“Poor in means but rich in spirit”

After my visit to Rojava in early December 2014, I published an article with my impressions here and here.

Meanwhile, journalist Cesur Milusoy interviewed me on December 23. The interview is published in German, here. This English version contains some amplifications on the German version.

Janet, you just returned from a journey to Rojava that lasted more than a week. How did you and the group enter Rojava? The Turkish border is closed, and ISIS controls much of the territory in Iraq.

We started out from Erbil, Iraq, and crossed the border at Semalka. The organizers had arranged for the crossing in advance. Once we arrived, we had to wait a few hours until someone made a telephone call. Then we crossed the Tigris and entered Cizire.

Cizire is a small canton in Syrian Kurdistan that is at war and at the same time is daring to build something new. To ask a banal question, what were your impressions?

Rojava seemed to me to be poor in means but rich in spirit. The people are brave, educated and dedicated to defending their revolution and their society. Their revolution is grassroots-democratic, gender equal, and cooperative. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The people of Rojava are showing the world what humanity is capable of.

a female Asayis

a female Asayis

You went to Rojava to see whether the self-government functions along libertarian principles. What did you find? To what extent are the principles of Murray Bookchin present?

Rojava’s system is similar to Bookchin’s ideas in the most crucial way: power flows from the bottom up. The base of Bookchin’s system is the citizens’ assembly. The base of Rojava’s is the commune. One of my questions before arriving was whether Rojava’s communes were assemblies of all citizens or rather meetings of their delegates or representatives in a council. But I found out that the communes are made of up a neighborhood’s households, and that anyone from those households may attend and participate in a meeting. That’s an assembly.

Another similarity is that in both systems power flows upward through various levels. Citizens’ assemblies can’t exist in isolation—they have to have a mechanism by which they interconnect with their peers, yet one that remains democratic. Rojava’s solution is the people’s council system that rises through several tiers: the neighborhood, the district, the city, and the canton. Bookchin, by contrast, spoke of towns and neighborhoods confederating. Murray called the broader levels “confederal councils,” where as in Rojava they are called people’s councils at every level, or even “house of the people.” In both cases they are made up of mandated delegates, not representatives as in a legislature. Rojava’s delegates—called co-presidents—convey the wishes of the people the next level up–they don’t act on their own initiative. So that’s another similarity. In Rojava, the people’s councils aren’t made up only of co-presidents from the lower levels; they also comprise people elected to enter at that level. The councils seem to be quite large. I think that’s a good idea.

In addition to the council system, Rojava has a transitional government in place as well, a built-in dual power. The council system is separate from it but also carries the wishes of the people into it, through various mechanisms.

You have also spoken about the revolutionary process there.

Bookchin wrote extensively about the revolutionary process, in his histories of revolutionary movements. You can’t make a revolution just any day, he would point out; history has to be on your side; only at times does a “revolutionary situation” develop, when it’s possible to change the system. He lamented that all too often, when a revolutionary situation came around, the revolutionaries weren’t ready for it. They longed for an opportunity to make change, but they did not organize in advance, and so when the revolutionary situation developed, they missed their chance.

Rojavans did not make the common mistake. They prepared for decades before the revolutionary situation happened,building counterinstitutions, creating a structured counterpower. The Qamislo massacre of 2004 taught them that they had not prepared sufficiently, so they intensified their preparations. So when the revolutionary situation came in 2012, they were ready. When the regime collapsed, leaving a power vacuum, the counterinstitutions were in place to take the power, and they did.

Rojavans understand something else Murray argued too, about power. The issue is not to abolish power—that can’t be done. The issue, is rather, to define who has the power: will it be a regime, or will it be the people? Rojavans understood when the moment arrived that the power was theirs for the taking, and they took it. He would have applauded heartily.

And finally, I think he would have commended the work of Tev-Dem, a movement of civil society organizations established in order to create the council system—communes and other institutions of democratic self-rule. I think he would have commended Rojavans’ imagination in inventing a movement whose purpose is to creat democratic self-government.

You speak of creativity that Bookchin would have praised, but the creativity is essentially Abdullah Öcalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who was inspired by some writings of your partner, as was the Syrian branch of the PKK, the PYD. The PKK as originally based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. Did you observe any signs of this in Rojava?

