Days of uprising (part I)
The canton Jazira of the autonomous enclave Rojava is located in the north-eastern corner of Syria. It borders Turkey to the north and Iraqi Kurdistan to the east. In the south-west there is the frontline with the area controlled by the Islamic califate [ISIS]. In February 2015, large-scale fighting began on the southern front. It is still going on now.
To enter Jazira from Iraqi Kurdistan, it is necessary to obtain a permit from the government of Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG). This is a tiring, viscous procedure. As a journalist, the KRG embassy in Moscow helped me. All promises made by the Kurds in Moscow who are connected to Rojava and the official representation of Rojava in Sulaymaniyah turned out to be mere words. I arrive on the border from where I phone the Muscovite representatives of Iraqi Kurdistan. I have to wait three hours, but I am still not let through.
The border crossing takes you across the great Mesopotamian river Tigris. The passengers squeeze themselves into a flimsy metal barge and are brought to the other shore. On the other side, there are two modest buildings under construction. Around them there are building materials, rubbish and dust. No stamps or visas are put into your passport on arrival in the canton Jazira. They give you a piece of paper with some fields filled in about who you are and when you arrived.
I take a minibus and go to Qamishlo, the biggest city of the canton. There are dozens of oil pumps along the road. Hilly fields covered with fresh, green grass with oil pumps sticking out like crooked nails. When you look a second time you realise very few of them are moving. Only a small number are functioning.
There is roadblock along the road with the Asayish, militants that fulfil the role of police. They take a look at the passengers, but don’t even check documents, then they wave us through.
Qamishlo. I turn to the Union of Free Journalists (“Rakhandina Azad“). All newly arrived foreign journalists come here. The chair of the organisation, Masud Muhammad, proposes to be my host.
I have time to look at the city itself only briefly. My first impression is that it looks poor and unkempt. A lot of closed shops, potholed roads and piles of rubbish. The flags of the People’s Defense Units – the female YPJ and the male YPG forces – stand out like bright dots here and there: yellow triangles with red stars.
Masud’s house has an inner courtyard in the shape of a square. The atmosphere is like that in a press centre. There are local journalists as well as foreign ones. Laptops, iPhones and all sorts of other devices are switched on. They discuss how much it costs to hire a car to take you to the frontline and how close the YPJ and YPG allow you to get to the actual fighting. “I need to get to the actual line where the Islamic State and the Kurds meet. I want to film an attack, some actual fighting”, says one Spanish journalist. His backpack with the body armour and helmet lie on a wall. French journalists want to talk with foreign volunteers who fight on the side of the YPG. The local press photographers are young. They show us the bodies of the ISIS fighters that were killed today in the area around the town Tell Tamer. Turkeys and chicken are clucking and cackling in the courtyard of the neighbour’s house. The sun rolls behind the horizon – an emerald ribbon spreads across the sky.
We talk until late at night. I explain to Masud that I am interested in the machinations of the political and civil organisations here, and that I would like to understand the structure of the governing system on its different levels. I would also like to see how ordinary people live their lives in cities and villages, and I wish to do this on my own steam. Masud says, “No, we cannot allow this, you would put yourself in danger. We will help you with everything.” He tells me the story of a young journalist from Sweden who was taken into custody by members of the Syrian secret service. The Syrian armed forces are present in some parts of Qamishlo. The local Kurd Agit, who is a Russian speaker, told me that it was the Swede’s own fault. He photographed Syrian soldiers and provoked his arrest.
The noise of a low-flying war plane thunders through the sky. A discussion starts about whose plane this is – a plane of the official Syrian army or of the coalition headed by the United States, which bombs the positions of the Islamic califate.
Two cities fulfil the functions of capital of the area – Qamishlo and Amûdê. The administrative institutions of the Jazira Canton lie in Amudê. I head there early in the morning ─ more precisely, I am sent there: they put me in a car together with someone from the Union of Free Journalists to accompany me.
On the way my companion explains that today I will be able to get an interview with at least the vice chair of the Executive Council of Jazira. It’s 28 kilometres from Qamishlo to Amudê. The population of Qamishlo is more than 200,000. In Amudê there are only 30,000 inhabitants.
