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Tag Archive for kobane

Lessons from Rojava: Democracy and Commune; This and That

P1000335
El Errante

Democracy—”a system of government in which all the people of a state or polity … are involved in making decisions about its affairs, typically by voting to elect representatives to a parliament or similar assembly,” (a:) “government by the people; especially: rule of the majority” (b:) “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”—Oxford English Dictionary

 

I hate democracy. And I hate organizations, especially communes. Yet, I favor the organization of democratic communes.

THIS: Democracy is always about mediation. Whether it separates the subject from decision-making, functions as an excuse for graft and fraud, or whether it separates the subject from him or herself. Democracy stands in the way of the individual, blocks unmediated communication by imposing the requirement of structure—an outcome, a decision. And when a decision is reached, it is usually arrived at by the most banal and ruthless method ever devised: the vote—the tyranny of the majority.

Anarchism has had a mixed history of criticism regarding democracy. Étienne de La Boétie in his Discours lays out a first line of inquiry by wondering why it is that people allow themselves to be governed at all—and as he explores the problem he points out that it seems not to matter whether a tyrant is chosen by force of arms, by inheritance, or by the vote. He states,

“For although the means of coming into power differ, still the method of ruling is practically the same; those who are elected act as if they were breaking in bullocks; those who are conquerors make the people their prey; those who are heirs plan to treat them as if they were their natural slaves.” (1)

And it might be added that the subject population submits to such abuse without question or contestation. La Boétie’s treatise is truly prescient; written in (roughly) 1553—a full 250 years before the emergence of the modern nation-state—and yet it contemplates exactly the type of unbridled war, oppression, and terror that democratically elected governments were to unleash on subject populations, and each other.

Power cannot exist in a vacuum, as the monarchs of Europe learned during the upheavals of 1848 while they watched their respective regimes disintegrate, one after the other. With democracy came the calculation of exchange, one iota of power given to a citizen via the vote, produces a vast quantity of power ensconced in legislature, executive, and judiciary. It’s unsurprising that political systems began to apply equations of power and exchange at the same time that in the economic realm Capital was introducing similar equations in order to usurp labor-time in trade for survival. Further such an exchange ties the population all that much closer to the rulers. Vanegeim illustrates the mechanism thus,

“Slaves are not willing slaves for long if they are not compensated for their submission by a shred of power: all subjection entails the right to a measure of power, and there is no such thing as power that does not embody a degree of submission.” (2)

It is Proudhon who will have the most varied interaction with IMG_0424democracy, both theoretically and practically. His career includes writing and publishing tomes of critical analysis denouncing democracy, running for elected office, serving in the National Assembly during the 1848 Revolution, and finally returning to his original rejection of voting and representation. He will also urge his followers to alternately abstain from voting, then to vote, then to abstain from voting (again), and finally to cast blank ballots to protest voting.

Proudhon unleashed a number of critiques on democracy. The critical prisms he used vary greatly, from the purely psychological to the empirical. And the targets of his barbs span the entire menagerie of democratic platitudes from the myth of “The People” to sovereignty to the realpolitik of how legislatures operate. Of interest is his critical analysis of the democratic decision-making process itself. He scrutinizes the mechanism of the vote and its outcome; specifically majority rule. He reasons in this manner,

“Democracy is nothing but the tyranny of majorities, the most execrable tyranny of all, for it is not based on the authority of a religion, nor on a nobility of blood, nor on the prerogatives of fortune: it has number as its base, and for a mask the name of the People…”

But Proudhon doesn’t finish there; he goes on to protest that those left in the minority are forced by circumstance to follow the will of the majority. A situation he finds untenable, not only for the explicit coercion but also because those in the minority are forced to abjure their ideas and beliefs in favor of those who oppose them. This, he notes wryly, makes sense only when political views are so loosely held nantesopera3by individuals as to hardly be worthy of the name. William Godwin, in analyzing the same scenario provides the terminal statement, “nothing can more directly contribute to the deprivation of the human understanding and character” than to require people to act contrary to their own reason. A conclusion proven empirically when one conducts even the most rudimentary survey of representative government and its effects on humanity over the course of the past 250 years.

In conclusionfor an anarchist, for myself, democracyas a system of self-governance, as a decision-making tool, as an idealis utterly devoid of any redeeming value or usefulness. It functions as a mask for coercion, making horror palatable whilst producing unbearable consequences for the individual, for the species, and for the planet. A dead end.

THAT: It is at this point that most anarchists and critical theorists begin backpedaling, some slowly (like Proudhon) and others rapidly (like Bookchin). Historically theorists have offered a scathing critique of democracy and then have immediately digressed, stating that the representative form of democracy as conceived by bourgeois (or socialist) society isn’t really democracy. That real democracy is reflected in some other formfor Proudhon delegated democracy, for Bookchin the Greek city-states, or the Helvetican Confederation. The argument then becomes that democracy can (and should) be recuperated by the Left as a workable form.

My own critique veers wildly off course at this point by virtue of having been skewed by empirical observation of a different form of democratic practice. Having recently returned from the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Northern Syria, known as Rojava, I had the opportunity to observe a unique form of unmediated democracy as implemented by a revolutionary libertarian social movement.

Sinjar Resistance - PKK hold up Ocalan portrait-777x437

Some theoretical context: Abdullah Öcalan, the head of the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, The Kurdistan Worker’s Party) was captured by Turkish Security Forces, with assistance from the CIA and Israel’s Mossad, in 1999. Dodging a firing squad, he was eventually sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment and that’s when things get interesting. Eschewing making license plates, or working in the laundry, Öcalan began the long slow intellectual journey out of Marxist-Leninist jibberish and into some pretty durable anarchist theory. Eventually publishing his ideas in several works, including Democratic Confederalism, War and Peace in Kurdistan, and a multi-volume tome on civilization, particularly the Middle East and Abrahamic religions. In his writing Öcalan does what no one else in the contemporary North American anarchist milieu is even willing to think—he constructs, albeit vaguely—a blueprint for a libertarian society. This simple exercise, devoid of content, is incredible. His engagement resembles far more the utopian socialist project of the early 19th Century than any of the ensuing theoretics associated with social contestation—especially Marxism and working-class anarchism; indeed his silence on class analysis, Marxist teleology, historical materialism, and syndicalism is deafening. Öcalan is clear in his task when he states in the Principles of Democratic Confederalism, “Democratic confederalism is a non-state social paradigm. It is not controlled by a state. At the same time, democratic confederalism is the cultural organizational blueprint of a democratic nation.[bold mine]”

As implied in the name, there is a great reliance on democratic processes in the system known as Democratic Confederalism. Yet here Öcalan is silent in his definition of democracy—he never offers one—and in it’s implementation—he never discusses it with any specificity. In fact, democracy is presented as a given, as a decision-making process, as an approach to self-administration, and little else. There is no favoring of voting versus consensus-based models, nor does he describe in any detail, at any level (communal, cantonal, regional) the forms that he foresees democracy taking. As an example,

“[Democratic Confederalism]…can be called a non-state political administration or a democracy without a state. Democratic decision-making processes must not be confused with the processes known from public administration. States only administrate [sic] while democracies govern. States are founded on power; democracies are based on collective consensus.” (4)

He then expands on what he means by “decision-making processes” in IMG_0328the Principles of Democratic Confederalism, “Democratic Confederalism is based on grass-roots participation. Its decision-making processes lie with the communities.” Fair enough. So how does all this play out in Rojava? In other words, how are Öcalan’s ideas being translated into revolutionary institutions?

