Ever since the civil war started, it’s been almost impossible to get a visa for Syria. I entered the country illegally in October, through a customs point controlled by the Kurds.
The Kurds are a people who ended up without a country when the borders were drawn, so they are split amongst four countries now. Given the complicated war that’s now taking place in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds have taken control over a few territories in the northern parts of these countries and have fought ISIS for which they received international support.
The Kurdistan in Iraq is going through a turbo-capitalist boom, fuelled by oil. I landed in Sulaymaniyah, a city as large as Amsterdam, full of malls, amusement parks, skyscrapers and luxurious neighbourhoods sprinkled amongst a sea of poverty. I crossed the region towards the border with Syria and took an empty metal boat across the Tigris River. Everyone else crossing the river was going in the other direction.
On the opposite bank of the river lies the land of Rojava, or the Syrian Kurdistan. The Kurds here are trying to build a socialist utopia over the ruins of the war.
Upon arrival, a man with a moustache gave me some black tea and a piece of paper in place of a visa. He then, without further ado, ushered me into the decrepit car of a toothless old man.
We drove for hours on some roads that did not appear on my phone maps. Some of them were in the middle of empty fields; others were covered in rubbish or fresh asphalt, winding through oil rigs, poor towns and refugee camps.
After a few dozen checkpoints guarded with old Kalashnikovs, a tall thin man wearing glasses and military rank insignia, a sort of a minister of propaganda, gave me a piece of paper to roam around “freely”.
I spent the next two weeks safely going around northern Syria, trying to understand the mirage of a society born out of destruction, after centuries of oppression. They present it like a democratic world where it no longer matters if you are a man or a woman, Christian or Muslim; a world without tyranny, where the people left behind can decide how they want to live their lives.
Welcome to Rojava!
Freedom begins with destruction
Kobane is a poor city in northern Syria, in a region inhabited by Kurds. In the fall of 2014, it was conquered by theIslamic state terrorist organization (ISIS ), who wanted to extend its occupation to the border with Turkey.
About 10,000 extremists burst in and conquered 350 villages in two weeks, killing a large part of the population and putting another 300,000 people on the run.
ISIS did not expect any resistance. Out of despair the Kurds responded, despite being outnumbered and lacking sophisticated equipment. The American run coalition bombed the city, then the soldiers played counter-strike from one house to another, and they liberated the city. They had essentially conquered a ruin.
Now it’s quiet. The sound of trucks took over. People have started coming back, trying to rebuild what they lost. Nobody knows the current population, how many stayed and how many left. Whoever had a few thousand dollars took off to Europe.
The West welcomed the news of liberation. Kobane became a symbol of the Kurdish resistance. But there is not a big queue to support reconstruction. Everything is patched up through volunteering.
The local economy cannot support itself: the production of cotton, the main product in the region, is too expensive and was replaced by wheat for bread, the cheapest food. Even if there are about 4,000 oil rigs, most of them are technically archaic and they lack personnel – only a few hundred work, enough to cover the immediate needs. Whatever is extracted covers internal consumption and daily expenses; the little extra they have is barely enough for subsistence. Many citizens found other manual exploitation methods: they refine oil in a shaft, using improvised barrels, selling gas on the street corner by the bottle or with handmade pumps connected to huge oily barrels.
In addition, the Kurds have a big problem with the Turkish government, which hates them. The Turks have closed the Syrian border, under the pretext of the ISIS threat. They barely let the refugees cross over back to Syria to check the ruins, twice a week. All the construction materials, equipment and food must come through Iraq (or contraband) and the price grows exponentially.
