A valley of bones
The Arab Spring uprising of 2011 affected the whole world, and especially Syria. This people’s uprising can be understood as the result of a deep recognition of the need for a radical change in the existing system and consciousness. The creation of the system of “one flag, one nation, one language” did not include the people and was not embraced by society. Syrian society is known as the society between Euphrates and Tigris and for thousands of years people of all nations and religions have been living together, including Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Assyrians, Turkmen and many others. The Assad regime was against the nature of this society, and so, the people wanted to create fundamental changes through the uprising in order to democratise society. The areas of Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa, and Deir-ez Zor were part of the Syrian regime. However, during the uprising, the regime could not protect its people and ISIS used this opportunity at the end of 2012 to slip through the cracks and build a stronghold for its ideology. The Syrian regime was unable to protect its people and geography, and so, the people of North and East Syria lived under barbaric tyranny for 5-6 years. Although there have been many acts of brave resistance, most of these heroic stories have not been written because no one was able to capture them in words, either due to fear or perhaps, due to the shortcomings of the written word. The story of the family of Rewshen is one of the many hidden stories which I put down onto the page. Raqqa was liberated on the 20th of October, 2018. After the liberation, I went there to feel and see the liberation with my own eyes. It is not easy to talk about the events which have happened. I met Rewshen’s mother close to a canon full of bones. She was crying. She told me her story. This is her story, I have only changed the names. This is one of the many stories which have been lived , are alive, and have been waiting to be written.
The walls, valleys and towns have been crying. Villages that bloomed with the colours of butterflies and the streets which embraced sweet children and absorbed their pains, suddenly began to cry and hide their memories. The beautiful earth started to hide itself in grape gardens, the eyes of mothers still waiting for flowers to blossom. Young brides became bones in the valleys. The tree worms that called at dawn also became silent. Green, black and yellow olives no longer sang. The fear brought a ringing and loud silence. Tapestries of love, made for weddings, sat rotting behind windows.
Raqqa, born out of seven Raqqas, was tired of the darkness. How could the trees become refugees in their own land? How could the gardens become strangers? Even the deserts no longer knew themselves… This is the bizarre picture that this era produced. Faces once full of love, changed. Songs of the heart were sung no longer. Heroes decorated with wreaths, fell silent. The flutes of the shepherds stopped playing.
The visible stories of this town do not capture what was once hidden in the earth and is now lost. Everything in the town was destroyed. They wanted to dry its water, steal its stars and imprison the light of the seasons. Earlier, women used to come together in the mornings to bake their breads, share their dreams, and smile. Now, their ovens had been destroyed and the smell of bread did not waft in from any garden any more. But finally, after the darkest of the darkest nights, the area between the Euphrates and Tigris was liberated and the scarves of the YPJ (Women’s Defence Units) women flowed in the wind.
Rewshen was a beautiful, sweet and perfect young girl. Her mother was Arabic and her father, Kurdish. She was born in Raqqa, where she washed her hands every morning. Her mother wanted to name her Cemila, but her father preferred Rewshen. They called her both names, but Rewshen liked Rewshen more, so she became Rewshen. Her mother taught her Arabic, her father taught her Kurdish, and so, her heart was like a garden of flowers.
Rewshen did not expect that one day, gangs would come to her town and destroy her dreams. At the start of 2013, the gangs of ISIS completely took over Raqqa. During the initial days, ISIS tried to displace the Kurdish families and forced them to leave their homes, their soil. There was a lot of trouble during this time, and Rewshen’s father was taken by ISIS in the middle of the night. Why? Because he was Kurdish.
All alone that night, the flower that was Rewshen withered. The shape of her laugh faded. Her father was taken away, but where to, nobody knew. He disappeared, like her smile. For a long month, her heart was painted black.
From the night that her father was taken away, her mother cried all the time. There was not a single hair left on her head from all the sorrow and pain. Rewshen did not know what to do, how to resist. One day Rewshen’s brother went to town and searched everywhere, because he had heard that his father would be beheaded or hanged! But, like the wind that blows away, Rewshen and her brother’s father vanished, never to return. They missed his voice and face, his existence, every day. Nothing remained, besides their tears. Six months passed and the dark nights became nightmares for the people. Mothers did not dare leave their homes and girls did not go on the streets any more. Life froze. A deep fear arose, a fear so deep, that even the walls of the streets were full of fear. Celebrations and weddings were forgotten. All colours besides black were forgotten. Even the rainbow that used to show itself in the fields, did not appear any more. Women became unrecognisable and lost behind their black veils.