My first insight into democracy in Rojava happened over a plate of hummus and pita in downtown Kobanî. I was sitting with Mr. Shaiko, a TEV-DEM (Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk, Movement for a Democratic Society) representative on a warm, dusty afternoon, some three days after attending a commune meeting together. In that meeting, of the council of Şehid Kawa C commune, Mr. Shaiko had raised the issue of commune boundaries and perhaps moving them in allowance for the number of people returning to the rubbled, venerable hulk that is Kobanî. After some discussion and as Mr. Shaiko left the meeting, he requested a phone call to let him know what was decided.

So I asked Mr. Shaiko, “What happened with the commune? Did they call?”

“No, no decision yet.”

“Oh, do they need to give one?”

“No, they’ll decide when they’re ready. That’s how it is,” Mr. Shaiko looked at me over his glasses with a half-grin and then returned to the plate of pita and hummus.

IMG_0219Clearly a divergent view of democratic decision-making where no conclusive result is as valid a response as a “yes” or a “no.” While I only saw this adjustment to democratic decision-making in operation a few times it seems to be fairly common, especially with the TEV-DEM folks whose charge is implementing democratic confederalism. It is also an interesting “fix” applied to the issue of decision-making processes. In one sense it negates the democratic process in favor of discourse, argument, and engagement without the concomitant requirement of an outcome.

The response of the revolutionaries to the tyranny of majority rule has been structural rather than directive. Here Öcalan describes his views on a plural society and in so doing outlines how he plans to weaken or subsume majority rule,

“In contrast to a centralist and bureaucratic understanding of administration and exercise of power confederalism poses a type of political self-administration where all groups of the society and all cultural identities can express themselves in local meetings, general conventions and councils…We do not need big theories here, what we need is the will to lend expression to… social needs by strengthening the autonomy of the social actors structurally and by creating the conditions for the organization of the society as a whole. The creation of an operational level where all kinds of social and political groups, religious communities, or intellectual tendencies can express themselves directly in all local decision-making processes can also be called participative democracy.”

So for the revolutionaries the formation, growth and proliferation of all types of “social actors”communes, councils, consultative bodies, organizations and even militias is to be welcomed, and encouraged—strongly.

This plays out in Rojava in an insane patchwork quilt of organizations, interests, local collectives, religious affiliates, and…flags. TEV-DEM, the umbrella organization charged with implementing democratic self-administration, is actually an agglomeration of several smaller organizations and representatives from political parties. These various subaltern organizations include those whose priority is sport, culture, religion, women’s issues, etc… As an example of this proliferation, in December of 2015 a new organization under the TEV-DEM system was bornTEV-ÇAND Jihn, whose priority is women and cultural production. This new organization is in addition to the generic TEV-ÇAND, whose priority is society, generally, and cultural production. In order to derail issues of majority rule the revolutionaries have introduced a structural caveat that allows individuals to find a majority that suits their needs, and through which their voice can be heard in society. Note that IMG_0367TEV-DEM and others have not sought to tinker with the actual mechanics of how a commune or organization operates or decides. Rather, they have changed the social order such that if an individual refuses to uphold a decision by a group, commune or council, the ability to opt out and find a more amenable assembly of folks is available.

These innovations seem good first steps in turning democracy from a worthless antiquity to a workable principle within anarchist theory, and as such should be encouraged and studied.

THIS: My essay regarding the organizational form and its various moments of domination, “The Organization’s New Clothes,” was first published in February of 1989 (and republished in 2015), and I see no reason to redact any portion thereof. (5) That critique, therefore, resonates throughout the following discussion, though time and space prohibit using it in any way other than as a critical prism. The “commune” is a scrambled term. It’s origins lie in the smallest administrative entity in France, the commune—corresponding roughly to a municipality. The word itself is derived from the twelfth-century Medieval Latin communia, meaning a group of people living a common or shared life. Which as a point of departure is interesting as the concept, even then, implied some degree of autonomy, both political and economic. It was, however, the Paris Commune during the French Revolution (1789 – 1795) that wrote the term in large red and black letters in the book of revolution. The Communards, in that first great explosion, distinguished themselves by their intransigence and demands for the abolition of private property and social classes. Eventually earning themselves the nickname enragés (“the enraged ones”). The revolutionary commune then has a subversive nature. It is dangerous. It is always dangerous when humans interact beyond the terrain of Capital and state, or in opposition to them.

Throughout the 19th Century the term commune, outside the administrative network of France, came to be associated with socialist and communist experiments and in a looser sense with all manner of utopian projects and communities—Owen, Fourier, Oneida, Amana, Modern Times… A slump for a few decades through the first part of the twentieth-century, then to confuse things further, the 1960s happened. The definition of the word “commune” ends for many North Americans somewhere in 1972; a tangerine swirl of bad acid, free love, and the Manson Family.

Which is not to say that there weren’t some important projects; among the more interesting was the West Berlin-based Kommune 1 (1967-1969), and Wisconsin’s contribution to utopia, Dreamtime Village. There have been thousands (likely tens of thousands) of communes over the past two centuries, intentional communities, collectives, cooperatives each with its own “glue”—the stuff that brought people together and “stuck” them to one another. In most cases this glue has been a mix of politics, anarchism, communism, utopianism, religious sentiment (usually wacky), livelihood, necessity, drugs, sexuality, or just plain detesting the dominant culture.

So what, exactly, is a commune? Who the hell knows? The problem is not the vagueness with which the commune is understood; rather it’s the lack of theory (and experience) that would provide nuance and clarity to this vagueness. The idea of the commune has been lost or diluted as a result of it’s own jangled historical context and the easily recuperable forms that it has recently taken. Ultimately, very much like democracy, the commune seems a quaint and faded relic in the cabinet of anarchist theory; filed under “V” for vestigial.

