Tom Anderson and Eliza Egret report for Red Pepper from the war-torn city of Kobanê and meet those trying to rebuild what Daesh and US bombs have destroyed.
‘We have cleared 1.5 million tonnes of rubble,’ Abdo Rrahman Hemo (known as Heval Dostar), head of the Kobanê Reconstruction Board, tells us humbly as we sit in his office in Kobanê city in November 2015. But as we walk through the bombed streets, with collapsed buildings all around us and dust filling our lungs, it’s hard to believe that Kobanê could have been any worse. ‘We have estimated that 3.5 billion dollars of damage has been caused,’ he continues.
It’s been one year since the US bombing of Kobanê—then partly occupied by Daesh—and most of the buildings are still in tatters. Kobanê is in Rojava (meaning ‘West’ in Kurdish), a Kurdish majority region in the north of Syria that declared autonomy from the Assad regime in 2012.
When Daesh approached, the majority of those who were not involved in defending the city left, most to neighbouring Turkey. The People’s Protection Units of the YPG and YPJ remained to defend the city, and were eventually given air support by the US. Most of the refugees have now returned, only to find a city almost entirely destroyed and littered with mines and booby traps, planted by Daesh before they were defeated. As we walk around, a family waves at us from the wreckage of their home, which no longer has three of its walls. Washing lines are hung up and clothes are dried amongst the wrecked houses as people continue their daily lives.
The siege of Rojava
So why is Kobanê still in ruins one year on? Unsurprisingly, the US, whose bombs caused the majority of destruction in Kobanê, has not provided any support for the reconstruction. This is a mixed blessing, as US reconstruction efforts are aimed at creating markets for US companies and generating allies for US foreign policy. But it leaves a vacuum which grassroots solidarity movements need to fill.
Yet the main reason is because of the closures of the borders of Rojava, amounting to a siege, imposed by the governments of neighbouring Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. This has had a hugely negative impact, as Dostar tells us: ‘The border is extremely important for humanitarian aid. It affects health, education and all other areas. Turkey is following its own self-interests. One of their aims is for us to be completely dependent on them. For two months now there has been an absolute embargo and for one month there has even been no cement allowed through. This is a big problem as winter is coming. We urgently need a humanitarian corridor opened.’
This seems unlikely, however, unless pressure can be brought to bear against the Turkish government. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party is currently engaged in a war with the Kurds in Bakur (meaning ‘north’ in Kurdish, referring to the part of Kurdistan within Turkey’s borders). People in Bakur are demanding the same autonomy that has been won in Rojava. Since summer 2015 Kurdish towns have been barricaded by locals, who have armed themselves against attacks by the Turkish police and army. People are organising themselves into confederations of village, neighbourhood and town assemblies, following the model of democratic confederalism, the ideology based on the ideas of Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Öcalan, which has also inspired the revolution in Rojava. The state has responded by attacking residential areas with tanks, mortars and helicopters.
Since the revolution, the Rojava-based YPG and YPJ have been supported by fighters from the PKK, which is currently fighting the Turkish army and is considered a terrorist group by the Turkish government, the European Union and the US.
Regarding Rojava, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated that he will never allow the formation of Kurdish state ‘on our southern border in the north of Syria.’ Erdoğan has repeatedly threatened military intervention in Rojava and his government has been accused of arming Daesh, and allowing its fighters to cross into Syria from Turkey.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of South/Iraqi Kurdistan has also been imposing harsh restrictions on the border of Rojava. The KRG, ruled by President Massoud Barzani, is an ally of the US and sees the Rojava self-administration’s new model of autonomy as a threat to their power in the region. As Dostar elaborates: ‘The position of the KRG is exactly the same as the Turkish government. It’s the same political perspective. It’s not so much Barzani but the party of Barzani. The ideology here in Rojava is in direct conflict to ideology of the party in Bashur [Bashur means ‘south’ in Kurdish, referring to the Kurdish autonomous region within Iraq’s borders]. We have different systems and values. This causes huge problems to the humanitarian issue.’
Because the KRG perceives the Rojava self-administration as a threat, vital reconstruction materials, medicines and medical equipment are prevented from crossing from Iraqi Kurdistan into Rojava. According to Dostar: ‘Sometimes they allow things to come through but it requires a lot of politics on our side. They will not allow building materials to pass. They allow basic things after a lot of political pressure from us, but nothing that will make a positive long-term impact to our reconstruction work.’
