Oh, is it that time of the year again?- I wondered when I saw an initiative to call on the YPG and YPJ to stop ‘recruiting and abducting’ children to join their ranks. It’s usually that time of the year when tensions run extra high between Turkey on one side and the Kurdish armed forces on the other: a joint effort is made to accuse the YPG and SDF, without evidence and without any sign of insight into the position of young Kurds anywhere in the countries where they live. It smells.
The Kurdish armed forces, not only the YPG but the PKK as well, and the multi-ethnic SDF have been dedicated to respect the Geneva Conventions in their warfare, also when it comes to the recruitment of underaged members. Stating that they abduct people to join their ranks is an evil propaganda. There is an ongoing campaign with this frame in Turkey as well, with families paid by AKP to organize sit-ins to demand their ‘abducted’ children back. Sit-ins in front of HDP offices actually, as part of the ongoing campaign to criminalise the party.
The YPG admits to having had underaged fighters in its ranks in the early years of the Syrian war when they defended their fledgling autonomous region, but several programs have been implemented to end the practice. Why did underaged people pick up arms against the forces that were trying to take over Kurdish lands? Well, because these murderous gangs were attacking their villages, their very homes. You can be principally against underaged people bearing arms, but if an adolescent sees jihadists coming to attack their families and friends and has the capacity and possibility to help turn the tide and protect, who are we to deny them the right to shoot?
When I was in the PKK to research my book I met one of the fighters who had successfully helped defend her house against attacks. After the battle was over, her commander had sent her back home, saying that as a minor she couldn’t officially join the (women’s forces) YPJ. But she couldn’t accept it. She had not only fought, she had also been having a lot of conversations with her comrades, and she had come to learn that president Assad was not her ‘father’, as she had always learned in school, and that she wasn’t Arab either, but a Kurd. She wanted to join the armed movement.
One day, she left, and was picked up to be brought to PKK camps in the Qandil mountains. She was still 16 or 17, but she was accepted there. Not to fight, but to get educated. When I met her, she was in a language camp, where she learned to read and write her own language, Kurmaji Kurdish. I was trying to learn the same, we were in tents next to each other and did our homework together. She was connecting with who she really was.
She had applied to fight against Turkey in Bakur, Kurdistan in Turkey, but these applications were rejected. She wasn’t done learning yet. The learning, the education about her own identity and culture, worked as healing for her because yes, she was traumatized by the war. She said: “coming here and joining the PKK was the best decision I ever made.”
Her story tells a lot about underaged Kurds, whether it is in Syria or Turkey, or in Iraq or Iran. They don’t grow up safely. Their lives are constantly under threat, and hardly anywhere can they freely live their culture and learn their mothertongue in school. In Turkey, if they are politically active they will end up prosecuted or tortured in jail. In Syria, for decades Kurds couldn’t even get identity papers, they were denied any rights as Kurds. In Iran, Kurds are not only suppressed because they are Kurdish, but also because they are Sunni Muslims, which makes them instantly suspicious in the eyes of the Shia regime. In Iraq, Kurds have an autonomous region but it’s ruled by clans who have become increasingly suppressive of dissent. The clans cooperate with Turkey in the fight against the PKK, which endangers young people too, as their villages are bombed and evacuated.
Where can young Kurds go to find some space to develop themselves and escape the lethal pressures of the states in which they live? I dare to say the camps in the mountains were actually quite a reasonable option. That is, preferably when you are an adult, after your 18th birthday, but should all the 16 and 17 year olds be sent away if they have made the decision to join? Some are indeed sent away but knock on the PKK’s door again before they are 18, just wanting to join. They are never sent to the front lines but instead get ideological education, and – I have joined these classes myself so I know – also history courses, courses about women’s history, the history of the Kurdish movement, and more.
In the letter that the organisations have written to the leadership of the SDF and of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, they write about ‘intellectual exploitation’ that young recruits are subject to. Is it ‘intellectual exploitation’, to learn about an alternative world in which different groups in society share power on a local level, and where everybody can freely live their cultural, religious and linguistic rights? I’d say that the states under which Kurds live are exploiting them for their fascist nationalism.
I said ‘were actually quite a reasonable option’, not ‘are’. Because Turkey has started new operations and is about to attack Northeast-Syria again, and even the PKK’s mountain camps are not a place anymore where young Kurds can build their personalities. I bet the language camps are long gone, the history classes under the walnut trees are probably dismissed. Underaged recruits are not sent to the frontline, but the frontline is coming to them.
It’s not the Kurdish armed movement that is endangering the lives of young Kurds. It’s the dictators who run the lands they live in, and their accomplices.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.