“Please pass a message to the rest of the world: we need help” gesticulates Abdul Rahman Hamo, the chief of the reconstruction committee in a city which had a population of 40,000 before the disaster happened. He doesn’t have much time – a few citizens are huddled in the hallway, waiting for an audience to ask for homes. So he gives a quick recap:
- 70% of the city was severely damaged
- a few residential projects are in motion, as most people live in camps on the outskirts of the city and winter is coming (temperatures fall below -2C during the night) and they have no way to heat themselves
- All the hospitals have been destroyed, but they have a few services that can help 300-400 people each day
- Eight out of 15 schools have been completely damaged; work is being done to rebuild them
- 75% of people survived on agriculture and breeding animals, but it’s impossible to do this now, and everything is imported;
- 1 million tons of rubble have been gathered in the past five months, there are about two more months of work to be done
- 1,000 workers help with gathering rubble every day. The roads are completely cleared now and the next step is rebuilding the water pipes and sewage
- 0 dollars is the full budget of the administration, so it is impossible to predict how long the clearing and building of new houses will take. The administration has a bank account for donations, which they use for immediate expenses. Everything is based on volunteering and “crowdfunding” from individuals, businessmen, Kurds from other countries and Kurds from Turkey.
On the main street in the city the only building with is a grilled chicken shop. The boss is a short, muscular guy. He’s only 25 years old but his hair is almost white because of the war – it’s difficult to keep a restaurant open in a destroyed city.
The walls and the shutters are ornate with large bullet holes. He has had to change the windows three times – after street fights, after bombardments and after car bombs.
Azad Hassan is a proud Kurd, a volunteer soldier in the People’s Protection Unit (YPG). He is one of the few who speak English, so he handles some of the who join the Kurds fighting the Islamic state.
When he needs to he goes to the front; otherwise he spends his time at the restaurant. He says it’s the best in town.. In any event, it’s the only one working at full capacity, even if prices have gone up because of the Turkish embargo.
It’s 6 pm, rush hour. The place fills up every evening, according to Azad, because people trust him and they like his food. They gave up on deliveries, they couldn’t find the addresses anymore. People also show up to socialize, as there’s barely anywhere else left to meet.
Azad and his partner have had this business for eight years. Everyone working here is a relative – kids, brothers, cousins. One of them cuts vegetables with a huge machete, a young kid does the dishes while standing on a crate, another clears off the tables, a boy flattens pitas in a bench vice, another one puts them in an oven and takes them out when done. The patrons eat and watch the patriotic show on TV: soldiers doing heroic deeds with folk music in the background.
“We’ve shown the world ISIS can be beaten,” says Azad in shy English, while he wraps a shwarma for a customer. He learned English at the translation university in Aleppo. But then the Arab Spring started, so he never got to finish his studies. He came back home to Kobane when many of his colleagues disappeared overnight.
Here he was suddenly a revolutionary: the Kurds have gathered a strong army – between 40 and 50 thousand people, they say; they promised people they’d all have equal rights and declared .
Azad is exhausted. He can’t sleep like normal people: he closes his eyes around 3 or 4am and he’s up again at 9am. He says he has some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, he’s seen too much, he’s killed, he’s lost friends. He keeps pictures of them on his phone; they are the same martyrs one can see on the posters in town.
Azad is exhausted. He can’t sleep like normal peoplehe closes his eyes around 3 or 4am and he’s up again at 9am. He says he has some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, he’s seen too much, he’s killed, he’s lost friends. He keeps pictures of them on his phone; they are the same martyrs one can see on the posters in town.
First time he killed it was terrible, «killing a boy like yourself». Then it became a routine. Same for lost friends. He doesn’t even think about , he might be the next one to die.
Some of his old buddies now fight for ISIS. Every now and then, he gets into an argument with them on Facebook. He likes to provoke them by posting Israeli flags on their pages, this annoys them the most, he says. “They have no arguments for what they do,” he tells me, he can’t understand why people he sat down with at the same table can kill him for an idea; but he is ready to die as well.
Before the war, he dreamt of a better future in Canada or the United Kingdom. He could do this now, he has enough money for it, but he doesn’t want to emigrate anymore. Most of his acquaintances have gone, like most people during the war. He now needs to stay and protect his family, his land because if everybody leaves….
