Experiences in Rojava: Interview with an anarchist YPG volunteer
From Kurdish Question
We met and interviewed a person who travelled to Rojava to be a volunteer in the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). We present this interview anonymously, as wished by the person interviewed.
What inspired you to travel to Rojava and join the YPG?
Different aspects, but it connected me and others to our own historical roots such as antifascism, or revolutionary internationalism.
Were you in the International Batallion?
I wasn’t in any specific international battalion, just with the YPG/YPJ taburs [Kurdish battallions] formed mostly by Kurds, but also with other people, including other internationals. There is also the International Freedom Batallion, a tabur or batallion inside the YPG/YPJ’s structure, with the participation of different socialist and communist volunteers. Personally, I didn’t have contacts with them, and they are mostly marxist-leninists.
How important are political ideas of the movement (ie. Democratic Confederalism) inside the YPG?
There’s a big variety in the groups. For example the youth from Rojava are all getting new ideas through recent developments, but are still not quite understanding politics or the global perspective, and remain nationalist. Whereas, for example, Kurds from Bakur or Qandil are already very revolutionary, and most of them have a high level of political consciousness and analytical capacity.
Can you tell us about daily life in the YPG and it’s command structure?
In general, daily life in the Kurdish defense units is not very similar to any army. Sometimes you forget it’s a war because of the friendships and the happiness… and dancing! The feeling of revolution is really alive.
The units put a lot of importance on communitarian relations based on Democratic Confederalism. In this model the idea is that the defense force is not an army - it is a popular militia, a guerrilla force.
The command structure is a common responsibility. For example, the komutan (commander) are the only degree of rank. Actually it’s better to call it the co-commander, because above the level of team, the position is shared between a man and a woman. And whether you are the commander of a 5 person team or a tabur commander (a batallion), your position is only a task. The friends will follow your suggestions and direction because there is respect for the structure. You are in that position by consensus and because of your experience, and the rest of the friends recognize the person most suitable for the task.
The komutan is like the basis, or foundation, of the structure because they are the link, the articulation of the common body, and the collective brain. There is a huge responsibility to be a komutan, no matter the number of friends under your responsibility. Because of this, the figure of komutan is respected and they don’t even need, usually, to give any direct orders. It is not necessary. They must at least show the correct ethics and discipline, and intelligence and courage in battle.
The rest of friends will fight following their direction, and in the space for Tekmil [military self-criticism assembly, see below] everyone can participate to discuss the tactics, and mistakes. Of course the commander-friends are human and make mistakes… and that is the moment to change their position, or send them to rest and to have some military and ideology study time. This military system that comes from the school of Qandil’s Kurdish guerrillas is the most advanced in the aspect of guerrilla history and of revolution in the art of war.
Also, there is no formal show of hierarchy such as military decorations or salutations, the only formality is the use of “friend” before the name of others, because that reminds us that we are all friends before all else, so we respect each other and resolve any conflicts in the spirit of friendship.
What is the military assembly or Tekmil? Can you elaborate?
The Tekmil is an assembly for critique, where you can give friendly and constructive critique to your commander or others in your unit, and also criticize yourself. But mostly you will receive critique and you must be up for understanding it and learn to be better. This is to take care of checking bad behaviour, to avoid personal conflicts, or small problems with attitude that can develop into conflicts. I saw few punishments or repression; if there is a conflict, there is a lot of talk instead. Of course this is just the model, and for most of the friends from Rojava this is the first time they are learning about this, and where they had their first contact with political ideas.
But you can bring up anything to anyone at Tekmil. A major aim of it is to challenge your perspective, and get away from your ego. Making a critique is thus a great responsibility - to you, and towards the person you direct your critique to - and you should look for a solution and take responsibility for that solution.
This is very similar to the criticism that happens in Tev-Dem, the self-government assembly, where you take something practical and open it up to philosophical discussion. Here you can really see the Kurdish movement evolving.
What are your thoughts on joining the YPG and the training you participated in?
The YPG academy has a lot of ideological, political, and historical education. It also included philosophy and its own Jineology classes (sociology of women). It’s really like a academy. One’s education there can be short or long, it depends. I was in the academy for a month and a half. The military academy is pretty basic. There are a lot of daily life routines, with an emphasis on how to stay in a team and work together, such as self-discipline and cleaning weapons. There are also academies for specialist military skills like sabotage and sniping.
Did you just spend your time in fighting units? Did you participate in any revolutionary aspect of social organization?
No, though it’s hard to say where the limits of “civilian” or “social” structures are in a revolutionary situation. Everyone is in a process of education and self-education, building tools for self-government. Every institution has its own autonomy and in some cases its own interests. This can seem like a huge chaos and full of contradictions, but the confederal system keeps it self-regulating. The Tev-Dem and the people’s self defense, the HPC (Hêza Parastina Cewherî), are the most revolutionary aspects in my opinion – it provides the people with their own tools to defend themselves against even the YPG interests, the Canton’s institutions - government-etc.
Did you witness a Tev-Dem assembly taking place?
