In August 2014 in Yazidi villages in the mountains of Sinjar, the Yazidi, a religious minority, experienced a terrifying drama. Since the earliest times, the Yazidi people have resisted through numerous massacres, but by its dimensions, it was clear that this latest attack aimed to erase the Yazidi people from the Sinjar, their historical homeland.
On June 8 2014, the organization presenting itself as the Islamic State (ISIS) seized the center of Mosul in Irak. On the morning of August 8, the organization attacked Sinjar and committed massacres in the villages and hamlets. During these attacks, more than 2 000 Yazidi were killed and more than 390 thousand displaced. The women were sold on slave markets, 150 thousand Yazidi were trapped inside the security corridors that were opened. 4 of the 7 thousand persons kidnapped by ISIS were saved. But the fate of 3 thousand women and children is still unknown. On the one hand, the Yazidi’s march of exile transformed into a road toward death, and on the other hand, a group of 400 people founded the Sinjar Resistance Units, because the peshmergas who were responsible for the security in the region had left the zone at the beginning of the attack.
An even more serious massacre was prevented by the intervention of Rojava’s military forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), a local force aimed at defence. Food aid was sent to the people blocked in the Sinjar mountains, without food or water. A number of Yazidi were evacuated.
In September 2014, ISIS having suffered losses in facing the People’s protection units (YPG-YPJ) in Sinjar, turned their eyes toward the Kurdish lands in Syria. The civil war that began in Syria in 2011 had intensified. Despite the fact there was an heavy unbalance of forces with ISIS, in terms of numbers as well as weapons, the people took up arms and enlarged the protection units they had established. The women went to the front in order to defend themselves from ISIS but also their children, their neighbours and their living space. (Throughout the war, not only local populations but also thousands of volunteers from 12 different countries would join the YPG-YPJ).
ISIS had subjected the region to a three-pronged attack. Resistance began. Elderly people and children who could not fight were crammed together on the Turkish border. Beginning with Turkey, all the neighbouring countries had closed their borders to people from that region, and applying a policy of geographical isolation, had left them abandoned to their fate.
Despite all this, the resistance shown by the people became a source of interest in other countries. Journalists sent on location photographed women fighters and put them on Western magazine covers. The romantic images of war reflected for world public opinion were far removed from the savage face of war. To such an extent that well-known clothing labels, influenced by this romanticism, lifted the fighters’ costumes onto the fashion podiums.
Let us now photograph this war ourselves, under another angle, starting with the story of Ronak, born in Amouda, a child in a Kurdish family. A mother who lived through the war that began in 2011… A resistant who had to resolve leaving Rojava despite everything.
She is now a political refugee in Switzerland…
“I learned to be a Kurd with these youths, and I have never forgotten”
“I was born in Amouda (governorate of Hassaké), a child in a Kurdish family. My father was a tailor, his working conditions were not good, we moved as a family to Abu Kamal, a small town in the district of Dera Zor, on the Iraki border. Abu Kamal is a town where most of the population is Arab, where only some twenty Kurdish families live.
We spoke Kurdish at home. In any event, we had no way of learning to read and write in Kurdish. This is where I met the Kurdish organization. Youths would come to visit us. They brought us cassettes of music. We watched video cassettes with them, images of the Newroz celebrations. They were all around twenty years old. We were children, they played with us, amused us. I learned to be a Kurd with these youths, and I have never forgotten.
Yet, I was soon to understand what it really meant to be a Kurd when my schooling began. I was the only girl in the family. My mother and my father had schooling and dearly wished that I study and get a good education. When I started school is when I discovered discrimination.
Our schoolmates did not want us among them because we were Kurds. We were separated from one another in the school desks. My school life lasted 12 years and I can say that during each of these years, the only thing my Arab environment, my teachers, made me feel was the fact that I was a Kurd. For them, we, meaning the Kurds, were slaves. We could have been street sweepers, cleaning women or construction workers, what were we doing in school?
I didn’t continue after the 12th grade. Even if my parents dearly wanted me to continue, the conditions at that time did not allow it. We lived in an Arab town, I was the daughter of a Kurdish family and at school, in the street, everywhere, I felt this discrimination. The fact of being a Kurd and a woman was a double reason for oppression. My family didn’t intend to exert pressure on me, but they wanted to protect me from attacks that might come from the outside, and protecting me meant protecting the family at the same time. Because, as you know, in every society, women are the first ones to be attacked. For this reason, we lived locked up inside our homes. The discrimination we experienced, prevalent in the region, was a barrier that kept us from existing both as Kurds and as women.
I made an arranged marriage. I did not yet have the conscience to refuse the marriage, but compared to many other women, I was lucky because I was extended the “possibility of choosing my husband”. I could have said “no”. But I saw my husband, a single time before our marriage, and I appreciated him. Moreover, I though marriage would be an open door to freedom. I thought that if I married, I could go outside the house and walk down the street more easily. I was lucky because my husband was this door opened toward freedom.
My husband Abdulsamed Osso was a 32 year old Kurdish artist. He had a musical group by the name of Koma Tolhildan in Hassaké. He worked on Kurdish culture. He directed documentaries, produced music in Kurdish. Despite the fact I had only seen him once before the wedding, with time, I came to love him very much. I fell in love because he looked out on the world very differently from the other men I saw around me. He was open, and equalitarian above all. His proximity to the Kurdish struggle had made him gain a different perspective from that of other men. He had a fight, he had shaped his life around it, in another way than everyone else.
“The freedom everyone needs hadn’t come by to see us yet”
We had two children during our thirteen years of marriage. I can say we had a good life until the war began in 2010. With the war, our life changed and our fears began. We did not know what to do. In the region where we lived, which is to say in Hassaké, everyone was interwoven. It was very hard to detect who was serving what. We did not know with whom we should act, who we could trust.
