Interview with a Kurdish Freedom fighter
By Darren Guy
Sama is a 21-year-old refugee, who works 12 hours a day, six days a week in three different cafés in Liverpool. She speaks five languages. In her twenty one years she has lived and seen things that most people will never experience in their lifetime.
Sama has already mingled the scouse accent with her Syrian tongue; she even dresses like the young scouse girls. She laughs a lot when she talks, even when she describes shocking things. She radiates warmth and friendliness. Sama is very proud of both the strength and the humanity of her people: the Kurdish people.
She trained in the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) but as the oldest member of a family of four girls, was sent away at the beginning of the war against Islamic state (ISIS) because her parents felt she could serve her family and people better.
Her best friend was beheaded by ISIS; her 17-year-old sister was also shot in the face by them. Her three sisters are part of the YPJ, fighting against injustice and inequality within their own culture, Syria, but more furiously against ISIS.
“I am from Kobane: a city in Northern Syria, on the Turkish border. I am Kurdish. I was in the first year at university, studying English and when the war started in Syria, I left uni and planned to go and fight for the Kurdish people. My mother was very ill at the time and my father was afraid I might get killed. So they insisted I leave; my father suggested I go to the UK and study and work and support my family. It was a very painful thing for me to leave my family in a situation like this.
I was so afraid for them, but my parents insisted I was the best person to leave (the oldest). So I escaped from Syria over the Turkish border. I suppose I became illegal at that point. Over the coming months I made my way up through towns and villages, until eventually I arrived in Istanbul, where I stayed with a friend of my father’s for two months. I then paid a trafficker who arranged for me and 22 others (mainly children) to take a very scary boat journey to Athens. I stayed in Athens for one month before I boarded a plane to the UK. The whole journey from when I left Syria to when I arrived in the UK took one year.
When I arrived I claimed asylum as a Kurdish person from Syria. They sent me to a hostel in Leeds, where they had guards and I couldn’t leave. They said I would be there for two days. I was there for a month, then they brought me in for ‘the big asylum interview’. I was then told I could claim as a refugee. The week I arrived in the UK, ISIS attacked my town of Kobane. Can you imagine how I felt? It had taken me one year to get here, and the week I arrived my family, friends and my people were under attack. I wanted to go back to be with my family and fight ISIS. But I couldn’t leave.
Before ISIS attacked Kobane, the Kobane and the Rojava region had become a very peaceful place. During the start of the Syrian war against the Assad regime, we Kurds used the opportunity to set up our own system of government. We took control of the area we lived in and established our own system of stateless government: democratic federalism; one we had been discussing a long time. The war had given us the opportunity to rule over 300 villages, towns and cities. We began to involve thousands of people in democracy and running their own areas. We spread values such as caring and respect for each other, regardless of religion or race – Arab, Christian etc. – and the equality of women.
We believed that you cannot have a revolutionary society unless the women play a role that is equal to men. Recently in Rojava they introduced equality for LGBT people, which is a big thing in the Middle East. But we also understood we would have to protect our area, so we established the People Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) which is a volunteer people’s army, run by the people and funded by the people. We have no police force, and intend to keep it that way.
Every citizen gets training in how to defend themselves and their community, so they will also be encouraged to take an active role in their village, town and community. Soon after ‘the revolution’ we set up our own women defence force: the YPJ. But it was when I first arrived in the UK, that ISIS attacked Kobane. Then my sisters joined the fight against ISIS. This has been three years now. But in the Kobane I lived in, we were teaching the people how to be independent; we were setting up schools, including Kurdish language schools. I was in the first year of university, and they were teaching us how to think politically; how to live free; how to challenge the things we’ve been brought up with. I mean Kurdish people generally – especially the young – are very open-minded. Before the revolution in Rojava, it wasn’t like that. I mean, when the government controlled, Kobane life was bad, really bad. But when we took it over it was amazing actually.”
Tell me about your sisters who are fighting ISIS?
“I have three sisters who are in the people protection units. They are Narin – she is 15, Shirin – now 17 and Jiyan – she is 18. Narin is a nurse and Shirin and Jiyan are fighters in the YPJ. The YPJ role is to educate women; teach them to think independently; make them realize, if they don’t already, their own strength, and teach them how to defend themselves. Narin was working as a nurse just over the Turkish border, helping people who were getting injured by ISIS. She was arrested by the police, thrown in a cell; then these policemen beat her about the face and body. They swore at her a lot (which is a big thing in our culture) and said terrible things to her. After three days they released her and forced her back over to the Syrian side.
Her friend, who was arrested with her, is still in prison. But my sister was very disturbed by what they had done to her; I mean she was only 14 at the time. Can you imagine men beating her, and calling her terrible names? Shirin, who is nearly 17, has been fighting for three years since she was 14; she is very strong, and probably would have fought them back.”
Shirin was only 14 when she started fighting? Some people here would think that was strange?
