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brave little sternums

Poetry from the heart of the revolution

This Thursday 21 July, award-winning partisan poet Matt Broomfield will visit Hastings’ St Mary’s in the Castle Cafe to perform work from his debut poetry collection. Brave Little Sternums: poems from Rojava was written in and about the remarkable women-led, direct-democratic revolution which is flourishing in Syrian Kurdistan. Lee Humphries writes.

You may have seen images of the ‘Kurdish women fighting ISIS’, who are the most visible icons of the revolution, or recall the devastating Turkish invasion and ethnic cleansing which followed the withdrawal of US troops in 2019. Broomfield witnessed and wrote about both of these conflicts – but, he says, we must go much further back in history to understand what is happening in Rojava today.

Forty million Kurds with no nation-state

The Kurds, numbering up to forty million, are among the most numerous peoples in the world not to have a nation-state of their own. As a result of Western colonial intervention, the historic region of Kurdistan was divided among four modern states: Turkey (occupying Bakur, or Northern Kurdistan); Iraq (occupying Bashur, or Southern Kurdistan); Iran (occupying Rojhilat, or Eastern Kurdistan); and Syria (occupying Rojava, or Western Kurdistan).

Successive regimes in all four states have conducted policies of genocide, warfare, cultural, political and linguistic extermination against the Kurdish people, resulting in centuries of conflict and armed resistance.

The Kurdish freedom movement began its contemporary existence as a Marxist-Leninist guerilla force fighting against the Turkish government to establish an independent, socialist Kurdistan. Following an internal political struggle led by female members, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) became known for the special prominence it placed on the role of women in liberating society. A further, significant change in political paradigm followed the 1999 capture and imprisonment of Kurdish figurehead and PKK founder, Abdullah Öcalan.

Abdullah Öcalan

While in prison, Öcalan published writings advocating for a new political approach he terms ‘democratic confederalism’. He both draws on and critiques Marxist-Leninist and anarchist thought, as well as actually-existing communist projects, national liberation struggles, social democracy and the women’s liberation struggle.

He argues that the repressive nation-state and patriarchal repression of women must both be overcome before any true democracy or socialism can be achieved. As such, the PKK—and its associated parties across Kurdistan—stopped fighting for a Kurdish state per se. Instead, they now seek to establish a decentralised, egalitarian, community-based system in Kurdistan and across the Middle East.

This ideology was put into practice in and around the Turkish state, and in other areas of Kurdistan, but found by far its fullest expression following the wave of anti-authoritarian protests known as the ‘Arab Spring’ and the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. As dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces withdrew from Kurdish regions of Syria (to repress pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere in Syria), they likely thought they were abandoning Rojava to be over-run by the Islamist militias already ascendant in the Syrian opposition.

Rojava survives

But Rojava did not fall. Instead, on the basis of decades of clandestine organising by Kurdish ‘hevals’ (comrades), the region was able to rapidly establish democratic self-governance. To do so, the region first had to survive successive, overlapping wars and battles against ISIS, the Turkish Armed Forces, and Islamist militias including al-Qaeda offshoot the al-Nusra Front, as well as the Assad regime itself.

As ISIS swept through the region, it was Rojava’s well-known YPG and YPJ armed forces who were the first to put up effective resistance. By handing ISIS their first major defeat at the siege of Kobane in 2014, the region gained worldwide support—and an unlikely alignment with the US-led International Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The Kurdish movement was now working alongside NATO’s largest army (the USA) on the one hand, while facing brutal attacks from NATO’s second-largest army (Turkey) on the other—the latter occurring with political support and clandestine intelligence from the USA.

Reporting in Rojava

Spread of Rojava revolution

A string of victories against ISIS enabled the ‘Rojava revolution’ to spread beyond Kurdish areas, establishing a remarkable system of direct-democratic governance across a region home to some four million people, based on principles of devolved democracy and women’s autonomy. Öcalan’s ideology also prioritizes self-determination, co-existence and religious and ethnic plurality, on the basis of political self-organisation among the region’s diverse communities.

