by Mark Campbell
It is important to understand from the beginning that the wider Kurdish Movement has always had a strong tradition of internationalism and has attracted non Kurds to their movement long before the Rojava Revolution but it is also true to say that never before have International Volunteers joined with the Kurdish struggle in such numbers.
It is also true to say that the International Volunteers have made a widely reported, significant and evidently meaningful contribution to not just the struggle and defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but also to the development of civil society in North East Syria too, often at huge personal sacrifice.
Following the so called ‘Arab Spring’ – a series of uprisings that began in December 2010 in Tunisia and spread to many countries in the Middle East including Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain – protests began in Syria against the Assad regime. Beginning as social movements against the regime, the conflict quickly became a battlefield for influential powers using proxies to further their regional interests. The Kurds, taking advantage of Assad’s new situation battling Syrian opposition groups, began a revolution in their own areas that Assad had held them under brutal suppression for decades. They began to build a new society in their newly found freedom and self-control.
However, they soon came under the attack of the emerging ISIS, who as evidence has proved, were supported by the Turkish regime in Ankara. The Kurds were an inspiration to the world, not just for their heroism in the face of ISIS but for the new society they were building under a paradigm of women’s equality, radical democracy and ecological progressive policies. They began to attract International Volunteers who were drawn to such a programme.
International Volunteers’ solidarity with the Rojava Revolution
Since the beginning of the Rojava Revolution on 19 July 2012 until today, it is estimated that 49 International Volunteers have fallen and been killed in action, fighting alongside the Kurds. As many as up to one thousand International Volunteers, perhaps more, have travelled to North East Syria to be in solidarity with the Kurdish people’s struggle, firstly in the fight against ISIS and more recently to contribute to the development of civil society that has earned the reputation of being one of the most progressive social societal systems in the world today.
A society which, whilst fighting and decisively defeating ISIS – one of the most evil threats to face the world since the fall of the Nazis in Germany – has formed and been developing a system of radical democracy. One that is based on feminism, progressive ecological policies and radical participatory democracy and which implements the ideas of the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan on Democratic Confederalism.
International Volunteers have travelled from many different parts of the world. Just a scant look at some of the countries of origin of those who have fallen in Rojava gives you an idea of the wide spectrum of countries and regions that these volunteers have traveled from: the UK, USA, Germany, Argentina, Iran, Australia, Slovakia, Armenia, France, Holland, Galicia, Italy, Spain, Lebanon, Turkey, Sweden, Iceland and Brittany, to name but just a few.
There have been sufficient numbers of International Volunteers in Rojava since 2015 to make their presence tangible, visible and felt in Kurdish cities all over North East Syria. If travelling around Rojava, it would be normal, for example, when visiting a hospital or school to meet one or two International Volunteers working there. During the height of the battles against the Islamic State, at any given time, there would be up to 100 International Volunteers on the front lines and hundreds more providing support to civil society behind the front lines.
Many volunteers work in the humanitarian field, addressing the consequences of war and supporting hospitals, infrastructure and water projects, refugees, as well as communal projects growing vegetables and crops for self sufficiency and projects to support women who have been victims of domestic violence or victims of sexual crimes committed by ISIS. Many more support media outlets with their reporting, editing and proofreading skills.
International Volunteers have evidently made a very significant and meaningful contribution to the military, political and humanitarian aspects of the war in North East Syria. Yet, they have strangely received very little global recognition for their selfless contributions.
Chris Scurfield, the father of Kosta Scurfield, who left the Royal Marines and travelled to Rojava to help the Kurds repel ISIS in the early days of 2014 spoke to Medya News of his deep disappointment that his son’s and others’ sacrifices, and the work of all the International Volunteers, has not been held up and appreciated and recognised more by the international community and the general public at large in light of the heroic personal sacrifices they have made.
“It saddens and frustrates me that despite the amazing sacrifice, progressive and positive developments that the International Volunteers have contributed to in Rojava, their work and sacrifice is not appreciated and worse, shameful attempts have been made to ‘criminalise’ their efforts by some scurrilous government departments. I really just don’t understand this!”, he said.
Macer Gifford, one of the early International Volunteers who travelled to fight with the Kurds, spoke fondly of the early days. In the early days, he explained how some of the first volunteers would travel to Rojava via a Facebook page called ‘Lions of Rojava’ run by ‘K’, a woman in Germany.
“I was kind of nervous. I didn’t know if it was genuine but I really wanted to volunteer. But ‘K’ made me feel immediately at ease and was very supportive and helpful. Those early days were a little chaotic and dare I say, unprofessional, but those International Volunteers who came to Rojava from all over the world and did remarkable things. Of course, some people came for the wrong ideological reasons at the start but the People’s Protection Units (YPG) soon were able to quickly identify them and convince them that perhaps it was not for them. We were a broad church of people with a commonly held view and a similar vein of compassion and principles”, explained Gifford.
Macer explained that during the early days, people came for a myriad of reasons but when they witnessed what the Kurds were doing and building in Rojava, it inspired them further. “I remember one man”, he said. “He came from the US and offered to help with infrastructure. I think he was helping with the building and placing of telegraph poles but when he saw the amazing things the Kurdish people were doing, he asked to be transferred to the YPG to defend the extraordinary gains made by the Kurds”, Macer recalled with pride and emotion.
Macer hesitated and choked when he spoke of the ‘Angels’ – as he called them – such as Jack Holmes and Kosta Scurfield who he fought alongside and who would later fall in Rojava: Kosta at the very beginning of the war and Jack at the very end, with the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa. Macer wanted to pay tribute to all of the ‘martyrs’ as he called them, the Kurdish and International Volunteers who fought and died for such a noble cause, as he described it.
Over 12,000 mostly Kurds, but also Arabs, Christians and others have fallen fighting against ISIS since they invaded Sinjar in 2014 and then went on the attack in Kobane and Rojava with Turkish state backed encouragement and support. As warnings are presently being sounded again about the fear of a repeated attack on Rojava, this time directly from Turkish forces and their affiliated jihadist gangs made up of ex-ISIS, al Qaeda and al-Nusra remnants, we shall be looking in greater depth at the contribution made by the International Volunteers over the next few days, in further articles linked to this series.
We will also be looking at the different motivations of some government representatives in departments in some countries that have sought to ‘criminalise’ the contribution of the International Volunteers with legal prosecutions – attempts that have largely failed. It is important to appreciate the hardships volunteers have been subjected to as a result of these criminalisation policies: some have faced imprisonment, loss of jobs, suicide and post traumatic stress disorders. We will also hear from some International Volunteers themselves and from Kurdish people who have valued their contribution to the revolution in Rojava.
There is no doubt that the International Volunteers have made a significant and deeply meaningful contribution and sacrifice, mirroring the meaningful struggle and sacrifice of the Kurdish people themselves.