“I saw the passion with which men and women are building a new society”. An Interview with journalist, writer and radical activist Orsola Casagrande
Orsola Casagrande, long-time journalist with the left-wing Italian Il manifesto, now freelance and currently living in Havana, Cuba, is a committed critic of the various inhuman regimes that, as citizens across the globe, we are forced to endure since the failure of the various 20th century revolutions… Orsola is also a long-time friend to the Kurdish people, the largest ethnic population in the world – over 40 million people without a homeland – thanks to the arrogance of the “West” in reshaping the human map after their so-called “first world war”.
Orsola recently visited Rojava in Northern Syria (the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria), whose people, despite untold suffering, have continue to resist terror and domination from a wide variety of sources, not least the killers of ISIS/Daesh and NATO’s great friend and ally, the neo-Ottoman and Islamist Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish President and Chairman of the ruling right-wing Justice and Development Party.
As Orsola works too hard and finds little time or desire to write “personally”, we thought of interviewing her about her journey across Northern Syria to update us on the current situation for the Kurds in Rojava, which despite enormous dangers, continues to survive as well as calling out to the world to support its efforts at creating a genuine people’s democracy at the heart of a number of totalitarian states and widespread brutality.
“In Rojava…I saw the strength and passion that the human being is capable of, I saw the will and determination to fight for freedom, justice and truth women and men are capable of. I saw the passion with which men and women are building a new society. I saw how a human being can overcome pain and suffering no matter how enormous and even when you think they will tear you apart so that you will never get up again.” (Orsola Casagrande)
Wake up “Democracy”! You might not have that much time left to learn…
How difficult is it to gain access to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (Rojava) and are there any dangers now in travelling through the region (other than, of course, being caught in a random and illegal Turkish bombardment)?
Orsola: At no time did I feel any danger or any concern while traveling through Northern Syria. I moved from city to city traveling by car with the YPG/YPJ militias, with the exception of one trip from Kobane to Serekaniye, when I traveled with the co-presidents and two other executives of the Human Rights Association. I have to say that the journies were all incredibly interesting as I had the chance to talk with the people accompanying me and they were all very informal, warm, personal, intimate conversations. A luxury, if you ask me. And a privilege.
What was your initial impression of life for the Kurdish people (and for the other minorities who live there) when you reached your destination..?
Orsola: The first impression was of an incredibly busy society… everyone seemed to be busy with something: at the university in Qamishlo they were busy preparing a special conference and a new document detailing the new curriculum and the philosophy behind the educational model being implemented. I found very interesting, for example, the debate around the evaluation system for students; absolutely different from the one we are used to in Europe (and everywhere else, as far as I know, including Cuba and Latin America which I have had the chance to study up-close in the past few years); our evaluation system is based on merit and exams, whereas the Autonomous Administration Education Committee was discussing about following the student across his/her education journey and evaluating him/her based on her entire career and not just through exams at the end of the semester or the year…
A debate which I remember went on from time to time in Italy and other European countries, just to be abandoned, and in fact our kids are still assessed by their final exams…
Women are setting up cooperatives virtually on a daily basis, book fairs are held almost once a month, culture is clearly very very central to the whole Democratic Autonomy Project. At the same time, work is important, so the administrations are busy setting up working projects. And they are working on services, re-establishing services (water, which is a huge problem), sewage systems, roads, electricity etc., which are vital infrastructure.
The cultural centre in Qamishlo, like the one in Kobane, was busy organising special programs and activities for children, “the future of these lands” as everyone kept repeating to me. And in Kobane they were also organising an exhibition in that part of the city preserved just as it was (i.e. in ruins) after the liberation of the city from DAESH by the YPG/YPJ, in January 2015.
It is a museum of memory, and walking through the ruins and among the debris, the burned DAESH armoured tanks, incinerated cars, stretches of walls riddled with bullet holes, is a real blow to the heart, so to say…
I had the honour and privilege to read, translate and publish in as many news outlets as I could, the letters written by the YPG/YPJ fighters in Kobane, during the resistance. One letter in particular, was from a girl to her mother. She ended her message telling her mum that if something happened to her, she should go to Kobane and look for the house with the green door. Because it was in front of that house that she had spent her last hours. When I was walking through the ruins and debris (something I did many times during my stay in the city) I stopped in shock in front of a green door. Automatically I turned to see what was left of the building in front of it. It was almost completely destroyed. I thought of the letter, of the young woman fighter, of the mother…
…I can hardly find words to express the feeling that overwhelmed me, then.
How positive are the people there about the future of their so-called “experiment”?
Orsola: I met a father and mother at the Martyrs graveyard in Kobane. They were going to the graveyard every week to mourn for their daughter, martyred during the resistance to liberate Kobane. They told me that in fact her daughter’s body had not been recovered, so in reality they had no grave to come to and mourn. Still they come to mourn each Friday and light a candle for their daughter. Revana’s mum told me: “I can see my daughter in every martyr”.
