Sunday, 22 March, 2015
By Rosa Burc
Rosa Burc completed a BA in Politics and Sociology at the University of Bonn in Germany, followed by an MSc in International Politics at SOAS, University of London. She is currently one of the coordinators of the London-based Centre for Kurdish Progress. She tweets @rozanlinb.
Despite Turkey and the international community, inhabitants of Kobanê maintain a strong and united voice of resistance that surpasses imposed borders
A few elderly women stand on a mountain, wearing traditional Kurdish clothes and the recognisable white headscarf. In front of them is a wire mesh fence. One woman holds a megaphone in her hands. You cannot see those beyond the fence, but it is obvious that it is a desperate attempt at communication. This weak, almost symbolic, fence happens to be the border between Turkey and Syria.
The black and white photograph has stuck with me since I saw it for the first time. It shows the reality of Kurdistan. A reality in which artificial borders have separated lovers, families, tribes and entire villages and cities. These borders go back to the end of World War I, when new techniques of colonial mapmaking changed political geographies and the understanding of statehood. For the lives of those inhabiting the region, this has meant nothing less than division, separation and, consequently, the loss of identity. The Turkish-Syrian border was drawn along railroad tracks, for instance. Colonial powers decided that the railroad tracks would suffice in the territorial delineation of the new nation states. So one day, inhabitants living on one side of the railroad found themselves part of what the Turks called Suruç, and those living on the other side became Syrian citizens of Ayn al-Arab, despite the fact that they were all Kurdish and all from the same city – Kobanê.
It is this city, as insignificant as colonial powers thought it would be, which is now occupying headlines all around the world. The Kurdish YPG and YPJ (People’s Protection Units) in Rojava, northern Syria, have been fighting against IS for more than two years now, while international powers are still debating how to approach the crisis and whether or not to support the Kurds. In the meantime, the Turkish military have positioned tanks at the Turkish-Syrian border and have watched from a distance as huge clouds of smoke rise from the city. Islamic State has been literally knocking on Turkey’s door, but no action has been taken to repel them as the weeks have gone by. Instead, Turkey’s AKP government, the Justice and Development Party, has denied any responsibility to support the Kurdish resistance. Statements from government officials predicted the fall of Kobanê, and made suggestions that there was no difference between the YPG/J and IS, so it has increasingly appeared as if Turkey has been counting on IS to eliminate any signs of Kurdish self-administration and autonomy in Rojava.
The Kurds in Rojava have managed to establish a semi-protected and autonomous region in the midst of the Syrian war. With three cantons, of which Kobanê is one, a radical democratic experiment was launched for the first time, based on gender equality, direct democratic principles and full representation of all societal groups organised in a council system. This project was ideologically attached to the concept of a democratic confederal system for the whole Middle East, first devised by Abduallah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who has lived on a prison island in Turkey since 1999. Kobanê for the Kurds, therefore, is not only a city that is under attack, but it stands symbolically for the possibility of Kurdish autonomy beyond the establishment of another nation state.
However, a Kurdish entity based on inclusive, gender-egalitarian, grassroots democratic principles right next to Turkey continues to be regarded as a direct threat to the integrity of the Turkish nation state. While the international community was expecting Turkey to take an active role in providing a humanitarian corridor and facilitating the transport of ammunition and weapons to Kobanê, all that the Turkish government did was to set conditions for their support there: the Kurds should join the Syrian-Arab opposition; the PYD, the political arm of the YPG/J, should distance itself from the PKK; the three cantons of Rojava should disintegrate; and finally, a buffer zone should be established in northern Syria, which would mean a Turkish occupation of Rojava. Despite the fact that these conditions are morally questionable, they are also unacceptable to Kurds. Once more, the Turkish state proved that even the idea of a Kurdish entity owning political rights inside or outside the Turkish borders will be directly targeted by oppressive actions. Thus, protests in solidarity with Kobanê in Turkey, especially in Kurdish cities like Diyarbakir and Mardin, were met with massive police violence, causing the death of 48 civilians.
Turkey, as a country with the highest Kurdish population, a violent history of ethnic conflict with the Kurds, and an ongoing, fragile peace process with the PKK, cannot just watch from a distance as a murderous group calling itself Islamic State attempts to massacre tens of thousands of Kurdish people across the border. It also cannot disassociate those living inside Turkey from the people resisting in Kobanê. When Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, stated that Diyarbakir has nothing to do with Kobanê, he was wrong. Resistance in Kobanê echoes across the border and is going to highly influence the development of the Kurdish question in Turkey. The recent events in and around Kobanê have shown that the artificial borders created by the Sykes Picot Agreement in 1916 are not functioning any more. Those who claim that Turkey has no responsibility are, therefore, not only sticking to a nation state paradigm that disregards the realities on the ground, but are also repeating Turkish state propaganda.
Every time Kobanê is mentioned in the news, I think of those women in the photograph using a megaphone to speak to their families across the border. The world has witnessed how the resistance of Kobanê has become a voice uniting those who have been separated by artificial borders. According to a Kurdish saying, you can brew a tea in Suruç and drink it in Kobanê. This is how attached the geography, people, culture and history of the region are to each other. This is also how close Kobanê’s liberation is today.