Interview with a internationalist health worker in Northern and Eastern Syria

This interview was originally published in Spanish in the blog Buen Camino 10 May, 2020. It was translated into English and re-published by Women Defend Rojava on 16 May, 2020

Jiyan is a German internationalist who after the Sinjar massacre and the attack on Kobane in 2015 decided to travel to the North of Syria to join the confederalist revolution democracy promoted by the Kurdish liberation movement. She is currently doing healthcare works on the front line. We have spoken with her about the impact of Coronavirus on Rojava, the concept of health in the revolution, the transforming force of the Women’s Movement and the difficulties of building an alternative to the crisis of capitalism in Europe.

Can you put us a little in context? How is the situation here in the front, how does it affect the occupation, at what point is the war?

This is the last front line since the start of the offensive last year. Here for example there is a neighborhood that belongs to the çete [jihadist gangs] and there are still regular attacks, most of the time with heavy, but also light weapons. On a more general level, there is now a lot of movement. There is movement of war planes, there is movement on the other side of the front, we know that Turkish soldiers are building more positions, changing forces, doing their reconnaissance works. Drones flying, the Russians doing patrols with the Turkish soldiers, the Americans also, a big part of this is about collecting information. So we think that after this situation of the Coronavirus we will once again have an escalation in the war. In the same time, IS are reorganising themselves especially in the Deir ez Zor region, attacks and threats are again part of the life there. Also still until today, their sleeper cells are being caught in the cantons of Cizire and Kobane. The war(s) we are facing here have these different parts.

Do you then assume that Turkey will continue to try to occupy new territories?

For Turkey the question is not to attack or not, the question is when to do it. If the conditions are auspicious, then they will. It also depends on the relations between them and their political and military partners. But for sure, if it’s up to Turkey, there will be war again.

How does the pandemic influence in all this?

Well, on the one hand, if we look at the situation in the world, everyone is now focused on corona, you watch the news and it is corona, corona, corona so if now the whole of Rojava (or any other place in the world) burns, unfortunately no one will be interested in it. On the other hand, when electrical or water supply infrastructures are bombed by them, it’s about that right? It’s about affecting people’s morale, making them afraid, putting pressure on their daily life needs, making them angry. I mean, if you think of a city as big as Heseke, a single day without water … Especially in a pandemic situation, during which you have to clean every day everything, on top of your need of drinking water, this is a very clear ongoing war strategy against the people of North and East Syria

Haseke water system damaged by Turkish attack

In general, what has been the response in Rojava to the threat of a pandemic outbreak?

When this situation with the Covid-19 started, the reaction was: we are going to stop everything, all military structures have to stop their “active” tasks, because first of all we are all confronted with the threat of this virus, which today is an “enemy” and it is not very clear how is it. So for safety and protection, we stop and try to make everyone aware of how important it is to follow self-protection procedures. For example, in our region, we went to all units and explained the situation, the threat, how to protect, the protocol if there would be some people with symptoms, etc. Then its about organising medical equipment and giving also information for DIY cleaning-material and for protection. There is still the embargo, we don’t have so much sources, even just getting face-masks and gloves for everybody was/is impossible.

What we also experienced was, that it is about convincing a high socialising society to act totally unsocial. (No hand-shaking, hugs, kisses… distance, no meetings or visiting, a different way of eating and drinking) Explaining the importance to implement all this was quite difficult. Because when you look at the Intensive Care Units here, the places available … We have 40 respirators, this means we can only handle 40 serious cases that need assisted breathing, means that the rest will not have adequate treatment until the respirator is free, which is probably because that person has died… So there are very concrete reasons for these protection protocols and the lockdown.

Are the measures then as in Europe?

Well here there is also confinement and the only open establishments are those that sell things that people need, like food stores, pharmacies, stores with supplies needed to work the land… We also have security forces ensuring that the people follow up the confinement, so when you look at it a little classical, everything has the same shape, of course, but on the other hand you have different structures within society. Water and electricity is free and food and basic things are being provided through the Communes to people, which I think is a difference from Europe, because this is implemented in the system here, in the idea of society and health. There is a structure, that is the basic of the life here and there are people who take this responsibility, it is not that some people decide to be a good person and therefore use their money to support other people, which is in the capitalistic system a good decision, but it is different if the basis of the system is to support each other through communes. So not depending on a state, but on the responsibility everybody takes for each other. In Europe you have the states failing on this crisis. You need money to solve what the society should have as a basic level of living together. Healthcare, sociability, responsibility, etc..