Yes, I saw an assembly but did not participate. I was rather engaged with the Tekmil assemblies in the military context.
The assembly self-goverment model is forming a really strong basis for the revolution. How assemblies are created is that if an issue or new social or interest group comes up, one must make an assembly. If another interest or issue comes along, an assembly can be made within the first assembly. The assembly also needs to follow gender quotas; the equality of women is in all aspects of society. Actually the canton’s coordination imposes that if a social group, tribe or village makes an assembly, for example, to manage some cooperative farms, they must also have a women’s assembly that reflects the women’s view about it, and that the people in charge must not be only one, that normally used to be a patriarch, but rather there has to be a co-leadership shared by a man and a woman. So there is a shared leadership position of the co-delegates; the woman represents the local women’s autonomous movement. Involving the people in an assembly system to resolve their own problems is the best way to think about revolution…and keeps them away from the TV!
It has been stated that building an ecological society is one of the primary goals of Rojava Revolution. What did you see in terms of ecology and the ecology movement?
They don’t understand too much in terms of ecology, in my experience. People from the mountains or Bakur know what it means to act sustainably and with the nature in mind, but in Rojava or Syria in general, not so much. A common experience was to hear that “Rojava is beautiful!” but then see plastic trash burning somewhere.
In terms of real projects, Qamislo has a food sovereignty project, and Kobane has different proposals - and needs! - but needs volunteers. They need people! Not only to visit, but for serious projects and proposals to build a new society and new infrastructure.
However, a lot of people from Bakur and Iran are already mobilized and supporting social and ecological projects in Rojava.
What about the cooperative economy movement? Did you visit any cooperative farms, factories or workplaces?
Personally, I noticed that big landowners have escaped because they supported the regime, ISIS, or Barzani. Those lands were collectivized by the YPG/YPJ, and this includes some huge cement factories managed by foreign Turkish and French corporations, that had Syrian workers from western parts of the country. This was tied to the program of arabization of Kurdish regions during the Syrian Regime. Also there are some empty villages, and the Kurdish organizations called on refugees to not leave and go to Europe, but instead come there and be cooperative owners of their own land and work.
But all of these experiments are limited; there are not enough people, the war puts everything in a fragile situation, there is an embargo that has stopped all investments in infrastructure, they don’t have qualified and committed people like volunteer technicians and engineers, the territory is destroyed by years of intensive monoculture, the people themselves are socially and culturally destroyed… Also there are different interests inside the “Kurdish” reality. But even on this subject, some time ago I saw a text on the internet, like a call to action to help them to learn and study, and to put in practice, different historical or political socialization models. I’m not sure if it was some socialist or anarcho-syndicalist union working on this, I think traditional “revolutionary” movements and structures are watching the events in Kurdistan from a distance, they are not involved because it is a completly new paradigm of social revolution.
I saw lot of critiques on the “mixed” economy in Rojava, and the capitalism in Rojava, as well as the class interests that must lead the revolution to become a Revolution. There are a lot of socialists and anarchists of different political strains and tendencies, talking in forums and meetings about this, but very few are going there to work with them to build socialism. Although people in Rojava don’t need foreign socialists to teach them what to do, they rather need to build their own reality for themselves.
There is not more economic socialism in Rojava than what the local people want to build, such as the cooperatives that are working like socialist communities. The canton governments and armed structures cannot impose the socialization of production and economy. They cannot do it and they don’t want to do it, so remembering this we can have a better approach to the reality in Rojava. They do have regulations over the economy and social planning programs, but if the people want to live in capitalist relations, there are not many possibilities other than for pedagogic intervention to change people’s perspectives.
There is cooperative and collective interest and support appearing thanks to the revolution, so we are at the beginning of the process of education and a process to build new social relations. Maybe we will need the next half a century of new struggles to see the fruits of these seeds.
The Kurdish movement has great respect for its martyrs. What are your thoughts on martyrship?
Martyrs and martyrdom are part of daily life for the Kurdish people and the revolutionaries. In the Middle East, but lost in Europe, the philosophy that martyrs don’t die continues to live in the communal mind. This is because the martyrs gave their lives for all of us, they sacrificed for our life and our freedom. That is sacred, and it is spiritual because it trespasses the material interest of the individual. Many show respect for martyrs by showing an image of them in events, and remembering them in salutations.
I know that this is a shock for our individualist mind, that we prefer to take care of our own asses first, and that being a martyr sounds like something fanatical, not like the highest category a person can be. But is true, our martyrs don’t die! Their blood never touches the ground!
Is Rojava really so ideal? Do you have any criticisms of the revolutionary process in Rojava?
If I look back on my experience now, it seems ideal. But you can also see a hard reality and lot of contradictions, and sometimes you can even feel that there is more to the aims and propaganda than in reality. There is a process with an honest intention, but it has a lot of problems to confront in reality.
We experienced a shock to our perception of reality in Rojava. I think that we arrived there with a backpack of idealistic and romantic views about the revolution, but in reality you need to build the revolution if you want it, and that means sometimes accepting that not everyone around you has the same idea of revolution and sometimes they cannot even understand why you came there to fight.
