Afrin, Efrin, Rojava, Syria, Kurdistan, Amaad Yousef, economic, economy, cooperatives

Efrîn Economy Minister Yousef: Rojava challenging norms of class, gender and power

This report was originally published in English on Dicle News on 22nd December, 2014. It is translated from the original in Turkish on Özgür Gündem.

EFRÎN (DİHA) The following interview was conducted with Dr. Amaad Yousef, the Minister of Economy for the Efrîn Canton in Rojava by Sedat Yılmaz and appeared in Özgür Gündem. Yılmaz spoke with Dr. Yousef as he took part in a conference organized by the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) in the city of Van last month. The subject of the conference was the ‘Democratic Economy.’ The interview has been translated into English below.

-Let’s speak a little about before the revolution. What was the status of the Kurds? What things did they have?

Geographically Rojava covers an area of 18,300 square kilometers. It is divided into three cantons. However, Rojava can support a population two or three times larger than are living there. 60% of Syria’s poor were Kurds. Because they did not allow factories to be open, or development or any form of enrichment in the region of Rojava. For example, in Efrîn there were close to 200 olive processing plants. Outside of this there was not even the smallest workshop. Rich Kurds lived in Damascus and Aleppo and had close relations to the regime. The regime took land in certain regions using Arabs it settled under its Arab belt policy. This policy was implemented particularly in Cizîrê.

-As for Efrîn…

The regime’s policy was something like, “Let the people have difficulties making a living, sell their goods and property, and migrate. Them let Arabs come and settle in the area.” Owing to the embargo in place on the region, the people moved toward Damascus and Aleppo. For example, there was a place in Damascus called ‘Zorava.’ As is understood from the name, the Kurds built up this area with their own labour. It was a neighborhood under the administration of the city center and a poor area. Before the revolution, the Kurdish population in Aleppo had reached one million. Almost all of them lived in Şex Meqsut and Eşrefi. If this policy had continued for 10 more years, the Kurds would have lost all connection with their own geography.

-What did the Kurds living in Aleppo and Damascus do for work?

They were working in restaurants, factories, construction, that is to say jobs no one else wanted to do. Difficult and dangerous jobs…All the ‘dirty’ issues Arabs did not do. 90% were living in poverty.

-Was this a systemic policy?

The regime passed a law in 2008 in order to force Kurds to migrate. With this law it was made very difficult for Kurds to own property. At the same time, it made it much easier for Arabs to buy this property.

-Were there schools and hospitals?

There were elementary and middle schools in every village in Efrîn. These schools were built for assimilation. You would not find a single high school or professional school and they were forbidden. Kurdish language education was forbidden. Roads were developed a little for security. In Kobanê there was a hospital and in Cizîre in the city of Qamişo there was a state hospital but it was not an advanced hospital. Seriously ill patients were transferred to either Aleppo or Damascus. A patient in Efrîn could not be treated in Efrîn. There was nothing to meet the needs of life. For example, if you were going to buy clothing for a wedding, you would go to Damascus or Aleppo.

-If you would talk about what few things there were?

The one thing thing that developed was loansharking. In Efrîn’s Reco district you would know which house belonged to whom. You could look at a house and say that’s the house of a usurer. There was an Arab tribe called the Boben. The main job of this tribe was usury and loansharking. They rendered the Kurds homeless and propertyless. In exchange for the interest they were taking their property and forcing them to migrate. The thing that upset us the most before 2011 was the collapse of morals and conscience. That life was very difficult for us…

-What is the situation as regards infrastructure?

There were no elections within the municipal system in Syria. The Baath party would be nominated and chosen as a formality. Those above who wanted to be nominated would distribute money and be selected.

-Would you explain a little about the first days of the revolution?