As we walk around Kobanê city, it’s obvious that international organisations are mostly absent. There are few foreign aid workers and `almost no signs of any ongoing reconstruction projects. Dostar tells us: ‘On 1 July 2015 there was a large conference in Brussels about the reconstruction of Kobanê. A lot of NGOs and parliamentarians attended and their reaction was supportive and positive in providing aid to us. But this has not been so in practice. Many NGOs have been here and have made many promises to remove mines and work on water and sewage, for example, but not much has been delivered. Also, when major NGOs try to bring over medicines and equipment it’s often not allowed to come through. An individual with a small package can come through, but this has a very small impact. Its the same on both borders.’
It’s not only materials, but also people, that Turkey and the KRG are preventing from crossing into Rojava. Turkey prevents all but a few mainstream NGOs from crossing the border into Kobanê canton. Everybody else has to cross illegally from Turkey, risking being arrested or even killed by the Turkish military. Others try to cross legally from Iraqi Kurdistan to Rojava’s Cizîrê canton. However, if someone wants to cross from Iraqi Kurdistan, they must either have permission from Barzani’s office, or they must be carrying a press card. And each journalist can only ever enter Rojava once. It’s too difficult for most grassroots political delegations to get into Rojava.
This situation has worsened since Turkey’s November election. As Dostar explains: ‘Many NGOs have tried to come in and have been refused. But they haven’t pressured Turkey to try to open a humanitarian corridor to help. Since the election, no NGO has been allowed to enter Kobanê [from the Turkey border]. Even Doctors Without Borders were refused. And no building supplies and cement can come into Kobanê.’
Building from the rubble
Spending time in Kobanê, the dust from destroyed buildings and the weapons dropped on them causes us to have problems with our noses and throats, and the skin on our faces to dry up. We chat with doctors from the Heva Sor a Kurd medical association in Kobanê. They tell us how there is a shortage of medicines in the city, especially for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. ‘Illnesses are mostly coming from the weapons of the war,’ they continue. ‘Skin diseases and nervous conditions have appeared since the war. The illnesses increase day by day when people return back to Kobanê, and some people bring diseases with them from refugee camps. Another reason for the spread of disease is because of the dead bodies of ISIS fighters that have been trapped under the rubble. When children play on the ground [in the rubble of the city] they pick up bacteria on their fingers and then touch their faces. The diseases are also spread by small animals.’
People of Kobanê are calling for a ‘humanitarian corridor’ in order for materials, medicines and experts to be able to enter into Rojava. Dostar tells us that this corridor can happen in three different ways: through the land borders with Turkey or with Iraqi Kurdistan, or by flying people and materials into Kobanê.
Despite the lack of outside help, people have been working hard to make the city livable again. The people of Kobanê are busy rebuilding their own houses and the reconstruction board has developed a new water system for the city, as Dostar informs us: ‘Before ISIS took over, the city relied on the Firat [Euphrates] river for drinking water but ISIS destroyed this supply. As an alternative the municipality has made a depot in which chlorine is added and then pumped to the city. Fifteen wells have also been dug in the city so the water is already purified. From these fifteen wells, we provided water for the rest of the city. It took us three months and one million dollars. This is a huge amount of money for us.’
We are also told about the construction of a brick and gravel factory in Kobanê. Once completed, local people will be able to buy reconstruction materials at 30% of the normal price. Dostar tells us that petrol is also subsidised, and that bread is distributed throughout the city on three shifts each day. The agricultural board has also set up a new cooperative where 1400 sheep have been distributed to the poorest families in the community. These families are encouraged to live from the sheep’s milk. Any new lambs are sent back into the cooperative and distributed to other families. Lastly, we are told about a women’s sewing centre initiative, which has been set up to enable women to become financially independent. Despite a lack of resources, the people of Kobanê are doing their best to rebuild their lives, and are doing so in the democratic and egalitarian spirit that has characterised the revolution in Rojava. Yet international solidarity is needed.
