Transcribed from the 14 July 2018 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is the most successful revolutionary movement in the world today, the one controlling the largest area of land, giving autonomy and freedom to the largest number of people; that’s something quite remarkable. And one of the most remarkable things about it is that the revolutionaries here are the first to admit there are problems.
Chuck Mertz: A real live, radical, feminist, ecosocial revolution is happening in Syria, and people are flocking to it from all over the world. Here to tell us about the revolution, and how planting trees can be revolutionary, Matt Broomfield and Tolhildan are members of the Internationalist Commune of Rojava.
The Internationalist Commune of Rojava is in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign for a new book, Make Rojava Green Again: Building an Ecological Society. This week, Matt also posted the article “Here’s Why We’re Planting Trees in Northern Syria” at the Independent.
Welcome to the show, Matt.
Matt Broomfield: Rojbaş! Good morning.
CM: And welcome, Tolhildan.
CM: Let’s start with you, Tolhildan. We must assume there are some who are listening right now who have never heard of Rojava before. There may even be some who have been following the Syrian civil war closely via mainstream media and still have never heard of Rojava. Wikipedia describes Rojava this way: “The democratic federation of northern Syria commonly known as Rojava is a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. The region gained its de facto autonomy in 2012 as part of the ongoing Syrian conflict and the wider civil war.”
So Tolhildan, how autonomous is Rojava? How did it gain that autonomy?
T: Those are two big questions. I’ll start with how it gained its autonomy. There were decades of organizing going on before anything happened. A lot of it was with women, actually, because they were free to move between houses and do a lot of the social organizing without being targeted the way that men were. After all of this, in 2011 the people who were involved in this organizing were able to mount a revolution, because of the state of Syria during the civil war. There was a power vacuum, and they were able to step into that and take the power that used to be in the hands of the regime and distribute it to the people.
Right now there’s actually a pretty big area, stretching from Kobanê, which is toward the lefthand part of Syria if you haven’t been familiar with the geography, all the way across the top to the border with Iraq, and this whole area is controlled democratically by the people who live in these towns and cities. There’s a little bit of having to negotiate the powers with the regime, and with America, but living here, we live in an area that’s pretty well-controlled under the revolution, outside of the war. It feels like everyday life under the revolution.
CM: Let me follow up on that with you and then we’ll get to Matt. In early 2015 we were introduced to Rojava on this show by Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish women’s rights activist who writes on the Kurdish freedom struggle. But after that interview and Dilar describing the autonomy of Rojava, I got an email from someone who asked us to “get back to reality,” as if the Rojava that Dilar described was not real.
What would you say to someone who believes that Rojava’s autonomy and independence is some sort of exaggerated myth or a fiction created by those who only wish something like Rojava existed?
T: If they have the time and energy to come out here, they could see for themselves. It’s a complex situation, and you’ll meet people here who have their eyes on Europe and want things to be a little bit different. But in general, everyone wants to participate and have their voice heard.
MB: Making these criticisms is something that’s very easy to do sitting in a so-called autonomous space on a university campus in Chicago or wherever. I don’t know which of your listeners are saying these things. But this is a war zone; it’s in the most contested land on the face of this planet. The Americans are trying to have their say here, the Russians are trying to have their say here, the Iranians, the Syrian regime of course, the Gulf States, NATO, Turkey of course—everyone is trying to stick their oar in and do something.
Consider, on top of that, that culturally speaking this was a very conservative region, it was a region where women’s voices were typically not heard, where women were confined to hard laboring reproductive work in homes and in fields—these things are all still realities here; they didn’t go away on the day that the flag of the regime was taken down and the flag of the people was raised. We can see everyday people struggling with these things. Women for the first time being able to take part in a commune and have their voice heard, building up neighborhood to neighborhood and village to village—this is long, hard, difficult work for the Kurdish friends here, and for us, as far as we can take part in that.
It’s easy in these debates to lose sight of the fact that this is the most successful revolutionary movement in the world today, the one controlling the largest area of land, giving autonomy and freedom to the largest number of people; that’s something quite remarkable. One of the most remarkable things about it to me is that the revolutionaries here are the first to admit there are problems. They don’t say that everything is great here. In their publications, in their speeches, in their daily conversions, everyone is always criticizing one another, criticizing what’s happening here and seeing how it can be better, and not taking it for granted. Yes, it seems there are problems, and there are also people working to make them better rather than saying, “Well, it’s not perfect, therefore I don’t want anything to do with it.”
