OPINION

YPG/YPJ fighters killed in Turkish airstrikes, 25 April 2017

30/04/2017 - 08:39 0
Rojava: Martyrs don't die

To live like the fallen will be the revenge of humanity against fascist aggression

Death is of course a major, indeed fundamental, part of war. No revolutionary struggle worthy of the name can be fought, and certainly not won, without a tremendous degree of sacrifice in which humanity’s most precious sons and daughters often live for what only seems like a flash. The young are the ones to not only make revolution, but to carry the burden of often not living to see it made. Their moment in history in terms of years spent on the earth seems even more insignificant than those who live ‘full lives’ of 80 or 90 years. Yet, their often exceptionally brief time on this planet -- because of their ultimate sacrifice -- manifests in deaths that, to echo what Mao Zedong once said, are heavier that Mount Thai in contrast to the reactionaries whose deaths are lighter than feathers. Kurdish culture is one in which mountains have a key significance, so the idea of the Chinese revolutionary conveyed more than half a century ago is one that I’m certain has some degree of relevance for a modern revolutionary struggle half way across the world. It is often said, after all, that Kurds have no friends except these mountains. 

The number of young warriors who are taken from this world at an appallingly young age in conflict is almost impossible to conceive of in the contexts of the relative comfort of western society today. The struggles of the 20th century bare out just how much blood had to be spilled onto the battlefields of Asian, Africa and Latin America in struggles that were principally about national liberation, not to mention the second world war in which up to 27 million Soviets gave their lives to smash fascism. 1.5 million perished in Algeria to boot out the supposedly democratic French state. Millions more died in Indochina to kick out the same initial colonizer, and later the United States. Struggles in Africa against the Portuguese, Spanish, British and French claimed millions more. We know all too well the optimistic and romantic revolutionary sentiments associated with such monumental suffering. Che Guevara once said it didn’t matter if he fell anywhere in the world as long as another comrade came to pick up his gun. It was an idea I was to hear repeated throughout my time in Rojava.

The last thing I really want to do is to romanticize the idea of death. Frankly, it’s extremely difficult to know how to really write about it because the culture of the shehid, or martyr, in Kurdistan seems so far removed from our lifestyles. Images everywhere of those who have given their lives for a cause much bigger than themselves was something I first encountered in Palestine when I visited the West Bank in 2010. At that time, I remember commenting to a friend of mine that the volume of posters that were omnipresent seemed similar to what in our society would be movie posters, or those promoting musical artists or concerts. They lined the streets of cities like Nablus and Jenin, and I could only imagine what growing up not only under occupation, but with images like that all around you, does to a young child psychologically. In Kurdistan, my experience was very similar. If anything, because of the high level of warfare currently taking place, the posters and images were even more apparent. The streets of every city and town were lined with photos of young men and women of the YPG and YPJ, the majority who I’m sure were considerably younger than I am today when they were martyred.

Admittedly, I’m shaking a bit while writing this. I have to confess that I feel at a major loss as to how to speak about death at this moment because even though my visit to Rojava was relatively brief, there was a number of hevals who I met who would soon thereafter fall. Perhaps ‘fall’ isn’t the right word – it is more fitting to say they were killed in the most disgusting and merciless way by the fascist Turkish state. These were comrades who just days ago fell victim to the airstrikes of Turkey in Mount Karachok, not far from the city of Derik in Cizire canton. 22 human beings were taken from us in a flash in the early hours of the morning of April 25 in a what Turkey said was an operation to prevent the PKK from sending logistics into Turkey. The truth is that the comrades who perished were fighters against the largest fascist threat the world has seen in recent memory, Daesh. In addition to bombing Syria, Turkey also carried out attacks in Shengal in Iraq. It’s a fitting portrayal of the role of Turkey to see images of Shengal in the aftermath of these airstrikes – one of the places targeted was the martyrs cemetery where fighters who fell in combat defending the local Yezidi population against the so-called Islamic State are resting. Even in death, they haven’t known peace, as Erdogan’s forces bombed their graves. Daesh would undoubtedly be proud.