We are engaged in a democratic revolution, in the sense that no-one will impose anything upon another. This is totally opposed to the ‘proletarian dictatorship’ conception of revolution, definitely. This democratic conception accepts working with our own people, and other tendencies, that in many cases are the strongly opposed to our idea of revolution, or have practices opposite to our ethics.
Yes, the gangs of Daesh and the Turkish state are bad people, everybody there agrees, but you can also see racist attitudes against Arabs, and all those 'circumstantial alliances’ one day with USA, another with Russia and the Syrian regime. And some people are always trying to get positions of power, just like in any other part of the world.
Democratic Confederalism is against nationalism, but the nationalist idea is alive in most of the Kurdish people. This is not only about Kurdish national rights, that must be respected and defended, but about some positions and perspectives that do not care for the reality and struggles of others. Another criticism is the opportunistic use of capitalism we talked about before, and the so-called “mixed economy”, but I cannot think of any other economic system for that situation, so I only remind of this criticism because we have some comrades that insist on it.
It is also important to understand that the armed structures of Kurds come from a stalinist tradition, and that they did a deep, collective self-criticism and are in a process towards a libertarian ethic, thanks to the confederalist idea and the culture of criticism. But that is a process, and although large parts of the movement are not following the stalinist model anymore, you can see it continuing in some practices like personal hierarchies and other roles.
Would you want to go back?
I wouldn’t go back, but who knows… The situation in Rojava is not comfortable, in the sense that there is a hard war, and you should not have other reasons for being involved in the war than your own. I needed to go there to find a perspective on and a sense of our struggles and our lives, but now it is the time for others to do it. We need a generation with new perspectives, since our movements and environments lost the perspective long time ago.
Many Kurdish friends, in different situations, repeated the same thing to me: “Return to your people and continue the same fight over there”, “We don’t need Western martyrs, we need a revolution in Western countries!” So personally I absorbed the learning and experience in Rojava, and now is the time to see what is happening in our Western countries with this growth of racism and fascism.
Can you tell us about other international volunteers in Rojava and especially were there many women among them?
Many foreigners without political ideas, or former military men, become revolutionaries over there. It’s good to remember that people can become conscious to these ideas when surrounded by revolution, and can fight and spread ideas.
A few foreign women come to fight, but I didn’t see any of them personally. However, compared to men, the number was very small, anecdotic. We have an internationalist woman martyr, a marxist Euro-African woman, who fought in the International Battalion. And certainly there are much more from other non-Western countries, like Turkish, Arab, or Iranian women. But it is a weak point for the “white western” feminism that there is not enough active involvement in this women’s revolution, sadly.
What are your thoughts on Jineology and feminism?
The social science of Jineology (sociology or anthropology of the Woman) explains how the mankind lost a lot of their old nature because of the onset of hierarchical civilization, through the break from communitarian life, men becoming soldiers, priests, workers, etc. Even slaves, but remaining lords of their own house and wife.
Jineology argues that mankind can recover their nature through women’s liberation and through communitarian life. However, this is an issue that I’m not too deep in at the moment. It is very complex, but also interesting to study and discuss. It is a new idea for humanity. We have understood our history as the history of Man, and sociology as the social science of a patriarchal society, but now emerging from years of study and discussion by the Free Women’s Union in the mountains, we have a new tool to understand the evolution of power with history, and the role of women in it. Jineology is a tool for liberation because that history is also a history of the resistance of women, that we have to learn and know. Jineology is also a rupture with the tradition of Western liberal feminism.
Those inspired by Jineology are breaking with Western feminism because for them, Jineology is much more deep in its analysis; it is not partial and doesn’t have tendencies of interpretations or interest groups, but it is integral and universal.
It also has an important factor: Jineology is being put in to practice through autonomous women’s organizations and co-delegations in the administrative and political management of the communities. It is a real social practice, not just the thesis of some intellectual bourgeoise women, or the lifestyle of hedonist youngsters. For example, Jineology and the Kurdish women’s movement in Rojava criticize Western feminism because it was taken into the hands of modernity and positivism, and has broken ties with communitarian life to become individualistic.
I think that Jineology is a good tool to provoke a restructuring of Western (liberal and radical) feminism, especially since any new ideas around the Woman and Revolution haven’t appeared in decades. We have revolutionary feminist comrades, but the feminism itself is not revolutionary anymore. Real practice is revolutionary, much more than ideas or aesthetics. Also, I do have to say that the Free Women’s Movement from Kurdistan has more conscience in the radical analysis of hierarchical civilization and domination, and has much more of an internationalist and libertarian perspective than the rest of the men in the movement. And this is thanks to the study of Jineology and the example of the Kurdish guerrilla women.
But even in this situation, the Kurdish women’s movement also needs to learn more from modern feminism, especially in respect of individuality and sexual liberation. They have social repression against this aspect of woman, and I think it’s because they built up a military revolutionary structure that needed to defend itself against the individualist interests and sexual domination in the Middle East, but in some situations, in my opinion and with all my respects, they reproduce some Middle East’s religious taboos about the body and the sex.