CM: Tolhildan, Matt mentioned how the area that Rojava is in is a very conservative area. How much more difficult does that conservatism make it for Rojava to have the kind of radical democracy that it does have, led by feminists?
T: I have only been here for two months—I think the women who are from here could speak to that a bit better, but from what I’ve seen it’s been a situation where the women who are involved in the revolution are making big personal steps in their lives to push it forward. It’s not an abstract thing. It’s things like women who are insisting to their family that they’re going to work for the security forces in town who are making sure that ISIS isn’t able to sneak back in. It’s young women having to lie to their family and say that they’re going to a military camp when they’re actually going to a camp for young women where they learn how to drive and swim.
It makes things difficult, but the women are the people who are really pushing this revolution forward. Meeting them and hearing these stories of people’s personal struggles, you really get a sense of how involved and committed all the women of the revolution are.
We invite people to support Rojava with knowledge, or if they have funds, or if they feel like they want to come out here and be involved in environmental projects—basically anything you want to do for a project, it can be done here. There is so much positive energy for working on things. There’s an amazing amount of space to grow.
CM: Matt, in your article at the Independent, you quote Adin, a resident of Rojava, “pointing at a dusty swathe of harvested wheat fields spreading to the horizon and the Turkish border beyond,” saying, “Thirty years ago, this area was full of trees. Then the regime sent men to cut them all down.”
Why would the then-president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, the father of current president Bashar al-Assad, send men to Rojava to cut all the trees down? What was his reasoning?
MB: It’s colonization. It’s psychological terror. It’s psychological warfare. As I understand it, the idea was to keep this region suppressed. Here it wasn’t quite like in Turkey, where the Kurdish people were being faced with violent repression, murder, disappearances, kidnappings, torture. These things were happening, but not at such a scale. The way that the regime here was keeping the people down was by making them dependent on Damascus. Here it was imposing wheat monocultures. These fields, which I can see now out the window, are part of this huge area, I don’t know how many hectares of wheat, wheat, wheat—the idea of that was of course to grow food for Syria, but also to make sure that this region was kept dependent on Damascus. All of that stuff had to be sent elsewhere to processing. Moreover, people can’t live on bread alone, and it became very difficult to get different crops to grow here, fruit trees and so on. The same thing had happened with oil; oil was extracted here but sent elsewhere to be processed.
In these kinds of material ways, people were kept dependent on Damascus. And in general, the mass deforestation of land where people have lived since time immemorial is psychological warfare. We see it now in Afrin. As you know, the Turkish army recently invaded, and in these weeks they’ve been torching the olive groves (despite the name of their operation, Operation Olive Branch). It’s the same tactic. It’s the same tactic that Israel uses against Palestinians. It’s a tactic to wear down the people and to make people here feel like they have no option but to go to the city in Damascus and try and get a job, or flee the region and go to Europe and try and build a life for themselves there, for example in Germany.
CM: Tolhildan, how difficult will it be to make Rojava green again? Has cutting down all the trees led to additional environmental destruction that will make it even more difficult to make Rojava green again?
T: Right now the big problem is being in the situation of war and embargo. Anything that we want to do here has to be done, more or less, with the resources that are here, like taking trees and clipping a part of their branch and replanting that, and that makes a new tree. So it is a lot of work. There is a lot of work ahead of us. But one of the good things I see in society here is there’s a lot of positive energy towards the environment. You go places and there are murals talking about how we can defend the water, or this girls’ camp that I mentioned before was set in a natural area so the girls and young women would have a chance to experience nature.
There is a lot of work to be done. So one of the things we want to do is invite people to support with knowledge, or if they have funds, or if they feel like they want to come out here and be involved in environmental projects—basically anything you want to do for a project, it can be done here. There is so much positive energy for working on things. There’s an amazing amount of space to grow.
MB: Yeah, it’s a space which has been liberated, uniquely, from state domination, from state control. It’s a space where people can organize on their own land and do what they want with it. As heval Tolhildan said, it’s not a utopia here; it’s very difficult here. But there is the opportunity to come here and learn from local people who know very much about the land, who know very much about the situation here, and to study together, to build things together, to share knowledge. If there are people listening who are motivated by that, they should come here. It’s an opportunity to do something, to contribute towards the goal of rejuvenating this land which has been liberated at such enormous cost.
CM: Matt, you write in your Independent article, “In 2011, a power vacuum opened as the regime became embroiled in civil war. The Kurdish people who attracted worldwide support following their defeat of ISIS in Kobanê were able to establish autonomous self-rule.”
