When I say the word “Rojava” to Fatma, her face twists with unexpected pain and joy. She presses a hand to her chest and says simply “my love.”
For the last few hours I’ve been shadowing Fatma and her group of canvassers for the BDP, the Kurdish-aligned Peace and Democracy Party, as they make the rounds of houses in Diyarbakir’s Old City. She’s struck me so far as a coolly practical woman, a local politician in jeans and a leather jacket with an armful of flyers and an efficient manner. So her sudden flash of emotion comes as a surprise. But it’s a common reaction among Kurds I’ve spoken to in Turkey.
The back alleys of Diyarbakir’s old city, within its Byzantine walls, are home to a predominantly poor, predominantly Kurdish population. For the past thirty years conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish nationalist PKK has spilled into these streets, officially ending just a year ago when peace talks began. Many of the inhabitants of the walled city are internal refugees who fled here after the Turkish military destroyed their villages. There are few streets here which aren’t marked with PKK graffiti, but a new spraypaint acronym has been appearing more and more recently: YPG. At rallies, protests and the occasional wedding, a new slogan is spreading alongside “biji Kurdistan”: “biji Rojava”. Viva Rojava.
“Rojava makes me so sad.” Fatma’s friend confesses. “So many deaths there. But it also gives me hope.”
Rojava, Kurdish for “where the sun sets”, is the name adopted by the three Kurdish cantons which have emerged along the Turkish border in northern Syria. Largely ignored by Assad’s forces, the PKK-linked YPG, along with other Kurdish groups and local farmers, have fought off armed Islamist organisations to create a region of comparative peace. In January, Rojava officially declared autonomy from Syria and set about creating a constitution and an interim government.
Though there is still sporadic fighting, and tension between the major Kurdish parties in the region, many are looking to Rojava with hope and excitement. They point to a draft constitution which enshrines minority rights and women’s empowerment, the region’s locally-focused government, and the opportunity to experiment with new forms of political organisation. One student I speak to in Diyarbakir even says that he sees Rojava as a place where a new alternative to capitalism may emerge.
However romanticised and exaggerated Rojava’s potential may be, the emergence of a supposed utopia just across the border is casting a strange light on the dragging peace negotiations between Kurdish groups and the government.
The PKK and linked groups no longer demand independence for Kurdistan, but are pressing for greater autonomy, cultural and political rights, and democratisation across the country. As the first anniversary of the ceasefire approaches little progress has been made. A democratisation package released last autumn fell far short of expectations and the historic visit by Prime Minister Erdogan and Iraqi Kurdish leader Barzani to Diyarbakir was followed by little concrete action. The talks were overshadowed in December when the AKP government became embroiled in a corruption crisis.
With Kurdish New Year and elections approaching at the end of the month, many are growing restive. Several members of the BDP have hinted at attempts to declare autonomy should they win a high enough percentage in the elections, or a campaign of civil disobedience.
Others fear a return to violence. “If the elections come, and still nothing happens, everywhere from the Firat (Euphrates) river east will become like Syria,” one Kurdish activist tells me. Even the BDP canvassers believe the fighting is not necessarily over: one of Fatma’s friends tells me that “democracy is for the adults, but the youth will still want to fight with weapons.”
Though Rojava’s authorities and constitution make it clear that they see Rojava’s future as a part of Syria, it is tempting for Turkish Kurds caught in a frustratingly slow negotiation process to see Rojava as the first step to the emergence of a new Kurdistan. They stand between a state which is grudgingly beginning to grant them cultural and linguistic recognition, and an emerging region in which the freedoms they have long sought are being taken by force.
“Rojava is an inspiration for us.” Fatma concludes. “We see that they have autonomy, and we want what they have.”
Turkey is well aware of this. Rojava is embargoed by both Turkey and northern Iraq, and some believe Turkey is backing groups fighting against Syrian Kurds. Last year, attempts to build a wall between Turkey and Rojava were halted by protests on both sides of the border fence. The sense of cross-border solidarity is growing, and it can’t be ignored if Turkey is serious about peace in the southeast. As one Syrian Kurdish journalist said to Reuters, “let them build the wall. That thing they call a border is no longer really there.”
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