Two Weeks in Rojava (Part 2)

This post is a sequel to “Two Weeks in Rojava (Part 1). Please read the part 1 before checking this article.

Jarabulus

A few days later, I visited the front line of the joint forces of Kurds and Arabs against ISIS near Jarabulus. The River Euphrates exactly draws the front line there; in short, the eastern side from the river is controlled by Kurds whilst the other side is ruled by ISIS. “Be careful,” the driver said. “From now on, we are going to get through the dangerous road from snipers.” He shifted down to second gear and kicked down the pedal to metal. Right after the engine roared, our car made an aggressive turn and we all rolled like reeds in a gust. Rally Rojava of the WRC lasted for about ten seconds, and then the car returned to usual drive. When we arrived, I met a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) soldier and conducted an interview with him. He was a 19-year-old guy named Umran, born in Syria and had Palestinian origin. His aunt got married to a Kurdish man who was later killed by ISIS terrorists; moreover, Tar, his home town in Damascus, was once besieged by SAA. He explained that SAA never allowed the residents and humanitarian aids including food to go through the siege, but it let ISIS invade the region. Even though the Assad regime often displays a Palestinian flag next to Syrian flag to gain the support of Sunni Muslims, who are the majority of Syrian nation, “I think Assad doesn’t like Palestinians because Tar is like a Palestinian refugee camp. Most inhabitants there have Palestinian origin” whilst Assad regime connived at the incursion of ISIS.

Euphrates

Viyon, 21, is a YPJ soldier from Kobane. I asked her what she needed at the front line and she replied me with an interesting answer. “Since we have clashes against ISIS every day, we don’t have time for education—especially, cultural training like reading, writing, studying history and enjoying novels.” She smiled. “I’m still young!” However, when I mentioned the Assad regime, she fixed me with serious face. “Assad is same as ISIS. Both kill civilians; the only difference is their means. ISIS executes the innocents by beheading, Assad slaughters the innocents with barrel bombs.” She then referred to Free Syrian Army (FSA), saying “FSA is our friend. We fight against the same enemy: ISIS and Assad.” But wait, if Assad equals to ISIS, then why Syrian Arab Army (SAA), Assad’s loyalist forces, still remain in Qamishlo and Hasakah, where YPG and YPJ were supposed to control? Additionally, in Efrin Canton, YPG and FSA sometimes fight against each other. Why do you open fire against your friends?

YPJ

“We put the fight against ISIS before the one against Assad. So, we are now at cease fire,” she said. “FSA is our friend, but it doesn’t mean we are the exactly same group. The situation in Rojava and whole Syria is complicated,” she added. As to the Western countries, they work only for their people and interests; they are “too late” and “inadequate” for humanity, according to her. However, “Arabs, Turks and Kurds have no difference in humanity; and we fight for humanity. We don’t hate people but the regime and propaganda with injustice. I can even sacrifice myself for Japanese people if it’s a fight for human rights.” At the end of interview, she left her message to the world. “We appeal for the support for our resistance against injustice to the world. Please know we are fighting for humanity, freedom and rights. We are trying to make Syria with no kidnappings, no beheadings and no bombings.” She wrapped up the whole interview with a symbolic phrase: “We are ready for peace.”

When I was enjoying tea with some soldiers behind trenches at the YPG base, the unit suddenly got busy. “We found moving objects across the river. We’re going to shoot.” I grabbed a camera and rushed to the scene where a lieutenant was instructing a soldier where to shoot. “Yallah,” right after the lieutenant ordered to fire, the gunshots of a light machinegun started to pierce the stillness of the atmosphere. We hear a lot of cracks of guns in action films today, but it is merely a film. The real ones are much more loud, heavy and fatal. The sound of death intermittently continued for a minute, and then the soldiers hid behind the trenches. After that, we heard some shoots back over the river. I did not hear the sound of hit on barricades, but suddenly realised this was the real war. This was the first and last time when I heard ISIS gunshot fired toward me in Rojava.