About 30 of his friends left for Europe in the past year. Only one friend stayed behind; they meet up to smoke pipe in the evening, remembering how life was when they were young.
One of the friends who left is Abdullah, father of Alan Kurdi, the little boy who drowned in Turkey and whose picture went viral around the world.
Alan Kurdi was the three year-old who drowned in the Mediterranean in September; he changed the Europeans’ perspective on the waves of immigrants headed towards their countries. The child and three others drowned while his family was trying to reach the shores of Greece. Some accused his father, Abdullah, of working with the people-smugglers and that he was the one manning the stricken boat.
The picture of Alan lying facedown on the sands of a Turkish beach left the planet stupefied. Angela Merkel opened up Germany’s borders for all Syrians willing to start over in the civilized world. We went along for the ride with the refugees throughout Europe.
Abdullah is now in Iraq and avoids all contact with foreigners; he just wants to die in peace. He is completely , after having lost his entire family and being harassed by xenophobes.
Deep trenches surround Kobane. Access roads are blocked by large concrete pots, pieces of sewage pipes, filled with dirt.
The Canton is like a widespread piece of Swiss cheese between the rivers Euphrates and Tell Abyad. ISIS has raided the entire area during the past year, killing any Kurds who didn’t want to leave their home.
The Islamists have left behind empty villages, damaged by mortar shells and pierced by machine guns, separated by trenches and mine fields. Whenever they withdraw, the terrorists sabotage everything they can: houses, schools, and lands.
Three-quarters of the population worked in agriculture before the war. Many were already very poor and moved into cities during a three-year draught. They risk dying today if they start working the land, their ploughs can explode from striking mines. People die everyday while clearing out rubble in their own backyard.
The secondary roads we drive on, listening to sad folk songs, are empty and bumpy. Arabs inhabited most villages south of Kobane. The Kurds have been accused of ethnic cleansing after they displaced a few Arab communities and installed “war zones” instead, afraid that new extremists will be born here. They say they are worried some Arabs might support the extremists, as well.
Three-quarters of the population worked in agriculture before the war. Many were already very poor and moved into cities during . They risk dying today if they start working the land, their ploughs can explode from striking mines. People die everyday while clearing out rubble in their own backyard.
The secondary roads we drive on, listening to sad folk songs, are empty and bumpy. Arabs inhabited most villages south of Kobane. The Kurds of ethnic cleansing after they displaced a few Arab communities and installed “war zones” instead, afraid that new extremists will be born here. They say they are worried some Arabs might support the extremists, as well.
The war zone looks like a zombie movie set – empty villages, crossed by ditches and barricades, raided shops, vandalized houses, an old ISIS prison in which Allah’s enemies were tortured and killed, open until a few months ago. Ar-Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, is one hour away..
A bunch of girls play volleyball in front of a small town school. One girl stretches up on her toes and bangs the ball into a net held by two metal barrels. The ball rolls back to a large dirt wall. Behind the dirt wall, a couple of excavators dig trenches.
Inside the school, two girls scribble something in a math notebook; others clean up the lunch leftovers – rice with vegetables and pita, and start making some tea.
The girls pick up their Kalashnikovs leaning against a pierced door and go out for a raid. They’re part of the Women’s Protection Brigade (YPJ), the female part of the Kurdish army. Rojava is the second country in the Middle East, along with Israel, which And this is best seen in the military.
A TV squawks out a folk song about men and women crossing through fire, armed to the teeth. A man with a moustache looks down on us from a large portrait hung on the wall in between the people’s army flags. Six months ago, bearded ISIS men were having tea in this hallway in ‘Ayn ‘Isa.
A woman with missing teeth and parted hair takes her shoes off at the door and lays down on a large pillow in the lounge.
“We defend our land and women,”, sayz Azda, dressed in a loose uniform, while sipping black tea and smoking a cigarette from the rationed reserves. She is 21 and the leader of a group of 12 young women who guard the southwest front line with ISIS.
