The first surprise already awaits us at the border crossing at Fishkabour and Semalka on the Iraqi-Kurdish side. We have experienced adventurous and dicey border crossings here in the past. A new border station is being built and a concrete slab is currently being poured for the car park. Whereas the checks and controls used to be carried out in a room that was far too small, the formalities are now performed at several counters. Paper, number, the luggage is checked, then we cross the Tigris in a minibus over a pontoon bridge. Things are similar on the other side. There used to be tea and nice chats took place here. This time our bags are professionally checked and we undergo a thorough procedure. Bureaucracy has taken hold. We realise a bit wistfully that Rojava is no longer a makeshift border crossing.
Much has changed since it all began ten years ago. On 19 July 2012, the Assad regime's troops pulled out of the Kobanê region near the Turkish border. Kurdish forces took over administration of the city, precipitating the takeover of other parts of the region. A transitional administration emerged, securing the supply of the population with basic goods in the turmoil of civil war. With the military units of the YPG/YPJ (beginning in 2015 the military alliance SDF, "Self-Defence Forces"), this administrative structure became a key actor in the struggle against the increasingly strong terrorist organisation Islamic State. The violence escalated when ISIS committed genocide against the Yazidis in Shengal in 2014. Shortly afterwards, Syrian-Kurdish People's Defence Units successfully defended Kobanê, and in 2017 they overran Rakka, the ISIS's most important base. The international anti-ISIS coalition succeeded in pushing back the terrorist militia. Suddenly, about one-third of Syria was under the control of the self-administration, a significant part of it Arab territory.
The new model of society was founded and supported by an attempt to build an independent and democratic community. With the participation of all ethnic and religious minorities - never void of criticism from various political groupings in the region - a "social contract" was drawn up and the autonomous self-administration of north-east Syria proclaimed. Administrative structures were established with the aim of aligning all areas of society with the notion of democratic confederalism. The guiding principles were co-determination, minority rights and equality. It was this emancipatory awakening, unique in the entire region, that gave the project its appeal - and has also allowed medico to provide support from the very beginning.
Memory of the struggle against ISIS is still alive. Pictures of fallen Kurdish fighters hang on many street lamps and house walls; in sum total, more than 10,000 lost their lives. Most people have ghastly stories to tell: Siblings who fell in battle; children who stepped on mines; friends who were captured, never to be seen again. Traumas have been wrought - and fears are real, as the danger has not been averted. Since the capture of the last caliphate, Barghuz, 12,000 ISIS supporters have been put in prison in the region, including at least 2,000 internationals. Thousands of sympathisers are also living in refugee camps. In view of the lack of prospects, there is considerable concern about further radicalisation and new organisations forming. The situation is explosive.
ISIS is still there, it is back again
Nevertheless, all those we talked to about it all cling to the hope that they can free the people in the camps from ISIS ideology. However, they cannot do much with the limited resources available on the ground. International solutions and support would be all the more important. Self-administration has forwarded numerous proposals and far-reaching offers for cooperation - ranging from the repatriation of foreign ISIS sympathisers to a joint tribunal ranging all the way to cooperation in the rehabilitation of ISIS women and minors. They have fallen on virtually deaf ears.
The danger that ISIS continues to pose became evident during our visit to the Gwehran prison in Hasakeh. Around 5,000 ISIS fighters are imprisoned in the converted school building under Kurdish command. We were given a tour by the medico partners who work with the almost 800 minors in the prison. At the beginning of the year, there was a coordinated uprising here: while a heavily armed group of ISIS fighters attacked from the outside, the detainees rose up inside. Only days later, with many fatalities and following intervention by special units of the SDF (Self-Defence Forces) as well as US troops was it possible to bring the situation under control once again. Caved-in walls, burnt-out rooms, and countless bullet holes bear witness to the battle wherever one looks.
Besides ISIS, Turkey is sabotaging and attacking the autonomy of the region. In 2018, the Turkish army and its mercenary militias took the western region of Afrin in an invasion carried out in violation of international law, while in a similar fashion seizing the Serêkaniyê/Tel Ayad region near the border and occupying it for a year. In both areas, the majority Kurdish population was driven out, with tens of thousands having to seek refuge in other parts of the region, where they are still living in camps today. We reached the tent city of Washokani. Children were playing in the dusty streets in the camp. The camp was built by the medico partner organisation Kurdish Red Crescent in 2019. 16,000 people still live here, in rows and rows of tents. At the same time, some things have changed since our last visit two years ago. The once white tarpaulins are marked by the weather. Wooden sheds have been built in front of many tents, and fences between the tents create some privacy. People are settling in, dictated by circumstances.