Trench

 

Kobane

I had not made up my mind. The female officer at Iraqi-Syrian border said I had to go back to Iraqi Kurdistan by 20th because Newroz would begin on 21st. However, my desire to spend Newroz in Kobane was growing day by day. If I did as she said, I would see the celebration in Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, which should be the biggest Newroz event in overall Kurdistan. If not, however, I would spend more precious time in Rojava and see the passion of Kurds in the former battlefield, not in the metropolis such as Erbil. The only problem was my money. “We are at war,” Muhammad, a guide in Kobane said, “all the banks are closed. You have to go to Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkey to withdraw money.” I hesitated to cross Iraqi borders because no one knew when the situation changes and so does the regulation. There were no guarantees to come back to Rojava once I left here. Turkish borders? No, they are all officially closed even now. Needless to say, no hotels or shops accepted credit cards either. What I could do then was only one thing: saving money like a bankrupt.

Eventually, the day had come. At the special stage in outskirts area of Kobane, Newroz festival was held. As mentioned the last article, Kobane itself is such a small town you can see around the whole town by foot within a few days. However, according to the organiser, there were approximately 60,000 people who participated in the event; most of them were from Kobane town, and some were from the towns around Kobane. Not only Kurds, the participants were also Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmens and even Turks. The seats (or just slope of the hill) were overcrowded with the excited spectators and various flags such as YPG, YPJ, PKK, Ocalan, Rojava, Assyrian, PYD, HPC and so on. The event basically consisted of concert and dance shows whilst a YPJ soldier also gave a speech calling solidarity among people in Kobane on the ongoing fight against enemies. Interestingly, the YPJ soldier’s speech was one of the climaxes during the celebration. The host and hostess of this event continuously chanted “Biji YPG u YPJ! Biji Ocalan! (Long live YPG and YPJ! Long live Ocalan!)” throughout the event and the audience always repeated it without hesitation.

At that moment, I realised something. With this strong solidarity based on ethnicity, socialism might be very proper form of governing for Kurds in Rojava. Kurdish identity is so strong it has often refused to be mixed with outside bloods. This identity is a strong source of solidarity among Kurds regardless of the residence—for instance, a person from Turkey who has Kurdish roots often introduces himself that “I’m a Kurd,” but not “I’m from Turkey.” This strong solidarity would lead Kurds to totalitarianism, that is, a kind of socialism. In fact, many Kurds in Rojava have no or little education and do not deeply understand the concept of socialism; however, PYD stresses the unification of Kurds instead of teaching the doctrine of socialism stated by Abdullah Ocalan. With this method, PYD has managed to unite Kurds in Rojava.

During the festival, I saw a Chinese YPG soldier. Let’s name him Z. J. here because he asked me to answer my questions on the condition of anonymity. He was from Hong Kong and joined the group in 2014, when Kobane was sieged by ISIS. He did not carry weapons because he served as the YPG’s public relations then; also he had never served in the army since Hong Kong does not have its own military or citizens there are not conscripted by the Chinese central government. It is said that many foreign fighters came to Kobane during the siege, but most of them went back to Jazeera Canton after the liberation; however, he remained in Kobane since he was not really have military skills and is now working as a military press. “Of course I’d like to fight at the front line since the fight against ISIS was my motivation, but I don’t have experience,” Z. J. told me. “Anyway, I’m satisfied as I work for YPG, Kurds for freedom and against terrorism,” he added. On the other hand, Friedrich a YPG soldier from Germany, who had an experience in the army, carried a M14 rifle and guarded on the top of the dressing rooms behind the stage. “This rifle was retrieved from ISIS. Probably it was originally given to the Iraqi army by the U.S., but you know, Iraqi army was very weak then,” Friedrich laughed. I could not talk with him so long because he was busy, but I later heard “weak Iraqi army stories” hundreds times anyway.

The festival was basically about celebration of Newroz, of course, but additionally, it praised the federalism in Rojava by PYD, which was declared a few days ago, and unification of Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs, Turkmens; socialists, Muslims, Yezidis and whosoever living in Rojava. There are indeed the passion and rapture of tens of thousands people living in destroyed towns and believing the better future. Those who live in or near the battlefields are often regarded as people with misery and despair; but people in Kobane are full of hope, energy and pride. The media usually show only sad side of war and victims in grief, but humans are stronger than you think. Life goes on even after wars.

