Frontline Syria with a Brit volunteer: ‘Young women are the forefront of the resistance’

Dani Ellis, 32, went to northern Syria or ‘Rojava’ in December 2018 and is a civil defence volunteer with the Kurds. She tells Marisa Bate what it's been like since October 2019 - dodging bullets, airstrikes and why she’s staying on fighting for their cause…

‘Rojava is the Kurdish name for this part of northern Syria, which has been self-governing and a revolutionary experiment to create a more equal society since 2013. At its core is a feminist agenda, expressed most evidently by the YPJ, the Women’s Protection Unit, which has received admiration from around the world for the young female fighters who took on ISIS.

When Donald Trump announced in early October he was pulling US troops from northeastern Syria, Turkey responded in precisely the way many had fearfully anticipated: by launching a military offensive into the region. This region is populated partially by the Kurdish people, an ethnic group inhabiting a mountainous region crossing Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia, who have never had a nation state of their own. While the Turkish say that Kurdish military are ‘terrorists’ and claim they seek to restore ‘peace’, others, however, have called this offensive an ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people. 

Since the Turkish forces pushed into the region, the warfare looks likely to destroy the Rojavan dream. I’m in Til Temir, a city in east central Rojava, or north east Syria on the map. It’s one of the focal points of invasion of Turkey at the moment, it’s just outside the actual battleground but it has taken many of the refugees and many of the wounded and the dead.

I came here to join a group called make Rojava Green Again, which is an ecological group. I had studied engineering at university for six years and came to work here as an engineer as well. I was really inspired by the society, particularly how they had defeated ISIS, and that it was female led. The final straw that brought me here was learning about the death of Anna Campbell, a British fighter for the YPJ. She was a friend of a friend and hearing about her story of coming and fighting was so inspiring.

When the threat of war got worse, we came together to decide what we were going to do, so now I’m working with a guy called Rok from Catalonia and we’re part of a resistance campaign called Rise up for Rojava.

Day-to-day, we hitchhike around making video diaries of what’s happening. We’re interviewing, providing footage to TV stations who can’t get reporters out here because it’s too dangerous. But we are also helping on the civil defense works – putting up tarpaulin in the road so aircrafts can’t see targets, we’ve dug dead bodies out of houses that have been hit by strikes, we’ve distributed aid.

When I first started reading about Rojava, I was incredibly inspired by the different facets of the revolution, especially that it was built at a time when not just the Kurds, but everyone in this region of northern Syria were fighting ISIS. The number of people killed and the level of destruction caused is on a similar scale proportionally to the loss of life and destruction that the UK suffered during World War II.

Feminist revolution

Yet while they were battling ISIS, they managed to build a new society, where women don’t just have the same rights as men, but have the same power. In the constitution it states that there must be a minimum of 40% of women in any position of authority in society, women legally cannot take orders from men in the military and women have their own self-organizing units. For any structure, be it a co-operative or a government department, there’s nearly always a women’s self-organised equivalent. There’s a real emphasis on self empowerment as a core part of this revolution. It is the most inspiring things I have ever seen in my life. It is one of the things that have kept me here. I really believe it is worth fighting for.

One of the things that hit home was when I stayed with the YPJ units on the front lines back in February. There were a few very young women in this unit, about 19 or 20 years old, going out each day to fight ISIS. But less than a year before, they’d been living under ISIS and would have expected to be grandmothers by the time they were 30. Now they were completely self-organised with their own weapons, their own unit, living communally, fighting every day, with no men involved, no older people involved. The oldest commander was 28. This remarkable change in only a decade, is just… I don’t want to call it ‘progressive’, because it goes so far and beyond anything we would call progessive in the west.

kurds in syria

Syrian Kurds fleeing the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria (Getty Images)

The arrival of war

The day that the first airstrikes hit, I was in a meeting trying to raise some funds to build a small solar powered station for a women’s community centre. For me it was the embodiment of this revolution: a village built by women for women run by renewable power. And for me, as awful as it is the fact that people are dying from airstrikes, all of this hard work to do something so beautiful being snuffed out by forces who don’t know the first idea of what it’s like to be oppressed – it was gut wrenching. But we didn’t have much time to contemplate that because the bombs started falling in a few cities, including the one I was living in, and we just had to roll up our sleeves and start working.

What gives me the most strength is seeing how ordinary people are dealing with the invasion. They just get on with it. Recently we ended up a city that was besieged and where the heaviest fighting was. We tried to lead a humanitarian convoy into the city but we couldn’t get past the Turkish-backed Islamist forces blocking the road. On our way back, a village had been hit by an airstrike and we started digging out bodies that we came across. There were drones circling over us, we could hear artillery falling not too far away and I’d never been in a situation quite like that before; these ordinary people, they’re not firefighters, they’re not trained rescuers, they just started pulling up blocks of concrete and trying to recover their dead, in the midst of incredible danger. No one was crying, no one was panicking. That was a huge inspiration. I try and put out of my mind that something bad might happen, and just think there is a job to be done.

The UK is where my friends and loved ones are and I miss them terribly. But it also feels like a very hostile place now. The police have been trying to prosecute anyone who has been here in Syria. Several friends who haven’t even been here, but are linked to the people here have had thier houses raided. Some people here have heard their parents’ houses have been raided. The British police and government are trying to punish people for coming to Syria, so the prospect of going home, even though I really want to see my friends and family, is also an unpleasant one because I know I’ll be dragged through the courts, and I know I’ll have my passport taken away for a year or two. I know this is going to happen to anyone who has been here because it has happened to so many already. It’s a hard thing to think about.

 A glimpse of the future

This place is something incredibly special in humanity’s history. This, for me, was one of the best hopes for humanity’s future. This place offered one of the best possible glimpses of an alternative society, particularly for women, particularly for the environment, but for every part of society. It’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and was so peaceful.

 It is incredibly sad to see what is happening as the Kurds fought alongside the Americans to defeat ISIS in the region, suffering 11,000 casualties in the process. This is why many perceive America’s withdrawal as betrayal of their allies. And with reports that ISIS prisoners are escaping, this will only add to the turmoil and the resurgence of ISIS. But there is hope, when I see the resistance, in particular, what fight the young women are putting up here – they are the forefront of the resistance, it is so inspiring.’

*Follow Dani on @lapinesque

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