The martyrs are very much present in the reconstruction efforts. And I mean the reconstruction of life, together with that of the buildings. What is very tangible is the determination the people have to build this new life. They want to try. Each person does what he or she can. They are worried of course about their future because they are very much aware of the power and strength this ‘experiment’, as you call it, has. It has the strength of a storm… and it really is there, you can see it, you can touch it…
So, yes, people are worried because such a model proves that it is possible to try a different way of living together (because ultimately it boils down to the relations between people and how decision are taken that do not limit or affect the liberties and freedoms of others).
This “experiment” is anathema for many, for most states, governments, multinationals, economic powers…Which is why people are also very aware of the need for self-defense.
What do the people think about the great ‘sharks’ that surround them and that we can all see now as either wanting to oppress or cynically exploiting them: Turkey, the Russian Federation, Iran, the United States?
Orsola: Partly the answer to this is in the previous answer; but let me add that of course there is no trust towards the traditional powers. In fact, Kurds and the peoples of Northern and Eastern Syria who are participating in the Democratic Autonomy and the Autonomous Administration system in the liberated areas, are very aware of the fact that at best they are being used by others to achieve their own interests.
I would say the Kurds are very pragmatic and also very sharp and quick in assessing the shifting and changing (and this is happening at a very fast pace) attitudes of the different powers that surround them. Once an assessment is made, a swift response is elaborated in order not to end caught up in their dirty games.
After the loss of Afrin and with Turkey once again renewing its threats to invade further into ‘Kurdish’ territory, what plans do the people there have to protect and develop their revolution?
Orsola: Again, the people and the Autonomous Administration and institutions representing them are very alert, so they are poised to respond to whatever critical situation arises. Self-defense is an important and key element. People are joining the SDF and YPG/YPJ on a daily basis. Of course the Autonomous Administration, through the Syrian Democratic Council, is convinced and repeatedly asserts that a real solution to the war and the ongoing crisis is an internal one. They are pushing for dialogue with all parties in Syria and of course with the Syrian regime. The two preliminary meetings with the Syrian regime have been a start. Now there are signs that a new meeting could take place soon.
It is clear that a negotiated solution will succeed only if it is worked out and agreed among all sections of Syrian society.
Tell us, did some of the visits or meetings you had in particular there stick out?
Orsola: So many, really… But sure, for me meeting Adnan and his family in Kobane (they opened a library in the house where 8 members of their family were massacred by DAESH in June 2015, see the Global Rights Interview – “Rodî û Perwîn library: Books to Rebuild Life”), was something very special. After so many months of correspondence.
And I could add so many… My conversation over breakfast with Azad’s father in Serekaniye, about Marx, communism and Cuba.
I also treasured the hours of conversation during the trips from one city to another with the YPG and YPJ fighters. All very personal, intimate, warm… And I had a two hour conversation, while waiting to go somewhere, with 7 YPG fighters of different ranks. It was one of the most enriching experience I ever had…
And the long evenings talking with friends from the Human Rights Association, who gave me a very important and valuable insight into their own work, but also into the brutality of the regime and of DAESH…
So, tell us then, what did you learn on this trip?
Orsola: This would require a book! I learned so much, really. As I said before, from the human point of view, it was one of the most precious and important experiences I ever had. I just ‘absorbed’ everything I could. I felt like a sponge… and there was so much to absorb…
But if I had to concentrate everything into one sentence I would say this:
I saw the strength and passion that the human being is capable of, I saw the will and determination to fight for freedom, justice and truth women and men are capable of. I saw the passion with which men and women are building a new society. I saw how a human being can overcome pain and suffering no matter how enormous and even when you think they will tear you apart so that you will never get up again.
Do the Kurdish people have a message for people in “the West”?
Orsola: I think what I said above is also the message the Kurds are sending to the world: We live here and now and there is nothing more valuable and worth defending and fighting for for than freedom.
Finally, do you know if there is a way to develop greater international support for the Kurds in general (the Kurdish people in Turkey, Iran and Syria) and for the development of their democratic model in Rojava, in particular?
Orsola: I do feel that many on the Left in the West (and in Latin America) for example, continue to see the world through very old lens and glasses. And this brings many comrades to say for example that the Kurds have sold their soul to Imperialism, to the US. Without entering into a historical and political discussion over what “Imperialism” is (according to Lenin). I think the Left should be a bit humbler and less ‘colonialist’ and explore and learn about the Kurdish experience and what they are doing in Northern and Eastern Syria (and what they did in Turkey before that).
I invite everyone to go and spend a few weeks in Northern and Eastern Syria…
Anything else you feel your trip taught you that Global Rights readers might be able to learn from?