She joined the YPJ when she was 18, in 2012. She’s not been back home since then; she only speaks to her poor family on the phone. The revolution caught her in her backyard, caring for their Kobane home and animals. She had no dreams, maybe something about women’s rights, although on second thought she had no idea about women’s rights back then.
She found her meaning when she heard the revolution started and women were involved as well; she realized she could be a free woman.
There hasn’t been an important battle for months now, having cleaned up all the villages around Kobane. Everyone talks about the offensive in Raqqa although nobody knows any specifics. Recently, the Kurds have allied with Arabs, Christians, Assyrians and Turkmens. They call themselves the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and they want to get rid of all extremists in the country. But war is not all about fighting. says Azda.
The women patrol around checkpoints and trenches every day. Sometimes they shoot out into the night, with no face-to-face combat. The terrorists have stayed away during the last few days – they keep a lookout for them, perched on top of the school under their brigade flag.
The closest, are in a few huts behind the trenches, two kilometers away from the school. That’s where the Islamic state caliphate starts.
Most extremists don’t look like the ones in ISIS propaganda films – dark clothed bearded men waving the black flag. They are normal people who don’t stand out at all, according to the Kurds. Sometimes they wear local clothes. That was what happened this past summer when they attacked Kobane again. A few dozen entered the city undercover and killed about 200 civilians.
Azda says she was there and she shot three Daesh to death. They were camouflaged in Kurdish uniforms, but she suspected something was wrong when she said hi; it ended in a shootout and she won.
Apart from war and patrolling, the girls go through training and propaganda: they wake up at 5am, have breakfast, then they discuss ideology and fight strategies, then wait for time to pass by training or playing sports..
Azda doesn’t know anything else; maybe she’s never known anything else. I ask her what her plans are if the war ever ends, but her mind gets stuck – it her perfectly, she doesn’t see herself elsewhere, with a job or as a mother. There is nothing else: “this is my life”.
The Country That Wasn’t
The uKurds are the largest minority in Syria, 1.5-2 million people, 10% of the country’s population and half of .
The first mentions of them are from the seventh century, which talks about tribes who started unifying during the Middle Ages, after having migrated over the years in between empires.
The state idea came up after the First World War, but when the Ottoman Empire was broken up into nation states the Kurds got screwed and ended up in four countries: Turkey (where most live, 11-14 million), Iran, Iraq and Syria. They speak two dialects with various variations.
The Syrian regime has always seen them as a threat, so they kept them at bay: they took their houses, their businesses, their citizenship, prohibited their language and traditions, beat them, tortured them and massacred them. The Kurds in Turkey and Iraq experienced similar outcomes.
When the revolution started, the Syrian Kurds disregarded the regime’s proclamations and declared Kurdish the official language, alongside Arabic and Assyrian. Then they started building their identity.
Starting this year, Kurdish is taught in school, and in the future each person will be free to choose their language in education and administration, according to article nine from the Charter of the Social Contract, a sort of constitution of the autonomous region.
““It’s really difficult to teach, because the existence of Kurds has never been accepted. (…) It’s really hard to make them understand that they are Kurdish after so long, to convince them they have their own history and that this has been hidden by the powers of the countries we live in,” says Anwar Beiram Omar, history teacher at the Kobane pedagogical college.
After the Assad regime withdrew, the Kurds occupied a building that used to house a Sharia institute, where the Islamic law was taught. They converted it into a pedagogical school, where 180 boys and girls are getting ready to become the first generation of Kurdish teachers in Syria.
TTheoretically, college lasts for two years, but now they’re working on an accelerated timeline, and everything has been condensed to 6 months. They started last spring and by the end of the year they will be ready to teach primary school children.
Fifteen professors teach English, Arabic, Kurdish, math, biology, history, geography and science. They don’t have any money to edit textbooks; they don’t even have money for salaries, so the library is all in Arabic. They are hoping to change this next year when they start specializing. But there is no time for such details now with the situation in constant flux.
The college lies on a hill protected from bombs, has an internal courtyard with a fountain in the middle, and classrooms all around.
