Sunday March 29th. We return from the Hart Boven Hard-parade, all rain-soaked, and meet with Mustafa Abdi, the co-mayor of Kobane, to discuss the current situation in Kobane following the victory over the terrorist gangs of Daesh. Mustafa is a Kurd with a Syrian passport and was allowed to leave the country to attend a meeting of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Together with Rogin Dogan, Mustafa forms the mayoral team in charge of the reconstruction of the heavily damaged city.
How does the model of self-government currently function on the Kobane city level?
I have been elected as co-mayor and I cannot sign any document without the agreement of my female colleague. In this way, we share all of the power at the top and guarantee the presence of female authority. Kobane has 13 districts and each of these has elected a council with 31 members. They are elected on the basis of affinities of various types, which may be political but may also be based on involvement. Every district council elects an executive committee consisting of 5 persons. Representatives of the districts form the city council. The elected members of the district councils have elected Rogin Dogan and me as mayors. Like all other elected functionaries, I can be recalled at any time and am not allowed to execute more than two consecutive identical mandates.
Does this system pose any problems?
We have had very positive experiences from the beginning of 2012 until the summer of 2014, when Daesh attacked the Canton and pulled all stops to try and conquer Kobane. In the period before the start of that war, the system was beginning to become functional. We had form five topical committees on the city level: electricity and energy, water supply, food supply, administration and democratic operation, security. We work according to the principles of the Social Charter of Rojava. Most of the inhabitants of Kobane were Kurdish, apart from a small minority of Arabs and Armenians. In other cantons, such as Cezire, the population is much more mixed, including at least a third Chaldean and Assyrian Christians and small numbers of Yazidis and Arabs. Our main problem was the uncertainty of the citizens: we live in Syria and therefore we cannot function in ways contrary to the Syrian constitution. We patiently explained that the moment had come to change things. Under the Assad regime there was very little space for cultural and administrative autonomy. We explained that our charter is not intended to separate our lands or make them independent. The Rojava model incorporates “soft borders” and proposes to transcend the system of states which has made self-government impossible and reduced democracy to a mere facade. One of the difficulties is that people need to learn to elect representatives on the basis of an agreement with the content of their position rather than on the basis of tribal adherence, which remains a strong custom. People are quick to ask: ‘But why did a person from that specific family get elected and none from my family?’ Changing this attitude will take some time…
What was your economic situation? Was Kobane depending on the Syrian regime for everything?
That is right, we were a wheat provider, but we were not able to survive independently at all. Our water supply depended on our Arab neighbours and so did our electricity and fuel supply. Fortunately, in the short period between 2012 and 2014 we did take precautionary measures. We constructed our own water supply through a system of wells and collectors. We stocked up on diesel fuel and obtained our own small scale refinery system, big enough to keep the diesel generators functioning so that we had two hours or more of electricity every day in addition to a permanently supplied hospital and other crucial services. Our region is one of the wheat suppliers of the Middle East, which meant we had large wheat stocks too, but we didn’t have a mill. We ended up importing one in parts, using our own supply lines. By now we have three wheat mills ready to function.
How did you manage to defeat Daesh?
Before the civil war, the city counted some 34,000 inhabitants. Because of the Syrian internal conflict, this number had risen to 120,000. When it became clear that Daesh was hell-bent to take Kobane at any cost, almost everyone left again. They attacked us with 8,000 terrorists wielding very advanced weaponry which they obtained when the 2nd Iraqi army (80,000 troops) in Mosul fled from this fascist gang of terrorists. During the first months of self-government, we had started training self-defence units: every family had to send one person to take the training which lasted several weeks. The YPG and YPJ militiasi were ready and prepared too. We were able to call on the knowledge and experience of HPGii and PKKiii militants – men and women who had gained many years of battle experience in the mountains of Northern Kurdistan (Turkey) before the ceasefire with the Turkish government. Daesh attacked with heavy weaponry used by experienced fighters, jihadists who had already sown terror in other countries and were used to military confrontations. Our own troops were definitely insufficiently armed and equipped: they only had AK47’s and some heavier machine guns. On the other hand, they were very familiar with the territory. They managed to resist even while they were outnumbered 8 to 1. We lost close to 450 lives, though, and at the low point we controlled only 20% of the town. The US did drop some bombs, following the indications of some of their informers, but at no point did we receive any weapons or ammunition from the coalition. Fortunately, we managed to keep our own logistical supply lines functioning – albeit at the cost of another few lives… Remember also that Turkey kept its border hermetically sealed and didn’t let anything or anybody pass. To reach Kobane, you had to either cross a mine field or sneak through Daesh-controlled territory…
Daesh used horrendous acts of cruelty as a means of propaganda, of spreading fear and loathing and getting everybody to run before them. The fact that in Kobane women fought along in the front lines and contributed to the perseverance of our resistance has really weakened their morale. They steadily employed more Western jihadists as suicide bombers. We managed to take out most of these VBIED’siv trying to ram our positions before they could do much damage. Eventually, by the end of January, Daesh cleared off.
What is the situation in the city today?
The city is completely ruined. There are booby traps everywhere. Close to20 people have lost their lives clearing the rubble. Barely 10% of the buildings are accessible. At least 800 corpses are still lying under the rubble and the stench is unbearable. We want to clean the city to prevent disease and are requesting international assistance. We have buried the bodies we discovered and preserved any information that could facilitate their identification. The dead deserve to be treated with respect, even if they were our enemies by life. Western jihadists are confused souls that lost their way and ended up working for the wrong cause. Many among them needed to be constantly drugged to keep up what they were doing.
When will the reconstruction start?
According to the report by the city council of Amed (also known as Dyarbakir, in Turkey), Kobane needs to be designated an ‘international disaster zone’. The border crossing at Mursitpinar should be opened to allow material and humanitarian support goods to be transported, but even now the border remains closed! We will probably leave part of the city as it is, as a reminder of the heroic struggle which cost the lives of hundreds of combative young men and women. We will first reconstruct the collective infrastructure – schools and health clinics – so that returnees can work on rebuilding their own homes and stay alive in the meantime. We know that many have fled, some of them a long way into Iraq even, but we are counting on their return. Within a year, everything must be ready to make Kobane a city with tens of thousands of inhabitants again. That is the task I want to carry out together with my female colleague Rogin Dogan, who is an architect.
What do you expect from us here in Europe?
We welcome all solidarity. Medication, books, money, but also knowledge and expertise. Rojava should not suffer an embargo! We hope that people in Europe will also recognise our experiment in self-government and dare to support it. We are not looking for an independent Kurdistan but are striving to distribute as much power as possible among the population itself. Self-rule for all inhabitants, regardless of their religion, their ethnic and cultural background, and with equality for men and women. That is the only way to stop the explosive situation in the Middle East from sinking into the dark night of barbarity and oppression with all its suffering and misery. Fascism is knocking on our door, but neither dictatorial regimes nor feudal oppression offer an alternative. Peace requires equality among all people.
The solidarity committee “Rojava Project” supports the initiative to build a school in Kobane and a health clinic in Cezire. Our objective is to collect 30,000 euro by the end of summer. Everyone can contribute! Contributions can be made by deposit or transfer to the account of vzw Comité School voor Kobane-Shengal BE09 3631 4536 5957
[Translation to English by Bart Peeters-Akkermans, all pictures of Kobane by Jonathan Raa, all other pictures by Gérard Dubois]
i People’s Protection Units / Women’s Protection Units
ii Kurdish Defence Force
iii Kurdistan Workers’ Party
ivVehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices