me there is no interference or tax on their work. Every locality has its own economic centre. Common resources have some kind of democratic mechanism regulating some parts of how they’re distributed (rather than flowing to central government). Although I’m still unsure how exactly they’re distributed, and a large portion of money is going to maintaining the YPG. The primary source of income for the government is oil and the border crossing.
Also there’s the TEV DEM which is a big political support network that assists civil society. Land is allocated or put to use through local councils (part of TEV DEM). They are also encouraging cooperatives and providing resources to small independent groups. Industrial machinery and vehicles are centralised in big depos that are then lent out to groups on a need to use basis.
For instance as a farmer, you can choose to remain independent, or you can join the government’s agricultural cooperative and get access to investment (which you must pay dividends back), access to machines/industrial equipment, and education/access to knowledge. Using the resources, they are able to create a voluntary support network which members want to participate in thereby improving its utility. There are several cooperatives (sometimes competing) and they’re run as social enterprises.
I have not seen or heard of any forced collectivisations ala 1936 Spain or 1920 Ukraine. The constitution protects private property and has been accused by left anarchists of being bourgeois. The converse is that people very much identify themselves as socialists with equality being a core value (freedom, humanity, equality). The main goals are self-sufficiency and a localised economy.
Right now (outside oil), the dominant sector is agriculture with a distant retail sector. Every city is thriving with shops and markets, life is very much alive here. Under Assad, Kurds could only produce wheat (for Syria) but the soil is very rich. Right now there is an overabundance of wheat and the government wants to encourage the economy to diversify. This reduces the dependence on imports since all of Rojava’s neighbours are hostile to its existence.
Also they have invested in light industry since there is a need to maintain their industrial vehicles which are experiencing problems. Since they’re all different types too, it’s difficult to swap parts in and out. Although raw resources aren’t in huge supply, they have access. Creating a native industrial DIY economy is an imperative, and OSE projects ideas/knowledge are definitely needed.
Rojava’s main economical sectors are agriculture and oil production, while a growing service sector shouldn’t be underestimated. Afrîn has a somewhat diversified agriculture but in Kobanê and Cizîre it produces almost exclusively wheat. There is also livestock breeding, mainly family-owned flock of sheep, and some larger cattle and poultry facilities which are now mostly cooperative-run but operate at the very least – to spare an ethical comment on animal mass production – un-ecological.
The large amounts of oil in Cizîre canton (I’m sorry I can’t procure any numbers as I’m writing this) are a very important economical and political factor. At the moment most of the countless oil rigs stand still as the embargo makes it virtually impossible to export any larger quantities of crude and a handful of pumps provide the fuel supply for the entire canton. Electricity in all of Cizîre is produced with diesel generators. The price for a litre of diesel is below one US dollar. The soil pollution through leaking rigs and aging pipelines is already a problem and might become a much bigger one in the future. The economical commissions are very interested in going over to renewable energies and at the moment looking for ways to get solar technology and know-how into the country.
Many industries are now organized in cooperatives, from farming over tailoring to retail sellers and there are new cooperatives opening every week with start-up grants from the administration. The diversification of agriculture is an endeavour that is only just beginning now.
Everyday commodities and food are available all over Cizîre canton, imported goods a little but not much more expensive than before the embargo. There is no severe scarcities but a very limited water supply in some parts of Qamişlo where water is only available two or three hours a day. In those quarters this situation has been continuing for more that two years.
Ecological development and environmental protection are on paper core values of the Rojava revoluion. In practice there is still a long way to go. Environmental awareness as a socio-political concept as it has developed, branched out and in some parts become radical in Europe over the last one and a half centuries is still relatively new to the Middle East. The ecological development of Rojava’s economy is one of the many fields in which the administration asks for help from outside. It is crucial to get input now from communities all over the world who have experience with sustainable and revolutionary forms of production for many decades. This knowledge is urgently needed now to prevent Rojava from falling back into centralized unsustainable production schemes that dominated under Baath rule.
The municipalities are struggling to raise awareness of the waste problem. While a consistent waste-management system does not exist yet some village and neighbourhood communes are doing a great job in cleaning up their streets, reminding of Rwanda’s Umuganda days (every first Saturday a month Rwandans meet up in their neighbourhoods for community work). While in Rwanda this is decreed by the central government and partcipation is mandatory, the Rojava communes do it on their own agenda. The ecological commissions are enthusiastic about recycling and other innovative approaches to environmental problems, right now the means are missing however to put them into practice.
Next to all of Cizîre canton is cultivated land. There are three major streams of water: The Tigris, the Cexcex and the Xabûr. Apart from the endless wheat fields there are six lakes close to the northern border around which diverse ecosystems exist in small pockets of forests and wetlands. The ecological department is working to give them a kind of National Park status and protecting their wildlife with the help of local villagers. They aim to extensively research the local ecosystems and create education centers in these areas where students and other people can actively study them and learn about ecology. The Cizîre environmental department is currently looking for foreign partners to implement these projects.
