REMEMBER 9th ANNIVERSARY OF QAMISHLY UPRISING
Rojava News UK – 14.3.2013 London – Transcript-Part of a speech that was delivered on March 12, in the British House of Lords on the occasion of the 9th anniversary of the 2004 Qamishli serhildan (uprising).
The speech was delivered by Thomas McGee, a PhD student in Kurdish Studies at the University of Exeter:
Firstly, I would like to thank all those involved in organising today’s meeting. I’m very honoured to have been asked to speak. Now, many people here today – or their relatives back home – may have themselves participated in the demonstrations and/or funeral marches that took place on the streets of Qamishli, Efrin and the other Kurdish areas of Syria in March 2004. Alternatively, they may have taken action here in the UK to mobilise support and show solidarity for the Kurdish people of Syria.
In contrast to your personal experiences, my own knowledge of the March 2004 serhildan (or uprising) is mediated through the recollections that have been shared with me in recent years, through the videos that have been uploaded on YouTube, through scholarly work (including that of fellow speaker Harriet Allsopp) and the few news articles that have been published on the subject. I am, therefore, grateful today to be able to leave the task of providing a descriptive account of what happened in 2004 to those better placed to deliver it, and instead use my time now to highlight, through a single-subject case study, what I have observed to be the uprising’s continued resonance in Kurdish social and political relations.
One way, in particular, that I came to know of the uprising – and of Kurdish history in general – was through a friend and little known poet from the town of Amuda. In 2009, his poems – notably a collection called Festivala Xwînê (Festival of Blood) retroactively introduced me to the events that had transpired in 2004. My friend – writing under the name of Kurdyar – helped me to see the significance of the serhildan for the Kurdish people of Syria, and to appreciate its contextual value in understanding the subsequent relation of Kurds to the 2011 Syrian Revolution.
As the title of his collection suggests, blood – in at least two senses – catalysed the mobilizaiton of Syria’s Kurds some 9 years ago. Firstly, the spilling of blood by Syrian authorities in Qamishli resulted in localised popular dissent being reproduced nationally. Secondly a contagious solidarity formed based on the perceived common blood of the Kurds as a distinct ethnic group. Indeed, 2004 saw some of the Damascene Kurds, whose ethnic identity lay somewhat dormant, rediscover – so to speak – their Kurdish blood. As such, an identification grounded in shared ethnic origins was reinforced by the pain and suffering inflicted by the Syrian authorities. This is reflected in Kurdyar’s response to his poetic forefather Cigerxwîn’s famous shorthand for the Kurdish existential dilemma – Kî me ez? (Who am I?): ‘Xwînî me ez!’ (I am blood!) writes Kurdyar, politically embodying the suffering of his people.
I would argue that the events of March 2004 and the sentiments expressed by Kurdyar have had a more significant impact on the trajectory of the 2011 Syrian revolution than is frequently acknowledged. In 2011, commentators often drew parallels between the Revolution and events in Hama during the early 80s. The latter certainly exemplified the capacity of the Syrian regime for brutal repression of its own people, a tendency equally apparent in the state’s response to 2011’s Revolution. Undeniably the Hama massacre of 82 has forcefully entered collective Syrian memory. However, and not to detract from this terrible episode in Hama’s history, the fact that much of the youth who demonstrated on the streets of Syria in 2011 were born and raised after 82 may mean that the Kurdish uprising was for them a more conscious – if publically unacknowledged – point of reference.
The year 2004 marked the awakening of a political awareness among Syria’s Kurds, but it also made the thought of openly challenging the regime conceivable for all. ‘For much of our society,’ says Kurdyar (when I spoke to him in Aleppo during March 2011), ‘2004 was the first time in decades we had seen people standing against the regime. 2004 prepared us all for the Arab Spring. It is hard to imagine Syria’s revolution without the Kurdish uprising taking place.’ While the ‘Hama days’ acted as a haunting deterrent against dissent (particularly for the Muslim Brothers), the 2004 uprising – also suppressed by state violence and intimidation – may serve as inspiration as well as warning. It demonstrated how the politics of outrage can powerfully transcend local grievances and gather popular momentum. Explaining the Arab Spring as a continuation of the 2004 phenomenon, Kurdyar nonetheless acknowledges, ‘we have all modified our strategies as a result of those days. While the Arabs learnt courage from our actions – though they may not admit it,’ he continues, ‘we learnt caution from the setbacks.’
I spoke to Kurdyar again in April 2011 when he told me of his anxiety about the Revolution. ‘I cannot believe as somebody who is 100% opposition and has always resisted this regime,’ he said ‘that I now find myself somewhere in the middle. But it is difficult for me to trust these revolutionaries who in 2004 were nowhere to be found.’
By May 2011, he had already decided, and committed, to play an active role in the Revolution, through like many Kurds initially mobilized without a visible Kurdish identity. In part, this was due to fears that Kurds could be singled out and especially victimised by the regime as in 2004. Also, there was an awareness that the regime could take advantage of Kurdish visibility to divide or discredit the opposition, claiming it is sectarian rather than fully ‘Syrian’ Revolution. ‘Of course I still have my reservations,’ muttered Kurdyar, ‘but now we are engaged. We cannot watch our brothers being killed without acting.’
As he spoke these words, I was immediately reminded of the opening lines of the poem ‘Festivala Xwînê’, and its – now ironic – critique of Arab-Kurdish brotherhood, cited both officially by the state, and recently within the Syrian opposition, and in each case with little by way of meaningful implementation.
‘Birayo tu nizanî – Brother, you know not
Biraryê te … çi biray! – Your brother … what brother
Li bakûrê welatê te – In the north of your country
Li bakûrê rojhilatê welatê te – In the north east of your country
Welatekî min heye – I have a country
Li vir – Here’
He concludes – and I believe the conclusion is as apt for the present as was in 2004 – ‘Biratî gotinekî sherîn e’ (it is a sweet word, brotherhood). A conclusion that provides hope, while simultaneously signalling despair.