For the first time, returning to Western comfort, living alone, cooking for only myself, hustling to make money, network with peers and colleagues, is alienating, atomising, and excruciating.
Baran, neither in his appearance nor in his manners resembles anything of Rambo. On the contrary, his groomed appearance and carefully chosen words give him away as an eager student of humanities. Yet, to my question, he gave this unexpected and chilling answer. Upon graduation, Baran left academia and fought alongside Kurdish forces against ISIS. He soon let us understand that “it isn't about a profound exoticism or mystery of the Kurdish people or the Middle East. It isn't about tourism or having a good time. I was a student of a movement, in service and solidarity, and shared a chapter of my life in the company of their struggle”.
I met Baran for an interview to learn more about what motivated his decision.
(Baran requested to cover his face and change his name for this interview.)
Baran in his free time, in Rojava
The Voice: Above all, when did your mother find out about your plans?
Baran: I’m lucky to have a supportive and loving family. I was honest with them. They found out and were mostly upset, nervous, and did not want me to go, and pleaded with me not to. My political beliefs are not shared by my family.
The Voice: In terms of your solidarity with the Kurds - when did you find out about the Kurds and their fight?
Baran: Compared to others, I learned very late of Kurdistan, in fact long after even the siege of Kobane. In mid-2016 I became familiar with the situation in Kurdistan, I learned of the ideology that inspired the revolution, and then began planning to go myself.
The Voice: And then, you went there and joined the Rojava Internationalist Academy. Who are the people from that academy?
Baran: Some people went for adventure, many for political reasons, many out of hatred of ISIS, or the aggression of the Turkish State. All volunteers had a unique mix of aims, sometimes a mix, sometimes a mystery. However, with time, being with an oppressed and besieged people transforms these motivations and gave us a new commitment which eclipsed the perhaps self-interested reasons that drove us there. To be with the Kurds, the people of Syria, to meet those who have lost families and homes brought many fighters back to fight again, or to stay a long time, some for years.
Another very noble group are those who work at the international commune. They immensely deserve more attention and respect for their work, their commitment to studying the land, the people, the language, for their projects like producing a film within Rojava with actors and directors from there, and also their project to "green Rojava" by planting trees, and also to educate. I think these volunteers have strong ideological commitments to the revolution and a sentimental connection to Kurdish culture as well - a kinship that they cultivate with time.
Among the locals, there were, of course, many reasons for fighting and an immense and diverse collection of identities and backgrounds. I met Syrian Armenians and Assyrians, Yezidi, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, and so on. Some wanted revenge on ISIS, others wanted democracy, some were more radical socialists, and some were simply more nationalistic and wanted linguistic and cultural rights for their people. Others served simply to get paid. It was a curious collection of people in the end, and many conversations were a surprise as you learned about the background of someone you chatted with.
People say "The pen is mightier than the sword", I think we ought to be ready to carry both.
The Voice: How much did you earn?
Baran: YPG International volunteers are not paid a wage, so no one goes for financial motivations.
The Voice: Was violence always your means of communication?
Baran: I never wanted to be the sort of person who fought. For me, romanticizing violence is often too machismo. However, as a leftist and an internationalist I felt a strong sense of duty and solidarity, which suffices to motivate one to fight.
The Voice: And then, you decided to pick up a rifle.
Baran: People say "The pen is mightier than the sword", I think we ought to be ready to carry both.
The Voice: Tell us about your motivation - what made you go there?
Baran: International solidarity is a formidable weapon in the face of the forces of capitalism and nationalism which each thrive on our neglect of welfare and the empowerment of others. I am lucky to come from a stable nation, to have a stable healthy family, to have an education, to be able to find employment when needed, and to have it in a safe context. I believe it is the obligation of people like me to go stand shoulder to shoulder with people who do not have these things; those who must fight for their language, culture, land, and their political and economic rights. And to help contribute to raising awareness of their struggle. I consider myself a leftist, a revolutionary, and an internationalist. I had no reason not to go and so I thought I simply must, out of duty to my values and to the struggle of a people that face things that I, out of luck alone, have never had to face.
The Voice: After arriving there, what was your role?
Baran: In the beginning in Raqqa for the first half of my time there, I was on the second line with a unit of fighters doing guard duty with a Kalashnikov, which is standard. Towards the end of Raqqa we surrounded a hospital where many ISIS fighters were still resisting. We besieged the hospital until they capitulated and were only 200 meters away, we often had to endure attacks with small arms and RPGs, but we seldom returned fire since the hospital had civilians within. We were under order not to shoot, even if they did. During this time, my Tabur was part Kurdish, part Arabic, with some Yezidi and some Assyrians, from around Hasakeh. That was a good experience of the multicultural composition of the YPG.
In Deir es-Zur we did different kinds of missions, at first I was with a group of a few internationals and we did operations along the Euphrates river and around pockets of ISIS in the desert. A small team, that I helped lead, took a village (without much resistance) and also protected security forces that arrested ISIS collaborators. At this time I was with fighters from Qamislo, and later on, local Arab fighters.