In the past decades Öcalan and the PKK have renounced Marxism-Leninism. Their goal is now to create a base democratic, ecological, cooperative, and gender-equal society. I saw no gulags there, not even close. I saw a place that seemed genuinely committed to creating that society, even if it’s still al work in progress.

The equality between men and women is an important issue for you. In the Middle East women have a difficult role. Has that changed in Rojava?


women at an assembly meeting in Qamislo

Misogyny is deeply rooted in the Middle East. Women have fewer rights there than almost anywhere else in the world. Their intelligence end value are denigrated. They may be married while still girls. Their husbands can beat them with impunity, and husbands can have plural wives. And when a woman is sexually abused, her male relatives blame her and may commit an honor killing or even coerce her into committing an honor suicide. She is often excluded from education and from working outside the home, and she is certainly forbidden to participate in public life.

In Rojava this grim condition is undone, as the whole society is committed to creating equality for the sexes. Girls are educated along with boys. They can choose any profession. Violence against women is forbidden. A woman who experience domestic violence can bring the problem to a public meeting, where it is discussed and investigated. Above all they may participate in public life. In Rojava’s democratic self-government, a meeting must consist of 40 percent women. The institutions have no individual heads—they must always have two co-presidents, one man and one woman. An elaborate series of women’s councils exists alongside the general councils. Women’s councils have veto power over decisions that affect women. Rojava’s defense forces consist of units for men and units for women.

Do women play a large and more important role in the revolution, without which these structures would not be possible?

Yes. In many places we were told that Rojava’s revolution is a women’s revolution; that a revolution that does not alter the status of women really isn’t a revolution at all; that transforming the status of women transforms the whole society; that freedom for women is inseparable from freedom of society; and even that women are “the main actors in economy, society, and history.” Such ideas are taught not only in the women’s academies and the Mesopotamian Academy but also in, for example, the academies that train the defense and security forces. At the Asayis academy in Rimelan, we were told that half the educational time is dedicated to equality of the sexes.

One cause of conflict in the Middle East is the oppression of ethnic groups. In Rojava many cultures and religions exist alongside each other. How freed o you think the minorities are in the self-government? Did you have an opportunity to speak to any of the remaining Christians?

It seems to me that Rojava’s Kurds understand very well the importance of this question, since they very well know the experience of being an oppressed minority. Today as the majority in Rojava they know that it would be unacceptable for them to impose on others the kinds of exclusions that they experienced in Syria and that they still experience elsewhere.

Moreover, they consider diversity to be a positive good. Rojava’s social contract affirms the inclusion of all minorities, by name. When we met with Nilüfer Koc, co-president of the KNK, she defined Democratic Autonomy not in terms of democracy but expressly as “unity in diversity.”

One aspect of Rojava’s diversity is the Assyrian Christian community. What is the situation for them in Qamislo?

We met a group of Assyrians in Qamislo, who explained to us that the Baath regime ad recognized only Arabs as the sole ethnicity in Syria. Like Kurds, Assyrians had no cultural rights and were barred from organizing a political party. But in the summer of 2012 the revolution founded the self-government, and since then the Assyrians have experienced both improvements in their condition. The revolution established three official languages; Kurdish, Arabic, and Soryani (the Assyrians’’ language). Assyrians even have their own defense unit, the Sutoro.

Of course, our delegation couldn’t examine the whole society under a microscope. But we asked the group of Assyrians what difficulties they experienced with the self-government. They responded that they have no difficulties. They participate in the people’s councils at all levels. We learned that in the transitional government each minority must have 10 percent of the seats in parliament, even when they don’t have 10 percent of the population. That’s positive discrimination.

Most important, the Assyrian women have organized themselves. They believe that women are essential to democracy, and that democracy is essential to women. “Self-government means,” said one Assyrian woman, “that women are more effective and can participate and can learn to become leaders. … We have in common with Kurdish women the wish to defend the society. … We have relations with Kurdish and Arab women … The Assyrian Women’s Organization also includes Arab women. We want to improve the condition of all women in this area, not only Assyrian women.

It is one further splendid aspect of this “women’s revolution”: women of all ethnicities share the same problems from traditional society. In Rojava the equality of the sexes ties women together across ethnic lines, bringing everyone closer together.

What is daily life like? Are schools, doctors, electricity, and water all supplied for free? 