THAT: As above, so below. My own interaction with the Commune spans several articles on the Paris events of 1871, and includes my ongoing engagement with the conundrum of anarchist organization. All of my interactions with the concept of organizations operating in a revolutionary milieu had been on paperin theory—up until the time I crossed into the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Then things changed.
The commune and council meetings I attended were varied. From an ad hoc encounter of a team of YPG militiamen near the Turkish border in Kobanî Canton, to a council of the Şehid Kawa C commune, to a ceremony and meeting between TEV-DEM representatives of Kobanî and Cizîrê Canton. In each instance I recall a series of similar impressions. First each encounter was characterized by a sense of purpose, of meaning. The attendees seemed clear that what they were engaged in, the simple task of meeting together, as a commune, as a team of YPG fighters, carried within it a seed, a moment of one possible future, for Northern Syria, perhaps for the planet. Many people commented on this when I asked their thoughts regarding these political forms. One woman I met in Paris at an HDP rally put it best, “We are here reinventing politics, in fact, the world.”

This perception, which could easily fade into arrogance, in these attendees seemed to produce a different mindset, quiet determination. These folks were not wealthy, they worked hard in an area where there was little work. The men’s faces were lined and etched with long hours spent under the harsh gaze of a Middle East sun. The hands of the women were simultaneously delicate and rough, while they carried callouses and cuts, they also carried the scent of lotion and perfume. The voices, gestures, and faces of the revolutionaries during the meetings were intent, searching, serious. There was kindness, hugs for a developmentally disabled young adult, a moment spent with a mother who had lost a son in the siege of Kobanî, and respect—as each person spoke to the accompaniment of silent nods from their peers.

Hope was also present, a quantity that history has so long denied to anarchists, and which some of us have reclaimed—not as an eventuality, but as a birthright. These folks believed they could change their lives, their community, many believed they could change (and were changing) the world.

Finally, and most importantly, in each of these meetings there was an overwhelming sense of the banal. These were folks who, when they mentioned the cantonal authority at all, referred to it laconically as the anti-government, or the anti-regime. They had seen and participated in sweeping social changes and experimentation and in the process it had become commonplace, like lunch. This is not to say that there was no joy in the proceedings, far from it. Rather what was really missing was fear, and in this sense the social revolution in Rojava may truly be said to have passed into a phase of maturity and permanence. The sole caveat in the short-term being the defeat of Daesh.

Some theorists have been advancing on the idea of the commune, but from strange directions, post-left directions. Peter Lamborn Wilson in TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone and Pirate Utopias forces the issues of time and failure/success and the commune. He rejects utterly, as we must, the technological reasoning that the longer a commune exists the better or more successful it is, or was. In TAZ he specifically provides a formula for a new idea of a commune, a temporary encounter—perhaps hours, perhaps minutes—characterized by conviviality, joy. This encounter is also autonomous in that it is as independent, and free of the fetters of Capital and state as possible. This is essential to understand. The commune is combative, not subservient. That is the basis of its autonomy.

As opposed to bounding the definition of the commune or even trying to refine it, I believe that defocusing on the concept seems a sound strategy. I would argue that whether it is a phalanstère with all the Fourierist fauna intact, or a meeting between friends to relive old times, or to create new ones; it doesn’t matterit is a commune. Why bound something, why hem something in when it presents itself as a viable model for organization? Rather, without a definition, moving with tiny baby steps towards an understanding of what works and what is useless in the commune model. That strikes me as one promising, potential direction towards both engaged social experimentation and ruthless social contestation

Finally, and at a macro-level the concept of federalism may make a theoretical comeback. If the commune model makes any sense at all, then federalism isn’t very far behind. This returns anarchism to its philosophical roots, Proudhon especially, but also Pi i Margall, and Bakunin. The insurrectionary potential for federalism seems vastly underestimated. The movement to section society into smaller and smaller units, the federation of these units by mutual agreement, and the potential for economic cooperation and shared self-defense these units offer make of federalism a potentially daunting, though rather sp318bblunt, instrument. Note here that the current usage of federalism being the nation-states accumulation of power, wealth, knowledge…. ultimately producing the ability to control and dominate subject populations; is, in effect, the opposite of the concept’s standard historical definition. It is Pi i Margall, the non-anarchist grandfather of Spanish anarchism, in his 1855 work La Reacción y la Revolución who will offer the final word on the potential of federalism, “…the constitution of a society without power is the ultimate of my revolutionary aspiration[s],” stating he would, “divide and subdivide power,” until, “I shall destroy it.”(6)

The formation of communes also seems a viable real world strategy in that it fulfills two immediate functions—first they can act as support, a backbone for the movement of militants quickly to areas where their services might be required. In this way they may function very much as the book stores, infoshops, and alternative spaces did in the anarchist milieu of the past several decades in the US, or as the communes did in Kobanî during the siege. Their resources can assist in the provision of shelter, food, medical aid, and comfort for fighters. The communes can also provide valuable intelligence on local conditions, law enforcement, and assist in identifying those specific targets most noxious to the community. Put in contemporary military parlance, the commune may not be a weapon, but it can function as a weapons platform for the mobile anarchist fighters. Secondarily, the communes provide for the sedentary members of the milieu a laboratory, a setting in which to experiment with new ideas, new forms, coalescing, in protoplasmic form, the seeds of revolutionary institutions yet to be. Communes are nurseries where budding insurrections are reared. Ancillary to this effect, yet no less important, is the possibility that communes will help to shrink the attrition that has plagued anarchism since its inception as a political movement. A life dedicated to liberty is difficult to sustain, and most anarchists eventually succumb to the Cthulhu call of new cars, big houses, and squandered lives. At the age of 55, I have seen thousands of anarchists come and go, only those too stubborn, or too anti-social, like my friends, and myself seem to remain. Communes may stem this drift by producing a social milieu that is amenable to the various vagaries of the anarchist personality type, and by distributing resources for assistance with the real world issues of food, shelter, childbirth and rearing, loneliness, illness, old age and death.

The commune is a verb. The commune is a question.

THE OTHER THING

Anarchism has, rightly, been adrift since the end of the Second World War. With little understanding of its roots, history, and struggles most of us did the best we could with what we could find. There were no organizations to criticize or join and it was difficult enough just to find anarchists in NYC in 1984. We were orphans. The situation has changed, there are more anarchists, they are more easily contacted and the explosion of information has given us our story back. As a confluence, the news out of Greece, Rojava, Europe, in fact just about everywhere seems to be turning in our direction. Those in the milieu, therefore, have some choices to make. Where to place energy, where to invest time and effort, in a word—what to do? There are, at a minimum, as many possible answers to this question as there are anarchists now alive. As my response, I’ll state the following…

Form Democratic Communes.