Defense and security
A couple of weeks back I had a discussion with a communist comrade – the age-old stand-off about whether the state can be used as a revolutionary tool. To my strong case against that he replied “Well, that’s what I always argue with the Apoists about. They say the state is always evil, yet they have created one.”
Is Rojava really a state? Many arguments have been made for and against that case. When it comes to Rojava’s army though I can only agree with the critics. The Hêzên Xweparastina, always in the shadow of the heroic YPG, leave no doubt. They are a fully-fledged infantry army in which all Rojavan men aging between 18 and 30 have to serve a minimum six months. Great billboards in Qamişlo show imposing battallions of beige-clad soldiers pledging with their right arms and hands outstretched forward into the air. The ritual is adopted from the Baath army. You don’t have to guess twice where they got the idea from.
Yes – a conscription army requires a level of institutionalized coercion and centralization that are unmistakable attributes of a state. As far as Rojava is still away from any other state in the world, in this question the case is clear.
So is it over? Rojava has died just like revolutionary Spain and the Paris commune? Back in our discussion, my communist comrade and I don’t think that. And that is because of a new force that has been around for a few months now: The HPC – Hêzên Parastina Cewherî. I personally can’t translate the difference between Hêzên Xweparastina and Hêzên Parastina Cewherî into English (both essentially mean self-defence forces) but they could hardly be more apart from each other. The HPC are armed civilians who received basic weapons training and provide security in their communities from evening to morning. They are mostly stationed at crossroads where they occassionally check cars (one of the main concerns is Daesh bringing weapons into the city) or take the keys of drunk drivers away. They are both men and women, young and old, Arab and Kurdish. They organize through the commune, every night somebody else is on duty. They are not concerned with petty policing but with the safety of their community. They are a brainchild of the revolution.
It is the highest proof of integrity if an authority gives weapons to its subjects. It is like God giving Adam and Eve the Forbidden Fruit and urging them to try it. It recognizes not only that the people need to actively self-organize rather than passively rely on the authority, it regognizes that the day will come when the people need to defend themselves not against an external enemy but against the authority itself. Let’s make a hypothetical experiment: Let’s assume some people start feeling that the Hêzên Xweparastina have nothing to do with people’s protection anymore but just defend the status quo of a ruling elite. They now have the means at hand to protect their sons and brothers against anyone who tries enforcing the conscription. And if other communities follow suit the army ranks will be empty very soon. It seems Rojava has let a cancer grow but at the same time developed a cure.
The YPG consists of three basic elements: The professional fighters, the militias and the mentioned conscription army. The professionals commit themselves to a life as revolutionaries. While all YPG fighters pledge to defend the freedom of women and the democratic and ecologic society, it is the professionals who make this a lifelong goal. The Hêzên Xweparastina are meant to provide border security once the war is over but at the moment are also fighting at the front. About forty percent of YPG are professionals, the rest are army and militias. The militia fighters continue to be a big problem. Their numbers are desperately needed and were even more so a year or two back, but many of them still lack the most basic training. Now that the situation at the front has changed somewhat for the better, many militiamen and -women are being sent to the rear to be trained for the first time. The moral and ideological values that play such a huge role in YPG’s professional arm have often never reached the militias who are the cause of recurring reports of fighters taking revenge on Daesh captives or even attacking civilians, looting villages in recently occupied territory. These actions are considered severe crimes in YPG, morally as well as legally, and there are commissions as well as large funds in place only for the compensation of civilians who have lost homes and property. Still, the follow-up of these incidents sometimes simply gets lost in the mess of war and bureaucracy. Also victims often don’t know who to talk to and the commanders of the involved YPG units are interested in covering the incidents up.
The professional YPG is for the most part a brave and effective fighting force, very good at employing guerrilla tactics in urban warfare. There remains a level of confusion and ineptitude due to the unfamiliar nature of the war. The military experience YPG draws from the armed resistances in the other parts of Kurdistan, all very mountainous territories – Rojava on the other hand is flat and requires the continuous defence of towns and areas without any advantageous geography. In the last two months many fighters have been withdrawn from Kobanê after half a year of heavy urban combat to pass on their experience to new recruits. While players like Daesh or the Baath regime extensively use modern technology for propaganda and intelligence the YPG still lags far behind. Given the overall circumstances they are still doing a good job at adapting though, but much more changes in structure, training, PR and intelligence are needed.
The cantons of Cizîre and Kobanê have been united very recently in the battles of Gire Sipî and Siluk. Almost all of Kurdish territory and sizable portions of land primarily inhabited by other groups are now under YPG control. With the pending offensive on Jarablus and the Azaz area the three cantons of Rojava as well as the autonomous Sengal region will become continous territory. The Turkish state has however publicly declared in the last days that they will not allow a ‘Kurdish corridor’ to exist between Afrîn and Kobanê. While they would need NATO approval to invade Syrian territory it doesn’t seem impossible that they will get it. After all the west has tolerated Turkey’s more or less open support of Daesh and while coalition airstrikes have been a great help to the YPG, they have never been trusted allies like the Pêşmerga, never received the desperately needed heavy weapons or other logistics.