A few days later, I managed to see the top SDF commander responsible for the Jarabulus front. He was a Kurd from Jarabulus who had been serving SDF since the establishment of the group in October 2015 whilst he personally had been fighting as a YPG soldier for three years. He told me the SDF aimed to liberate whole Syria; to begin with, it liberated Kobane and was trying to take over Jarabulus then; and after Jarabulus, they would go to Manbij. He also explained the situation of ISIS. It once got strong, he thought, because it had supports from those who have poor education. “These people are simple. ‘Oh, the whole system of ISIS is based on Islam? Sounds good.’ That’s it,” he said. “However,” he added, “the nation is being aware of the cruelty and abnormality of ISIS. Not only ISIS is losing the supports from local people, but also it has no international support. ISIS will certainly fall.” His eyes showed strong confidence in victory.

In that connection, he began to blame Turkey for supporting ISIS. “Turkey is working with ISIS for two years because al-Nusra and Jund al-Sham could not defeat Kurds,” he said. According to him, in the name of aid, Turkey provides food, medicals and even weapons to ISIS even though the border between Jarabulus and Turkey is officially closed. The gate is under so strict security that no one could approach, he explained, SDF observed smuggling into ISIS-controlled area near Jarabulus in early February of 2016. “At 9:30 in the night, the lamp of the border gate was turned off. We used night binoculars to watch what’s going on—and then, a jeep came out of the gate and went into Jarabulus, which ISIS controls. We lost sight of it because of obstacles for a few hours; three hours later, the jeep went back to Turkish territory with no lights on. After that, the light of the gate turned on as if nothing was going on.”

He also mentioned a man named “Sheikh Ahmed,” who he explained was a mediator between ISIS and Turkey. According to Sheikh Ahmed, there is a tunnel made of cement between a house in Jarabulus and “police station” in Turkey which transports foods, weapons and oil with belt conveyer powered by generator. The problem on these two witness was there were no concrete evidences such as pictures. “The name of ‘Sheikh Ahmed’ is the evidence itself,” he said. I was at first reluctant to report these remarks due to lacks of evidences; however, the fact that the media have been started to disclose the cursed connection between ISIS and Turkey, and that the commander of SDF, who represents Kurds in Rojava, believed these unconfirmed information made me decide to write on these “rumours.” I personally do not think that everything he told was true, but I also do not fully deny his words; it is not very strange if ISIS had smuggling network in Jarabulus with Turkey.

I spent nearly one more week in Kobane. I needed to leave Rojava as soon as possible, but the border with Iraqi Kurdistan was closed due to Newroz for some days. Therefore, I decided to stay in Rojava for some extra days. Until the departure, I have become familiar with the street to street and person to person as I always walked around the city. There was an overturned jeep right next to the YPG office near my hotel; according to soldiers, it was hit by a mine set by ISIS during the Battle in Kobane in 2014. In remembrance of war, the destroyed jeep was still displayed as it was.

Kobane road

Thirty-minute walk away from the hotel, there was the border control of Kobane, which was closed by Turkish authority. Kurdish officers there had nothing to do there and killed time by shooting hand guns. I asked the officers what if I tried to cross this border. They all reacted to me with shaking their heads and said, “you will certainly put your life in danger” even if I contacted to Turkish officials and allowed to go through there. As always and anywhere in Rojava, Kurds described Turkey as hell at all times. It was interesting the “hell” was just ten metres away from them while they play target practice which could be considered as provoking “devils”.

Kobane border

On the other day, Asayish gave me a free ride to the Semalka border with Iraqi Kurdistan. At ten o’clock, a boat approached to the Rojava side of Tigris River. I of course expected to ride it, but only thing which can rode was my passport. Asayish explained that I have to wait for an approval of Iraqi Kurdistan authority to go in there by checking the passport. Tens of minutes after, Asayish said I could go and we said good-bye to each other. Right after I arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan, I straightaway headed to Turkish border named Ibrahim Khalil Border Control. “No, I don’t need Turkish visa,” I proudly said to Kurdish officer when I asked if I had it. The officer of Iraqi Kurdistan doubtfully nodded and gave me a departure stamp on my passport and showed me direction. It rained in Ibrahim Khalil—it did not seem to be a good day to cross the border.

(To be continued)

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