Orsola: Democratic Autonomy as devised by Abdullah Öcalan is proving viable. I think this is a fact. Of course it has its limits, problems and still some issues are not addressed properly, but the great thing is that it is an experience which is being built now. So it is a process in fieri and it has a great disposition to change and adjust.
The left around the world should be going there to check it out for itself. It makes you optimistic to see thousands of young men and women working to build a new society based on co-existence, respect, where differences are enriching and valued and not attacked…
Also I think it is amazing the role women have taken in leading this Revolution. I look at the photos now and I see so many women everywhere, in the institutions, in the schools, in the universities, in the streets… Busy, doing things, organizing events, talking, teaching… The liberation of Northern and Eastern Syria definitively has passed through the liberation of women, and in a place where the mercenaries of DAESH tried to impose the worst kind of rule, erasing women, using them as mere sexual objects, selling and buying them as slaves…
I listened to the most brutal stories during the month I spent in Rojava. But again, women are now standing on their feet, they are leading the change. And this is so inspiring…
Two last questions, Orsola… There appears to be 2 criticisms of the Rojavan revolution still affecting (left-wing?) people in the West whose support could surely be of some help: (1) That the PKK is still fundamentally a Stalinist organisation and any change that is being worked out in Rojava or any area that they are in is being imposed on local people and (2) American involvement in Syria with the PYD/SDF contradicts the idea that Rojava could be a genuine revolutionary transformation..?
(1) That the PKK is still fundamentally a Stalinist organisation and any change that is being worked out in Rojava or any area that they are in is being imposed on local people:
I think anyone with a little knowledge of the history of the PKK can see how it has been able to adapt to the new situation and context without giving up its fundamental beliefs and stances.
The PKK was founded 40 years ago, on 28 November 1978, and unlike many leftwing organisations the party is still standing firm on its feet. I believe one of the reasons that the PKK is still alive and kicking – and above all attracting young people – is the fact that it has been able to listen, discuss and reshape its strategies and tactics according to the changing world context.
Let’s abandon ‘labels’ in the analysis and studies of political movements and parties and focus on ‘content’, practice and, above all, consistency. The PKK is here today and still has much to say because, as I said, it was never a monolith. Curiously, but again, knowing a little about its history and that of its founding members, despite its military structure which may suggest ‘rigidity’ the PKK has been very flexible and has been able to allow ‘inputs’ to penetrate it and reshape its policies accordingly and, the crucial thing, with consistency.
The PKK, and of course its main leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been able to see (and in fact foresee with vision) when the outright ‘separatist’ demand (or in other words, a new old-fashioned nation-state for Kurds) was becoming outdated. Why wanting a new nation-state for Kurds when the PKK analyses were all pointing in the direction of a definite death of the nation-state? As Kurds are not suicidal, they had the capacity and ability, in the middle of the war, to seek for alternatives, viable models, innovative, bold and creative. And the result of this work – sorry for being so schematic – was the Democratic Confederalism imagined and theorised by Öcalan.
Let’s not forget that while imagining this new model, Kurds also tried to put it in practice, despite the war (for example in North Kurdistan, but also in Maxmur Camp and of course in more recent years, and definitively with great success, in Rojava). At the same time, it must be remembered that the PKK never let go of its attempt to bring Turkey to the negotiation table, as it has always believed in dialogue and a peaceful solution, as was underlined once more by Öcalan on Newroz in 2013. Of course, the PKK also maintained its right to self defence.
And last but not least, let’s not forget that the Kurdish liberation struggle has been walking parallel to and intrinsically linked with the women’s liberation struggle, leading to some very interesting and revolutionary changes in the guerrillas, which, by the way, live a very communitarian life.
(2) American involvement in Syria with the PYD/SDF contradicts the idea that Rojava could be a genuine revolutionary transformation..? I have partly answered this questions in my previous answers. But to insist and reiterate on this: I would quote Salih Muslim, former PYD co-chair and now TEV-DEM foreign relations spokesperson who I met during my trip:
“We were defending ourselves and the world from DAESH and we needed and tried to find allies. Nobody listened, nobody gave us a hand. We were alone and the US offered support, but this does not mean that our political will is in the hands of the US: we agreed on one point, fighting against DAESH. So we fight against terrorism together and that’s it. And then, imperialism is not only the US. The US is a tool of imperialism. Russia is also a tool of imperialism. We are talking about capitalist modernity, and we’d like to talk about this. The US have no say in what we are doing here in Rojava. The people have their destiny in their own hands. They decide how to rule themselves, which type of society they want. How they want to be governed.”
What people in Rojava are trying to build is a radical democracy and a social economy, or again, as Muslim put it, a democratic socialism.
Grazie, gracias, thanks, spas, go raibh mile maith agait, Orsola!
Kobane (The Open Air Museum), 22 September 2018
By Orsola Casagrande (own work)
Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Books by Abdullah Öcalan