Considering the economic deprivations the people of Rojava had gone through, and the environmental deprivations they had gone through over several decades, through the government imposing a monoculture of wheat and oil and destroying all the trees—what explains how the people of Rojava were able to defeat ISIS, which at the time had reeled off a series of military successes? How could the people fighting for Rojava not only defeat ISIS but arm themselves so they could defeat ISIS?
MB: There are a couple of Kurdish sayings which might be interesting here. One is the Kurds saying that they “have no friends but the mountains.” These are people who have suffered for centuries, have not had their own land, have been facing oppression, have been facing violence and state aggression, and of course in more recent years, as we know, have been divided between four nation-states, and persecuted and hammered down.
From this developed another saying they have: An serkeftin an serkeftin. “Either victory or victory.” Defeat was never an option, not in this land, not in the land belonging to the people. This revolution didn’t just begin in 2011 with a power vacuum. As Tolhildan said, there was decades of organizing going on here among the women, among the youth, among all the people, and they were never going to allow this force embodying fascism, embodying so much of what is wrong in this world, to take their land from them.
T: Also there was this consciousness that it wasn’t a fight that they could lose, especially for the women. Hearing stories about Kobanê, falling back was not a choice. Rather, if you get captured by ISIS, the women know what’s going to happen to them. So they either needed to win or they were going to die trying. The reality of this, that there’s not really somewhere to fall back to if they start to lose—people were so determined to stand their ground. That was one of the factors that made this war go as it did.
MB: I would also add, though, that although ISIS was powerful, they were an irregular non-state force. In Afrin earlier this year, what the Kurdish people and the other local people—Arabs also, Syriacs, Yezidis, many other minorities—were faced with was a NATO army with warplanes. The Turkish propaganda was that they were using warplanes like Kalashnikovs to rain down bombs on what was up until then the most peaceful and safest corner of Syria, and they were aided and abetted by Western states like the states that we’re coming from, NATO states, with the complete blessing of the world. These are the same states which relied on the Kurds, relied on the movement here to defeat ISIS when other armies were running away, turned their backs, did nothing. Now they let people die; they let many self-defense forces here die, men and women; they let civilians die; they let internationalists lose their lives on the front lines, like Anna Campbell (şehid Hêlîn Qereçox) from my country, and they did nothing. We were useful to them back then, and we aren’t now.
We have to approach the revolution here humbly and with respect, and see it’s not something which was made for us, or made for our university campuses, or made for our squats. It’s something which was made in a society which has been a revolutionary society for a very long time, which was built out of the Kurdish liberation movement, which was built in the context of the Middle East.
This also is an answer to those people who say the Kurds are in the pocket of the American government or something. Where the hell were those governments when people were being slaughtered in Afrin? Where will they be when the next Turkish attack comes? They’re not going to help people here.
CM: Tolhildan, to what extent is Rojava creating the kind of direct democratic system that leftist activists in the Global North have been seeking as an alternative to representative democracy and neoliberalism? Is what is happening in Rojava the revolution that the Global North, that Western leftist activists have been waiting for?
T: In most cities, basically in every city now, there are communes. There is a commune in Raqqa. There are structures set up to let people’s voices be heard, to involve people. The challenge here is getting more and more people to be involved with that, especially youth, and then once they are involved, to expand their involvement in the project. There are different aspects of it: economy, arts and culture, ecology, etcetera. There’s good involvement, but we always want to make it more.
MB: One thing that was important coming here as internationalists was to try and get away from the perspective that either there’s something here that we can transfer into the West, or that we can transplant our own Western ideas here directly. We have to approach the revolution here humbly and with respect, and see it’s not something which was made for us, or made for our university campuses, or made for our squats or whatever. It’s something which was made in a society which has been a revolutionary society for a very long time, which was built out of the Kurdish liberation movement, which was built in the context of the Middle East.
On the other hand, there’s very much to learn here. The idea of the Internationalist Commune is to be a space that is structured and organized and is directly a part of the revolutionary youth structure here, and where Western leftists who are serious and committed about challenging their preconceptions, challenging their ideas about what revolution and struggle are, can come and educate themselves, be educated by the Kurdish movement, learn the Kurdish language, study together, spend time with internationalists from different continents all over the world, work in society alongside the Kurdish movement, and begin to develop revolutionary perspectives for our struggles back home as well.