We arrive. Now, the employees of the media-centre here assist me at the Executive Council of Rojava. They speak English tolerably well. It becomes clear that Amudê is functioning temporarily as the administrative centre of Rojava, while the specialised building in Qamishlo is still under construction. Here, the Executive and Judicial Councils are located in a building that looks like a gigantic Rubik’s cube. The banner on the facade and the armed guards at the entrance advertise the special status of this building. In the building under construction on the other side of the street, the offices of some of the committees of the Executive Council are located, as well as the media centre. I see naked walls and sacks with cement on the roof, other building materials and stray rubbish. There is nothing about the structure of the building that would indicate it houses government facilities. On the inside, the room which the employees of the media centre occupy is tiny, the little space they have is cluttered with tables that are drawn close to each other, an empty cupboard on one side and a single, small window. There is an atmosphere akin to an interrogation chamber.
I ask about the details of the political system in Rojava in general and in Jazira in particular. All my “assistants” are younger than 30. Today is the first work day in the media centre for all of them. They don’t understand the local governing system in detail themselves. They discuss things between each other as they try to answer all my questions. A woman called Berivan, who speaks English better than the rest, concludes, “You had better ask the vice chair of the Executive Council of the canton, he can tell you in detail.”
That very vice chair is Dr. Hussein Azam. There are two vice chairs, a man and a woman. There is only one president of the council, who is Kurdish. The vice presidents are Hussein Azam, who is Arab, and a woman who is an Assyrian Christian. In the Judicial Council there are two presidents, a man and a woman; a Kurd and an Assyrian. The functions of the Executive Council of Jazira are administrative. The functions of the Judicial Council should be clear from its name.
There are a lot of young people inside the building of the councils; the employees wear whatever they found in their closets in the morning. The representatives of the older generation are dressed like typical Russian functionaries, boring jackets and trousers of pale colours. The offices are also very similar to provincial Russian bureaucracy: simple chairs and tables, cupboards with binders of documents. Let me remark though, that there are no portraits of leaders, not of Abdullah Öcalan or anyone else, which is the main difference with Russian functionaries and their servility to higher ranks. The signs in the building are in three languages: Kurdish; Arabic and Syriac, the three main languages of the canton.
We talk with Hussein Azam. He is over 50 and an intellectual with a technical education. He explains that they are now in a transitional period in Rojava. The system that was in action during the past two years is only temporary. Next Friday, four days later, there will be elections for the local councils, both in the cities and in the countryside. In one month there will be the elections of the councils at canton level. In two months there will be elections for the parliament of the whole enclave (the parliament does not have a name yet; once formed, the deputies will decide on it themselves). The parliament will consist of 101 delegates, with 40 places for women, 40 for men, and another 21 for whoever gets the most votes, regardless of gender. There must be at least ten Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians, respectively. “Every population group must be represented in the parliament,” says Hussein Azam. Kurds, Assyrians and Arabs are the main self-defined ethnic groups in Rojava. A curious detail is that there cannot be less than 40 female deputies. There can, however, be less than 40 men. Candidates can be members of political parties or not. Just as with the council elections, affinities with political parties or absence thereof count for nothing.
In the evening I go for a walk through the city with Saami, one of my helpers and translators. Amudê is a small city. The buildings are low and there are a lot of old houses. There is a lot less rubbish here than in Qamishlo. On the outskirts of the town there are traditional Kurdish adobe houses with flat roofs. Children run through the streets, old men are sitting businesslike on chairs in front of their houses. At the town entrance coming from Qamishlo, a monument to the “Free Woman” was put up only one day ago in the place where a statue of Hafiz al-Assad (the former president of Syria, father of the current president Bashar al-Assad) had been brought down. The woman has an imposing posture, similar to the American Statue of Liberty; her right hand raised to hold a torch.
A pavilion has been set up in the centre of the small town. Men and women sit on plastic chairs inside and just outside of it. They chatter languidly. It’s a meeting of the candidates for the local council. They gather here in the evenings, so that anyone interested can come and ask them whatever they like, be it about their programme or their personal ideas: electioneering, Rojava style. The council members will be elected for four years. There will be four polling stations in Amudê, which will be located in schools. It’s not clear yet in which ones. The inhabitants of the city will only know where they’ll need to go one or two days before voting.
