Kurdish women speak out for freedom

(L to R) Zeynep Korkmaz, Mira Ibrahim and Shelan Khodedah at Parliament House, Canberra. Photo: Ismet Tastan

The Federation of Democratic Kurdish Society (Australia), with the assistance of Amnesty International organised a delegation of three Kurdish women to meet with politicians in the Australian Federal Parliament on June 16 and 17.

Mira Ibrahim, Shelan Khodedah and Zeynep Korkmaz shared personal stories illustrating the struggle for liberation of the Kurdish and Yezidi people.

Green Left’s Peter Boyle spoke with the delegation prior to their visit to Canberra.

In commemoration of the on July 19, their accounts of struggle are printed here.

Mira Ibrahim comes from Afrin, a canton in North and East Syria liberated by Kurdish freedom fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) in 2012 during the Rojava Revolution.

“My village is called Berimja. The population of Afrin is approximately 1.4 million people and we are right on the border with Turkey.

“When the Syrian civil war broke out, Afrin was liberated by the YPG, which later became world-famous for fighting and eventually defeating ISIS.

“By January 2014, a federation of three autonomous cantons was declared, elections were held, and the Constitution of Rojava, now called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), was approved.

“This constitution guaranteed the cultural, religious and political freedom of all people and the equal rights and freedom of women.

“Every official position was shared by a male and female co-chair.

“Women won the right to work and live a safe life, but sadly this ended with the Turkish-backed invasion of Afrin.

“In 2018, the Turkish government allowed ISIS fighters to cross the border into Syria and attack and occupy Afrin.

“My family lost their homes and belongings in the invasion. My father’s house — which he built with his own hands — was bombed. Luckily, he and my grandmother were not at home when the bombing took place.

“Today the people of Afrin are suffering terribly at the hands of the Turkish-supported jihadi groups, who are carrying out ethnic cleansing.

“Before the occupation, Kurds made up 96% of the population in Afrin, now they are only 25%, according to a by the Syrian Human Rights Observatory.

“Most of Afrin’s Kurds fled to other parts of Syria and now face desperate conditions in refugee camps. A few of us were lucky enough to escape to Australia.

“But I have family back in the camps or living under occupation in Afrin. They face arbitrary killings, arrests, abductions, torture and dispossession.

“More than 173 women and girls have been kidnapped and 109 are still missing. Many have suffered torture or sexual violence.

“Afrin’s Kurdish refugees desperately need international aid. Their refugee camps are under attack from the Turkish-backed jihadis and conditions have deteriorated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“International aid is not reaching the refugees in AANES territory because most international agencies will only work through the Assad regime or other hostile states in region.

“We need urgent international support to free our abducted women and political prisoners who face torture.

“We need international support for our calls for Afrin’s liberation and an end to ethnic cleansing.

“The AANES needs international recognition. Kurdish freedom fighters pushed back ISIS terrorists and sacrificed 12,000 lives in this struggle, so I believe the world owes them big time.”

Shelan Khodedah (middle) at a rally outside Parliament House, Canberra on June 18. On her right is Kyinzom Dhongdue from Amnesty International and on her left is Nikita White, also from Amnesty International. Photo: Ismet Tastan

The people of Shengal want freedom and autonomy

Shelan Khodedah is a young Yazidi woman from Shengal (also known as Sinjar) in northern Iraq. When ISIS entered Mosul in 2014, Shelan fled to Turkey with her family.

“I was 16 years old when we arrived in Turkey. About a year and a half later, I started working at a restaurant. I worked 14–16 hours a day in a basement with no natural light. They paid me 20 liras a day — about three Australian dollars.

“In 2016 I came to Australia with my family, thanks to the UN. Now I live in Wagga Wagga, NSW, where I am studying business administration.

“I work with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). I am also a Yazidi community researcher, and a counsellor helping my community overcome past traumas.

“In 2014, ISIS attacked Shengal. Most of my community stayed, because they thought the peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdish militia) would protect them. Instead, the peshmerga abandoned them.

“Some Yazidi fled to safety in the mountains of Shengal.

“Those who did not escape faced horror. ISIS killed men who refused to change their religion and women and children were abducted.

