YPJ commander: ‘Women create life, and we can make it free’

June 12, 2023
Sozdar Dêrik
Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) commander Sozdar Dêrik. Photo: ara.cat

The movement in Rojava (north-east Syria) inspired by Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is carrying out a unique experiment in the Middle East. It defends women’s rights, environmentalism, a grassroots cooperative-based economy and has a model of democratic confederalism, above and beyond existing state borders.

It is doing this against two powerful states – Turkey and Syria – and against the fanatics of the Islamic State, whom it fought with the support of the United States. Cristina Mas talked about all this with Sozdar Dêrik (Rojava, 1979), a member of the general command of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), when she visited Barcelona at the invitation of the radical book fair Fira Literal.

* * *

What does the recent election victory of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mean for the Kurdish people?

It is a victory for fascism and will increase the suffering of the people of Bakur [Turkish Kurdistan] and of all Kurds in general. There will be more attacks against the Kurdish people, against the democratic movements, against the media, against everyone who is fighting to change things.

As neighbours of Turkey, it will be our turn, too. Erdoğan wants the occupation of Rojava, but so far has not been able to fulfill his plans. Erdoğan has a fascist, conqueror’s mentality: he talks always about one single language, one flag and one state. He does not accept the existence of other peoples.

In recent months there have been Turkish attacks on Syrian Kurdistan that have generated little media and international reaction. Are the Kurds of Syria becoming more isolated?

All member states of the International Coalition [against Islamic State, led by the United States with the support of 30 countries] know that Turkey is attacking us daily, but no one says anything. From Derik to Afrin drones fly over Kurdish villages 24 hours a day; not a week goes by that we don't have deaths, be they civilians or guerrillas.

We have seen how they bomb villages and when the rescue teams arrive, bomb again. We have a situation of open war along with attacks perpetrated by the Turkish secret services, who put bombs in our people’s cars. And every day, fighters from the Islamic State come across the Turkish border. Erdoğan does not want the Islamic State to get weaker.

The Kurds were key to the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria. What presence do fundamentalists have today?

The anti-terrorist forces of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration, the International Coalition and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) [the party of the Kurds of northern Iraq] continue to fight together against Islamic State. Now they no longer exist as a state, but they have not abandoned violence or their oppressive mentality.

Their sleeper cells continue to attack our internal security forces, as well as civilians working in the autonomous administration. They carry out terror attacks on the population. And that suits Turkey, which wants the peoples of the Middle East to continue living in chaos. Turkey does not want an end to the sleeper cells of jihadists in Kurdish territory.

The Kurds have also taken custody of thousands of jihadist prisoners and their families, many of whom are of European origin and whose states refuse to repatriate them.

In the Al-Hawl camp and others they are the main threat. There are now about 60,000 people, and every day children are born there who will be educated in the ideology of Islamic State. There are more than 2000 European women with their children. Their states should take responsibility for them, to reduce the pressure on us in Rojava.

A few days ago, the Kurdish administration of northern Iraq, which depends on Turkey to sell its oil, closed the border with Syria indefinitely, effectively cutting the only entry point to Rojava for all kinds of vital commodities. This must increase the isolation of the Syrian Kurds.

We have been completely isolated, and this is causing a humanitarian crisis. We are sure that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) [the party of Masoud Barzani, rival of Talabani and Ocalan] has agreed to this closure with Turkey and with Iraq. They want an economic blockade that will force people to leave, but my people have a high degree of consciousness and if we have resisted for 13 years we can continue to do so. The border closure is also a sign that Turkey will attack us soon after the [May 28] elections.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has recently been rehabilitated in the Arab League, despite the hundreds of thousands of deaths he has caused in Syria by drowning in blood a revolution that demanded freedoms.

He was a murderer in the eyes of all the states and now they accept him again. And that also scares us. Now he could think he is stronger. But we keep saying that it is the Syrians who must solve their problems. And that we will always be willing to dialogue with the Syrian regime on the only condition that it respects our autonomy and our rights. We do not want independence from Syria, but nor will we accept everything they impose on us.

Don't you think it is very hard for a regime like the Syrian one, which has chosen to burn the country down to stay in power, and which has always been Arab and centralised, to respect Kurdish autonomy?

That's why we're arguing with them.

How have you experienced the protests in Iran, which adopted the slogan "Woman, life, freedom" of the Kurds of Syria?

Our hearts are with the women of Iran, because their cry is that of the Kurdish people and also that of all women and men who fight for freedom. The role of women in the struggle of the Kurdish people has always been fundamental, and that has been evident to the eyes of the world. Women create life and we are the ones who can make this life free.

Kurdish women have also joined the armed struggle, and this has broken many stereotypes.

The inclusion of women in self-defence tasks has allowed us to get out of the domestic sphere and show our society that we can do any job. There are YPJ forces on all the battle fronts that we have, and women are also present in the internal security forces.

Our most visible presence is in the fight against Daesh [Islamic State], but we also organise ourselves as women within the home, to respond to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. We are not only talking about physical defence, but also about the idea that in self-defence there must be ethics and justice — a revolution in which women can advance in all areas.

Where is democratic confederalism in Rojava today?

This autonomy that we have built for ourselves is a new experience. It is still a very young system and we want to learn from other democracies, such as Catalonia, from their experience in areas such as education, health and the economy. Despite the attacks we suffer, our people are living out a positive experience and we think that the organisation of our autonomous administration can be an example for the world.

We organise ourselves in communes and councils, which start at the neighbourhood level, and then go up to those of towns, cities and regions. And the committees organise health, education, economy and self-defence (and other areas) and many people are involved.

We always have a co-leadership, with a man and a woman, and there must be at least 40% women in administration, although it is often more. In parallel, we have the Women's Congress. And also, the self-defence forces, which are under the control of the administration. Our land is small, but our system is very large!

[Published in the June 5 edition of the Catalan daily Ara. Reproduced with permission. Translation by Dick Nichols]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.