There’s an old adage: The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.
The Chicago Committee for Solidarity with Kurdistan and Rojava and local anarchist group Black Rose Chicago came together Saturday in the hopes of dispelling that notion at a Rojava-focused discussion.
Held at the Nightingale Cinema in Noble Square, the event was billed as liberation support for Rojava, a radical de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, and Kurdistan, the world’s largest stateless nation, spread out among Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The ten-city speaking tour—organized by Friends of Rojava, a coalition of Kurdish solidarity organizations in the United States—was arranged to educate the left in the West on this little-known revolution.
More than 30 people squeezed into a cozy space to hear eyewitness accounts of the radical paradise inspired by leftist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) revolutionary Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999. Turkey bombed Rojava Tuesday, according to news reports. A military spokesman told the Telegraph newspaper that 20 fighters in Rojava were killed and 18 were injured.
Rojava is a complete inversion of the nearby Islamic State in deed and law. In Rojava, women fight alongside men and are equal in both status and power, radical democracy plays out in the streets, and environmental protection is enshrined in law. The Connecticut-size patch of land far north of Aleppo has flourished as a secular oasis amid the chaos of the Syrian conflict that has left an estimated 500,000 people dead.
Neither the United Nations nor NATO recognizes Rojava, or “the land where the sun sets,” as a state, but the region has gained de facto autonomy within the wider Syrian conflict.
It’s also gained the admiration of the Western left for its secular political system. Known as Democratic Confederalism, it’s a libertarian socialist political system developed by Öcalan that’s based on the ideas of American anarchist and ecologist Murray Bookchin. At heart, Rojava’s utopian status comes from its rise out of the ashes of a patriarchal and honor-based society to one rooted instead in gender equality, democratic socialism, and environmental sustainability amid conflict.
Rojava held the imagination of the audience members in Chicago Saturday, who discussed how to support, and perhaps join, this sliver of radical leftist living.
That included Mike Fonda, a former U.S. Marine who did two deployments in Iraq, who spoke at the event. Fonda also fought in Rojava, joining the region’s People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the spring of 2015. There, he served on the front line as an infantryman, linguist, and interrogator.
“They just want their land, and to be left alone to rule themselves,” Fonda says. Rojava doesn’t have nationalistic aspirations, according to Fonda, despite the popular aspirations of its neighbor. The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq plans to hold a referendum on independence this year.
The social equality in all aspects of Rojava life drew Fonda to northern Syria.
“The YPG has no ranks; there are titles, but the ranks don’t matter. It’s these aspects of the revolution that are powerful and touching to me and drove me to get more involved,” he said. Fonda claimed he’s now listed as a terrorist in Turkey and Lebanon, and was imprisoned with ISIS members in Iraqi Kurdistan for serving in the YPG.
Discussions of Rojava’s women’s liberation movement Saturday focused on their role as sisters-in-arms. “Öcalan said that there cannot be a revolution without women’s empowerment. I saw it put in practice on the battlefield against ISIS,” Fonda said, repeating Öcalan’s famous maxim that “A country can’t be free unless the women are free.”
Rojava’s female soldiers, known as the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), make up 40 percent of the region’s militia force. They’ve been widely praised for their successes against the Islamic State, including a 2014 action that established a safe corridor that allowed thousands to escape from the siege of Sinjar, where 40,000 Yazidi families faced death by dehydration and starvation.
“I remember I was on a mission once in a Humvee,” Fonda recalled. “A YPJ patrol jumped on the Humvee, then jumped off, running faster than I could, with RPGs and big heavy machine guns. I will always remember the bravery, confidence and courage of the YPJ.”
Gönül Düzer, an activist Zaza Kurdish woman who grew up in Istanbul, also spoke at Saturday’s event. An expert on women labor, gender, and immigration issues in Turkey, Düzer found herself drawn to the social change in Rojava, where women’s equality is being implemented in labor and government systems outside of the battlefield, which she believes gets the focus of international attention.
“Being a fighter in a YPJ unit is one way to fight the patriarchy; another is smashing the patriarchy through uprooting systems that systematically hold women back whether in labor systems, or culture,” says Düzer, who supports the YPG getting financial and supply help from U.S. Special Forces but has criticisms about U.S. imperialism in the region.
Christy LeMaster, director of the Nightingale, says she decided to host the event after coming across an invitation on Facebook. Like others there, she expressed interest in making the trek to northern Syria—not as a soldier but as an experimental documentary filmmaker. She’d like to focus on sharing translated narratives of women from all walks of life experiencing great freedom and great risk.
“It’s fascinating that in Syria of all places there is this widespread cultural change. I’m drawn to Rojava to see what has pushed the Kurds to create a utopia,” LeMaster said. “As an artist, I want to know: How does a utopia in the middle of a war look and feel?”