In a decrepit room, Omar talks about civilization in front of a group of 15 boys and girls. They listen carefully; some take notes, nobody is scrolling on their phones.
“The Kurds have always been divided,” says the teacher with a grave voice, while gesticulating in the cold air, “because there have always been multiple clans. Clans united into tribes, tribes united into small towns. Who could get these towns to get along with each other?”
The Kurds are organized in tribes even to this day, he explains. “They recognize and judge each other based on the tribe, not based on the town they live in, that’s why they were never able to have a territory or a single identity.” Not until now.
Omar is not even 30. He is the kind of teacher you can approach with any topic. He started teaching when the revolution came in 2011, and he arrived here last spring, when the college started. Although he should teach the kids about the history of Kurds and Kurdistan, he took off from the beginning of civilization.
He improvises a lot; they only have about four books about Kurdish history. “And the five books by Abdullah Öcalan. (…) It’s difficult to find resources and to write new books. We need more than that, but we have quite a lot of information from our own culture,” says professor Omar, telling his pupils to research on the Internet as much as possible.
Abdullah Öcalan is the most famous Kurd. Everyone carries a picture of him somewhere on their person, and his nickname Apo (“Uncle”) is sprayed all over the fences in north-eastern Syria.
For ten years he was the sole prisoner on an island in the Marmara Sea. This is where he wrote the books that teach today’s students about their history and political ideals. The Turkish have sentenced him to death because he formed the PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party). NATO, USA and the EU consider PKK a terrorist organization. PKK the Turkish government for 30 years, for the autonomy of the territory inhabited by the Kurds.
Öcalan got life in prison after Turkey abolished death sentence, as a request to pre-adhere to the EU.
În 2012, Apo made peace with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2012, then the prime minister and now Turkish President. Öcalan told the boys to put the arms down and move to Iraq. There was peace for two years. Last autumn, the Turkish didn’t allow the Kobanese to cross the border into Turkey away from ISIS. The Turkish army displayed their weapons at the Syrian border and looked at the disaster happening over the border, while the US-led coalition was bombing whatever was left in the area. So PKK shot a few Turkish policemen out of anger, and the whole thing started again.
Öcalan had also proposed a Kurdish confederation, a stateless democracy, overlaid on the areas in the four states. The stateless democracy would have included other local populations and legislation had to follow state laws where the Kurds lived, EU laws and the Kurdish law.
That confederation never came to be but Rojava is a kind of pilot project for Öcalan’s idea.
The Stateless Democracy
Rojava is a 500km territory under continuous dispute – from the north of Aleppo, the largest Syrian city, all the way to the eastern border with Iraq; it measures 100km at its widest point. Four million people inhabit the three cantons, Swiss style: Afrin – the smallest one, is completely isolated in the north by the Islamic State; then Kobane and Jazira, which are connected.
Any man with a car is willing to be a taxi driver here, even if the roads are poor and dangerous. Nobody travels at night. Public transport restarted recently, and you can go from Kobane to Qamishli, about 300 km, for a few dollars a head using private minivans with a random schedule.
The car is stopped a few dozen times during the 6-hour trip. The internal security militia, Asayish, checks the drivers’ papers, the registration plates and the faces of the travellers, trying to identify any terrorist threats.
As you move further east, the rocks and wood panels at the checkpoints become concrete walls, and the dirt turns into dirt brick houses with satellite dishes; you start seeing olive trees and green fields and gas tanks with poorly refined gas from the oil rigs that still work.
The only real threats are the tanks and artillery on the border hills; every now and then the Turks shoot randomly, angry that the Kurds control the region better day by day.
I get out of the van in Amuda, a town with 20,000 inhabitants living in low houses and streets that look identical, spread out like an imperfect gridlock, full of shops, chicken slaughterhouses and manufacturing workshops. There was never any war here, only poverty.
