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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.

rojava ezidi yezidi

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?

Abdulsamed ve Roynak

Abdul­samed Osso and Ronak

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.

AbdulsamedAfter 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

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges 
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Dilek Aykan
Gazete­ci, siyasetçi, insan hak­ları savunucusu. Jour­nal­iste, femme poli­tique, défenseure des droits humain. Jour­nal­ist, polit­i­cal woman, defendor of human rights.