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Why is Abdullah Öcalan important for the revolution of Rojava

Why is Abdullah Öcalan important for the revolution of Rojava?

Abdullah Öcalan spent many years working in Syria before his abduction. The revolution of Rojava is also based on his work and ideas. Therefore, in the seventh part of our series of articles on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Rojava Revolution, we spoke with Ferzend Munzir of the Committee for the Freedom of Abdullah Öcalan in North and East Syria about the PKK leader’s time in Syria and his importance for the Rojava Revolution.

The Rojava revolution has become a hope for an alternative model of society for many people around the world. Much is written and spoken about Rojava. However, few people associate the achievements in North and East Syria with the person of Abdullah Öcalan. Can you explain why Öcalan is important for this revolution?

 I would like to answer your question by starting with a brief review: for years, the people here in North and East Syria were subjected to the chauvinist regime of the Baath Party. The regime’s policies led to an immense crisis in the region. People were faced with poverty and unemployment, any democratic rights were curtailed, human rights were trampled on a daily basis, and there was a policy of exclusion and gradual assimilation especially against the Kurdish society, but also against other minorities of Syria. In fact, only a very small part of society benefited from this regime.

These were the preconditions for the great movement that arose in this region and was able to sweep so many people along. It was a movement that sprang from the society itself and knew very well the reality of its homeland. It fought for freedom, dignity, peace and social justice. So the uprising against the regime at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War was not only justified and legitimate, it was urgently needed.

But what followed was a bloody war between different groups and parties. It was not only the regime that was responsible for turning this uprising into such a cruel war. Global and regional actors pursuing their very own plans for the region also led this justified uprising into a bloody dead end. The Turkish state, in particular, bears much of the blame for this.

Thus, a war ensued in which the Syrian regime, on the one hand, and groups such as the Free Syrian Army, but also Islamist groups such as IS or the Al-Nusra Front, faced each other. In the midst of this chaos, a movement emerged that drew on the ideas and philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan and pursued a policy of the third way, a way of its own. Based on Öcalan’s proposal of democratic modernity, committees, communes, councils, and institutions were established that organized along the needs of society. An important area of self-organization was the establishment of the YPG and YPJ self-defense units. In this way, the difficult start-up phase of the revolution between March 2011 and 2012 was overcome. I still remember how pessimistic people were at the beginning. They considered our project to be stillborn. Many advised us against it, saying that we would probably end up in torture prisons or in the ditch. Others shook their heads and made fun of us. I remember a friend telling me at the time, “You are digging for water in a parched desert.”

But day by day the situation began to change. To be sure, the war and the crisis in Syria grew increasingly worse. But in the midst of this crisis, the prospects of the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokratîk (Democratic Unity Party, PYD) and the Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk (Movement for a Democratic Society, TEV-DEM) gave cause for hope. These organizational structures filled Öcalan’s ideas with life and in this way offered answers to the pressing problems in our region.

Öcalan himself spent a long time in Syria. His work in Syria inspired many people to join the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Can you tell us about Öcalan’s time in Syria? What was his contact with the population in Rojava like?

First of all, we have to keep in mind why Abdullah Öcalan came to Syria and also to Lebanon as a mastermind of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In Turkey, the number of attacks and massacres by the Turkish state increased steadily, ultimately culminating in the military coup of 1980. Countless party cadres were arrested or murdered. In order to keep the organizational structure of the PKK alive, but also to adjust to the new reality, Öcalan decided to come to Rojava. Here, preparations were made for the next step, and at the same time, close relations with the local society and diplomatic contacts were established.

All this happened in the time of the bipolar world. On one side was the capitalist-imperialist bloc and on the other side was the real-socialist bloc. In this division, the Syrian regime placed itself in the socialist bloc. The reason for this was that certain parts of Syrian territory were occupied by Turkey and Israel, two states that clearly belong to the capitalist world. Thus, there were certain tactical relations between the Syrian regime and the PKK, as they had a common interest to fight against the imperialist Turkish state. In this regard, Öcalan had a strong vision of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East and therefore tried to establish the widest possible diplomatic network of relations. But he was also aware that the reality of the Syrian state would never allow them to build a free life together.

Abdullah Öcalan used his time in North and East Syria to deepen relations with the various sectors of society. In particular, his insights and analyses on the history of Kurdistan, the crisis in the Middle East, the struggle for freedom and independence, the role of women, militant personality, etc. emerged during this period of exile.

Öcalan’s work in Rojava continued unabated for the revolution in all of Kurdistan. In order to achieve this, there were constant actions, meetings and gatherings. He also made efforts to interact with society and engage in dialogue. He took the time to listen to people’s concerns and discuss possible solutions with them. There were events to which several thousand Kurds from all over Kurdistan came together. Öcalan would sometimes talk there for hours, and people would listen to him, ask him questions, without getting bored. In this way, he managed to gather people around him, especially from Syria, and build a connection with them that hardly anyone before him had been able to do. The foundation was laid for a deep trust that continues unbroken to this day. Öcalan himself refers to this phase of the struggle in one of the books he wrote while in prison. In it, he describes the importance of this period. Because of these years, people were later prepared to make great sacrifices for the Kurdish cause. However, the relationships that were built were not limited to Kurdish society. Öcalan had a talent for meeting with delegations from different ethnic groups. He built relationships with Armenian, Assyrian, Turkmen, and Druze people, and met with tribal leaders, artistic figures, and intellectuals. For years, this tied people to the person of Öcalan, but also to the Kurdish movement.