North and East Syria

To mark its expansion, the region adopted a new, official name—North and East Syria (NES). Kurds no longer make up the majority of the population of NES—millions of Arabs, plus Yezidis and Syriac, Assyrian and Armenian Christians, along with other minorities, all participate in the revolution today. Even Raqqa, the one-time capital of the ISIS caliphate, is now a proud bastion of the women’s revolution.

But though ISIS has been eradicated as a territorial entity, NES has faced two successive and devastating Turkish invasions and occupations. Turkey attacked the regions of Afrin in 2018 and Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad in 2019. The former invasion was green-lit by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the latter by then-US President Donald Trump. Trump’s involvement briefly drew the world’s attention to NES, as US troops partially withdrew from the region.

Each invasion resulted in the death of hundreds and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, most of them Kurds and other minorities, as Turkey conducts a policy of forcible ethnic cleansing in regions it now occupies. Following a ‘ceasefire’ agreement, the border region is de facto divided between Turkish and NES control, in what is officially a new ‘safe zone’ patrolled by US and Russian forces, but where conflict remains a daily reality.

Rape, torture, execution, forced disappearance and other atrocities

In the Turkish-occupied regions—which, while they were still part of NES, enjoyed Syria’s highest standards of democracy, humanitarian conditions, and rule of law—rape, torture, execution, forced disappearance and other atrocities committed by Turkey and its proxies are commonplace. Turkey continues to violate the nominal ceasefire, with shelling and drone strikes.

NES also faces a partial economic embargo, total lack of international recognition, and repeated attempts to undermine it from its nominal partners in the region and the West. At the same time, practical and ideological compromises have been made as the revolution has spread from Kurdish heartlands to cover a huge swathe of territory and population, including many conservative regions.

Sacrifice of local lives

Against all odds, though, the Rojava revolution survives to this day. This is largely due to thousands of locals who sacrificed their lives in defence of the region. Dozens of international volunteers also gave their lives to defend NES and the principles it stands for. All of these individuals are remembered and honoured by people across NES as the ‘shehids’ (martyrs) who made the revolution possible.

Matt Broomfield

Other ‘internationalist’ volunteers, such as the British poet, journalist and activist Matt Broomfield, have travelled to the region to work in solidarity with the revolution in a civilian capacity—some as women’s organisers, ecological experts, medical staff or engineers, all with the aim of learning from the unique political programme in the region. Broomfield arrived in NES shortly after Afrin fell to Turkey in March 2018, and remained there through the second Turkish invasion until the start of 2021.

As a professional writer and journalist, Broomfield’s role was to help to co-found the Rojava Information Centre, the region’s top independent news and research source. Almost all the poems in the collection were written in and about his time and experiences in the revolution in NES – as well as the two months he spent in detention in Greece upon his return to the UK.

The poet says: “I was fortunate to risk far less than many other local and foreign volunteers—and to see the revolution from many sides, in many places, alongside many people. It was the most humbling, challenging and moving experience of my life. So much primary-coloured propaganda and grey criticism has been written about Rojava, totally missing the real energy of the place. The revolution is living, ugly, beautiful, writhing, self-contradictory, hopelessly compromised—and utterly worth fighting for.”

Richer more human understanding

This is the complex and vibrant spirit Broomfield seeks to capture in his poetry and performance. Kurdish-English translator David Shook says: “It’s clear that these poems were written on the ground, in community and conversation, and their reflection of that experience has given a richer, more human understanding than any academic theorizing or factual reportage. This is an essential contribution to the literature of Rojava”

Top Iraq war poet Brian Turner adds: “Beneath the cynic’s hard gaze is a deep and abiding love, one that arrives from the interior of history, one that speaks passionately about fundamental issues of justice and human dignity in verses so restless and disturbed the page can barely contain them.” While leading UK poet Anthony Anaxagorou simply says: “There hasn’t been a collection like this for years.”

Hastings residents will have the chance to join Broomfield later this month, and hear this revolutionary poetry and stories from the heart of the Rojava revolution in association with Printed Matter Bookshop.

Matt Broomfield will be performing at St Mary’s in the Castle Cafe, Hastings, at 6.30pm on 21 July, alongside local poets Lucus Howard and Dee Howard. £2 on the door, redeemable against any purchase of ‘Brave Little Sternums’ or another book.

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Posted 13:27 Thursday, Jul 14, 2022 In: Poetry

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