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The Road to Revolution – Interview with YPG volunteer Jêhat Birûsk

A 31-year-old New Yorker; Jêhat Birûsk (his guerrilla name), who previously organised with OWS [the Occupy Wall Street movement], also fought within the Rojava revolution as a YPG [People’s Protection Unit, a leading militia in Rojava] combatant. The following excerpt is an interview between himself and I, during his preparations at the frontline in Raqqa in late 2017, discussing his journey to Rojava. 

Jêhat begins unsure as to when his first thoughts had begun – by saying that he felt inspired and drawn in by “a perfect storm of decentralised democracy, serious womens’ liberation” and the “clear revolutionary mandate” of the Rojava movement. He affirms that “the Rojava revolution just seemed like what we had always been trying to build, and here it is, doing the militant hard work”. He continues to say: “I had been involved with anarchist organizing in the US, especially Occupy Wall Street in New York… it’s more that Rojava is doing what we wanted to do, just on their own path, and succeedingwhich I think it owes to the legacy of the Kurdish struggle of the late 20th century and Öcalan’s [Abdullah Öcalan, a leader of the Kurdish liberation movement] willingness to adapt politically away from Marxism-Leninism towards something more liberatory”. He further expresses his reasons for being concerned for time – “it felt like, immediate” that it was “on a knife’s edge, in terms of complexity and geopolitical concerns”. This ultimately culminated in his concluding thoughts: “that the time for sitting around and talking was over”.

His premeditated ideological convictions had provided a moral determination to the cause, there was to be no concern about whether this would be a ‘just fight’, due to the aforementioned inspirations being within line with his “communist and syndicalist sympathies”. In reference to his personal ideology and its admiration for Rojava, he says that “keeping revolutions about the people and not the party, you know? So that’s why I like Democratic Confederalism so much, {Öcalan} speaks to that tendency of self-determination, the liberty of the individual and the collective simultaneously.”

Another comrade there – Heval Fazil – who assists with recruitment, mentions that “We prefer to have people here who want to be part of this for the right reasons. Rojava is not an adventure park, this war is not a Hollywood film. We don’t need people who think that they are Rambo – and please NO Fascists. We won’t tolerate people among us in the YPG who are members of the police”. With such a prelude, his travels begin.

He began his journey, like many other internationalists; in Başure Kurdistan [Iraqi Occupied/Southern Kurdistan]. He describes his initial journey within Başure Kurdistan. “I spent a few months in Başure Kurdistan. Some time with friends there, some time in Mexmûr… It was intimidating getting on the plane from New York, but once I was standing in Sulemani (in southern Kurdistan) there was no going back!”. To ultimately reach Rojava; he had to go through the extremely precarious and infamous, to those who know of it, operation of crossing the South-Rojava border*.

The dangers were known to him. “I very much knew what I had signed up for, you know? 

Like I knew what I was committing to, but it wasn’t until spending time with the friends in Mexmûr, watching Kurdish news and really talking to people that I understood the depths of the commitment”. Explaining his preparation in the US before leaving: “I tried to read and know as much as I could in the US but it really doesn’t sink in until you are with the people who really mean it, the real cadre”. Nonetheless, if he was aware of it or not, the dangers would be irefuitable as he crossed the border. The primary danger present is the continued illegal detention of YPG internationalists by the KDP Peshmerga [The KDP being the governing party of most of Başure Kurdistan and the Peshmerga their armed forces].

Jêhat touches on this, saying how “Plenty of international volunteers have been arrested in  Başure Kurdistan and they get thrown into jail in Erbil [The capital of Başure Kurdistan]… the same jails where they put captured Daesh [ISIS fighters].” He had previously mentioned the good mannerism of the Peshmerga, but the corruption of the KDP has seeped into the Peshmerga. Remarking about the crossing; “My hair stood up on end when moving through KDP checkpoints and actually finally crossing… you know that the Peshmerga in general are good people but that they have orders coming from Barzani [Barzani is the Prime Minister of most of Başure Kurdistan] and others who are hostile to our cause.”. Reports of the detention of YPG internationalists is commonplace in the region, and further still, so were reports of their complete and illegal isolation from the outside world. 

An often reported case of this was the detention of 8 internationalists by the KDP Peshmerga in May of 2017, who would have no contact with the outside world for over a week. One of the detained volunteers, Ozgan Ozdil, would again be detained at the UK and charged with vaguely-worded UK terrorism legislation. More recently, in October 2019, a volunteer from Manchester, Aidan James, has been found guilty of terrorism after fighting ISIS with the YPG (as part of the 2000 Terrorism act passed by Tony Blair’s parliament) and was detained in a British prison which houses ISIS recruits. Thus, the journey and its issues involving imprisonment, aren’t just accepted as risks whilst abroad, but also remain an ever-present domestic issue too. This lead Jêhat to bluntly summarise the journey as being “scary, but a risk we must take.”

Once in Rojava, Jêhat recalls, “I had melon and cold water… hahaha… an adventurous lifestyle!” He then explained that the final step to join the YPG was to attend the internationalist academy – now destroyed by Turkish airstrikes.  Jêhat goes in detail about the academy. Stating that “At the academy we do a bunch of things and learn a variety of stuff, but the kind of collective voluntary living isn’t taught so much as it’s just… lived. We share food prep, cleaning chores, rooms, weapons, everything. But it isn’t just ordered by a commander, we just do it all together. Even the commanders wash their own clothes haha.”  Sharing (what he can) about the academies’ curriculum; “the ideological education is mostly history of the region and how everything ended up the way it did history of Kurdistan and Islam and Mesopotamia plus Kurdish language class and such. But the actual politics isn’t like, mandated.  We kinda do that on our own, there’s a library of books to read. Some of Ö calan’s texts in various languages. Other socialist theory, there’s a copy of ‘Das Kapital’ here, but who has the time to read that?! So a lot of that political learning is… autodidactic I guess.” He continues, that there is “Definitely a lot of freedom. Which at the same time means that you have to be responsible for making the best of your time. And for helping others make the best of their time. It’s good when we get together and have impromptu talks about theory. Or help each other understand language difficulties and stuff.” 

Reminded of socialist theory and alleged parallels between it and Rojava, I ask his opinions on Socialism and Rojava and whether it is ascribed to that ideology. 

“Hell yeah!”, he remarked, continuing that: “The Social Contract, aka Rojava’s constitution outlines the fact that all land and buildings are hereby publicly owned. Use of them is defined by law but ownership is always the people. That is socialist, full stop. Not to mention the organising structures, collectives that civilians are organising, etcetera.” 

In regards to relations with the USA and Syrian Arab Republic. He states his opinions, prior to the recent US withdrawal: “I have doubts as to the depth or honesty of US government support. But ultimately concludes “I’m just a guy on the ground.  I don’t know what will happen.” 

A concluding statement by Jêhat to all else outside of Rojava: “If you are waiting for the right time, or the right place, or the purest ideology, you are going to wait for the rest of your lives. Go, make the revolution; there’s no time left for cynicism or stalling!”  

*The journey used to be relatively easy when the Rojava revolution had begun, due to the shared ethnic heritage between the bordering two Kurdish-majority regions of the KRG and Rojava. But following pressure by the Turkish state, accompanied by growing ideological divisions between the nationalist administration of the KDP and the libertarian socialist state, Rojava, the KRG ultimately withdrew military support in the form of the 

Rojava-Peshmerga battalion. Later instituting embargoes upon the de facto state of Rojava. With a border fence constructed between the Turkish – Rojava border since 2014, the treacherous KRG crossing is the only applicable pathway.

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