A kid in flip-flops dismounts a broken bike, passes me a cigarette and takes out his smartphone to see what else is on the net. He grins and shows me a video of a Daesh bearded man decapitating a Kurd with a machete. He then gets back on his bike and disappears into the crowd.
It’s a sunny Saturday and the town is blocked by a protest that seems huge relative to the size of the place. One thousand people march on the streets on the first day of the international commemoration of the Kobane liberation..
The main road is full of armed people, each corner is well guarded and the secondary roads are closed.
Most protesters are women. They yell tribal sounds and wave Kurdish flags of Rojava, YPG & YPJ, portraits of Öcalan and other martyrs. They chant Apo/Ocalan, Kobane, Kobane și , the official fight hymn, led by leaders chanting in microphones, standing on cars.
The shopkeepers pull the blinds when the trail of people passes them and they stand on the sidewalk gawking. They’ve never seen such a thing before.
The march stops in a roundabout where people heat up in political speeches, dance in a circle and then dissolve onto the streets and into the cars that drove here from the rest of the canton.
Metal poles block off the city center with thick concrete walls and the people’s access is restricted. There are a few larger buildings housing the legal and executive councils. There is a media center – a kind of propaganda ministry, which ensures foreign journalists get their job done«quickly and effectively». There are also a few other regional institutions.
The Syrian Kurds call their system a self-democracy, a cellular autonomy. This starts in thecommunes, where people gather in the streets of their town or village and decide what they have to do for a better life, and then pass on the message to a legislative council.
is formed of 101 citizens who have been named; they’ve had no elections yet «but there will be some soon», they say. This council regulates life in the canton based on the needs communicated by the communes, the basis of the political participation. Any forum must have 40% women. The decisions never depend on a specific person. For instance, they have co-mayors, co-presidents, or triumvirates with a president and two vice-presidents, where one is Arab, one is Christian and one is Kurdish, and at least one should be a woman.
The central leadership is guaranteed by a coalition called the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), based on the Charter of the Social Contract in place of a constitution.
The Kurds have occupied Kobane, Amuda and Afrin in 2012, when they took advantage of the lull in the government’s army withdrawing to the west. Then they took over Qamishli, a large multi-ethnic city where the Assad regime controls the airport and one neighborhood. The government sometimes airdrops supplies they are in need of; it’s a win-win situation.
To avoid being bombed by Damascus, the Kurds have left Assad’s men alone. They’ve had a few skirmishes but there was never an open conflict like in other regions. This non-combat mode has led some Syrians and some rebels to accuse the Kurds of collaborating with the regime.
“Firstly, there is absolutely no relation with the regime. Secondly, the regime controls one square in Qamishli, the rest is controlled by our administration and by YPG. It’s a temporary situation but we consider that even the regime supporters have the right to participate in this project, which is a federal project,” says Akram Hisso, the prime minister of Rojava, a tall 40-year-old man dressed in a loose suit. He is angry about this ongoing topic but he stutters like a student during an exam
Come what may, all the state employees are paid by Damascus even if they stopped working a long time ago: engineers, technicians, doctors, hospital staff. “It’s their right to get the salary and the state’s obligation to pay it,” says Hisso.
Rojava is managed from Amuda, as it’s easier to secure, which is also why the march took place here. The official capital is in Qamishli, but ISIS manages to sneak in a car bomb every now and then.
In addition, Amuda is a quiet place, perfect for an ideological center. A bunch of European academics and lefties gather here to write papers about the hippest movement in the Middle East, or to play at revolution.
The Kurds are always busy with the European delegates, various anarchists or on a tea break.
Rojava doesn’t want independence, says Akram Hisso, but a federal Syria. This would be sufficient for the people to keep the rights they won in the revolution.
Siria federală nu e tocmai visul împlinit al Kurdistanului, dar e o băiețeală convenabilă. Kurzii au câștigat destul credit după luptele cu ISIS, au bartai forța militară, nu mai pot fi suprimați ușor, indiferent de cine câștigă războiul sau în ce țară ajung.