The situation in Turkey will be decisive for Rojava’s future. In the recent elections the HDP, a party close to the Kurdish freedom movement entered Turkish parliament for the first time, while Erdoğan’s AKP lost its absolute majority and is now forced to form a coalition. The organizations of the Kurdish freedom movement, most notably the PKK and KCK, continue to be listed as terrorist by Turkey and most of its allies. Massive military operations against civilians and areas in which guerrillas are assumed to be have shaken Bakûr in the last days. While repression against Kurds by state forces, fascist and islamist groups (between whom exists only a nominal difference) has been running even higher that usual Erdogan has refuted all attempts by Kurdish representatives to find a diplomatic solution. There are many signs that a full-scale revolutionary uprising is on its way in Bakûr, which would mean war against the Turkish state.
Rojava will not be neutral in such a situation. Even if it wants to the Turkish government has declared that the YPG is the PKK’s Syrian section and that compared to Daesh they are the greater threat. Even though It seems naïve to believe that NATO would continue their air support if Turkey starts a full-scale war against the PKK again. Much rather will Rojava become the next target for their airstrikes. YPG is in a very comfortable position right now with their victories in Gire Sipî and the Kizwan Mountains. But if the northern border becomes a battlesight this will change very soon. Daesh is far from finished. While YPG was marching on Xera and Mabrûka (not to forget with NATO air support) the jihadists took Palmyra and Ramadi, the defenders of which outnumbered them ten to one. The Kobanê massacre showed that they can strike decisively whenever they want again. They have a habit of knowing when their enemy is weak and they have learned from the siege of Kobanê. With the war that’s broken out in Bakûr, the revolutionary Kurdish forces have to fight at many fronts they will know where to strike. And they need to be prepared for that.
Many times in YPG have I seen the half-sad smile following the answer to the question where I come from. The people then say “Crazy. You have come from Europe to fight here and the youths from here run away to Europe.” Mad world. Is it really so despiccable though to not want to die in a war in the middle of nowhere while everybody else seems to enjoy themselves in hip, well-temperated metropoles with fast internet, cool drugs and parties every night? The revolution, on the other hand, has offered them nothing but a poorly edited portrait on public billboards once their remains have been buried.
The Kurdish Freedom Movement is historically a proletarian, and even more importantly, a rural one. Many in it categorically neglect urban lifestyle as capitalist. That’s why its political discourse has largely been missing practical approaches to the life in urban societies. Also, while Öcalan has been very popular in Rojava since he started living here in the Eighties, the political awakening and transformation that has shaken Bakûr (Turkish Kurdistan) since then has never really happened here. The style of the revolution’s message appeals to the diversity of traditional Kurdish culture and ways of life. Rojava’s youngsters are equally bored by it like youths in most parts of the world. Kurdish culture was never persecuted in Syria the way it was in Turkey, its conservation therefore lacks the radical appeal. They longingly look to the west and have little motivation to die protecting their dusty provincial hometowns.
These are gross generalizations of course. Many Rojavan youths fight in YPG or are active in the autonomous youth councils, many of them believe in the revolution. But not nearly enough. There is dire need to communicate a newer, more modern message, in a way that really speaks to young people. They need to understand why the revolution matters to them. They need to understand that Rojava is not a place to leave, but a place where people go to, a new hotspot at the forefront of history.
Rojava is a women’s revolution. There can be no doubt that concerning women’s liberation the revolution has made deeper and more substantial changes than on any other front so far. With a radical break with the chauvinist patriarchal Baath state, women of all backgrounds now actively participate in the shaping of society. While most of the world has heard about the YPJ, whose female fighters make up more than a third of Rojava’s defence forces, much fewer people know about their role in civil society where all assemblies and parliaments are required to be made up of at least 40 percent women and every executive position, be it occupied by a man or a woman, always has a male and a female deputy. Patriarchal mindsets run deep nevertheless and are maybe the most important issue that the Women’s Association and other civil society groups are seeking to tackle. The Rojava Free Women’s Foundation (Waqfa Jina Azad Rojava) is working on several ambitious projects for women’s empowerment in everyday life, to those who want to find out more I recommend its English website.
Rojava is so successful as a feminist cause because it builds on over thirty years of Kurdish women’s struggle against patriarchy and oppression. Liberation of women was a core issue for the Kurdish freedom movement from the very beginning, Öcalan himself declared early on that there could be no free society as long as women were oppressed and therefore no free Kurdistan if women didn’t rise up and retake their freedom. When the first female volunteers turned up in the mountains to join the guerrilla however the male fighters tried to send them home or else do household work such as cooking and cleaning while the men went to war. It took decades of relentless struggle by the most courageous and committed revolutionaries such as Berîtan, Zîlan and many others before the right that they theoretically enjoyed in the movement became reality.
We must recall this when we are overly quick to dismiss the the revolution’s aims of a stateless and ecological society as empty promises. They are relatively new ideals. To make them into practices will take just as hard a struggle within the revolution and just as outstanding individuals as it took for freedom of women to develop from a slogan into revolutionary pratice. We must always remember that principles like grassroots democracy or social ecology are not implemented because they exist on a piece of paper. The fight for them is only just beginning.