“Many women committed suicide after being kidnapped due to fear of rape. Most women who were captured — including married women and women with children — were raped.

“I have a good friend who was kidnapped by ISIS in 2014. She was pregnant and gave birth in cruel conditions. After she gave birth, she was forced to walk through half-a-metre-deep snow back to the home of her ISIS abductor.

“Five months later, she was sold to another ISIS fighter and transferred to Syria. This man took her child away from her.

“My friend thought her child was murdered, so she tried to run away. But once her abductor found out she was trying to escape, he raped her, making her pregnant.

“She was later raped twice by two different ISIS men, and tried to commit suicide.

“Finally, after many failed attempts, my friend and her child escaped with the help of a Kurdish lawyer. She was sent to the Kurdish freedom fighters who re-united her family.

“This family then endured hardship in refugee camps for many years before getting to Australia in 2019 through the UNHCR.

“My friend sees a trauma counsellor and takes medications, but still suffers from seizures and bouts of crying when she recalls her treatment by ISIS.

“She is a strong woman who tries to overcome her past and do the best for the family’s future. I support her as best as I can.

“A lot of Yazidi women joined the Kurdish freedom fighters after they were freed from ISIS. They attacked ISIS with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and liberated Shengal in 2016.

“Yazidi people in Shengal won their autonomy and set up their own autonomous administration. They recovered a lot of my massacred people’s remains and the slow work of identification of these remains continues.

“Now the Turkish state is attacking Shengal. The Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s peshmerga also want to occupy Shengal.

“But Shengal should be ours, not just the ‘spoils of war’.

“Many community members are stuck in refugee camps across south Kurdistan (northern Iraq), Turkey and in Bulgaria.

“These refugee camps are burning hot during summer and freezing in winter. Access to food, clothes, clean water, medicines and mental health services is very limited. Recently a fire swept through the tents in one of these camps.

“Shengal needs a lot of support: international protection, infrastructure reconstruction, education, integration of survivors into the community, health services, electricity, water and most importantly, peace.

“My grandmother still lives in Shengal. She knows there is risk of future ISIS attacks, but after five years she had enough of living in refugee camps far away from her land. She is unwell and at risk from COVID-19.

“She worries a lot about my mum and her sister; the fear of not seeing them causes her more pain and illness.

“There are thousands of Yazidi women in her situation.

“The Yazidi community in Australia is grateful we can live in peace here, but we need Australian support to get justice for our people.

“We hope the Australian people and their government will support the Yazidi people’s pleas for urgent aid and political autonomy. My people want their freedom and autonomy.

“After ISIS’ genocidal attack in 2014, they do not trust the governments of Iraq, or the KRG, and certainly not Turkey.”

Zeynep Korkmaz at Parliament House, Canberra. Photo: Ismet Tastan

Why so many Kurds have fled Turkey

Zeynep Korkmaz is a 22-year-old university student living in Sydney who identifies as an Australian Kurd.

“I have always wondered: if the sun could talk, what would it say? It has seen momentous events and witnessed the best and worst of humanity.

“I was born in Bakur, Kurdistan (officially part of modern-day Turkey), in the city of Gaziantep.

“My father, my rock, changed my narrative when he fled Turkey. I was only 12 days old. My father’s eyes well up every time he describes how he seized our only chance for a better future.

“He laughs and says ‘this was the only occasion luck has ever been on my side’.

“My father fled Turkey on April 27, 1999. This was not easy. Istanbul police placed him in custody, because he was ‘a threat to the country.’ However, he was released the next day.

“My father travelled to Indonesia. He tried to flee Indonesia three times by boat but each time the sea police turned them around. It was two months before he was finally able to leave Indonesia.

“My father says their boat was very small and he passed out for three days during the journey. The other people on the boat thought he had died so they placed him in the bottom of the boat.

“After a week of this long and dangerous trip they landed on Ashmore Island where they encountered Australian border security police.

“Border police gave the group water, apples and potatoes. My father explains he will never forget the taste of that apple: he felt like the first bite nourished his entire body.

“The next morning the group was faced with armed soldiers who gave all the refugees in the group tags. My father’s was 'TAB25'.