The 22 people who receive most votes (half men, half women) will make up the city council.
The members of these councils will not participate in either the Executive or the Judicial Councils, but will co-operate with the population of Amudê ,and if the need arises will appeal to the Executive and Judicial Councils at canton level.
It’s night. There are no problems with electricity in Amudê, it’s lit like a Christmas tree. Generators roar around the clock. A litre of fuel (home-made, there are no refineries in the canton) costs 60 Syrian liras [SYP]. The exchange rate with dollars here is 240 liras a dollar. Only 20% of all oil pumps are working, but this is more than enough to meet the needs of the local population. However, the locals complain that the hand-refined fuel causes the generators to break down frequently.
I now understand how the local councils work at on municipality level and in the villages. Following the example of the council in Amudê there will be a council of 22 people, but the council will not hold any executive power here. Its members will elect two chairs, a man and a woman. On the municipal level there will not be a governing administration (if using local terminology “executive administrations”), this role will be fulfilled at canton level by the executive and law-making councils. The current memberships of these councils were composed through agreements reached between the various ethnic and religious communities living in Jazira. In about two months (maybe earlier, maybe later, the exact dates have not been determined yet), elections for the General Council of Jazira Canton will be held. In essence, a similar system has already been created and already functions. It’s important to note that this is a “similar” system and not exactly what is aimed for, and its elements so far are seen as temporary. The elections shall fix and stabilise the multi-layered system of councils in Jazira. The same type of elections will also be organised in the Kobanê and Afrîn cantons.
In the near future, elections will be held. “When was the last time elections happened on the territory of Jazira?”, I ask Elizabeth Gaurie, who is Assyrian and the vice chair of the Executive Council of the canton. “More than four years ago. They were elections for the Syrian parliament,” she answers, “But last summer, when Rojava was still under the control of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, presidential elections were held in Qamishlo and in Hasakeh. That time, 89% of voters allegedly voted for Bashar al-Assad. Of course it was a lie. Bashar al-Assad’s regime caused a lot of grief for the locals. I don’t know who in Qamishlo even participated in those elections.”
The Syrian government and its army are exclusively named as “the regime“ here. Either just “the regime” or “the regime of Bashar”, or “the Syrian regime”.
Still, people hope that the regime will recognise the wish for autonomy of the north of the country, although so far, all attempts at negotiations have failed. “We just want to live freely, according to the laws that we chose ourselves,” the Assyrian Elizabeth Gaurie continues. She smokes a lot. There is a TV on the wall in her office which shows the Christian militia Sutoro. Fighting is shown, there are war songs and marches.
A common myth exists that no one pays taxes in Rojava. Gaurie talks concretely about the Jazira Canton: “We have taxes. For example, a person who wants to buy a car needs a number plate for it. To get it, he pays a certain fee that is a tax. Then, there are taxes for businesses, etc.” In the Kobanê Canton there are most likely no taxes, but the situation there is very specific.
Gaurie speaks in a self-assured manner: “Yes, in Rojava there is a revolution. It is a lengthy revolution that is still ongoing, and it will go on until the ideas of the revolution become part and parcel of everyday thought. We have had to face too many adversities, all of our problems have not been solved. The goal of the revolution is to solve these problems; only if we find a solution will they cease to exist.”
Later I ask my helpers from the media centre for more details about the many levels of the council system. They are the same ones who went with me to meet Hussein Azam and Elizabeth Gaurie and who translated their answers for me. Again, they discuss between themselves before they reply. This gets me thinking: did the supporters of the Bolsheviks in 1917-1919 fully understand the system of power the Bolsheviks were proposing? Could it be that they were on the Bolsheviks’ side because they announced the fight against the type of power that had existed until then and because they came up with catchy, but relevant slogans? It could be that only the older generation of Bolsheviks, those who were steeped in ideology, truly understood how the Council of People’s Commissars was created and on what terms its composition changed. People need higher education to grasp all the necessary information about the new system of power and all the entailing possibilities. After all, even Masud Muhammad, the chair of the Union of Free Journalists, could not answer all my questions about how the network of councils is really structured.