We also wanted to change our lives. For years, our language, our colors, our flags, everything that belongs to our culture and made us exist was forbidden. There was already an economic collapse in the country but these conditions had an entirely different meaning for us, Kurds living in Syria. We never received State services with citizenship rights. Doors opened to us only against money payments. To speak clearly, we paid bribes. With money, we could open every door, but if we were poor, if we had no money, the fact of being citizens offered no counterpart. We had to buy each service, the State’s duty, against money. On Syrian lands, there were Kurds who lived without being registered, they were not even citizens. All this had to stop. We had a common denominator with the Arab people: the search for democracy…
We lived in Hassaké, in the Kurdish neighborhood, Til Hacir. Hassaké is a zone where mostly Arab people live. Kurds had gathered in specific neighborhoods. Til lHacir was one of them. The Revolution Movement had begun in the outer towns, but it had not reached us yet. For long years we had been the population most oppressed by those in power. The freedom everyone needs hadn’t come to see us yet. We wanted to take to the streets, but we weren’t sure we would meet on common ground with the Arab population.
A while later, we started going out and supporting actions organized by the Arab population. According to our convictions, our problem was not with the people but with the system. So, this was an opportunity for us. But even in the street organization, we had no right to speak. None of our demands were met. They saw us strictly as manpower. Even in the resistance, we were made to feel our identity. We then decided to organize by ourselves in order to demand our rights. As Kurdish people, our demands were clear and simple. We were going to protest with our own resistance, our own autonomy. A district system could resolve all the problems in the Middle-East. We organized, neighborhood by neighborhood.
With the intensification of the war, we established communes in the areas of culture, health, education, diplomacy and defense. Our daughters and our sons took up arms to protect us. Despite all kinds of shortages, these youths resisted in the face of barbaric attacks. Maybe they called themselves the defense forces of the people of Rojava, but they were brothers and sisters to us, relatives, the neighbors’ children… They were people with whom we lived together, before the war. They protected us both against those in power and against the Islamist organizations. If we are still alive today, and if we were able to maintain our honor, we owe it to their struggle.
Had we not resisted, we would now be prisoners, sold on markets for women, having perhaps become sexual slaves, each and every one of us. We did not accept! It was necessary to do so, and so we fought.
Myself, in 2013, I took my place in the women’s commune of our neighborhood. I handled communications and correspondence. I wanted to do more but my children were small. My husband, Abdulsamed, started in the press. He did reporting for Ronahi TV, with the district administrations recently established and with the local resistance. He shared news about the region, hot spots and developments.
“I am convinced that peace will be the common denominator of humanity some day”
In February 2014, I lost my companion Abdulsamed in a bomb attack. Abdulsamed had gone to the market that day with a friend from Asayish [internal security forces]. Someone who entered the shop where they were looking at music albums and placed a black plastic bag next to Abdulsamed and left. Thinking it had been forgotten, Abdulsamed took the bag and went out to hand it back to its owner. The bomb inside exploded. Abdulsamed lost his life on the spot, his friend was seriously injured.
After my husband’s death, I felt alone. I had friends, I had comrades… Even if they did not leave me by myself, I was alone Would what had happened to him happen to me also?
War generates huge psychological problems on populations. I won’t even talk about the economic destruction. Every day, someone close, a friend dies, close to you and you are left with the weight of that on your conscience. Over time, you start becoming accustomed to death and to die or not to die loses its importance for you.
It’s with all these feelings that I joined the people’s struggle. I did not join the YPJ but I was active in the press linked to Asayish, an urban security structure founded at the initiative of the people. Every day, I saw hundreds of lifeless bodies. The naked face of war pulled me out of the fatalism that had crept up on me, with the recent death of my husband. The fact of seeing the savage face of war, of testifying about the drama to which everyone was subjected transformed a street fight I had joined in order to forget my pain into a disciplined combat. I might die, but that should not happen with my having done nothing. There was the matter of my children’s future, of my next door neighbors and of all the people I love… To stop and wait would have amounted to nothing, and would have changed nothing.
The outside was like a boiling cauldron. We did not know what we would become, even in an hour’s time. My children were becoming afraid. They asked me the same question every time I came home from work: “We lost our father, will we lose our mother too? Will you end up like him?“
Worried that my children would be orphaned, my colleagues did not let me continue longer in the zone. So, I separated from my activities.
When I left our country with my children, our first stopover was Turkey. Then, following consular procedures, we arrived in Switzerland.
Now in Switzerland, we are safe. I started learning the language as soon as I arrived. I now manage to speak German but I think I don’t master it sufficiently for diplomatic matters. I am going to follow a one-year language program. Moroever, I’m pursuing professional training in order to be financially self-sufficient.
My conscience still bothers me. I think I have moral responsibilities and here, I continue the fight for the Kurdish people. I organized my entire life around this moral responsibility dictated by my conscience. I am the spokesperson for the PYD [Democratic Union Party] in Switzerland.
No matter where we may be in the world, we are all responsible for the ongoing wars, on the scale of our silence. For this reason, we must feel a moral responsibility to contribute to world peace.
I am convinced that peace will be the common denominator of humanity some day.”
Ronak’s testimony ends on these words.
Unfortunately, blood has not stop flowing in the Middle-East, a region that has become a shared quarrel for the world since World War One. Because History is not an accumulation of finished events, but a chain of causes and consequences also affecting our present.
I am convinced we have a question to ask ourselves: although the parties to war keep changing, will this one in the Middle-East ever end?
In fact, Ronak answers this question for all of us in her last sentence.
To read the other interviews of Dilek Aykan, click here: • Portraits of women in exile