To avoid sabotaging their revolution, they have tried to involve everyone in their project, even those supporting Damascus. They hope their autonomu model will inspire other areas in Syria or even other countries.
“It is a victory because it was not the revolution of a single people, but of everyone in Rojava, Christians, Yazidis, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, but the kurds lead the revolution. All the components are represented in the leadership. I lead the executive council, but my vice-presidents are Arab and Christian,” says the PM, repeating the same story about the
The City with Two Governments
There are two working governments in Qamishli. Bashar looks at Apo from the portraits that cover the entire city, either in Kurdish green-yellow, or in the Syrian flag.
I walk the dark alleys reluctantly. It’s full of armed people in uniforms; if they are not in their huts I can’t tell if they are Kurdish or from the regime. Last spring a Swedish journalist was arrested and taken to Damascus because he was taking pictures around the city center.
If trouble is looking for me, it’ll find me. There are many militias with no uniforms. You can be asked to show your papers in a second by a guy selling cigarettes on the streets.
The regime soldiers keep hold of a square in the middle of which Haffez al Assad, ex-president and father of the current president, salutes them. The airport, a neighbourhood, and a few government institutions are also under their control, despite having stopped working.
The Kurds have their own well-guarded institutions – the women’s ministry, the people’s court; but most of the administration is back in Amuda where it’s safer.
The city vibrates, literally: thousands of electricity generators maintain activities with their hum, and create a scratchy smell of fuel in the air. Some Kurds became service providers, bought a generator to provide electricity to their neighbors, for a fee.
A few traffic policemen dressed in white shirts and caps whistle at the cars in the streets but nobody pays any attention. You can do pretty much anything you want, all they want is some cash, locals say.
There is a gold market, a spice market and one can find pretty much any trinket made in China here. They even have fake versions of stores like H&M or Pizza Hut.
The Kurds are the majority, but there are plenty of Arabs and Christians as well. The numbers show 200,000 people living here, making it one of the 10 largest cities in Syria, but the estimates I hear put it higher, between 400,000-800,000 people. The city absorbed a portion of the internal refugees coming from the south, but many people kept going.
In fact, Qamishli was established 100 years ago by refugees from the Christian Assyrian genocide, a less marketed piece of the Turkish genocide against Armenians. It even held the the Christian capital of Syria title, as 50,000 Christians lived here until recently. The ones who are left, about half, don’t really like the Kurds because they participated pro-actively in their genocide; they were hoping to create a territory for their future state.
More recently, there have been tensions between the Kurds and the Arabs. In 2004, at a football match between the Kurds and , an all-Arab team, the Arab fans chanted about Saddam Hussein who had killed Kurds in Iraq using biological weapons. The Kurds got pissed off and a fight ensued. The violence moved into the city where the Kurdish fans set fire to the ruling Ba’ath party headquarters. The authorities stepped in and the match ended with hundreds of casualties (the estimated number of deaths varies between 30 and 100).
“It’s our last fight for existence! Fourteen years in Chicago, a car, a great job, everything. […] The fact that I came back during all this, I think, gives hope. I want to be part of this hope,” says a hipsterish-looking guy with a short beard and almond eyes.
While everyone left, George came back to Syria. To avoid issues, he asked me not to call him by his real name. He is 32 years old, having lived half of his life in the United States. He is Assyrian Orthodox, studied IT and worked in the field. As soon as he got back from America, he started a business – he develops mobile games, apps, sites, cartoons, “any product that will enrich our language, the Assyrian language, our culture.”
The power-generator of the Christian church in Qamishli has just stopped working, and it no longer sheds light on the torn flag of the Arab Republic of Syria. A bunch of kids try playing soccer in the dark but Gaby, a friend of the American, sends them home.
Gaby is 25 years old and a student in Damascus; he goes to classes by plane, once every few weeks. Every Friday night he locks up the door to the Orthodox Church in Qamishli, after the weekly debate of the youth association of Christians. This is one of 11 Christian prayer spots in the city. Today, a lawyer talked about the gaps in the trial of Jesus, and Gaby ended the discussion abruptly: “So what if the trial was fair or not, as long as Messiah came to Earth to die for our sins?”