Federate.

Be Ready.

NOTES
  1. La Boetie, Etienne (1975) The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Montreal; Black Rose Books.
  2. Vaneigem, Raoul. (1994) The Revolution of Everyday Life (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). London: Rebel Press
  3. Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. (1867-1870) Oeuvres completes de P-J. Proudhon. Paris: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie.
  4. Ocalan, Abdullah (2011). Democratic Confederalism (transl. International Initiative). Transmedia Publishing Ltd.: London, Cologne.
  5. Simons, Paul Z. (2015). “The Organization’s New Clothes” Black Eye: pathogenic and perverse. Ardent Press, Berkeley CA
  6. Pi y Margall, Francisco. “Reaction and Revolution,” in Anarchism, A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One

Report Back from the Rojava Revolution Bay Area Tour

Rojava Revolution Bay Area Tour

Rojava Revolution Bay Area Tour

 

Sunday, December 6th, 7pm, Santa Cruz

SubRosa Infoshop, 703 Pacific Ave

Monday, December 7th, 7pm, Monterey

Old Capitol Books, 559 Tyler St

Tuesday, December 8th, 7pm, Cupertino

De Anza College, Campus Center, Conference Room A&B, 21250 Stevens
Creek Blvd. $3 parking permit required for campus parking.

Saturday, December 12th, 7pm, Oakland

OMNI Commons, 4799 Shattuck Ave

Sunday, December 13th, San Francisco

Station 40, 16th Street 4040 B (Near Mission Street). Note, Station 40
is up two flights of stairs.

Sponsored by: Modern Slavery, FireWorks, Ruins of Capital Distro,
Industrial Workers of the World/Solidarity Network San Jose, Direct
Action Monterey Network (DAMN), SubRosa Infoshop, OMNI Commons, and
Station 40.


Rojava Dispatch Final: Journey Home

IMG_0241El Errante

 

“Mr. Errante … did you visit Syria?” The US Border Patrol officer stares at me through the bulletproof plastic that separates us. He shifts in his seat. The man wants an answer.

“Me? Syria? No. No way … too dangerous,” I say. Praying the lie doesn’t show on my face. I’m in Dublin, at US Pre-clearance, almost back to the States and now, it seems, I may have some explaining to do.

He scoops up my passport and customs declaration in his right hand and says, “Come this way Mr. Errante. We’re going to search your luggage.” For the first time, during the entire trip, that sickening feeling of real fear rises inside me.IMG_0404

 

 

 

 

Two days earlier — Paris. A singular morning, fresh sun and breeze, the kind of daybreak that only the Mother of the Revolutions can serve for breakfast. I walk through Père Lachaise Cemetery my head and shoulders hunched forward. I know this old boneyard like a good friend, and there’s one memorial that calls me now. The Mur des Fédérés (the Wall of the Federals). A place on the enclosing wall of the old cemetery where several hundred Communards were taken to be slaughtered by the forces of law and order. The memorial comes into view, a simple plaque on a wall of stone. Nothing more. I pull a YPG flag from my bag IMG_0424and drape it over the memorial. I take a photo. A German man and his daughter walk around the corner. I ask him to take a photo of me and the wall and the flag. As he preps, my hand once again rises, almost unconsciously in the V salute and he snaps a few photos. I am not done. There are two more photos to be taken. One photo with the flag draped over Oscar Wilde’s tomb, and one photo at the sculpted bronze cap that seals Nestor Makhno’s ashes into the Columbarium. Taking the final picture I notice an odd thing, did the likeness of Makhno smile a bit when I placed the YPG flag? Or is it me?

The Border Patrol officer walks me to a holding room in the Pre-Clearance area. I am told to sit on a row of benches. As I sit I see that I am facing a wall of waist high one-way mirrors. In the reflection I can see several officers directly behind me looking at my passport and paper work. They talk quietly and nod.

IMG_0418

 

 

 

 

My mind begins to play smuggler’s games. I go through all the potential contraband in my bags, numerous YPG/J flags, buttons, and patches. A book called Stateless Democracy, TEV-DEM flags, HPC flags and an HPC emblazoned brown uniform vest including two Velcro pockets that exactly fit a Kalashnikov banana clip for 7.62mm X 39 mm bullets. Additionally, several pro-YPG/J, TEV-DEM magazines in scary Daesh-looking Arabic and latinized Kurmanji. Welp, enough there for a few hours of interrogation, maybe even a day or two of detention. One of the Border Patrol officers calls me to his window. I stand, turn, and walk with measured steps to where he motioned me.

After the stroll through Père Lachaise I hail a taxi and head to the hotel. The taxi driver swerves through the Place de la République on our way back to the Left Bank when it catches my eye. A flag; the yellow/red/green flag of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, then two, and then three of them. Finally I see a huge YPG pennant, yellow with red star, as it lazes and hops in the mid-afternoon swirl. I yell at the taxi driver to stop and pay the fare frantically. I hop into traffic on the Rue du Temple and quickly read the sign over the bandstand, “International March against Daesh, For Kobane, For Humanity.”IMG_0427

Whooomp, there it is, it’s November 1st — International Kobane Day, and one more time, I am enmeshed in the Revolution.

I walk through the crowd, smelling the food, seeing the colors, transported back to Kobane and Cizere by the sound of spoken Kurmanji, and the feeling of rebirth, of making a new world. There is a tent where representatives of the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Turkish, HDP) sit, drink tea, and converse. I walk over and introduce myself. I show them some of my photos and posts about Rojava. They speak together, then someone is sent to find a translator fluent in Turkish, French, Kurmanji, and English. After what might be my last glass of Kurdish style tea for a very long time, the translator arrives and we begin to talk about how HDP integrates activities with events in Rojava. As the conversation runs I once again feel it. The openness, the excitement, the lack of fear, the infectious hope in everything these folks do and believe. The. Damned. Hope.

The Border Patrol officer eyeballs me up and down and asks if I have any cigarettes in my bag. I grin and say, ”Yup, 15 packs of Gitanes and Gauloises, can’t buy’em in the US anymore, y’know.”

A slight smile crosses his face and he asks about money, gold, anything else I might try to be getting across the border. I answer that I have a few Euros, a few dollars — maybe a total of $100 altogether. No gold, no cheese, nada. He tells me to have a seat while they x-ray my bag. I return to my seat. Only one thought crosses my mind now, did the YPG/J use any paint on those flags that might show up on an x-ray? Oh well, what the hell. I’ll find out soon enough.

IMG_0395

 

 

 

As I leave the rally one last sign catches my eye, white on black, and bold, cutting statements in French — demanding victory for the YPG. Well, it’s the folks from the Fédération Anarchiste (FA), come to voice an opinion. I saunter over and introduce myself, they know me a bit, I know them a bit. I am invited back to their infoshop just off the Place de la République. I sit for a while, tell them what I’d seen in Rojava. They ask questions. I have some answers — not many. I walk around their space, buy a few posters, thank them and leave. Now, a short night’s sleep, a long day’s flight, and home.

The Border Patrol officer calls me to his window. I am now frustrated and angry and hope I can hold my tongue. He looks me up and down one last time and says, “Mr. Errante, you can proceed. Your bags will be put back on the plane. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

“No inconvenience at all, really,” I respond. And with that final lie I leave Preclearance, feeling very much, sodomized.

At the San Francisco airport I debark the plane and walk slowly toward the bag claim. It’s taken me 26 hours to travel what should have taken 13. My back and legs ache and my head feels like a tree is growing in it. As I round the final corner my compañera appears up ahead. She smiles and we walk quickly to each other. I touch her hand, it is cool and warm, it feels like love. We embrace, I smell her hair, and I whisper, “I made it.”
“Home,” is all she replies. The sound of her voice — dusky, low, familiar — tells me the rest.

(My name is El Errante. My name is Paul Z. Simons. Thanks for reading — hope you enjoyed the Dispatches.)IMG_0436

Rojava Dispatch Six: Innovations, the Formation of the Hêza Parastina Cewherî (HPC)

IMG_0219El Errante

 

There is a small cemetery on the side of the 712 highway as it crawls its way westward out of Kobane. There are roughly 100 graves there, they are well-kept, some sprout plastic flowers, and small mementos can be seen that have been placed atop others. The cemetery is marked by a sign and a large poster of the martyrs buried there. This poster, however, is markedly different than most YPG/J martyr remembrances; this one includes pictures of old folks, newlyweds, teenagers and the very young. For this cemetery is dedicated solely to those who lost their lives during the massacre of June 25, 2015. On that night some 100 Daesh, disguised as Asayîş, infiltrated the Turkish border, exploded several car bombs and then began to systematically massacre anyone they could lay their hands on. An estimated 233 civilians were killed over the ensuing three days, including two of the driver’s uncles. Which is how I found this place; he had asked for a moment to stop by and tend the graves. I told him of course and asked if he came to the cemetery often.

“Every week,” was his response.

I finally found and met Aram Qamishlo, the HPC Director for Qamishili. The HPC compound where he works sits right behind the YPG barracks described in Dispatch Five. The HPC headquarters is yet another enclosed compound, a former storage area for the moribund Chemins de Fer Syriens railway system. According to Aram, the idea of formal defense units directly responsible to, and for the defense of, the communes had long been part of TEV-DEM discussions. The policy to further decentralize militia and security responsibilities with the concomitant devolution of power into the communes being the overarching priority. Significantly however, Aram states that the final push for the HPC came not from above, but from the communes. Prior to the HPC, each commune had implemented some level of security force, comprised of their own members and responsible to the commune council. This proved insufficient so the Qamishli communes requested that the Cizere Executive Council designate a name for the units, provide weapons training, a uniform, and outline specific duties for the militia. In March of 2015, and as a result of the relative stability of the region, the first units of the Hêza Parastina Cewherî (HPC, Self Defense Forces) began training and deploying in Cizere Canton, specifically Qamishli.

The driver, Mohammed the translator, and me wander among the graves. There are others here too, family, friends. They tend the graves of their loved ones. Hands, earth, sadness. One or two small boys play at tag while their parents clean the dry mounds of paper and rubbish. The graves are a sphinx. All of the headstones are in Arabic, which I can’t read. Even the dates are undecipherable. I continue walking, grave to grave, row to row, then one catches my eye. The dates and name are in Latinized script. This person was named Nujiyan Gever and s/he was born on October 14, 2014 and died on July 2, 2015. I count the months in my head quickly — a baby. Nine months old. Mohammed reaches out and takes my arm as I crouch to my knees. In my mind the simple phrase — a baby, Nujiyan Gever, nine months old — repeats over and over. I begin to feel unwell.P1000382

 

 

 

 

The HPC, like the YPG/J has developed innovative protocols for recruitment, training, and deployment. Some facts…
1) Each commune elects two persons to participate in the HPC. In practice there are far more volunteers for the HPC than it could possibly train and supply.
2) HPC recruit training lasts 17 days.
3) TEV-DEM and YPG/J take equal responsibility for training the HPC volunteers. The militias train on weapons and tactics and TEV-DEM train on the ideas of Democratic Confederalism. Both are considered essential for the HPC recruit to accomplish the mission of self defense.
4) As an example of HPC density, the city of Qamishli has a population of about 230,000 and an HPC contingent of 500.
5) Kobane, after the massacre, set out to arm and train HPC volunteers as quickly as possible. Due to the damage of the siege and lack of resources the HPC implementation had lagged behind other priorities. No more. In discussion with my TEV-DEM contact, Mr. Shaif was certain that they would have a full contingent for the city by mid-November of 2015.

P1000386As Aram and I sit and chat I ask what he sees as the most important work the HPC will do. He begins slowly, “In Marxism the people were always betrayed by the party, by the army, and what was left was dictatorship, war. In our system the arming of the people, through the YPG, through the Asayîş, through the HPC, guarantees that this will not happen. The HPC are one more guarantee for the success of the Revolution. So when we say protect the people we mean not just against Daesh, but anyone.”

I am floored by his statement and say,” You know your history, Durruti and Bakunin.”

He smiles and that was just enough.

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The driver is finishing tending to his uncle’s graves. Mohammed and I stand by the minivan. I smoke and watch the families as they walk through the cemetery. The driver rises and walks towards us. I want to tell him I’m sorry, express sympathy, say something.

”I hope this never happens again,” is all I can manage. He is silent. We climb back in the minivan drive and he kicks over the engine. The three of us look off at the graves of the old, the young, the newlyweds. The minivan then groans onto the 712, and is gone.