There was no electricity. The streets were silent. The fishermen did not go to the river Euphrates any more. Fear had eaten everyone. A fear that bred more fear. Rewshen was the child of two rivers, two mothers and fathers, two springs and countries. In Rewshen’s heart, all colours of spring once shone. But now, she only cried and did not feel warm sparks any more. She missed the Raqqa of earlier times full of joy and life. Where does this yearning go?
Rewshen’s mother told me about a black day that was so bad, she did not know what name to call if by. On this day, Rewshen’s brother was walking on the streets, smoking, not realising that he was being followed by ISIS men. When he reached home, his mother welcomed him, but the ISIS men immediately climbed over the wall, grabbed his arms, and shouted, “Eeey..Hypocrite of God, eeey boy far away from the road of God, we are taking you, Alahhhh û ekberrr.. alahhhh û ekberr.” Rewshen screamed for help and without thinking, threw herself on the ISIS men. But the men were stronger and threw her on the ground, kicking her. The men said, “We came for a bird, but look, there is a dove as well! We are taking the dove too”. Their mother shouted and screamed, throwing herself onto them, but who would listen to her? The men kicked their mother and pushed her onto the ground. She cried cried bitterly, screaming and shouting. The Mujahideen pushed a knife into Rewshen’s brother’s throat and dropped him onto the soil, his blood draining into the earth. He cried out one last time. And then, silence.
The ISIS men grabbed Rewshen’s arms and dragged her on the ground until Kesrata hill. The men, 5-10 of them, surrounded her like jackals, drool coming out of their mouths. Each one raped her. They enjoyed the pain of the dove in their claws. No one dared to answer her screams, no one dared to leave their house. The mothers and daughters inside the houses begged God with swollen eyes to cover the dove in burial robes. Rewshen spat on each man that touched her. In these moments the dove longed for her father and mother, her life like a black movie passing before her eyes. Rewshen, the girl of the river Euphrates. Rewshen, who as a young girl each morning collected the most beautiful stones of the river Euphrates, made holes in them and created necklaces that she gifted to her friends. Rewshen, when being caught in the claws of the jackals, wanted to be a butterfly, to fly away to another place, to the place of doves, the place of flowers. But alas, here our story comes to its end.
The nice days full of joy ended. Her father, who called her the fish of his heart, and her mother, who called her beloved of Euphrates, were in front of her eyes. She could hear her mother’s laugh, feel the wind when she was spun in the air by her father, play the games she once played with her brother… for the last time. The film ended here.
Rewshen was still alive 4 hours after being thrown into the valley. She was alone with her pain, her heart only silently crying “Cemilaa..Rewshenn”. With a knife they had torn out her voice for the raven to eat. Her beautiful body, the bones of the dove, thrown away in the valley to be eaten. Like her life, the wind came and went, seasons came and passed by, but still, Rewshen’s bones mourned in the valley. After this storm passed, Rewshen’s mother spoke to Rewshen in the valley every morning. She waited for the dove to rise and embrace her. People ask who these nameless bones belong to. But her mother knows. She knows that Rewshen’s soul is hidden among the bones. She comes each day, brings flowers and wets the bones with drops of her tears.
In this story you find pain, and resistance. QSD [Syrian Democratic Forces] planted olive trees above the valley. Now finally, the dark days are over and people can heal the legacies of pain. Five years of darkness, tyranny and pain are not easily forgotten. From Kesrata hill, the voices of women echo. These mothers who have been wounded and scarred without reason, now stand for themselves and have organised.
The women’s assembly, Zenobia, has stepped up. It’s a roof all women can come together under. It brings together women of all cultures. Women build their power in order to free society. To avenge all the Rewshens. Women from across many ethnicities have built up their own organisations in North and East Syria. This is truly a historical achievement.