By: A.M. Stein
February 8, 2018
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The international community has a remarkable ability to empathize with victims of tragedies. “Never Again” has become a calling card since the Second World War, an echo of an empty promise invoked every time another set of victims is produced. The world pats itself on the back as it comes together in a moment of collective horror at human cruelty. We sigh in unity, wipe our tears away, and declare that this will never be allowed to happen again. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
Now, as we are faced with what is arguably the most extreme terrorist threat in modern society, we have also seen the rise of a people who refuse to become victims. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) alongside Arab military councils, Yezidi militias, Christian military units, and more, have refused to fold in the face of a terrorist organization that promises death and destruction to all those who do not follow their strict cult of distorted Islam. On the contrary, the SDF has held strong against the Islamic State, defeating the extremists in the Battle of Kobani, the Battles of Raqqa, Tabqa, and Manbij, the fight for Deir Ezzor, and more. With minimal support from the international community, the Kurds and their allies have protected the world from being overrun by an organization dedicated to the destruction of freedom, the desiccation of culture, and the demolition of democracy.
The Kurds have established an oasis of security in the chaos of the Middle East, implementing a system of governance that holds the values of democracy, gender equality, multiculturalism, and environmentalism at its core. And they practice what they preach; every decision is made at the most local level possible, every governing body maintains strict quotas of representation to ensure all cultures, religions, and ethnicities are respected and heard, and every leadership position is co-chaired together by one man and one woman.
Still, this has not been enough to earn the world’s support or respect. Turkey, North Syria’s neighbor to the north, sees these developments of freedom, equality, and tolerance as a threat to Erdogan’s oppressive regime. President Erdogan’s fear of losing an ounce of control over the Turkish population has driven him to ally Turkey with the some of the most odious organizations in the world. After quietly supporting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra for years to undermine the YPG and YPJ in North Syria, the Turkish regime has now openly declared war on freedom and democracy. On 20 January 2018, Turkish military planes began an aerial bombardment of Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave in northern Syria. The region of Afrin, prior to this invasion, had been one of the safest areas of Syria throughout the war. Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons have sought refuge here, and for the most part, life has gone on as normal since the war began, with the addition of the locally welcomed Kurdish-led multiethnic democratic system of governance.
It is this safe haven of tolerance, respect, and freedom that the Turkish regime has decided to attack. With no provocation, Turkey declared Afrin “a threat to Turkish security”, and marched its armed forces into battle alongside the choice allies of the Islamic State, Tahrir al-Sham, and mercenaries fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under Turkish command. These combined forces have deliberately targeted civilians, refugee camps, civil infrastructure, and historic monuments in an effort to undermine and demotivate the people of Afrin and their defenders.
And once again, the SDF has swiftly jumped into action, defending Afrin and the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy. And once again, the international community has remained largely silent, save for a few meager statements calling for Turkish forces to remove themselves from Syria.
In fact, always eager to play devil’s advocate, Western media has even taken it upon itself to critique the efforts of the SDF, and in particular the YPG and YPJ. When Avesta Xabur(nom de guerre of Zeluh Hemo), a young YPJ member, sacrificed her life in order to stop a Turkish tank and protect a village full of civilians, Western media jumped at the chance to compare her actions with suicide bombers, terrorists, and religious fanatics.
Only days later, the depravity and wickedness of the jihadists fighting alongside the Turkish state was not only proven, but paraded about in the horrific video showing the mutilated body of Barin Kobani (nom de guerre of Amina Mustafa Omar), another YPJ fighter who heroically gave her life in a battle to protect the citizens of Afrin. Jihadists under the FSA banner, with Turkish soldiers beside them, stripped Barin’s clothes from her body, cut away her breasts, and filmed the humiliation of her corpse for their own perverted gratification and repulsive propaganda. But this degradation is supported by the Turkish state, and the world remains quiet, content to feign outrage only at acts that threaten the global status quo.
The world says “never again” as we watch boats full of refugees sink, the same way ships full of Jews were turned away at safe harbors. We say “never again” as we tiptoe around the term genocide while the Yezidis of Mount Sinjar (Shingal) are targeted for extermination and enslavement, the same way we failed to classify the Rwandan genocide for what it was. We say “never again” as academics, doctors, lawyers, and journalists are targeted, arrested, and tortured by the Turkish state, the same way we looked on as the Khmer Rouge decimated its population of educated intellectuals.
We say “never again” as images of Kurdish women being dragged through the streets, bodies stripped and mutilated, and civilians are trapped in basements and starved are shared all over the world, but we take no action.
We send platitudes, empty promises, and thoughts and prayers as we let others sacrifice themselves to defend the values we claim our society is based on.
Barin Kobani and Avesta Xabur are all of us. They are every woman and man who has ever been harassed, silenced, or abused. They are every child who has ever been bullied for being themselves. They are every person who has ever felt trapped by societal expectations, cultural standards, or religious traditions. And they are the courage that exists in all of us to face these challenges and overcome.
The women of the YPJ defend the values of freedom and democracy with the ferocity of an erupting volcano. Their determination and bravery stem from knowing that they fight for what is right, and understanding both exactly what they stand to lose, and what they stand to gain.
To lose means certain death following torture, humiliation, and degradation at the hands of depraved criminals who take pleasure in mutilating the female form and parading their depravity for the world to see. To win means overcoming an ideology of hate and violence, and implementing true freedom, democracy, and equality.
It’s about time the world understood what’s at stake.
Ms. Stein is a member of the Representation Office of the Democratic Federation of North Syria in Benelux. The office can be reached at email@example.com.