Rojava has been fighting a long, grueling war of self-defense against ISIS, and to that end the self-government maintains defense forces (YPG, YPJ) and security forces (Asayis). Arming these men and women, providing them with food and uniforms, and meeting other military needs consumes 70 percent of the budget. The remaining 30 percent goes to public services. Rojava considers health and education to be basic human needs, and on that slim budget, it finances public systems for both.

The main economic activity in Cizire is agriculture. With its fertile soil and good growing conditions, the canton is rich in wheat and barley. Before the revolution it was the breadbasket of Syria. Notably, the Baath regime declined to build processing facilities in Rojava, even flour mills. The self-government built one only recently, at Tirbespiye, and now provides flour for the whole canton. Bread remains the staff of life—each household gets three loaves of bread a day, which the self-government provides at 40 percent below cost.

the flour mill in Tirbespiye

the flour mill in Tirbespiye

For the last two years the self-government has supplied seeds to the farmers, and diesel for their machinery, so they can continue to cultivate their lands. The self-government has also created local companies to develop infrastructure and to build roads. And it finances the refugee camps in the Kurdish areas. Humanitarian institutions are present there too, but only symbolically—they don’t finance electricity, water, or education, because Rojava is not internationally recognized; the agencies have to work through the KRG and Damascus, which doesn’t allow it. So Rojava must provide for them. The result is an economy of survival. Electricity and clean water are in limited supply.

How are people paid?

Some Rojavans earn wages, but many work on a voluntary basis; still others just make their living, say, from a cow. “We consume bread together,” Hemo said, “and if there is no bread, we do not get bread.”

Still, at the top of the economic development agenda is the creation of cooperatives, in Rojava’s “community economy.” “Our political project and our economic project are the same,” said Abdurrahman Hemo, an adviser for economic development in Cizire canton. For two years Cizire has been promoting cooperativism through academies, seminars, and community discussions, and is building them in different sectors. Most of the cooperatives are agricultural, but others are springing up in trades and construction.

a sewing cooperative, Derik

a sewing cooperative, Derik

What is Rojava’s income? Do people pay taxes?

Rojava collects no taxes from its people, and receives a small income from the border crossing at Semalka. But most of Rojava’s income by far comes form Cizire’s oil. The canton has thousands of oilfields, but at the moment only 200 of them are active. Once again, the Baath regime exploited Cizire’s raw materials but refused to construct processing plants. So while Cizire has petroleum, it had no refineries. Only since the revolution has the self-government improvised a large refinery to produce diesel and benzene, which are sold cheaply in the local economy. Diesel is now cheaper than water—it goes fuels the small generators that provide power in much of Cizire. But the canton exploits petroleum only for its own use.

Why can’t Rojava just sell its oil abroad and gain income from exports?

The reason is the embargo. Rojava shares a long border with Turkey, and several border crossings exist. But they are officially closed now, since Turkey embargoes Rojava both politically and economically. The KRG observes turkey’s embargo, although it has relaxed in recent months to allow trade through the Semalka crossing. But because of the virtually complete embargo, Rojava must build everything itself, from local materials. It gets no investment from outside–all production and all consumption are domestic. Self-sufficiency is not ideology—it’s an economic reality.

Is the self-government sustainable? Can it survive? Or does it depend on the outside, that is on the political power game of Turkey, the United Stats, and so on? Or is there an opportunity that one could call historic?

The principles of democratic autonomy are anticapitalist, but Rojava has in any case no economic surplus that can be used to develop the economy. The economic development adviser, Hemo, is seeking outside investment. “We want to be self-sufficient,” he told us, “but to develop quality of life, we need some kind of industry.” Rojava needs a power plant and a fertilizer factory. But the cooperative economy can’t finance industry at that level, he told us. “We need help from outside, private or public, so we can build our social economy together.”

In what is called the “open economy,” outside investment is welcomed as long as it conforms to the social nature of the Rojava’s “community economy.” Without outside investment, Hemo believes, Rojava can survive maybe only another year or two. But although Rojava must industrialize, it must not create a state economy, or a centralized economy. Even with outside investment, it should remain locally organized: “We need a common economy, and factories should be communally owned.”

But outside investment is lacking, because Rojava’s existence is not internationally recognized. Potential investors have no legal access—they have to they have to go through the KRG and Damascus. And they have no physical access—the absence of border crossings with Turkey. To survive, Rojava needs openings to the outside world. It seems clear that Turkey must open its borders and allow this noble and high-minded project to continue.