(Note: In my drive from Semelka at the border to Amuda all the checkpoints were Asayîş, by my return some week or so later three of the checkpoints were run by men and women wearing the brown vest of the HPC. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not. My guess is the HPC will have a very important role as the Revolution matures and expands. In one stroke TEV-DEM may have addressed an issue that has plagued anarchist insurrections since the Paris Commune, how to maintain power, in the form of a militia, at the block and neighborhood level. Time will tell…)IMG_0367

Rojava Dispatch Five: The YPG/YPJ; Militias That Grow Hope

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YPG dimeşe, erd û ezman diheje
(YPG marches, earth and heavens tremble)
—YPG motto

 

El Errante

 

“Wait….what….we’re lost?” Mohammed the translator nods and I turn to the driver. He shrugs. I had headed out in Qamishli to do an interview about the Hêza Parastina Cewherî (HPC, Self Defense Forces), the new citizens’ militia formations in Rojava. The driver — per every other taxi driver on earth — knew a short cut that would get us there on time, guaranteed. Problem was he knew where we were, but couldn’t find the address of the HPC. So as we sat on a corner deciding what to do, I noticed several yellow YPG flags floating over an old fence. The driver pointed and shrugged, indicating maybe they know. Couldn’t hurt.

The Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG, People’s Defense Units) and the Yekîneyên Parastina Jinê (YPJ, Women’s Defense Units) are the armed backbone of the Revolution. The YPG, formed in 2004 (YPJ in 2012), is no army. It is a militia, a people armed, in the best sense of the word.

Some facts…
YPG/J Organization (Unit Name and Size)
1) Team, 6 – 10 fighters.
2) Suite, 2 Teams, 12 – 20 fighters.
3) Block (Kurmanji—garug), 2 suites, 24 – 40 fighters.
4) Company, 2 Blocks, 48 – 80 fighters.
5) Estimated Total YPG/J Census, 50,000 fighters
6) There are no officers. When engaged in operations, the fighters choose (by vote or consensus) Team/Suite/Block/Company Leaders. When idle, there is no leadership structure at any level, save Regional Commands. Commanders are chosen (vote or consensus) for regions and Cantons (Kobane, Qamishli) and can only serve six months in any given commando. They are then replaced. There is no re-election.

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We all hop out of the taxi and approach the YPG outpost through a tangle of tank traps, concrete barriers and mud. The fighters at the gate are older than most I’ve met before, with graying beards, dark, tanned skin, and wrinkles. First thought, these guys look tough, real tough. We shake hands and when they find out I’m an American, one goes to tell the Commander. He returns with a tall well-built balding man, with clear grey eyes. We shake hands and he introduces himself. He is the Commander of the Qamishli Cizere Canton T.S. Cemal (Martyr Cemal) commando with approximately 400 fighters (4 Companies). He invites us in for coffee or tea, and to meet the fighters. What the hell. I’m late for my interview, it’s chilly — a coffee would be nice, I want to meet the fighters; and I like this man.

The YPG/J have developed some unique protocols regarding training, deployment, and morale. Some more facts…
1) Training for a YPG/J fighter lasts 45 days.
2) After training, the fighter is asked where and what type of duty s/he would like to do. They can opt for front-line service, tactical reserves, Turkish border patrol, internal checkpoints, or logistics and communication. The choice of duty, where to serve, and how long to serve, is solely the individual fighter’s.
3) Leave in the YPG/J varies with commando and combat situation. When idle, single men, and most YPJ fighters (who are usually unmarried) go on leave 4 days a month. Married men serve one week, and week off. When engaged in battle, leave is still offered to the fighters, but is rarely taken. One Kobane Commander joked that the seige lasted only a month because the married fighters realized that the more Daesh they killed, the sooner they would see their wives and children.
4) Food, clothing and shelter are provided to all YPG fighters, they also receive compensation amounting to about $100/month — for odds and ends, cigarettes, candy, amusement, travel, what have you. This seems small by US standards, but in Rojava it can go a long way. I pay about one dollar for a pack of Gauloises Blondes, and a kilo (2.2 pounds) of candy will set you back $0.75.

The Commander and I talk as we set off to the barracks. He tells me the men are rested, ready to fight, though the area has been quiet for months. The commando deploys, on a revolving basis, 15 fighters per week to the front. He has only one new recruit, a boy of 16, who left Aleppo and crossed Daesh lines to join the YPG. Breakfast is over and the fighters are lounging near the barracks. They see the Commander and me moving towards them and a few start walking over, then more follow. I introduce myself through Mohammed, they seem surprised that an American would visit; one or two look down, boots shuffle in the mud. I move closer and start shaking hands, I look in their eyes, I mumble thank you in English. The fighters nod, they smile, they get it. One or two say in Kurmanji, “You are welcome.”

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I ask if I can take some pictures, the Commander maneuvers the fighters onto the tarmac to a spot in front of a large YPG flag snapping in the wind. A few photos, and as we walk off for coffee several of the less shy militiamen grab my arm and ask for individual or group photos. I stand with the men, arms on each other’s shoulders, we smile at the camera. In that moment one word flashes into my mind like summer lightning; a Spanish word, from a different insurrection and a different time, Hermanos.

A table is brought out and several cups of steaming, brackish Turkish coffee are set. Mohammed, the taxi driver, the Commander and I sit and drink while the fighters stand and look on. I ask some questions. Most are from Cizere, many from the city of Qamishli. They tell me that their fight isn’t just for the Kurds, but for the whole world. And not just to defeat Daesh, but to win a Revolution. They want me to understand this. That it is important. I tell them I do understand. I tell them I believe it also.IMG_0336

 

 

 

 

The cups are drained, time to go. I rise and thank the Commander again. He thanks me, and walks off to his duties. I begin shaking hands with the militiamen, saying thank you to each one, holding eye contact. Now, I need them to understand. The fighters form a line as I move so I can spend a moment of time with each of them. As I pass down the row it feels like a chunk of steel has settled in my heart. The first older soldier we met has been by my side the entire time. He follows us to the taxi. I extend a hand and to show our mutual respect, we kiss each other on the right cheek, the left cheek and then the left shoulder.

Back in the car I start thinking about the HCP interview up ahead, and then my eye catches the yellow YPG flag, still dancing in the morning breeze. There is a popular song in Arabic which include the lyrics, “God save the YPG; they protect the people; Arab, Kurd and Christian are brothers, they protect the land and grow hope.” And I think to myself: yes. Protect this militia of individuals who fight with their whole heart, who are fearless, who are kind, who grow hope, and who I have known for a short time as brothers. May their desires, for peace, for freedom, to be with their families and friends, become reality.

I looked at the taxi driver motioning forward with my hand and said, “So?”

He fired off some rapid Kurmanji to Mohammed who translated,” He said you forgot to ask about the HPC address…”

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Rojava Dispatch Four: The Return; 18 Heroes Go Home For The Last Time

“The blood of martyrs never touches the ground.”
–Kurdish Proverb

 

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El Errante

 

So I had been kicking around Kobane for a day or two and had made some good contacts in the media center and also the YPG. One afternoon the translator and I had stopped by to see what the YPG were up to; it was quiet, mostly. Then a commander came walking through talking rapidly and pointing. I looked at the translator and he said that the YPG are helping to escort the bodies of 18 YPG/J fighters from Kobane Canton to Cizere Canton for final burial. There was some kind of ceremony that was supposed to happen too. So we saddled up the Hyundai minivan and followed the racing YPG cars to wherever it was they were going.

