Forget the UN! Meet the Self-Determining Refugees
Rejecting the victim narrative, PKK-supported refugee camps in Kurdistan have taken control of their fates by creating their own autonomous system.
Without getting into the dehumanizing, brutal debates that dominate the so-called refugee crisis, let’s explore a different refugee story. One of autonomy, agency, self-determination and empowerment. Three refugee camps in Kurdistan illustrate this radical alternative to the status quo.
Our journey begins in Makhmour, a 40-minute ride south of the Iraqi-Kurdish capital Erbil City. Even today, this refugee camp’s inhabitants call its existence “a miracle.” It was created in the 1990s after the Turkish army destroyed Kurdish villages, forcibly displacing 100,000 people escaping massacre and forced assimilation. Far from the U.S.-cheerleading system in Erbil, decorated with billboards of Turkish companies, you feel an entirely different atmosphere upon entering Makhmour camp which is guarded by PKK guerrillas: a communal life.
Due to the explicitly political nature of the camp, which openly supports the PKK, the camp was displaced several times and repeatedly criminalized, invaded, and partly destroyed over the years by the Turkish and Iraqi states, as well as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which governs Erbil. The U.N. never adequately supported the camp beyond basic needs, due to its politics.
Many children were killed by scorpions during the early days in this desert-like, hostile piece of land. Over time, despite all the attacks, the people established a principled autonomous system and turned it into a fertile green settlement. Every neighborhood here forms a commune, each having an autonomous women’s commune. The education system, including the syllabus, and health services, the economy, etc., are self-determined and independent from the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. The entire infrastructure was built collectively. “Everyone placed a brick on every house here,” the story of Makhmour goes.
The Ishtar women’s council was created in 2003 in order to represent women’s will and needs. The women’s academy Martyr Jiyan (named after a camp woman killed by the KDP in an uprising) gives lessons in literacy, self-defense (philosophical and armed), world, regional, and women’s history, democratic confederalism, ecology, and more.
“To know is to become aware,” explains Aryen, who teaches at the academy. “There was a time in Mesopotamia where society was organized by women. That time was far more ethical and egalitarian than today’s age. We want to resist by reviving the values that were taken away from us as women by raising women with strength and ethical-political consciousness.”
Whoever witnessed the invisibility of ordinary women in ultra-patriarchal Erbil encounters a very different type of woman here: self-confident, assertive, and happy – a striking indicator of how systemic environments impact women’s lives. Though the camp is supposedly under U.N. protection, only the PKK was here to evacuate and defend the people, when ISIS attacked last year. All adults in the camp know how to handle a gun and take turns holding guard at night.
Our next stop takes us to the Sinjar (Shengal) mountains, the stage of the latest massacre on the Yazidi Kurds.
“This is definitely the last massacre on the Yazidis,” the people here say. “If we get distributed into the diaspora, this will be our end anyway. We will cease to exist as a community. That is why the only way to survive is to organize.”
What many people who fail to understand the sociological factors of displacement don’t realize is that attachment to a certain geography is an existential element for many communities. Displacement often means the irreversible erasure of history.
“Due to betrayal and lack of organization, we became victims,” explains a member of the Shengal Founding Council, established in January 2015, based on Abdullah Öcalan’s democratic autonomy system. “Now we know that if we do not look after ourselves, nobody will.”
Approximately 40,000 people live in tents on the mountain now. “We started by walking from tent to tent to meet people’s basic needs. Slowly, we began building self-organization through committees for services, culture, health, education, economy, etc. to sort out daily life issues, but also long-term goals. Women and youth organize autonomously. Very quickly, we became a thorn in the eye of the KDP, which withdrew when the massacre began,” he added. While blocking roads for others, the KDP distributes international aid from abroad in its own name here.
Our final stop is the Newroz camp which was created in Dêrîk (al-Malikiyah) in August 2014 after more than 10,000 Yazidis escaped by crossing the fading Iraqi-Syrian border through the “humanitarian corridor” from Shengal to Rojava, fought by the YPG/YPJ of Rojava and PKK guerrillas. During my first visit to the camp in December 2014, the full embargo on Rojava imposed by Turkey and the KDP, the latter controlling the border-crossing on the Iraqi side, prevented any humanitarian aid, including food and blankets, and even books from crossing. Due to political pressure, especially after the resistance of Kobane, some international organizations provide limited aid now, but the embargo continues. The UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, attempted to recreate the camp according to its universal concept, neglecting the fact that there was already a self-determining system in practice. Encountering the camp assembly’s resistance, the UNHCR was forced to respect their demands and now provides material needs, which the people coordinate themselves.
International institutions supposedly in charge have often left these people to die, starve, and suffer, by giving in to state policies. Meanwhile, the refugees, who have had everything taken away from them, create a life in dignity and power.
In September, the photo of the small child Alan Kurdî from Kobane stranded on a beach after drowning in the sea, managed to touch the silent conscience of humanity. My friend and Kurdish activist Mehmet Aksoy wrote: “Sometimes the fate of a child is written a 100 years before they are born. We are not talking of a divine fate, we are talking of historical forces, politics, power, hegemony, economic exploitation and colonialism.”
What makes bodies like Alan Kurdî’s so cruelly disposable is this order which values state-borders more than human beings.
In a world dictated by nation-states, what can we expect from a system like the U.N. that only respects the agency of states, which cause today’s massacres, genocides, ethnic cleansings, mass displacements, poverty, war and destruction to begin with, because it necessitates them by definition, especially considering that the core of it is made up of the top arms-selling states?
Rendering displaced people as dependent, apolitical non-agents, while leading a chauvinism discourse in host countries which established themselves through imperialism, racism, colonization, theft, exploitation, war, murder, and rape, is a strategy of the international order to maintain the racist status quo. Makhmour, Dêrîk, and Shengal, however, having been empowered by the PKK ideology, which rejects the nation-state system, tell another story.
Sabriye, a mother from Makhmour explains: “They fear us, because we stand on our feet. We did not trust anyone to save us, we took our fate into our own hands and created our own self-defense and social system. We made life sweeter by organizing ourselves.”
More than charity, refugees need comrades that help fight displacement causes (like foreign invasions and arms trade) and support the concerned people’s autonomy. Last month, Abdallah Kurdî, Alan’s father, called for the political recognition of the Rojava administration: “I am grateful for your sympathy for my fate. This has given me the feeling that I am not alone. But an essential step in ending this tragedy and avoiding its recurrence, is to support our self-organization.”
The world cried for Alan’s father, will it support his politics as well?
Photography by Alan Roj