This is also a long, hard process. Of course there are things about the way the revolution was done here which wouldn’t really make sense in our very liberal societies as opposed to the conservative society here. But the principles of the revolution—of direct democracy; of the women’s struggle not being something which follows the revolution but being the revolution, leading the revolution; and of course of ecology—these principles and the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan are something which we are studying here and discussing often with Kurdish friends and one another, and which we hope to use to build something more effective in our home countries than what is, for me, the quite sorry state that we have today.
CM: And you write of the book you are crowdfunding for: “This book is a seed, a first step helping us to connect with ecological struggles across the globe and work together through the shared ideals of the Rojava revolution.”
Is Rojava, then, not the only place where a feminist and ecological society is being forged? Is this happening elsewhere around the world right now?
MB: Of course there are other struggles. I can give a concrete example: this week we were talking with comrades in the West Bank in Palestine who are trying to build ecological alternatives there, ecological and autonomous ways to provide energy, specifically, and recycle water. To give another example, in October there will be a festival in Hamburg which is all about this, fifty years after another festival gathering which happened there against the Vietnam War which brought together five thousand internationalist revolutionaries from all over the globe to share ideas and learn from the ideas of the Vietnamese movement. This festival in Hamburg will be another opportunity to do the same. These are just a couple examples, but we’re trying to share this with as many people as we can in as many countries as we can, and in as many struggles as we can.
This is something very important in the ideology of the movement and the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan: learning from each other. It doesn’t matter whether different people know more and different people know less—there are people here who are forty years a revolutionary, and there are friends here who are nineteen and just arrived from Europe, and there is everyone in between. We can all criticize one another’s struggles, we can all see the contradictions in one another’s struggles, we can all see where they fall down, and we can all learn from where they succeed.
The movement here is really against a dogmatic approach which says, “Our way is the only way and if you’re not following this book to the letter of the law then you’re no part of this revolution.” It’s not about that. It’s about criticizing one another, learning from one another, and building networks which cross over borders, which cross over nation-states, and which unites struggles across the globe.
T: I’m also currently the only person from North America in the commune, and sometimes it’s very disappointing because I feel like people coming from different backgrounds, like in Mexico, or coming from indigenous struggles, would have so much to add to this conversation here that I’m not able to. So if anyone has these kinds of perspectives and would like to enter into a conversation with us in the Kurdish movement, we’d love to have your voices. Send us an email.
CM: Tolhildan, that leads me to a good question to ask you. Does a resistance need to do more than observe and criticize? How does only observing and criticizing fall short in any fight against authoritarianism?
T: Of course it has to be more than observing and criticizing. The big thing that we see here is just the level of involvement that people have with each other. Part of that is because of the traditional ways that are still more in place here, like the villages, the family structures, the connections that people have to each other. People just know each other here in a way that we don’t get a chance to as much in America, and I feel that people want it, but it’s hard when you have two jobs, you meet with people who aren’t in your neighborhood, you’re having to drive a lot—things like this are part of living in the capitalist system.
In our organizing, I see people going in inspiring directions, leftists wanting to meet with other leftists, collaborate with people across different communities—but it also comes down to a neighborhood level, too, just simply knowing the people around you, being able to have conversations with people who might have wildly different opinions. We see that kind of thing every day here.
We saw that Turkey obliterated Afrin and nothing was done. Sooner or later, tanks will quite likely roll onto the horizon here. But we know what they’re trying to destroy.
CM: Matt, you write, “Our commune is also unique, providing a place for internationalists from across the globe to learn from the revolution and contribute to the struggle for a feminist and ecological society.”
A past guest on our show, anthropologist David Graeber, has visited Rojava, and dating back to 2014 he’s been writing about it in publications like the Guardian. In fact, in 2014 he had a story posted that was entitled “Why Is the World Ignoring the Revolutionary Kurds in Syria?”
To you, what explains why the story of Rojava is not a bigger story in the international press? And is it a bigger story in the Middle East than it is in the West?
MB: The thing is, after David was writing that article, it did become a big story. There was the resistance in Kobanê, and suddenly there were these exotic Kurdish women with their headscarves and their Kalashnikovs all over the news; there’s a big movie being made about it this year I think, called Women of the Sun. And so this Westernized vision of what’s happening here got created. People were very wrongly seeing Kurds as the West’s outpost in the Middle East: “They’re fighting for secular values, therefore they’re like the West.” But the Kurds are—well, first off, many of them are Muslims, and second, they are fighting against the very capitalist and liberal values that the West embodies.