Gaby’s church is almost empty; half of the Christians have fled and many continue to leave. His parents just moved to Sweden but he wouldn’t even hear of it: “if nobody comes back, we will have no future.”
“Everyone leaves and I don’t know why. As you can see, it’s 7pm and nothing bad is happening, no fire, no alarms, no bombing. We have electricity, Internet, water, everything you need. I’m not sure what people are thinking.” This seems to be the biggest question for everyone, the young Syrian thinks.
PS: Two suicide bombers killed 17 people before new years eve in what was the deadliest attack on civilians in Qamishlo for months
To get to Europe, Syrians need to travel far and dangerously. They must enter and cross Turkey illegally. The crossing is 150 dollars for “the basic package” – jumping fences at night, hiding in fields based on what I heard from locals; the ones who want to make sure they don’t get shot by the Turkish need to come up with 1,000 dollars to bribe the guards.
Human trafficking is the best business nowadays. Most robbers and law-breakers became traffickers: they arrange everything, bribe whoever they need to and you pass through almost without breaking a sweat; other times they deceive you, leave you out in a field or attack and rob you. Sometimes people die.
Khalid Ali, the leader of the people’s court, told me that crime rates have dropped significantly ever since started working, because the ever-present militias do their job well and there is no corruption.
In order to emigrate, people must sell whatever they have. Salaries have gone down five to six times, and a normal salary is about 70 dollars. Some are so poor they need to queue for bread from the government (video).
To get to Europe, people sell their houses and their cars. The price of a house has gone up four or five times in the last few years, reaching almost 20m Syrian pounds (60.000 dollars). The boys in the church told me about situations where people’s houses were de kurzi. They didn’t sell them because they had enough money to leave, pe telling them that if they left, they don’t need it.
People avoided talking to me about leaving, in fear of Asayish – he Kurdish militia covering internal security. They can arrest you if they find out, they told me.
At the exit from Syria back to Iraq, a few hundred people with their packed-up lives are waiting for a Kurdistan visa. I get into the metal boat with sadness. The Iraqi Kurds invented an unwritten law by which they only let foreigners enter and leave once. ISIS controls whatever is left of the border.
raqi Kurdistan cities are in full development, residential neighborhoods are being built, they have rollercoasters, Carrefour and McDonald’s. The middle-class shops in glass malls like in the US, they drive expensive cars with cheap gas produced by Chevron, Gazprom, Exxon. Every morning, hundreds of poor people in traditional dress fight around vans for a day job.
The Kurdish revolution in Iraq started in the ’70s. They are practically independent now. Their brothers’ Syrian socialism is transformed here into a tribal turbo-capitalism, controlled by old heroes of the resistance, turned political leaders. They now fight for resources – President Barzani controls one side of the country while the other is held by the opposition party, Gorran.
The region remains secure, the safest in Iraq. Well-armed men, who look for Arabs in car boots, guard the roads. The arms infusion and the American training is apparent everywhere. The Islamic State is remains close and continuously stages attacks that bite into the autonomy, but Iraq is not all about ISIS.
În drumul de aeroport, un cioban în teniși și cu vestă își mâna oile peste stradă. N-avea mulți câini, dar de umăr îi atârna un kalașnikov antic, ca alea folosite soldații din Rojava. Allah știe ce-l paște…
On the way to the airport I saw a shepherd, dressed in a vest and white sneakers. He was guiding his sheep on the street; he didn’t have any dogs but on his shoulder hung an old Kalashnikov, like the ones in Rojava. Only Allah knows what awaits him…
text & photos Ștefan Mako
therapist Vlad Ursulean
editor Laurențiu Colintineanu
Kurdish translation Farida Hassan
English translation Victor Bitiușcă
English arrangement Samantha Work