To complete the picture, I must briefly mention the Syrian regime again. In Damascus, the developments surrounding Öcalan were being watched very closely and were increasingly intimidated by the developments. The result was state repression. Sometimes the regime would suddenly arrest dozens, sometimes even hundreds of PKK cadres at once, imprisoning, harassing and interrogating them. Öcalan was also regularly subjected to this harassment. It can be said that the prisons and security departments of the Syrian system were never empty. Supporters of the movement were constantly in custody. I, for example, was also arrested and sentenced four times, which brought me a total of four years in prison. Other sympathizers and members also regularly received sentences of two or more years. Some were even sentenced to life imprisonment, and many were tortured in prison.

The Baath regime tolerated Abdullah Öcalan’s presence in Syria until 1998. Then he suddenly had to leave the country. How did this happen?

The fact that Abdullah Öcalan was forced to leave Syria on October 9, 1998 was the result of a long-planned international plot. It was a plan that was carried out by various intelligence agencies, but mainly under the leadership of the CIA, the Mossad, and the Turkish intelligence agency MIT. They built up a great deal of pressure on the Syrian regime. Ultimately, the gun was put to Hafiz al-Assad’s head and he was given the choice of either expelling Öcalan or accepting a military attack by the Turkish state in the north and Israel in the south. A senior member of the Syrian state said quite clearly at the time, “If Öcalan is not handed over or taken out, then there will be an attack on Syria.” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also made hints in this direction.

Öcalan grappled with his situation at the time. It was clear to him that these were not empty threats. If he did not leave the country, war would break out. One option he saw was to head for the mountains. He had always avoided that so far and did not want to take that path now, because he was aware that it would massively intensify the war in the mountains and cost many lives. For him, it was always important to keep the war as small as possible and to conduct it with as few casualties as possible. It was precisely at this stage that a delegation from Greece reached Öcalan, suggesting that he come to Europe. It seemed to be the best way. The PKK leadership saw this as an opportunity to raise the political level of the Kurdish question outside the Middle East. They hoped to be able to work more effectively on peaceful solutions there instead of letting the war escalate.

Thus, Öcalan, viewing his departure from the Middle East also as a political opportunity, set out at that time. But what followed was an odyssey lasting several months, the international conspiracy. Contrary to all applicable law, Öcalan was finally abducted from the Greek embassy in Kenya and handed over to Turkey.

In 1999, Abdullah Öcalan was extradited to Turkey. Since then he has been held in Imrali prison. What was the reaction in Rojava and Syria to Öcalan’s abduction and arrest?

 With Öcalan’s abduction, a great shock went around the world. Many people went to the barricades around the world. People protested against the injustice done to Öcalan and through him to the whole Kurdish society. To come back to your question: In Rojava, it was immediately clear to people that this international plot was not aimed at Abdullah Öcalan as an individual, but was directed against Kurdish society as a whole. It was to be made clear to all Kurds that if they revolt, everything will be done to recapture and suppress them. Accordingly, the people here also reacted very quickly and very clearly. Hundreds of thousands of people immediately took to the streets and would not leave until Öcalan was released. Parallel to the actions taking place everywhere on the streets, thousands of young people joined the PKK in reaction to the plot. There were some who even went so far as to set their own bodies on fire alive in protest against the feeling of powerlessness. In those days and weeks after the plot, people showed immense attachment to Öcalan and made incredibly great sacrifices.

In North and East Syria, Abdullah Öcalan’s ideas are now being put into practice. How is Öcalan perceived by the population in the region today? How do people in the non-Kurdish areas perceive him?

In Rojava and in North and East Syria in general, an alternative system of self-administration has been created. It is based on social values that ensure coexistence between the different ethnic groups and cultures. This is precisely what ultimately broke IS and other forces like al-Qaeda in the region. The establishment of civil, social and democratic institutions, where society meets regularly in assemblies, is a strength used to resist states and terrorist gangs in the region.

All this could only be achieved through the analyses presented by Öcalan. People here are aware of this and he is immensely respected for it to this day. The people here, especially Arab tribes, see him as a pioneer for democratic coexistence between peoples and a source of ideas for a democratic modernity. In particular, the way Öcalan dealt with people and the way he conducted his struggle impresses people here and drives them on. This can be seen in everyday life, but also in the demonstrations or campaigns for his freedom.

After the Rojava revolution, there was criticism from Western journalists that the images of Assad had been exchanged with those of Öcalan. What do you say to this criticism?

The change that has taken place in Rojava and North and East Syria can hardly be put into words. It is a revolution that has brought change at all levels and created democratic institutions with the aim of working for a political, democratic, ecological and free society. People are moving further and further away from a system of monopolies that destroy the environment and marginalize the people. Thousands who previously knew nothing but their village or tribe have set out to defend people they have never met. Öcalan, with his theory of democratic modernity, has created something that gives people hope. He has given people something worth fighting for.

Regarding the accusation of the Western media, I can only shake my head. They look at the world from their perspective. We hang up Öcalan’s pictures here because we see more in him than “just a man”. He is the one who created an alternative. Through him, we have been able to build our freedom far away from the reality of Assad’s torture regime. We used to be forced to hang Assad’s pictures and fear him as a ruler. We hang the pictures of Abdullah Öcalan because they give us hope and strength. They remind us that another world is possible if we are willing to create it. Those who cannot understand this should not call themselves journalists and especially should not report on our revolution.


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