What was happening here couldn’t really be ignored by the media, especially with the fight against Daesh, so it got co-opted and made into a tool to beat other scary Muslims with, like “Why can’t you be more like the Kurds?” People who have this approach would get a shock when they come here and they see that it’s the Middle East. It’s not Europe. It’s a radically different way of structuring society, but these are narratives and stories which are not so interesting and which don’t really fit into the very positivist narrative of good guys versus bad guys. It’s about revolutionary struggle; it’s a struggle with many contradictions inside it. This is something which of course you won’t get much coverage on.
With that in mind, it’s important work for us here at the commune to demystify what’s happening in Rojava a bit and take away some of the hoodoo and the critical back-and-forth that happens in the left press as well, and just show a little bit about what daily life is like here as best we can, to show that in the ideas of the movement, revolution is not just armed struggle against an oppressor; the majority of the revolution is a struggle against yourself, and a struggle in your neighborhoods and communities—challenging patriarchal attitudes in myself as a man, challenging Orientalist attitudes in ourselves as Westerners. It’s full of people working on themselves and working together to build a better society. That’s the Rojava revolution, that’s what’s happening in the communes, and here in our commune; that’s what’s happening in the women’s structures day by day, week by week. This is the revolution. It’s not only the sacrifices made against Daesh.
CM: I’ve got one more question for each of you. Our last question for every guest is what we call the Question from Hell: the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience will hate your response.
Tolhildan, let’s start with you. Can what is happening in Rojava, what you’ve learned radical democracy, about a feminist and ecosocial state—can that help in defeating rising fascism in the West? Can the lessons that you have learned so far in Rojava—and will continue to learn—help in the West’s fight against fascism?
T: I would say definitely yes, especially if I were in the YPJ.
But yeah, this experience of talking to people is really what it’s about—knowing people, talking with them, understanding their perspective, and then doing what you can to change it. When I was out there, before I came over, I had some experience with someone who was a little bit seduced by the alt-right—not to the point of agreeing with all of it, but being like, “They’re maybe interesting and have some things to say,” and just the process of getting to know him and have some conversations, means that now he’s changed his opinion.
You see the same kind of process here. It takes a long time, sometimes, to change people’s minds, but having these conversations and being open to it, and knowing that you just have to take it step by step—it works.
CM: And Matt, our Question from Hell for you is: To what degree is radical democracy in Rojava seen by Syria and Turkey as a threat? Is the reaction by Syria and Turkey more an anti-Kurd reaction, or is it an anti-radical-democracy reaction? Or is it both?
MB: Especially in the case of Turkey, they won’t stop until they’ve obliterated what’s happening here. The Turkish state’s oppressive attitude towards Kurds is also its attitude towards women, towards leftists, towards democracy. These things are all one and the same. This is a fascist state, a fascist state supported by another fascist state not so very far from you, supported by NATO. Like any other fascist state, it needs its Other, it needs its dehumanized object, and that object is the Kurds. And it’s also women, and it’s also what the Kurds are trying to build up. All the powers of the world, it sometimes feels like, are concentrated on this small strip of land, this few million people here.
In the time of war, by fighting Daesh it seemed as if we were able to buy a little time, but now it’s scary. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next month. We saw that Turkey obliterated Afrin and nothing was done. Sooner or later, tanks will quite likely roll onto the horizon here. But we know what they’re trying to destroy. They’re trying to destroy the women’s revolution. They’re trying to destroy social democracy. They’re trying to destroy the ecological revolution too, by burning trees and so on.
That gives people strength here. Before I came, I thought I would arrive and people would kind of be defeated, they would see that Turkey was advancing, that nothing was being done by the West, and they would have given up on these ideas of organizing democracy and communes and so on to focus on the armed struggle. But it’s not like that at all. People see that this is the fight. This is the resistance against Turkey. This is the struggle.
So to answer your question, the two things are not separable, and nor is it limited to Syria and Turkey. It’s also the NATO states who are selling arms and turning their back on the region, who are allowing the massacres that have taken place and likely will take place in the future to occur. They’re all terrified of what’s happening here.
That’s why we need people to come here. We need people to defend this land through civil means like we do here at the commune, and through the other structures as well. In the face of these states that are uniting against the revolution here, we need revolutionaries from America, from all over the globe, to stand alongside the Kurds and the other people here, and say that we’re not going to allow this to happen. We’re not going to allow it to be destroyed.
CM: Matt and Tolhildan, thank you so much for being on this week’s show. It has been an honor and a pleasure.
MB & T: Thank you. Serkeftin!
Featured image source: this video right here
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