When the administration started announcing measures, we got the feeling that perhaps the people didn’t take it very seriously…

This is a country that has been at war for a long time, people have seen a lot of misery, a lot of death, has had a lot of losses. Now you have to face an enemy that you don’t see, you don’t see how it spreads, you don’t see what happens or how people get sick… so you think “Okay, if even the things we need don’t get in, how is the virus going to get in?” People will sometimes look too easy-going, because they have already seen too much. But it’s okay to check that after some cases have been confirmed, people take it more seriously and it seems more willing to follow the necessary procedures.

Earlier you named the health issue. What is the perspective of the health revolution? Because in Europe, what we are seeing with the current situation, is that being healthy means mainly…

Function. Being able to function.

That’s it.

The idea is to create a society based on the values of democracy, ecology and women’s liberation. Then, when it comes to that, the question is, where does health start? Maybe it starts at a different point than we take for granted. We need this world and nature. We need it to live, but nature does not need us. This is something that is being seen now, isn’t it? The air is cleaned, the sea is cleaned, there is movement, the animals “go wild”, as if they were happy, they appear everywhere [laughs].

And this is the problem, right? This world does not need us, and what we need we are not able to see and we are not able to appreciate. We do not appreciate life and nature. And looking at nature just as something that should provide us with the things we want is the first step to start a very unhealthy relationship with the world, a very pragmatic relationship with the world, with life in general, on which everything else is built. So how do you treat nature, how are people treated, how our interior is treated, that is where the health debate is. The way we learn to live this life, how to think, how to feel, what to do, who to be, this is all connected to a healthy heart, feelings, soul, mind and life.

When we look at Europe, at those states we call highly “industrialized”, there are such a high number of cases of depression and so called “diseases of modernity” (Diabetes, etc.) … people look for meaning in life, they are searching, trying to reach the goal of a mainstream image of the happy, beautiful, functional individual, attractive, an image that in fact is just the image. An example of what health is not. So start for connecting all this to social reality, to the reality of the human being in connection with nature, with yourself as human being who is a vivid and needed part of humanity and society, taking steps in this direction is the basis on which to carry out healthcare. We are all responsible for our own health and everybody around us and the world we are living in. To understand this, seeing the bigger picture and deeper connection, coming down on the same level, can just mean to make decisions about what we use, what we build, what we do, according to that knowledge. So, when we talk about energy/resources, we are not just thinking about what we need, but how everybody can use it in a way that we don’t harm nature and life and without finishing the resource itself. When we talk about medicine, then we start there, where pharmaceutical medicine is not the solution. Its about everything before Pharma-Medicine, our way of living, but also using research to find solutions according to serious sicknesses or the need for a serious surgery. It should not be about the money or using pharma-medicine as a source to get money. Its about sharing and caring for each other, where decisions are connected to the bigger picture.

When you talk to people here about what they think Rojava’s future is, always they answer the same thing: “It is not clear, nobody knows it”. Now with the pandemic, it seems that this the same experience is lived in Europe, there is a lot of uncertainty, there is the perception that nobody knows what will happen. For a moment the “normality” of millions of people has been disrupted. Looking at it from here, what do you think can get out of all this?

Yes, there are some people who say that this pandemic situation is somewhat positive, because people are confronted with the reality of the state, but this is underestimating the power of normality. I don’t think that the people’s approach is so much “how evil the state is”, but rather “at least we keep this or that, and now we can again do this thing or the another.” Because at this point, what alternative is there? People over and over again will rely on what already exists, because there is not a new loving and creating society emerging, and the old structures and old ideas, you may like more or less, but you know what they give you, in some way they “carry” you, they give you some security. And this for me is the main challenge of new proposals, also of democratic confederalism.

Giving an alternative is on the one hand something very practical, be able to provide or create alternatives for food and basic needs, where the people are directly involved, also ideas that people can identify with, that make them understand their need and responsibility for each other, that can push them to make steps. It is about giving an answer to the urgent needs, but also to be a source of ideas, disseminate analyses that explain how this situation has been reached, bringing people to a common point. This common point also means that you will have to build trust again, that people will have to trust, even in that and those who we were taught not to trust. Trusting also again in hope and creating it while giving it. This may be the most difficult topic, because you can always say, okay, this is useless, and these groups, this organization, they do it all wrong, and no change is possible. There is too much negative thought on everything, too much prejudice and expectation. Its through a logic, that have to “know”, the safety net of the “it has always been this way” “the human being is like that” “you have to be 100% logical sure before you make any decision”…etc . Because you have to, in capitalism, if you don’t want to lose everything which the state can take from you.