Visit to the YPJ, December 7, Amuda

“We want the world to know us not because of our weapons but because of our ideas.”

by Janet Biehl, Academic Delegation to Rojava

On December 7 our delegation met with members of a platoon of YPJ, the women’s defense force (Kurdish:Yekîneyên Parastina Jinê), in Amuda, Rojava.

As we enter the chilly room, the dozen or so women present invite us to sit on cushions around the edges of the room. In the center a stove cuts the chill. On the walls are photos of platoon members who have been martyred.

One woman is already sitting in place as we arrive, cross-legged. She keeps very still, and abundant blankets swath her legs. From time to time, as the conversation unfolds, she rubs her stomach. My eyes keep returning to her. Suddenly I notice a drip bag hanging on the wall behind her, and an IV line to her wrist.

They and the other YPJ friends (as they call one another) welcome us, saying our presence give them hope, for it shows them that what they are doing has reached the outside world. A younger woman arrives, also injured, on a metal crutch, wincing with each step, palpably relieved to sit down.

How did the YPJ originate? we ask. Initially, we are told, back in 2011, women fought in the YPG alongside men. But at a congress in 2012 women fighters decided to organize autonomously, to show that women can be their own force.

Before the revolution, they told us, women’s “whole world was one room. Rights belonged only to men,” and women “were treated as if we were there but not there.” Neither their men nor they themselves had any trust that they could do anything important.

But the formation of the YPG and especially the YPJ “gave us political and social consciousness to struggle for freedom. You gain self-confidence. . . . When you are together with others, you realize you are a power. . . . We could express our colors, our thoughts. … We gained a liberationist consciousness.” They realized that everyone, including themselves, has rights and that those rights must be defended.

At one point the lights go out. Those who have flashlights flick them on, someone lights a candle, and the talk continues without skipping a beat.

The newly formed YPJ wrote a charter, setting out rules that are as democratic as possible. Structurally all members are equal, even commanders; everyone lives together, cooks together; the age range is about 18 to 35.

Commanders are elected once a year based on skills and attitudes, and they undergo special training. But their rank accords them no privileges. In fact, once elected, commanders have greater responsibilities than others and are expected to contribute more to the community. They try to ease conditions and model behavior. They have no right to yell at anyone—“that’s what we’re fighting against.” If anything, they are subject to criticism.

As the YPJ fought successfully, the women came to understand that strength is self-sustaining. Now they are dedicated to showing what women are capable of. Inspired by Kurdish history, which is replete with strong women, they are conscious of fighting not just ISIS but for their revolution.

The still woman with the IV has risen to her feet and now moves carefully across the room to the exit. Younger women help her, carrying the apparatus. We hold our breath as she makes the endless journey.

We resume. YPJ education covers not only military training but political and philosophical ideas: “We try to understand and analyze life.” In ongoing educational seminars, the women study the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, and they ponder the example of Arîn Mîrkan, a YPJ commander whose photo adorns the wall. She was killed in Kobanê in October, having detonated herself in order to cover the retreat of her friends. As well, the platoon studies the life and ideas of Beritan Çewlik, a PKK woman who, back in 1992, was fighting the peshmerga. Beritan fought until the last bullet and then, so as not to have to surrender, threw herself off a cliff in the mountains along with her weapon.

“We’re struggling not just against ISIS,” the women of the YPJ tell us. “We’re struggling to change a mentality and to show the power of women to the outside world.” The YPJ engage in war in Rojava only out of necessity, they say; “our ideas go beyond Rojava. We want to struggle on a global scale.” Indeed, “we want the world to know us not because of our weapons but because of our ideas.”

One of the delegation members assures the women that whatever happens, nothing can go back to the way it was before. “You are also fighting for my three daughters” in Europe, he says, expressing his thanks. “Rest easy,” comes the reply. “We are struggling here, but also for the whole world. We have suffered a lot here, and we do not want others to suffer. It’s necessary that a consciousness of freedom develops.”

After the discussion ends, we ask anxiously about the woman with the IV. She had been wounded a week ago, in Sere Kaniye, to the west, we are told. ISIS attacked, and something hit her from a distance. Did we tire her? No, we are told. “If she wanted you to leave, she would have said so—we are honest here.”

—December 22, 2014