Later in the winter, I fought with the "International Tabur" composed entirely of volunteers like me from around the world. We did pushing operations where we took ISIS positions, but mostly sharpshooting. I used a very old bolt-action rifle from 1927, a Mosin Nagant and also a Dragunov, for 'sharpshooting' which isn't exactly sniping, to be precise. Our unit performed "overwatch" for other units that attacked positions or we defended against counter-attacks and kept constant eyes on the enemy position.
Baran’s deployment: Raqqa and Deir es-Zur, Syria
There are stretches of time that bleed together. Your mind fills the space, almost like water in a cup.
The Voice: And other days, how did a typical day in the life of an internationalist look?
Baran: We say war is 99% boredom and 1% terror. Typical days move slowly. Many weeks pass quietly and they are punctuated by minutes or hours of mayhem. Every day had chores like cooking, cleaning, and training. Otherwise, we played board games like chess, dama, backgammon, Dungeons & Dragons, and so on. We also read whenever we had or found books, and would talk for many hours on end. To be a good fighter, above all, I think, requires the ability to work with others, live with them, to give and receive criticism, and cultivate a positive disposition for those around you.
The Voice: We often read about the strong role of women in the war against ISIS, could you elaborate on that?
Baran: Women play a major role in Rojava, both politically and militarily. I was primarily exposed to the military dimension, and fought alongside female fighters in the YPJ, and spoke with them, especially in Raqqa. Politically, women are guaranteed equality with men, and they even have a Women's Police Force that responds to violence against sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, and so forth. The women's revolution is hard to miss. It is evident all over the place.
The Voice: Thinking back on this whole experience, can you tell us which experience you value as the most important one?
Baran: I think the most important experience was not in one moment or event, but precisely the opposite. Time moves differently, slowly, through months without electricity and internet and only the company of friends and books. There are stretches of time that bleed together. Your mind fills the space, almost like water in a cup. When the pace of life changed, I felt my mind slow down and stretch out, in a good way. I became less distracted and more reflective. The companionship of my comrades was also decisive. Getting to know someone by seeing them all day every day is unique. Cooped up in a small apartment room in a bombed-out building with no doors anymore, you can't get away from your comrades. You see them tired, angry, sad, but also excited, glad, and curious. It's the gift of getting to see a pretty full picture of a person, or at least a snapshot in the course of their life.
Some folks think I am a terrorist, so like, it's tricky.
The Voice: After 9 months, you have decided to come back. Was there any particular reason?
Baran: At the end of February, the fight in Afrin was not going well. Thus they halted operations of my unit in Deir es-Zur. We were called back to a base away from the front. We were told we could no longer go to Afrin, nor back to the front in Deir es-Zur, and were informed we would likely have to wait 4 or more months just resting and training. This seemed like an okay time to go as my ability to fight was over. So I waited a little while in case we could return to the front, but this did not happen, so I came home.
If I have any purpose, it is in the end not to be some veteran fighter, but a voice for the Kurdish people, for the revolution in the West. Since I am a westerner, I can overcome the prejudice of those who would ignore the people of Syria, Kurdistan, and the Middle East in general. When I have their attention, when they listen to my story, I can emphasize that my story is only one very small line in a much bigger story. What matters here is not my story, and that's the point.
I'm not what's important. It is the democratic revolution in Syria betrayed by the world for realpolitik, the contradictions of capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism, being played out on the world stage in a terrible, tragic, yet also a farcical way in Syria. A better world is possible, it must be fought for, and we will never stop.
The Voice: How openly do you talk about your time in the Internationalist Academy?
Baran: It depends. It is not really a "secret". Anyone who is connected with me on social media could deduce it, plus, rumours spread fast. Moreover, it is my job to be an advocate for the revolution. However, I don't want to lose positions as an academic or as an employee, so in these contexts I say less. If I was willing to be in danger for the revolution, I must be honest about it also.
The Voice: Do you feel any kind of stigma?
Baran: Possibly some. There are people who do not speak to me anymore. Others remain silent on the subject, but perhaps that is a good sign. I don't want to be a “curiosity” or anything. I will probably always be "that guy" to some people, or the “weird uncle” in some ways, but we all have such a dimension. Mostly I am glad that I am in a loving relationship with a supportive and admirable partner since before I went to Rojava. Otherwise, I expect dating might have been harder. I wouldn't know how to make a tinder profile or bring up the subject on a date. The thought of that is rough, not out of shame, but just the labor of transitioning to such a topic. It's easier for me to write about it, speak at a public event, or to political comrades. But random people are a minefield. Some folks think I am a terrorist, so like, it's tricky.
My family is cool with it though.
The Voice: Last question, what did this whole experience do for you as a human being?
Baran: The truth of the experience, like anything substantial, is growing and changing with time. I struggle with decisions I made, things I saw, and the fact that I returned. For me there is an irresistible sense that this world, living here in the heart of capitalist modernity, is deeply and profoundly alienating. I have been happy my entire life, and known for it by those around me. For the first time, returning to Western comfort, living alone, cooking for only myself, hustling to make money, network with peers and colleagues, is alienating, atomising, and excruciating. I think many feel this. For me it has simply become pronounced.
[*] A political map with recent developments on the war in Syria can be found under http://SyrianCivilWarMap.com