Rojava is in the midst of an economic and humanitarian crisis, a war, occupation, and now the threat of a pandemic, and still resistance continues. Is challenged constantly to defeat. Does this not contrast with the left in Europe, with the impossibility to believe that we can win and not be defeated?

Well, to be honest, you have to see that there is fear of being defeated, but also to see that many have already defeated themselves, in their perspectives, in their alternatives, becoming very subcultural, very liberal, with little honesty, already defeated in their mentality… No hope, no dreams, no strength to connect… or too much abstract thoughts, far away from the reality of society, emotions, needs and any people. You have to see that we are all somehow defeated at different points, and to understand this means to say: “Okay, so further steps are needed. “

I think it has to do especially with questioning our methods. There is no questioning where we come from and why we are the way we are, and when you don’t question this, you can only repeat what you have been raised in, what you have grown up in. There are people who think they are the romantic revolutionaries, they see for example in the guerilla or other fighting groups, in revolutionaries fighting, people saluting you and you giving everything to death. Well, there are a lot of people doing this, for a lot of different reasons, they also go to the end, but what do they represent in your daily life? The values that – with a good heart- many comrades represent, also in difficult situations, they are after all those of a patriarchal mindset, a violent mindset, sometimes even a fascist mindset. Why? Not because they are bad people, but because they are not reflecting, they are not analyzing. They learned to be ignorant. In this way you will just acting, making decisions, according to this mindset. The solutions you see, the problems you see, everything in the frame of this mindsets. The result of your struggle? Fighting until you are dead, burned out or leaving the struggle to find a place somewhere in the existing system. And that’s not how it works if you want a different world and you want a different system, it won’t work.

If we think about the revolution here, I think that one point to keep in mind is obviously that there is a very, very concrete enemy that also threatens us in a very concrete way, so the things work because you have a practical need to defend yourself. But another point works because of the existence of a strong organized women’s movement. Because in all the steps and in all the layers of society there are women taking responsibility, introducing the appropriate analyses and putting tools in people’s hands. Why is it like that? Why is it important? Because one of the analyses here is that the basis of “civilization” and modern society is a patriarchal, state-based, oppressive mindset which in practice means that women’s existence is not seriously taken into account. A society with this reality is unhealthy, unequal, abusive, violent, exploitative… And to start where the oppression begins, is the main key of social changes and rebuilding the values of a holistic world and life and society.

In what sense?

Sometimes people think of revolution as a BANG!, after which everything is different. But it has more to do with little things. I think of 40 years ago, when the first woman in the guerrilla enters the house of a family, and there is that girl, and there is also that boy, who look at her and think “Wow, I’ve never seen a woman like this! A woman who does those things!”. And this creates an impression in these girls, who a lot of them 20 years later participating in the struggle because they had other role models to follow, other explanations for the reasons of the problems they saw/ felt, they saw other paths are possible, and they decided to take them, instead of being caught by family pressure… And those are steps that people don’t see. They say “Oh, look at that YPJ or that YPG with the weapons!”, but each of them had to fight a huge, long and often painful struggle to that point, especially women, and the main fight is not just to have that weapon, but to go on with this way, this decision, following the hope for another reality, while the people you know, the family you were born in, the friends you were respected by don’t support you anymore, because their traditions and boundaries are not on the basis of freedom for a whole society, but only to make you caught in defending and surviving for just the small “clan”.

Everybody who gave you identity, gave you a home, a safe space under their rules, feudal/ patriarchal/ capitalistic/ fascist/whatever violent rules, may attack you. Going out of these poisonous connections, is the hardest step for a lot of people. Questioning yourself in this and what you are fighting for, believing in, hoping for, what kind of presence and future we need, the guarantee that you are not just following a destructive “destroy everything” mindset. Specially the moment, to understand, that again it is all these people you are fighting for. Because it’s about society and you, connected. After a lot of struggle for this, in between, you go on when your friends are dying, when your society is continuously under embargo, under pressure, when things like Afrin happen, or now Serekaniye. Change is happening through these steps, there are so many heavy stories here, in every family, with every comrade. The steps from everybody until today, led to the revolution and all the changes inside of the society and system/structure. So it’s not a BANG, it’s an every day ongoing struggle where you have to be clear which values you are representing. That’s revolutionary. Living the hope, the changes, the values, that you want to create, for a loving, democratic, ecological society, with free women. And deciding to defend all these values under any circumstances. And to defend something, there is love needed, values, support, creation, responsibility, a wide heart and mindset. With all this, as a basic and general approach, when we then have to fight armed, like here, the very practical defense against a threat like IS, the Turkish state, or any fascist state, it will be a revolutionary fight. Where the armed fight is a step and not the aim.