We landed at a building with an enclosed courtyard near Kobane’s sook. It looked like it must have been a sports club, likely volleyball as it had changing rooms and a volleyball court sized enclosed area (As soccer is to Brazilians, so volleyball is to the Kurds, an obsession, a crazed, fan-driven juggernaut). The building had been expropriated and given to the Institute for the Families of the Martyrs, a revolutionary institution to provide support for folks who lost people in the fighting, and to keep the memories of the martyrs alive. Not that the latter task needs much energy, the photos of martyrs are ubiquitous. They are hung in shop windows, on poles, on the walls of offices, in magazines, in Asayis and YPG outposts, in town squares, in schools; in fact, basically, everywhere. And these posters and what they represent resonate deeply with the Kurds. What is interesting in all this is the anonymous nature of the Martyrs, there aren’t just one or two, or even dozens, there are literally thousands. Sure, some stand out, like Arwin Mirkhan, a young PYJ fighter who with her team was leading the final assault on Mishtehnur hill above Kobane. They were separated from the main assault body and shot up piece meal by Daesh (terrorists) fighters. With all her comrades dead or gravely wounded she resolved not to be taken alive and sold into slavery or beheaded. In the chaos of the final seconds of her life Arwin Mirkhan doused herself with a Molotov cocktail and lit a match.

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At the center a hundred people or so have gathered, women sit in one room and men in the other waiting for the arrival of the Cizere delegation to accept the bodies of the dead. It is quiet, my TEV-DEM contact, Mr. Shaif is there and he thanks me for attending. We wait, we talk, we drink tea. An old bus, with windows missing is eased into the courtyard, we wait some more. Finally the Cizere contingent arrives, older men and women, some TEV-DEM, some of the parents and family of the martyrs, some private folks. They are led into an open room and the certificates for burial and death are passed ceremoniously to them. They accept. There are no tears.

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The Kobane and Cizere contingent board the bus, I wheedle a seat for the translator and me. We drive to the Martyrs cemetery, some words are spoken by people representing Kobane thanking Cizere and the sacrifice that the fighters made for the freedom of Kobane. The Cizere contingent affirms their support and commitment to Kobane and the Revolution. The occasion is brief, solemn. More than one mother of a fallen fighter is in the audience, yet it is quiet. There are no tears.

We are now late and the old bus blasts like a rocket back through the dusty streets. The area around the Institute is alive with activity as cars carrying the flag draped coffins of the fallen pass by the gate and people look on from the surrounding streets. I dash around the corner to see what’s happening at the gate to the center. The women have come out of the institute compound and stand chanting on the streets, fingers raised in the V for victory salute. The individual cars carrying the heroes pass the saluting crowd, driven by YPG soldiers who return the V salute. The women chant in both Arabic and Kurmanji, occasionally making the zazi, the uniquely regional feminine ululation, which can be heard piercing the still heavy air.

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I look on and without thinking I raise my hand in a V salute, but remain silent. There is no longer seeing or hearing this scene, only feeling it. My throat tightens and I find myself hating and loving in the same moment. Loving these young fighters who died for freedom, real freedom; and hating the fact of their deaths, too young, too brave, too many, and those who killed them — Daesh scum. If I could have killed every Daesh fighter in that moment, I would have. Every. Last. One. I reel in my emotions and look over to the gathered women on my right. Their faces are a blur of sadness, gratitude, and determination. I realize that this wasn’t about the Siege of Kobane, it was about the next, inevitable battle. It was about those who will die, as much as those who have. And there are no tears. Except my own.

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Rojava Dispatch Three: Members of Commune Sehid Kawa C Decide on New Boundaries

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By El Errante

The two Hyundai minivans cruise caravan style through the backstreets of Kobane. In the first van are two representatives of the Kobane Canton’s TEV-DEM, the body charged with implementing Democratic Confederalism. In the trailing minivan I ride with the translator and driver. Tiny children play on either side of the street and seem ambivalent to the passing cars, if they can survive a month long siege by ISIS, a few stray cars are nothing.

I had met Ahmad Shaif at the Kobane Canton Center, a bullet-pocked building set on a hill in Kobane. In previous years it had been the government center for the Syrian state and was subsequently expropriated by the Kurds after the representatives of Assad’s regime exited the canton post-haste. Ahmad is one of several TEV-DEM administrators, and his office bare of paperwork, computers or any other item one would associate with a workspace in the West, is the place where Kobane residents come to for assistance in maintaining their communal councils. We had met and he had invited me to a council commune meeting he was helping to facilitate. I was in, definitely in.

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Our vehicle stopped on a side street and an older man greeted us, hands shook all around, I was introduced and welcomed. We went through a rubbled courtyard and up a flight of steps. Shoes were kicked off, and we entered into a room fully carpeted with cushions spread sofa-like around the walls. A window opened onto the room and several bullet holes impinged the glass, these projectiles had traced a neat line of holes into the concrete of the far wall. Above this damage, a picture of Ocalan was hung, draped on either side by YPG and YPJ flags. The room started to fill with men, most older and Kurdish, and one or two Arabs. Women slowly joined the group as well, the older women, their heads swathed in scarves, would take turns shaking hands around the room and then sit. Men and women sat apart, the empowerment of women not yet extending to the predefined Middle East cultural space.

Mr Shaif began saying that it was a pleasure to be welcomed by the council, and that he was happy with the number of people attending (18 total, 10 men, 7 women—and me). He then drew out a map and laid it on the carpet, pointing to a block in a tangle of lines and circles meant to represent the Sehid Kawa (Martyr Kawa) neighborhood of the city. He continued that with the recent influx of immigrants into the city they were expecting the commune to expand, and that if it grows larger than 100 families it may be too unwieldy to be responsive. Possible geographic divisions were discussed with the council; a few questions, a few answers, some leaning over the map and nodding. He finished by saying that the division of the commune, if any, was up to them. He wanted to present the issue and whatever they decided was fine. Just call with an answer.

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I was introduced and got a chance to ask a few questions. I asked about what they do, on a regular basis, as a council and got a wild range of responses, from dealing with marital issues, helping get gas and rides to and from clinics, shopping, whatever was needed, whatever was urgent. Finally a man said that during the siege it was the council that had kept the commune fed and clothed, that helped with YPG intellingence gathering and that when the fighting became desperate commune members were issued Kalashnikovs and fought with the YPG to save their neighborhood. I asked if all were given weapons, including the women. He nodded and said everyone willing to fight, fought.

My curiosity got the better of me and I asked about the line of bullet holes in the wall. The man who had initially welcomed us stood and pointed out the window to a two story building some 200 feet away. Pointing, he indicated the line of sight between the buildings top floor and the damaged wall in his house. Then holding an invisible Kalashnikov he sighted the building and pretended to shoot back. Saying that he had returned fire and that the gunman had eventually left.

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With my questions done they asked me what the Americans thought of Kobane. I said many supported their Revolution, many wanted to hear more, and those ignorant enough to have an opinion without information didn’t matter. There were some smiles and nods—especially the women, a few seemed surprised at my directness. Finally a young woman of fifteen asked me what I thought. I closed my eyes for a moment and said, ”What’s happening here may be part of the future, not just for the Kurds, but for everyone. I know I feel welcome here, and safe. And as small as that is, it’s a big change from much of my experience.”

Ahmad then rose and thanked the group, we all shook hands again—there were some touching of hands to the chest, and we left.

Back out on the street the children were busy playing, somewhere a dog barked and the drivers were cranking over the vans engines. I stopped Ahmad and asked about how the communes had formed, did TEV-DEM have responsibility for that task. He shook his head, “Some formed spontaneously, some we helped get started, many have yet to become stable, with strong council members. It’s a process, and in Kobane the siege speeded up the formation of the communes, but the rebuilding and lack of resources has now slowed it. We can’t stop though, these communes are at the center of society.”

He nodded and left. I climbed into the van and set out for my hotel, some coffee and to think through this thing. This new thing.

(The name of the commune, Sehid Kawa C (Martyr Kawa C) is derived from the name of the neighborhood in Kobane — Sehid Kawa and C designates it as the third commune formed. Many of the city’s areas are being renamed for the YPJ/G fighters who were killed in those respective neighborhoods. Martyrs, their lives and deaths form a large part of Kurdish resistance consciousness and symbolism. More later….)

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Rojava Dispatch Two: The Road to Kobane / The Skeletal City

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El Errante

It is dark in Kobane, far darker than what you’d expect for a city of 150,000 souls. A few lights wink and crackle out of the encroaching dust and night, and the stillness is broken by the noise of grinding electrical generators and the sound of dumptrucks being filled with rubble and then driving off to one of the dumps outside the city center. It’s almost a year since the siege and there is still no electricity. I am sitting on a porch of the only real hotel in Kobane sipping (yet one more) sweetened tea in a glass. I’m glad I made it from Amuda to here, the road was long, the road was creepy, but now, the road is over.

My driver picked me up at 6am in the morning after a sleepless night at a YPG outpost in Amuda. As I walked out the door a YPG soldier threw me a warm pita. I folded it into quarters and put it into my shoulder bag — something to eat on the way. I left way too early to have breakfast. The guy who picked me up, Salah, was driving one of the ever-present white Hyundai (or Toyota) vans, I crawled in the front and we sped off. It takes four hours to get from Amuda to Kobane, assuming the road’s not closed for any reason.P1000139

The scenery was pretty much the same between Amuda and Serekaniye, more villages, hundreds of villages, and fields that were not fallow were filled with cotton and melon.

Between the border with the KRG and Serekaniye there’s very little to indicate that that the Kurdish Autonomous Region is at war with anyone. Once into Serekaniye that impression dissolves rapidly. Large buildings are studded with pockmarks from small arms fire, and here and there one shows signs of being hit by larger ordnance. In fact Serekaniye was one of the side battles fought prior to the Siege of Kobane in November of 2012. It lies directly on the road to Kobane, sits right on the Turkish border, and if it had been taken by al-Nusra (the Islamist terrorists de jour at that point) Kurdish supply lines to Kobane would have been severed. The YPG responded rapidly to the threat and fought viciously, eventually routing the jihadis. The area around Serekaniye is still somewhat contested though final mop up conducted during the spring seems to have ended any military threat of losing the city.

 

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And on the road one can see just how serious the YPG/J and Asayis take the threat — multiple roadblocks and traps are set between Serekaniye and Kobane. The militias have no intention of paying twice for the city of Kobane. At one point we passed a mine that had blown out half the road and eventually were brought to a stop by heavy construction equipment. A rocket had hit the road in the night and it was closed definitely. My driver shrugged, and we set out across a dirt road to go around the obstruction. We had gone about five miles when we encountered an Arab militia checkpoint. Salah pulled up spoke a few words in Arabic and then asked quite clearly, ”YPG?”

To which the response was a headshake and the mumbled acronym in Arabic of some other militia. My driver winced, and we drove on. This is where my nerves started get the best of me and I had him stop and reassure me that it was okay. He shrugged and said, “Syria.” I then knew where we were. In some of the areas of Rojava small enclaves have declared for Syria, this includes the section of Qamishli next to the Turkish border, and evidently the tiny village we were driving through — as evidenced by a Syrian flag floating proudly from a telephone pole. A few more turns and we were back on the road headed to Kobane, passing an Asayis or YPG checkpoint every ten miles. Landmarks I had come to appreciate and look forward to for a variety of reasons.

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On the last approach into Kobane from the east you are finally aware that, yes, you are in a war zone. A large ridge of earth has been erected effectively screening the city from approach and every here and there tank traps can be seen jutting out from the sand. Passing this earth wall the city rises up and shows its wounds. Large areas of the outer city have been turned into great dumps of concrete, twisted steel and burned out cars. Then a building catches your eye, it is only half standing and leans oddly against its neighbor; its floors in various states of anti-Euclidean geometry. By the time you come to the city center you encounter whole blocks razed, pounded to rubble, and here and there one sees a building untouched by even small arms fire surrounded by the hulking wrecks of its former neighbors. Luck counts. The streets are dusty, and an occasional water tanker passes in a vain attempt to keep the air breathable. This in combination with the backhoes digging out the wreckage one scoop at a time and the constant movement of heavy trucks as they take the detritus to the growing concrete and steel fields ensures that Kobane is almost always drowning in dust. In fact my first night I walked out at twilight and the city looked more like an impressionist painting by Monet than anything else. Buildings melded into each other in the dust, colors and shapes softened and were lost. A blurred x-ray of a city.

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In spite of this people move to Kobane daily, in fact with the cheap real estate — you pay what you can afford — there something of a run on property. As an example an Arab man I spoke to bought a house, complete, for around 15,000 Syrian Pounds ($80 at today’s exchange rate). Not bad.

It’s late, I’m tired and have developed a serious negative attitude towards the Syrian squat toilet. Tomorrow it’s time to look into the issue of revolution, and speak to the residents of this city in the process of slow rebirth.

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