“All religions have the same heart. We’re all one,” a man says to us warmly as we drink tea in his home.
We are in the city of Kobanê in Rojava, an autonomous and democratically run region in the north of Syria. In late 2014, Kobanê became the focus of the world’s media when ISIS attacked the city and surrounding villages. In response, the US eventually bombed Kobanê, flattening it in the process. As they fought ISIS, the bravery of the Rojavan YPJ and YPG fighters was all over the news, whilst their brother and sister PKK guerillas within Turkey’s borders were, and still are, branded terrorists by Turkey and its allies.
Walking to a commune meeting in Amûdê with friends
“We’re solidarity activists,” we say to a man who greets us as we cross the border into Rojava.
“You’ve come too late!” he replies.
Nevertheless, he smiles widely, welcomes us and shakes our hands. In a way, I agree with him. We have come too late. We are only visiting Rojava when there has been a revolution; only after the people have successfully formed their own autonomous region. Where were we when the Kurdish population of Syria were fighting for their rights, for their own self-determination, under Assad?
Martin drinking tea in the Shrine Of Man
You know you’re in a polluted place when your bogies go black and your chest starts to hurt. I’m back in South (Iraqi) Kurdistan, which is also known simply as Bashur, meaning South, to Kurds.
I’m with three friends, trying to cross the border into Rojava. Bureaucracy, politics and crooked governments have ensured that it’s difficult to enter Rojava from this border, and impossible from the Turkey side (unless we want to be shot). So we pile into a taxi to Erbil (Hewler in Kurdish) to try to sort out our papers (no-one other than me fancies hitchhiking, what with ISIS strongholds not far away, and there’s no buses).
“Shit shit SHITTT!” I moan under my breath as the taxi driver races at high speed up to the back of a truck, then just before crashing into it, swerves to overtake. He does this again and again, weaving through the hundreds of trucks that clog the safe route to Erbil. Everyone wants to avoid Mosul. The smell of petrol fills the car. We pass oil tanker after oil tanker, and truck fumes fill our lungs.
Read Travels in Kurdistan (part 1) here
Children of Roboski at the graves of their relatives, who were killed by Turkey’s military on 28th December 2011
It’s late June, and we arrive in Midyat as it’s getting dark. Unfortunately for us, President Tayyip Erdoğan has also decided to visit Midyat on the same evening, after a farcical PR stunt, giving Angelina Jolie a tour of the nearby Syrian refugee camp. Police are everywhere, roads are blocked, paparazzi wait, and a deafening helicopter hovers over our heads.
We move onto Roboski, close to the border with South (Iraqi) Kurdistan. Four years ago, me and my friends, Robert and Mats, crossed the border here, and learned about the Roboski massacre, which took place a few days before we arrived. Turkey’s military bombed and killed 34 local people who were on mules, carrying out cross-border trade between North and South Kurdistan.
Polen Ünlü, an activist in the conscientious objector movement, died in the bombing in Suruç on 20th July. (Photo taken from JINHA women’s news agency)
It’s June 2015, and we arrive in North Kurdistan (the part of Kurdistan within the Turkish borders) at election time. The Kurdish population is ecstatic, because for the first time in the history of the Republic of Turkey, the pro-Kurdish HDP party has won 80 seats in parliament. The HDP could only have any seats if it gained at least 10% of the total vote (a rule that was put into place in 1980 to stop Kurds from ever being represented), and it achieved this. Although I’m an anarchist, I can’t help but be a bit impressed by the HDP, with their promises of women’s and LGBT rights, and their attempt to represent all ethnicities and religions.
Shopping in Diyarkbakir’s old town
It is 45 degrees celsius in south-eastern Turkey and the population is not eating or drinking anything, even water, during daylight hours. It is Ramadan – the month of fasting. Chris and I guiltily glug water all day long (it’s 45 degrees, for god’s sake!) and instead of scowling at us, people offer us iced water, even though they can’t drink it themselves.
The ruins and mountains of Olympos in south-west Turkey
Whilst sitting on beaches in Turkey, I have been known to mock English tourists, commenting on their bright red, burnt skin. So I get my comeuppance when Chris and I lay in the sun on Olympos beach, then both spend the next week with blistering, lobster-like skin.
Turkey is the country of good fortune: whenever you think you are in trouble, someone appears and saves the day. Every single time. And just when we are desperately standing at the side of the road at 1am in the pitch black, trying to hitch to Cappadocia, locals pull up and drive us far out of their way to our destination.
Any traveller who has spent time in Turkey has probably heard racism directed towards Kurdish people. It is believed that 20-25 million Kurds live within the borders of Turkey. I am often told that south-eastern Turkey, which is predominantly Kurdish, is dangerous, and that I shouldn’t get into cars with Kurdish numberplates. This is, of course, nonsense. I have argued with people over their assumption that their government provides everything for Kurdish people, but that Kurds are never grateful. This common attitude can partly be explained because the Turkish government presents itself “as if it gives substantial concessions to Kurdish people never granted in the history of Turkish Republic while, on the other hand, repressing the Kurdish movement by “anti-terror” measures.” (document published by Michael Albert on ZBlogs)
Mats, Robert and I arrive in Turkish Kurdistan at night, and a lovely man lets us spend the night on the floor of a petrol station! We are told about a recent attack in the town by the Turkish military, killing over thirty people.
Mats sleeps in the kitchen of a petrol station – Hitchhiking is so glamourous!
Kurdistan is a region that covers parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, and where the population, culture and language is mostly Kurdish. Kurds are “the largest national, cultural group that has never been able to achieve a national territory”, says Noam Chomsky. I am still travelling with my Norwegian friends, Mats and Robert, and we are given a ten day visa-on-arrival for Iraqi Kurdistan.
Our first view of Kurdistan!
Walking over the Iraq border