Act in Solidarity
There are different ways in which activists and social movements can act in solidarity with the people of Kobanê. Firstly, pressure can be put on the governments of Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan to lift the restrictions on the borders to allow reconstruction materials and workers, humanitarian supplies and volunteers through.
Ameena Oseh, the Deputy Vice President of Foreign Body of Rojava’s Cizîrê canton tells us: ‘We need everyone to put more pressure on Turkey to open the border crossing. In general, the best thing for us is political pressure, and acknowledgement of our self-administration.’
And according to Dostar: ‘We need activists to help. You can hold seminars and raise awareness. Activists can use their own websites and make campaigns. You can demonstrate in front of the Turkish embassy in your country calling for them to open a humanitarian corridor. Maybe we can also organise an international ‘Open a Humanitarian Corridor Day’. The important thing is to do it consistently and continuously.’
The people of Kobanê are also calling for expert volunteers to come to Kobanê and share their knowledge and skills. Heyva Sor a Kurd tells us that they need surgeons for children, skin doctors and all kinds of specialists. We are also told that there are a lack of four-wheel drive ambulances in Rojava that can traverse off-road at the front-line and in the rural areas.
Ameena Oseh says:’We need your help in rebuilding and reconstructing Kobanê. The YPG and YPJ are fighting Daesh on behalf of the world. It is your responsibility, and the responsibility of the world, to help us. You can help us with constructing schools and supplying health experts. We need ambulances, doctors, experts, medicines. We need medical experts to help treat people.’
Dostar continues: ‘We need architects that can help redesign the city to make it more ecological. We need engineers to help with the water pipelines. We need all kinds of doctors and healthcare workers, including those who can give educational programs on first aid and other basic health care. We need psychologists, especially to support women and children. We need gynaecologists to provide services to women. We need support in vaccinations. We need mine clearance people. We have at least 50 villages that are mined and because of this people cannot return to them or do agriculture. You can contact us at the Kobanê Reconstruction Board if you want to help.’
We are told that skilled volunteers would be welcome even if they cannot speak Kurmanji or Arabic, and that local people would help them to learn Kurmanji. However, if volunteers want to offer psychological support to people in Kobanê then they should have the language skills required to connect with the people they are supporting.
Giving solidarity to Kobanê is one way to support people in Rojava’s radical new struggle for real democracy and autonomy. It is an experiment that has not gone far enough. For example, the majority of people in Rojava still have no say over the military policy and alliances formed by the armed forces. But within Rojava, people are organising themselves in confederations of communes and local assemblies. Anti-capitalist and feminist ideas are flourishing, which have the capacity to truly transform society. All of this is happening within the context of a bloody war for existence.
The YPG and YPJ are currently fighting on several fronts against Daesh. The US, Russia and other capitalist and imperialist powers may have found themselves temporarily fighting the same enemy as the people of Rojava, but it is not in their interest for the radical ideas within Rojava’s ongoing revolution to succeed and expand. That is one reason why there has been a deafening silence from governments over support for Kobanê and the setting up of a humanitarian corridor. Another reason is the determination of the Turkish government not to allow Kurdish autonomy along its borders. It is up to grassroots social movements to support the reconstruction of the city and to show solidarity with the people of Rojava’s attempts to democratise society.
The Kobane Reconstruction Board told us that unskilled international volunteers could be a burden for them, but other groups in Kobanê, such as the Yekîtiya Star women’s movement and the Democratic Youth Union said that they would welcome the chance to make better connections with international activists who wanted to learn more about social movements in Rojava. From outside Kurdistan, grassroots activists can organise fundraising events to raise money and awareness about the situation and campaign for an end to the siege of Rojava and a humanitarian corridor.
You can donate to the Heyva Sor a Kurdistanê at http://www.heyvasor.com/en/
Plan C are also raising money for Kobanê here
If you are thinking about travelling to Rojava and need advice, you can contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information is also available on the Rojava Plan site at http://rojavaplan.com/join.html
To find out more about campaigns in support of the Kurdish movement for autonomy, go to http://peaceinkurdistancampaign.com/
Tom Anderson is an anarchist and anti-capitalist writer and researcher. He is part of the Corporate Watch collective. Eliza Egret is a freelance writer and anarchist activist. In November 2015 they were part of a group of activists who visited Rojava and Bakur.