“The soldiers put the group in a helicopter and flew them to a camp. Weeks later he was able to call his family in Turkey.

“After two and a half months, the refugees were taken to Perth. Social workers placed them in houses, and provided food. My father was given a bank account and social security.

“My mother and I came to Australia in 2001 when I was two years old. My father laughs because I called him ‘Uncle’ and not ‘Dad’ because I did not know who he was.

“I grew up in Australia and have a younger brother, born in Sydney.

“My family and I travelled to Turkey in 2018 to see our extended family — especially my grandparents. On our way back to Australia, we were detained at Gaziantep airport.

“Normally, the airport is quiet but that morning it was full of undercover police waiting for my family!

“They pulled us aside as we entered, held us by our arms and dragged us off to a room where we had to unpack all our bags.

“The police separated my parents from my brother and me. They looked through our phones and laptops.

“Out of habit I was sitting with my legs crossed but the police officer looking through my laptop shouted: ‘Do not sit like that!’

“‘Why?’ I replied. ‘I am police,’ he shouted back, ‘this is Turkey, you do not speak to us like that, stand up and look at the wall. You don't deserve to sit down.’

“My brother was scared and told me to be quiet, but I got aggravated and sarcastically replied: ‘Thank you, I was more comfortable standing anyways’.

“The police did not appreciate me talking back, and said to one another, ‘She talks a lot, we will show her’.

“Finally, they released my younger brother but took my father, mother and me into pre-trial detention. At this stage we still did not know why they detained us. Police gave us no information about why we were there and what was going to happen. We stayed five days in detention until the trial.

“On the second day, we were taken to the hospital — ostensibly to do a health check. But this only consisted of me getting a blood test that left my arm bruised.

“As we were exiting the hospital, the police orchestrated a scene. They took footage and sold it to the media. They grabbed our arms and squeezed them hard and pushed us around.

“Some of the police were given Kurdish names and were told to act nice to us in the hope that we would open up to them. But behind our back the police would call these undercover police by their real names.

“On the third day, we were taken for questioning. I was questioned about my social media posts. I had a cover photo of a girl kissing the Kurdish flag, and story highlights of rallies and protests in Sydney, before our visit to Turkey.

“The first question they asked me was: ‘Do you know why you are here?’

“I replied, ‘Yes, because I am Kurdish'. The police officer tried to intimidate me saying: ‘Do you think there is a Turkish-Kurdish problem?’

“I said: ‘Yes, if there was not, I would not be in this position I am in now.’

“He looked shocked and told the typist not to record my reply.

“The next question was about my cover photo. The police officer asked if it was me. I said, ‘No, that does not even look like me one bit.’ He asked why I posted it and I replied: ‘Because I am Kurdish, my bones and blood are Kurdish, if you have a problem please go report it to God because he created me Kurdish.’ This was also omitted from the record.

“On our fifth day, we were placed on trial. My mother was allowed to return back to Australia, however my father and I had an overseas ban and had to go to court three times a week. It was nearly 14 months before we were allowed to return to Australia.

“We were never given back our phones or laptops. It was difficult because everything was so uncertain ... at any time they could have detained us again.

“It was a very difficult time for my mother. Everyone I speak to tells me how much my mother would cry. It breaks my heart to think about it.

“We were put on trial again in the last week of October 2019. We came back to Australia in late 2019, but we are still ‘on probation’ for another five years.

“My family's experience is just one example of the discrimination and human rights abuses that 27 million Kurds living in Turkey continue to face today.

Korkmaz listed the following human rights abuses by the Turkish state:

  • Thousands of Kurds have been massacred since the formation of the Turkish state in 1923 and 2 million have been forced to flee to other countries.
  • The Turkish state has tried to erase our language, culture and identity.
  • There are more than 50,000 political prisoners in Turkey, many of them are Kurds including the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan.
  • Kurdish political parties, and parties with strong Kurdish support have been banned and falsely listed as "terrorist organisations". Currently the government is trying to outlaw the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which is the third largest party in the Turkish parliament.
  • Kurdish MPs and mayors have been removed from elected office and jailed.
  • Lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and trade unionists have been jailed.