In late 2015 an activist with the Anti-Fascist Network went to Rojava (the liberated Kurdish area in northern Syria) to join the Kurdish fight for self-determination and against ISIS. They returned in summer 2016.
You are an animal rights and anti-fascist activist. Why did you go to Rojava to help the Kurds?
There are many reasons that I went to Rojava to help the Kurds. There was a curiosity about war and conflict that took me to Rojava. I wanted to see what it was like myself and have that experience. I wanted, in many ways, to escape the stagnant and repetitive existence that we are forced to endure here.
I also went because I liked what the Kurds were doing in Rojava and I believe in the concept of solidarity. This is their moment in history, they invite internationals to go and help them and I felt in some ways it was my duty to honour my belief system and join them. This is the nature of solidarity. If you sincerely believe that a better world is possible then you have to take risks and be prepared to make sacrifices. After four years of academia I liked the idea of once again, ‘getting my hands dirty.’ Too many people on the left are content to prioritise writing articles or doing a PhD in critical thinking or environmental studies or something and kid themselves that they’re still struggling as part of some sort of radical counter-culture or movement.
I began following the struggle of the Kurds in northern Syria through social media. Whilst I say I didn’t and still don’t fully understand their whole cause, I liked the general things they aspire to: women’s liberation, multiculturalism, secularism, local democracy. Their defence of the revolution is one of the few justifiable wars of the last few decades. In the midst of what is truly a brutal and bloody war the Kurds are a shining light of civility and decency.
Then I got to learn about the foreign volunteers who were going there, mostly from Western countries. At first I assumed these were all ex-military types, people with a great deal of experience in such matters. But I came across the story of a young British lad, a painter and decorator, with no military experience who was out there. And he wasn’t some extraordinary, super athletic archetypal ‘war hero’ but an ordinary bloke. And I thought that, “if he can do it, I can have a crack.” Of course, I thought about this deeply and for a long time. I contemplated all the possibilities – from the polar extremes of getting killed to me ‘going native.’ The martyrdom of the first (of two) British volunteers to die over there, Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, had a big impact on me. He is without a doubt a hero in my eyes, and whilst his death was tragic and sad, his bravery and sacrifice should never be forgotten. As strange as it sounds, his death made me want to go even more.
One particularly memory around this time, is that, as I said, I was following the Kurds intently, and I wanted to show my support. I started looking online for t-shirts I could buy and wear to show my support, and then I caught myself thinking “this isn’t a brand, this isn’t a game. If I want to support them I must do something to help.” Really the only way I could do that was to go there. Another feeling I had was that I knew that if I didn’t go I would regret the decision for the rest of my life. I knew I would be an old man who, when the Syrian civil war was being discussed, would say with regret, “I was thinking of going there.” For me going to Rojava was part of turning aspirations into reality, a way of saying “you can and should do this” – in the same way you shouldn’t wear a ‘Support the ALF’ or ‘Good Night, White Pride’ t-shirt but go out there and liberate animals or confront fascists.
How did you get there?
I flew to the Kurdistan Regional Government area of Federal Iraq and crossed the border illegally into Rojava. Whilst elements of the Iraqi-Kurdistan society are supportive of the revolution, the dominant political faction there, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) led by the Barzani family dynasty, is hostile. They are more ‘Western’ in outlook, have good relations with Turkey and have their own competitive ‘greater Kurdistan’ project. Not only do they not allow international volunteers into Rojava, but they routinely close the border, enforce an embargo on much needed supplies and refuse entry to journalists. Those crossing the border illegally can face arrest and imprisonment if they are captured by PDK-Pêşmerge forces. This has happened to a number of international volunteers.
However, there are many routes to cross the border illegally, both on foot and by vehicle. The journey can sometimes take up to ten hours.
Describe a day in the life of an international volunteer in the Kurdish military?
Well, in the night you have to do nobet – which is guard shift, whether you are on front-line or on rest. You never get a night off. Depending on your position it can last from a lot of hours, to one hour, either on your own or with a heval (a term somewhere between ‘friend’ and ‘comrade’ – a heval is someone involved with the Kurdish movement). The longest I did was four hours, but this was an exception and then it never got longer than two hours. So, every night, at a random hour you would be woken up to stand out in the cold darkness. You would also do nobet during the day as well, under the same structure.
So, you wake up at six o’clock in the morning, unless you are in certain positions likely to attack, in which case you get up around three o’clock, which corresponds with first prayer.