“Well in this country you don’t need to fight like this. In my country we have no army, so who is going to protect us from ISIS? The women want to fight ISIS. I joined the army when I was 17. I am from a family where my dad, my mum, my granddad – we were all political. We always believed in the Kurdish struggle. I am not the type of person who could just go off and live my life and forget. Yes, I can see in this country that people at 14 are protected; you are still children. At 14 in my country you are already a man or a woman.”
I suppose in a situation like this you either fight or you die?
“No, no. We don’t fight to die; we fight to live; we fight to live. We are not ISIS; they fight to die; we fight to live.”
OK. Your other sister?
“Yes Jiyan. She is 18 and she was in the first year of university, studying medicine, and she decided, ‘No, I’m not going to university – I’m going to fight.’ Jiyan is also a news reader on the TV.”
Getting back to how life was after the revolution and before ISIS attacked, tell me about this?
“Well everyone had their part to play; there were lots of things to do. We were taught to care for each other; we were all getting a form of military training too, to look after each other. Everyone was getting taught to have a good conscience, lots of education, lots of discussion, and talks – it was so good. That’s why ISIS didn’t like it. It was so perfect: everyone had a role to play; there was equality between people.
In the past for example, if someone was gay, no-one would go near them, even tell them to go away. But now people try to understand, and accept them. In the past it was because people were afraid of gay people. Now everyone wants to be open minded. But during the time when Assad and the Syrian government controlled Rojava, everyone was scared. When you are afraid you have no hope in life, and because you are afraid, you are unhappy and sometimes you look at others to blame for your unhappiness. So men blame women; others may blame gay people; Arabs may blame Kurds etc. My father was political so he taught us differently.”
Did your dad suffer because of his politics?
“Yes, for example my dad was taken three times by the government agents. One time they took him to the prison, and after two days, they called my mum, my granddad and brother and told them to come to the police cell. I went along too. And when we arrived they took us to see my dad, and told us, ‘Watch how we are going to kill him.’ They said, ‘You will watch while we kill him.’ Can you imagine? This is my father; I love him more than anything in the world, and they say this to us. It’s really bad to remember this – it was so bad. I still remember the face of the government agent who said this. But yes, they took my dad because he was a political activist.”
What happened at the cell of the prison?
“Well after three months, we raised the money to bribe them to release my father. In Syria under Assad, it was all about money; money buys you anything so he got released. Otherwise he would have died. When my dad came out of prison, he had bullet holes in his shoulder, his arm and his calf. He still has problems but he is ok now. But my mum is not well. I worry all the time about my family but I try not to, because I can’t sleep if I do.”
So I read on the Internet, because they don’t report it on the news, about the recent ISIS attacks on Kobane when they went from house to house, killing 250 civilians?
“Yes. The last few days. No-one could sleep. No one there: my family, my friends – they couldn’t sleep; nor my friends here who are from Kobane. I have not slept for 2 nights. I spoke to my younger sister, Narin the nurse and she cannot leave – there are ISIS snipers surrounding the area where Narin is. She is very worried. And there they only have about 5 nurses trying to deal with all the injured. But Narin cannot leave, and I am scared for her because she cannot fight. And I told her, ‘I am scared for you,’ and she says, ‘Why are you scared for me? All my friends could die and if they die, so what if I die?’
My sister Shirin is a captain in the YPJ. She was told a village called Jeade, that they were visiting, was free of ISIS, but when she arrived it was full of ISIS. All of her group were killed, except my sister and a boy. Shirin lost an eye and the boy lost a leg. She is still fighting. She is so strong and brave yet she lost an eye. But she is still fighting. She could have gone to Turkey after that but she said, ‘No, I’m going to fight for my people.’
Let me tell you about a friend of mine. She was so strong – a really amazing person – and she said to me before I left, ‘Do you want to join the YPJ and fight ISIS? But as I said earlier my mother wouldn’t let me. When ISIS entered Kobane she joined YPJ and she was fighting and in one fight she got caught by ISIS. They tortured then killed her – they cut her head off. She was 18 and within two days all her family got killed by ISIS.
I find it very difficult to talk about this. I am 21 and already a lot of my friends my age, or younger than me, have died. But I have no time to mourn, I just have to say, ‘They died,’ and that’s it. I can’t really talk about this; it’s inside my heart; what can I say? Yesterday when we were thinking about ISIS coming into Kobane again, my friends around me were crying. I was singing and laughing; what can I do? So many people I know have died; what can I say about this? They died. That’s it. I have to be alive.
ISIS are killing people in such a ruthless and cold manner. It’s one thing to kill a fighter: a soldier face-to-face but these people are killing children and killing women and unarmed people. This is so terrible.
I saw a picture of a child they shot five times. I mean, when you see these things you just want to kill the people who do these things. You are so angry, but you have to be careful you don’t lose your humanity; it’s so easy when you see these things that you can lose your humanity.
But the people in Rojava are fighting for life; for a beautiful life; for freedom for all. So we live with hope inside of us, united by care, compassion, hope and love for each other. We are united – not like ISIS by hatred, fear and ignorance. So people should know what we are trying to achieve in Rojava.”
Thank you SAMA.