The process called the Arab Spring lasted 28 days in Tunisia. In Egypt the resistance continued for 18 days. In Libya much blood was spilt and Gaddafi went. In Yemen a lot of blood was spilt. As for us, we counted on a 3, 5 or 10 month period. We were wrong on this subject, however all our other calculations were right. If we had taken the same side as the opposition in Syria, not much would have changed, because the approach of the opposition to the Kurds was no different than that of the regime.

-How was the attitude of the regime those [first] days?

The Arabs were saying, “We are waiting for you. Rebel, we are ready, let’s overthrow the regime.” We said, “No, we are 15% of Syria and you are 85% of Syria. Let 50% of you rise up and 100% of us will rise up.” They turned out to be liars. If we had done it like they wanted us to, the regime would have said, “These ones want to break up Syria,” and they would have organized all of the Arabs against us. And the Kurds in Rojava would have been facing genocide. We realized the situation. We said that we were going to implement our model on a democratic foundation and without bloodshed, and that our door was open to those who wanted to join us.

-What was the first task you undertook?

With the beginning of the revolution, over the first year, we founded a newspaper and TV channel. We formed a people’s assembly. We threw out the regime elements among us. We threw out organizations and people connected to the regime but we did not do harm to any place. It was even forbidden to break open a cash box. Before the revolution, 450 thousand people were living in Efrîn. After the revolution the population exceeded 1 million. Close to 200 thousand Arabs came and settled here.

-What was your first task in terms of the economy?

When Efrîn was secure, peaceful development of commerce picked up pace. Buildings were constructed, workshops were opened. In order to put a system into place, an Economic Development Center was founded in the central district of Derik. Branches dealing with things like commerce, agriculture, crafts, architecture that were connected to this center were opened in Qamişlo, Kobanê and Efrîn. Ministries were opened in the cantons. Following this Craft and Commerce associations were founded.

-What exists now in terms of factories, workshops, etc?

Right now in Efrîn there are 50 soap factories, 20 olive oil factories, 250 olive processing plants, 70 factories making construction material, 400 textile workshops, 8 shoe factories, 5 factories producing nylon, 15 factories processing marble. 2 mills and 2 hotels have been built. We are the first and only place producing soap in Syria. We are working on developing commerce around dairy products, fruit and other foodstuffs. We are doing all of this in the villages so that the people return to their villages. Once more a dam was built to provide drinking water. We created a ‘made in Efrîn’ brand. We forbid the founding of any more olive factories from an environmental perspective. We also forbid workshops melting lead to protect human health.

-What is the situation regarding personal rights and organization?

Various civil rights organizations have been founded. Engineers, agriculturalists and farmers have formed their own unions. Trade unions have been set up. For the first time in Efrîn, 6 institutes in the areas of health, commerce, agriculture, sports and theater and music have been founded.

-Jobs, employment…

Before the revolution there was no other work outside of a couple craft jobs. Now in Efrîn there is no unemployment, with a population of over 1 million. Everyone who wants can have a job…

-Has there been any return of Kurds who went to Damascus and Aleppo as workers?

Yes – tailors, waiters, construction workers, doctors, teachers, all kinds of people have come back and now they are providing services to their own people. Certain people migrated to Europe, but a significant proportion of qualified workers returned. The quality has increased. The return of the Kurds who were doing the ‘dirtiest’ and most difficult jobs turned out to be fantastic.

-What is the currency and how is it circulating?

We are continuing with Syrian money. Interest is forbidden and no can charge it. Those who do are put on trial and face consequences. There are state banks leftover from the regime, but they are not working. We have work around banks and there are banks in every canton, however, in villages, village banks will be opened. Right now people are saving by putting money under their pillows.

-And things like taxes, customs and imports…

We are looking into the tax system from the Autonomous Basque Region. Taxes are collected and these taxes are distributed to the ministries depending on the need. There is transparency around these questions. The citizens know where the taxes they pay are being spent. However, we cannot say that this system is entirely in place yet.

-How do you provide for your energy needs?