Apart from that, there’s very little to do. You spend all day, everyday with your hevals. Sometimes you are together in a full tabor (The Kurdish name for a unit of revolutionaries – up to around forty people), at others it has been broken down into teams, of maybe ten to a dozen hevals. You smoke a lot, everyone smokes. In our tabor I think we had one guy who didn’t smoke, and maybe two or three women. By English standards the cigarettes are kinda weak – I would usually smoke four in the first hour of the day, and would smoke between twenty and thirty a day. This is not uncommon, and it’s not the stress of the situation as life isn’t stressful – it’s the boredom of things. What makes the Kurds different from Western militaries is that they are reactive, not proactive. Unless there is an actual attack going on – you’re kinda hanging around, not waiting for something to happen per-se, but just spending your day – and then when something happens you respond to it. I think this is something that drives some ex-military people up the wall as they have a motto of ‘eternal vigilance’ or ‘be prepared.’
Fire plays a big part in life. Whilst I went in the winter (which might explain it to some degree), the Kurds are obsessed with fire. The first thing they will do when they arrive anywhere is to make a fire, and they will chuck anything on it. None of this bush-craft wood shavings and flint business you see in the SAS survival guide, the Kurdish way is to either chuck a nice jug of petrol on to get it going or burn plastic. And they will have a fire going all day, only extinguishing it when circumstances such as it being a source for enemy thermal imaging equipment or target for enemy thermal weapon systems arise. Even then they are sometimes reluctant to put it out. On the fire they will always be boiling kettles of hot water to make tea. They call it chai and it’s drunk black, strong and with at least three heaped tablespoons of sugar. They love chai and drink a million cups a day. Fags, fire and chai – these are the most important things for the Kurds.
Not only does fire play a big part in the social life, as people interact around it, but it’s used to both cook the food on, and to boil water for washing. When you are on operations or front-line position you are without electricity so the fire is the source of power. You eat collectively, sharing from the same massive plates or bowls and this is done squatting on the floor. Nan, which is round, flat, coarse bread that has an ability to go stale yet never mouldy, is eaten with everything. It is often used a substitute for a spoon to dig up the rice or beans or whatever you are eating.
Alongside fire and tea, the Kurds love music. Portable speaker units that play music from memory sticks are popular. There is always music blasting, and it is normally Kurdish. Even when you are on an operation and there’s fighting going on, there will be some loon who thinks nothing of strolling around blasting music. In the evenings, when you sit round the fire, it is common to take turns and sing songs.
The Kurds don’t really train – either in physical fitness or manoeuvres, and they don’t take much care of their kit. That’s another thing that drives a lot of the ex-military volunteers up the wall.
You travel around in convoy on the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux; five in the cab and up to ten or so on the back. Often it is a squashed, bumpy and dangerous ride and I was constantly worried about falling off, meanwhile the Kurds perch on the side of the vehicle with effortless grace.
The Kurds love volleyball, play a chess/draughts type game on an improvised board with opposing dark and light stones which can move forwards and backwards and side to side. They also play an awesome sports game called Parastina.
Tell me about the other international volunteers? Why do people risk their lives to support the YPG or the Kurdish struggle?
Contrary to popular misconceptions, save for the International Freedom Battalion, which is really a Turkish communist project, and one unit of fifteen or so internationals, there is no ‘international brigade’ of fighters. International volunteers are integrated into Kurdish units, sometimes there’s one or two of them, in others, it can nearly break into double figures. Because there is such a wide mix of personalities in Rojava, the international volunteers are not a unified body and there is, at times, hostility, contempt and mistrust between each other.
On the ground the international volunteers are known by both themselves and the Kurds as ‘Westerners.’ Though I would use this term at times, and not deliberately, I always had a problem with it and tried to use the terms ‘internationals.’ Also, in both my mind and in the structures and reality of life out there, volunteers from Turkey who are largely in their own units (I think), are not considered ‘Westerners’ or ‘internationals.’
Generally speaking, there are two main reasons people go to Rojava: support of the political aims of the Kurdish revolution or to fight Isis. This is not to say that these are mutually exclusive reasons. There is also a small minority of volunteers; they are professional soldiers and they spend their lives drifting from war to war.