The feeling to know that some of the most warm and humble human beings you have ever had the honour to shake hands with, eat and drink with, and spend precious peaceful time getting to know could so quickly thereafter be killed in the most heinous of ways is disturbing, eerie, and provokes feelings of sadess, anger, hopelessness. But not despair, at least not in my case. Of course, the idea that any of the YPG or YPJ fighters could die at any moment was blatant. They all spoke about that possibility, and in some cases, even the eventuality of it taking place. I suppose that once you commit to joining the YPG or YPJ and put on your fatigues, you have also committed to the idea that you may not live to see the conclusion of the war, or the ability for the children of your generation to grow up in a radically different society. It still doesn’t make losing anybody any easier, though. Once you get that news, it eats at your heart, and seems to puncture a part of your soul.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m making this about me – but at this point, I feel like all I can really offer is my subjective analysis and my emotional response. I know that I have the luxury of living outside of the Syrian war zone. I felt a certain sense of guilt for even leaving Rojava, even though the expectation from the beginning was that I would only be there for a short period of time. It’s hard not to feel like my trip there wasn’t anything more than revolutionary tourism – I’ll be trying hard to do all I can to change that through my contributions, but something tells me at least in part those feelings will never really change. I recall the words of an internationalist woman fighter who I had the privilege to get to know, if only very briefly, while in Syria. She conveyed to me a common sentiment among the YPJ and the movement, in general, about commitment and sacrifice. She told me in her characteristic soft spoken manner, ‘I had to come back to Rojava [after going home for a few months] because anything else seems like I’ve committed treason. Even if we don’t live to see the end of this war and the society we want to build, others will, and that makes dying here worth it.’’ Sentiments like that – as well as the monumental level of commitment that internationalist comrades like her have made – reveal in part the psychology of war, but more than that what it means to fight with conviction. It’s the main reason that ‘the Kurds’ in the Syrian context have been the most effective force against Daesh despite for so long having been rather primitively equipped with four-decade old Kalashnikovs and a lack of body armour. The reason why they win on the battlefield is because the battle of ideas has already been won in their minds and hearts. Nothing can stop a force equipped with that degree of willpower.

This morning, I woke up to find out that one of the hevals who was sickeningly murdered by Turkey was a young woman named Heval Destan. I felt heartbroken to realize that I knew her. Destan had left a lasting impression on me when I met her in Derik just last month, along with her siblings. I remember that they all teased me as to why I hadn’t learned Kurdish yet (I tried my best to insist that two weeks in the country wasn’t long enough to pick up the language). She was curious about the revolutionary struggle in the U.S., and through translation we managed to have some fascinating conversations. Her words about the YPJ have stayed with me, and it was these sentences that I remembered upon seeing her face across the internet just hours ago: ‘’There are actually similarities between the YPG and YPJ and Daesh. I mean that in the sense that we both fight without fear. But while Daesh fights because they want to die – to go to paradise – we fight because we have something to live for.’’ It was a moment to be remembered, like so many on a daily basis in Rojava. It wasn’t just what she said, but the manner in which she said it. This wasn’t just propaganda that was spit out by the Party, absorbed by its cadres, and then spit out on an individual level. This was something she truly believed. Even with the language barrier obviously causing some issues in terms of understanding, body language doesn’t lie. Her sincerity in everything she said was beyond dispute.

Heval Destan’s death is a blow to humanity. I mean that not just poetically, or because it sounds romantic, or because I want to exaggerate her significance. Her demise at the hands of Erdogan’s anti-women government was an attack upon the women’s liberation movement globally. The Kurdish struggle is very adamant about their revolution being about more than just the liberation of ‘their’ people, but being the vanguard struggle for the entire planet. It’s an assessment I agree with, and Destan’s words in an interview she conducted a few years ago retain their validity today, even after her murder: ‘’I hope that Kurdish women can inspire women all over the world. We are not only fighting for Kurdish women but for women all over the world.’’

I don’t truly know how to do justice to the legacy of the comrades like Destan and the countless others who have been taken from us prematurely either at the hands of the reactionary Turkish state or the faux-caliphate of Daesh. I’m reminded of something that was said to me on numerous occasions in Rojava about who is and who isn’t a revolutionary. Even those I encountered who have been committed members of the Kurdish revolutionary movement for decades did not regard themselves as revolutionaries. I asked one YPG fighter why they refused to identify themselves this way. ‘’Well, you have to see it this way. The only ones we see as revolutionaries are the shehids. We know that they died revolutionaries. Until one does, there is the chance they will abandon or betray the revolution. But the shehids never committed treason. They stayed true to the end.’’ Heval Destan, as well as the other 21 murdered at Mount Karachok earlier this week, were the truest of revolutionaries. It is a path to aspire to, not only for those living in fighting in Rojava, but for the whole of progressive humanity. To live by the values and ethics of the society that we desire to create will be our revenge in the face of the forces of darkness. 


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