All of our electricity is coming from the Free Syrian Army and therefore we cannot control it very much. There are generators all over the canton and in every village. They provide at least 12 hours of electricity [per day]. We have started a project to harness wind energy. Formerly, water was brought in with tankers. Thanks to a popular cooperative that was founded together with the municipality, a dam was built that meets water needs.

-How do you determine your pricing policies?

Efrîn experienced a ‘siege’ last winter. These circumstances made it a little difficult for us. A sack of flour went from 3,000 to 6,500 (Syrian pounds). The canton management took a decision and announced that any sack of flour sold for more than 4,100 (Syrian pounds) would be confiscated. After this we formed a committee and determined that the wheat produced in Efrîn would be sufficient for ourselves. We immediately began working two mills and stopped the export of flour. In this way, the price of flour was brought back down to 3,500 (Syrian pounds). At the same time, we are putting together import routes for commerce, feedstock and medical goods.

-How do you provide for healthcare and education?

A hospital belonging to the canton was built. There are also private hospitals. Right now there, on average, close to a thousand people receive treatment every day. There are even people coming from Aleppo. We are working so that in the coming period we will make up for technical and medical deficiencies so that we we can do major surgeries such as heart surgery. No fee is taken from the poor in exchange for medical services. The fees taken from those who have the means completely cover the costs of the hospital. The salary system has not been entirely settled upon. However, certain fees are also provided by the canton. Schools have been opened in all villages. Right now we have preparations to open a university.

-The Turkish government and some other circles are claiming that “Rojava is under PYD oppression.” What do you say to such claims?

Those who say this are caught up in political horse trading. Those who are going on about this have political interests in this system not working. I am the Economic and Commerce Minister for the canton but I am not a member of the PYD. We have our Arab friends. We have friends working with us from different peoples and social organizations. We are opening the way for commerce.

-There are also some in the same circles who are describing the system as ‘North Korea.’ Is capital or private property forbidden or under threat?

Private capital is not forbidden, but it is made to suite our ideas and system. We are developing a system around cooperatives and communes. However this does not prove that we are against private capital. They will complete each other. We believe that when the cooperative system is developed, moral private capital can be added in certain parts of the economy. The society of Rojava will be made better in this way and taken away from the liberal system. In the liberal system, the big fish swallows the small fish and there is no morality. In our canton, a Commerce and Industry Organization was founded and has 7,000 members. Here there is only one thing that is forbidden and that is finance capital.

-It is said that the regime pays the salaries of your workers. Is that true?

This is not true. None of our projects are financed by the regime. Right now in the whole of Syria there are former state employees who are going and applying to the regime saying, “I am on duty and doing my job,” and take their salary. It makes no difference whether or not they are doing their job, they say this. It is like this in areas under the control of the Free Syrian Army, and it is also like this in areas under the control of other powers. Everyone taking a salary from the regime is doing this all over Syria.

-Right now what is the cheapest and most expensive thing in the canton?

Everything produced in Efrîn is cheap. Because it is a safe area rent is expensive, however we have begun preparations on construction cooperatives and we will ensure the right to housing for all.

-You have explained that you are instituting ‘democratic modernity’ together with ‘capitalist modernity.’ Are any contradictions emerging?

In order to build the system of a democratic nation a little time is needed. We cannot do everything in a day. In order to set up this system we are moving forward day by day. We will work until we succeed and we will always do so with regard to a moral compass. We will protect the rights of the poor and powerless and cooperatives and communities against the rich.

-Where are women in this system you have described?

I can comfortably say that women are the heart of this system. It functions with a 40% quota system. Women have had a role in the economic sphere since the beginning. In fact, women have had a great role in every aspect of the revolutionary process and the construction of this system.

-Is there anything you would like to add?

I can say this to the people of North Kurdistan: Rojava is a breathing tube for the north. And the north is a breathing tube for Rojava. We must work together along this principle and show these developments. We must spend effort together in order to build the democratic nation system.

-What do you need the most? Do you have any call to the Turkish government?

We need the Turkish government to open the border gate.