The international volunteers are an eclectic bunch and difficult to pigeonhole. Politically speaking they come from all shades of the far left including Trotskyists, Stalinists, IWW types and anarchist insurrectionists, non-aligned, ‘non-political’ working class left-wingers, right through to centre-right, conservative or religiously motivated Christians. The only political persuasions I didn’t meet out there were far-right, EDL Islamophobic bigot types. Out of the nationalities I met American, Canadian, Italian, Spanish, Basque, Romanian, Irish, Swedish, German, French, Czech, Polish, Australian, New Zealand, Chinese and Norwegian. The volunteers are predominately men. I think female volunteers could be counted on fingers, maybe even a solitary hand.
As I said, it’s hard to pigeonhole the volunteers. I met ex-soldiers who were revolutionary in outlook and kind in disposition and self-defined anarchists who were authoritarian in approach and contemptuous in their social relations. I liked spending time with people who weren’t the sort of people, in background or politics, that I would knock around with at home – realising that it’s not so much beliefs that make a person but the values they have. If someone was decent, polite, respectful and showed respect to their hosts, the Kurds, then this made them a good person in my book.
A good friend of mine was an ex-military man in his 50s from France. He was youthful and was always respectful – would follow their customs, would clean up etc. and would say “I am a guest in this country. This is their country, we must respect their values and customs.” For a short while he had worked as a security guard in Brighton, evicting squatters in particular, and I would joke with him that I probably knew some of them. But his politics were certainly right of centre. He found Islam, and the growth of the religion, and its customs such as praying outside mosques, a threat to the way of life he had grown up with and knew. He was fearful that Islam would dominate French society. Obviously, I had a very different perspective on things and we would talk for hours about such subjects. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Paris, these discussions got heated – “you see” he would say “how can you not say this is true?” But there was a respect between us and we enjoyed each other’s company.
Some, and especially the ones that are there to do the non-existent civilian work – try to make this distinction; “are you political or just here to kill Daiş (the Kurdish name for the Islamic State)?” they say with condescension implied on the latter, never appreciating the bravery that fighters have by their nature, the fact they might have a different value system or not the privilege of the academic education that turns you into such a toss-pot.
Why do people go? On the one hand there is a strong element of self-gratification – many are trying to become ‘war heroes’ and make a name for themselves. There are quite a few ‘loud’ personalities; know-it-all narcissists who are out there for self-glory. They talk a lot of bullshit and are usually the first to pop up in media coverage about international volunteers. I’ve lost count of the number of people who were planning to write books or blogs, and to be honest, there’s only a handful of people’s books I would read if they did appear.
But, for everyone like this there are many more people of deep integrity. Some take the risk because they believe in what they are doing – either fighting the Islamic State, or even more standing with the Kurds and Kurdish self-expression, rather than the Kurdish political ideology per-se.
If I am to think about the English volunteers over there in particular, I am very proud of them. They are largely working class and politically non-aligned. They are builders, painters and decorators, supply teachers, factory workers and ex-squaddies. Their politics range from left-wingers that speak out against Islamophobia to people you probably wouldn’t see eye to eye with if the subjects of immigration or clerics were raised. But I am proud of them because it is the working class that is fighting the fascism of the Islamic State, and not either your academic, text-book reading doctrinal arm-chair anarchists nor your racist, bigoted knuckle dragging ‘Keep Britain White’ crew.
Are there any connections between the anti-fascist struggle here and the revolution in Rojava?
At the end of the day, in my mind, there are more similarities between the politics of the Islamic State and the British far-right than differences. They both believe in many of the same things, such as subservient gender roles, capital punishment, an intolerance to homosexuality, that some cultures are superior to others, societal purity and that all must live under the one dominant value system. And as much as the far-right are too stupid to realise it, they play right in to the hands of the fascist Islamists. When such people carry out terrorist attacks in Europe there is not a clear political demand such as self-determination or withdrawal of troops or interests. What they are aiming to achieve is terror in the literal sense; to create chaos and confusion against and within the Islamic communities of these countries and create a general backlash and anti-Islamic feeling in all non-Muslims. In such a way, society becomes more and more polarised as both groups grow further apart, distrust each other more and more and become more hostile towards each over. But this doesn’t matter to the far right, because as you’ve seen; when the shit hits the fan and the theocratic fascists pose a serious threat to peace and freedom, they aren’t prepared to stand their ground and fight it. This is why it is so important that we must come together with people of all races and religions, and with members of the Islamic community in particular, because, whilst it’s a cliché to say it, it’s also true: unity is strength and by finding some common ground of working together we can defeat not just the fascism of fundamentalist Islam, but also the fascism that waves the St George’s Cross and the Union Jack.