International organisations are not working in Washokani or in the Afrin refugee camp in Sheba. In addition to support, local aid workers are calling for a political solution. Here, there is no backing down from the demand that the Turkish mercenary groups must withdraw from the occupied territories and that displaced people must be allowed to return to their homes, to their houses and to their soil. Equally firm is the insistence and conviction that the crimes committed in the course of the occupation will one day be prosecuted. The "Right Defense Initiative" is also working toward this. The medico partner organisation has documented over 400 cases in its well-guarded archives, ranging from land theft to torture. But to this day even this call for justice has gone unheeded internationally.
We visited Mohamed Hasan Hamon in his tent. The farmer had been living in the refugee camp with his wife and children for over a year. He showed us photos of his house in a Kurdish village near Serêkaniyê. Then came the war. When the fighting started, he fled with his family. When it died down, they returned. That proved to be a mistake. One day, he was kidnapped by fighters from an Islamist militia. They demanded a ransom and tortured him. It took months for his family to scrape together the money. At least 200 men were imprisoned with him, all of them Kurds, he says.
The advances of ISIS, Erdogan's unconcealed threats of a new invasion in the shadow of the Ukraine war: Rojava remains a region under threat for the tenth year. Often, the danger comes from the air. For months, Turkish forces have been staging drone attacks that also hit civilian targets. The Rojava Information Centre has documented more than 40 such attacks this year alone. In addition, there has been constant shelling from areas occupied by radical Islamist militias as well as from across the Turkish border. On 22 April, shells hit the centre of Kobanê, while a women's clinic was hit in the town of Tel Refat. All this translates into constant insecurity. Scarcely any criticism of the drone missions is coming from Europe; even the powers with air sovereignty in the region, Russia and the USA, are letting Turkey have its way. The safety and security of the people in Rojava does not seem worth the price of intervention.
In Qamişlo we meet Dr Sherwan Bery from the Kurdish Red Crescent. Founded in 2012 as an initiative of medical students and doctors, the Red Crescent has become the most important emergency aid organisation in north-east Syria with over two thousand employees - and the most important partner organisation of medico on the ground. The focus is on building up a health structure to ensure free health care for the entire multi-ethnic population. This is not an easy venture anywhere. In Rojava, however, it is a Sisyphean task. Again and again, hospitals and other painstakingly built infrastructures have been destroyed, emergency aid has had to be provided under fire and new bottlenecks and shortages have had to be coped with. And then the coronavirus also found its way to this part of the world. Right from the start, covid hospitals were set up and far-reaching prevention campaigns implemented, recalls Dr Sherwan Bery. Nevertheless, the pandemic has left deep scars. Thousands have died. This has mainly been due to a lack of medical equipment, according to Bery. To this day, not even one in ten people has been vaccinated against coronavirus. The world did not have enough vaccine doses to spare for the region.
The lack of support during the pandemic has once again confirmed how sluggish cooperation between the self-government and WHO and other UN organisations is. The international organisations are based in Damascus and are bound to agreements with the Assad regime. The regime is aware of the region's dependence and takes advantage of it. According to experts, the Syrian government has repeatedly withheld vital aid. This instrumentalisation of aid has been a subject of criticism for years, but nothing has changed. The most basic work performed by the Kurdish Red Crescent is also suffering as a result. If it were recognised internationally as an independent actor, aid could arrive faster and more effectively. But for years, the organisation has been denied access to international emergency aid networks. Since Rojava belongs to Syria under international law, no official cooperation is supposed to take place.
Waiting for rain
Rojava has been plagued by a myriad of problems from the beginning. But a new crisis is looming. We drive past vast green fields. The north-east of Syria is considered the "granary" of the country. But our companions cast worrying glances at the wheat fields. The rains are not coming. The past two years have already been far too dry. With the drought, the climate crisis has reached Rojava. According to all forecasts, droughts and heatwaves will gradually dry out this agriculturally productive region. The situation is exacerbated by Turkey's water policy. In order to put pressure on the self-administration, the hostile neighbour keeps choking back the water supply to the region. Rojava is left with what is almost always the region's main asset: standing together. Farmers work together in cooperatives, supporting each other in building irrigation systems or operating the wells. The self-administration also does what it can. In winter, for example, a ration of diesel was deliberately not distributed to the population, instead being channelled to farmers so that they can operate their wells.
Ten years of Rojava means ten years of self-assertion. Despite all attacks and in the midst of authoritarian-repressive powers, the project has retained its "democratic spirit". At the same time, it is still being denied a viable political future. The self-administration, for example, is still excluded from international Syria negotiations. Like the UN, most countries do not want to have any form of "official relations" with it. Exceptions are countries like Finland or Sweden, which have developed their own systems of cooperation. But especially these countries are dependent on Turkey's consent in their new quest to join NATO. Even going into its tenth year, the situation remains the same: new obstacles are constantly being placed in the way of Rojava's future.
Anita Starosta works for medico international in donor communications. The historian is also responsible for public relations in Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq.