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It is difficult to introduce this interview with my friend and comrade Josh Schoolar who passed away peacefully at the age of 23 a few weeks ago. He was a stalwart of our movement and utterly committed to changing the world for the better – whether that was on the frontlines in Syria, defending women seeking healthcare at abortion clinics, or driving tenant and community organising forward among some of Manchester’s poorest communities. More than that, he was held in high regard; his opinions and views mattered to many of us. Not just because of his practical work and his bravery but because, despite his relatively young age, he was intellectually rigorous: his arguments were well founded in his reading, the debates he had, the history of past struggles, and the lessons he had learnt within the movement. One of the last discussions I had with him was on the shifting focus from workplaces to communities in communist organisation and why he believed this shift strengthened our movement to include workers who are distant from the official labour movement. He knew the argument well, knew the relevant materials and writers too, but he was unsure about putting his thoughts down in writing. Despite being a working class autodidact that could switch from poetry, to history to Marxist theory and then to fashion without a pause for breath, he sometimes lacked confidence just like so many working class militants that fill the ranks of our movement. I told him we’d work together on it, that we’d go through the arguments and build his case for how to build working class power and a party over several weeks and months if necessary. His experience in Rojava and in Britain with ACORN would have held invaluable lessons for the collective effort of all communists working to re-found the workers’ movement.
The unfinished interview we are presenting below is, I believe, his last written piece of work. It is an introduction to the political and military upheaval taking place in Rojava and northern Syria from the perspective of someone who not only witnessed the struggle but was an active participant. There are nuances and questions that would have been explored in further questions, but what shines throughout his responses is that being an internationalist is about critically learning from struggles and being there when it matters. That could be on the demonstrations, raising money and awareness or, as he did, on the frontlines of a democratic revolution that has liberated millions of women and ethnic minorities from Assad and violent Islamists.
When he was in Syria I could only ask about him by not using his name. I decided to call him Anakin instead as every message I received from Josh would mention how much he hated sand. Pretty difficult to avoid when Syria is 55% desert. Yet for me the funniest story from that period was that despite the constant threats of being in a warzone, his anger was sparked by the collectivisation of his personal chocolate by the Marxist-Leninists in his unit. He could have sent me an update on the military situation or the political debates he enjoyed having, but no, he needed to express his dismay at Tankies eating his chocolate!
Alongside the grief I feel for Josh’s death I am also really angry. Not with him but with the British police and security forces for the way they treated him on his return to the UK. Everybody expects to be questioned when returning from an active warzone, particularly where Islamist gangs are running riot, but he was harassed and under constant pressure for fighting against the Islamic State. This despite the fact that Britain is in a de-facto military pact with the same forces that gave Josh orders. This led to him losing a job with children with special education needs where he had enjoyed working with the kids; regular raids on his home; the questioning of his friends and family; and the refusal by British state agencies to conclude their investigations one way or another. This left Josh and his family precariously in limbo. These actions by the British state, no doubt under pressure to appease Turkey, have been arbitrarily and unevenly used against civil and military volunteers from Britain. Some are welcomed onto our TV screens and given book deals, while others like Josh face lengthy harassment and suspicion, and still others end up in prison for fighting against those who raped, plundered and murdered their way across Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan. This state of affairs must come to an end, Josh’s family deserve an apology from the British government. All other volunteers and supporters on the receiving end of this repression must have their freedoms and rights restored.
On a personal level he was steadfast to his friends and hilarious, often unintentionally, making some dark times a bit brighter. He could keep up with the best on a night out and whether releasing flares during a wedding, doing Yoga in a Yurt during a communist camp, or turning up for a family friendly barbecue slightly worse for wear, he had quite the reputation for mischief and comic adventures. From Regretful Josh to Renaissance Josh he was simply a joy to be around and to have as a friend. Moreover, at a time when the culture on the Left can be very toxic and fickle he instead insisted on loyalty, friendship and discussion over cancelling and denunciations. For a young man he had achieved in a few years what many could not in a long lifetime. Knowing this is of some comfort but he had hoped to return to university to study fashion, there were boys to fall in and out love with, plans to unionise new workplaces, a world to see and all that he could have achieved in the coming years personally and politically would no doubt have been just as important and impressive, which is what makes his death even more bitter.
It is important to say that Josh was loved by a great many people and his loss has been felt far and wide. It is a testament to him and to his family that tears have been shed on every continent following his death. He was a remarkable man and my heart goes out to his parents and brothers.
He will not be forgotten.
Prometheus Editorial Board
Prometheus: There have been a lot of stories about the Kurdish struggle in Rojava against the Islamic State but often very little on the political situation. Can you explain how the political situation has been transformed and some of the challenges the democratic and feminist forces have encountered?
The situation has changed significantly since I was in the country. While I was there through 2017 and in early 2018 the defeat of the caliphate was taking place, with significant defeats in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and finally their defeat as a military force and state with the capture of Baghouz. Although the Caliphate remains a risk, often assassinating local leaders they see as collaborating with the Syrian Democractic Forces (SDF) whilst continuing to launch hit and run attacks on regime and SDF positions.
After the defeat of the caliphate and the invasion of Afrîn and later areas such as Serê Kaniyê by the Turkish backed FSA, the military situation was dominated by the risk that Turkey poses. Relationships with the Assad regime have moved quickly as well. When I was in Qamishlo, a city split into zones controlled by either the regime or the Democratic Union Party (PYD), there was a lot of hostility and frequent tit for tat arrests that sometimes escalated to conflict between the regime militia and the Asayish, the PYD’s security forces. For now, the tit for tat stuff continues but there’s some openness to work with the regime following Turkey’s incursion – in terms of realpolitik one can see the justification for self-defence but the long term political-military goals of the Rojava revolution have always been to use the region as a revolutionary base for the liberation of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Fortunately I have faith in the political leadership of PYD and SDF to recognise the risks of openly working with juntas despised by most people in the region.
Most of the young PYD cadre and organisers I had the honour of working with were staunchly anti-Assad, a refreshing thing to experience given the somewhat sympathetic attitude that some on the UK left are willing to give dictators! When myself and some comrades on the delegation from Plan C visited the Mala Jin, the women’s house in Qamishlo, we had the chance to have a chai and a smoke with the women running it. The women’s house is a kind of drop in hub for people who were suffering abuse or violence in the community – women who wanted advice around issues that may be difficult to talk to in their families due to prevailing misogynist attitudes the revolution was working hard to circumnavigate. During the visit we spoke to a woman who had been organising the women’s movement years before the revolution and the PYD’s consolidation of power. She described that before the revolution women seen to be politically active were harassed and tortured by the Assad regime militias, who despite their supposed secularism still have a great deal of conservative and reactionary ideals from the top to the bottom of their Baʽathist movement. Her conclusion was that by keeping the regime in check and the Islamists at bay the PYD had established the right conditions where a women’s social movement could be built.
That’s not to say that the political organising that goes into building such a social change is easy. Like any revolution it’s built by organisers, cadre and people willing to put the work in. Before the Syrian Civil War, which led to the retreat from Northern Syria of regime forces which directly led to the PYD and the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) being able to take control of the area and place power in the hands of the people, Northern Syria was home to large network of organisers, safe houses, sympathisers and militants loyal to the Kurdish Freedom Movement and many had been involved in struggles against regimes in Bakur, Bashur and Rojhelat – areas of Kurdistan dominated by the juntas of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. These pre-existing networks of militants, and the years of community organising spearheaded by PYD cadre meant that popular support and militias could be raised relatively quickly when the regime departed. This has been described by some as a coup by TEV-DEM/Kurdish forces but that’s not entirely fair – while the revolution initially consisted of the seizure of civil and military infrastructure by organised militia and cadre, it was only possible because of the decades of work put into building popular support for such a movement. Because the movement built community structures like the Mala Jin in Qamishlo, they had earned the trust of the local populace – obviously out of which most of the militants had come from. It was as common to see local leaders as it was cadre leaders from the PYD who had grown up in say Bakur or Bashur – although due to the ideological sophistication of the wing of the movement from Bakur they were more so established in local leadership positions, both military and civil. I don’t see this is a criticism though. As communists we should be interested in building and training cadre for this exact function – politically educated and experienced militants and organisers who, when the time is right, can seize and operate civil and military infrastructure with the backing of the people.
I was working in Kobane with TEV-DEM on civil projects and I would frequently work with young women from the Women’s Movement. Their role was to work in communities newly liberated from Daesh (Islamic State), organising local women and setting up Mala Jins and local women’s councils. Their male comrades did similar work, establishing community councils, committees etc. Civil work like theirs was the backbone of the revolution – no gun can take a shot against fascism if the people behind it are not willing to pull the trigger. You know, it’s a shame that we often lose this aspect of the revolution in the spectacle of the actual war against the Islamic State. I was fortunate enough to spend my first 6 months in civil structures like TEV-DEM, which allowed me to learn Kurdish, speak to people about the revolution and witness the organising on a huge scale that has to take place before any of the more sexy military stuff. The organisers that spread and defended the revolution on the home front were tireless workers, mostly young women, mostly local cadre, whose role – like Mao said – was to swim like a fish through the people. To solve problems, empower people, deal with issues and spread the social revolution, building popular support for the costly fighting that made the defence of the revolution possible, often in communities where everyone had lost a member of their family to the bitter fighting and long war in Bakur.
The issues these organisers often came across were more widespread in areas like Manbij, which at my time there, had only recently been liberated – I heard of organisers being attacked and some being killed by Daesh loyalists who did not want to see their communities liberated and women freed from the hundreds of years of misogynist slavery that many had faced. This kind of organising, in areas struck with economic and resource issues because of the costly fighting, was some of the hardest I’d witnessed. None the less the success of their work could be seen later when in 2018 Afrin was invaded by Turkey and the predominantly Arab areas (Manbij, Raqqa etc.) raised their own militia to fight, not just for territory but for the goals of the revolution, which by successful community organising they had slowly come to align with. Seeing newly liberated people take up a rifle to defend their rights and the rights of others, when they could have easily not taken part and lived willingly under Daesh/TFSA rule, was one of the most inspiring things I’ve witnessed and it wouldn’t have been possible without the work of cadre young and old, spreading the message of the party to their homes, communities, farms and workplaces.
Prometheus: Many in the West have claimed that the upheaval in Rojava is anarchist or communist but they don’t seem like helpful labels. How would you describe the revolution and the society being fought for by militants in Rojava today?
It’s interesting that the anarchists and the Marxist-Leninists seem keenest to point towards the revolution and claim it as their own. While both have been firm supporters of the revolution, both internationally, on the home front and indeed fighting on its frontlines, the revolution of Northern Syria certainly doesn’t fit into their supposed models of how revolution should work. It’s quite a complex issue to unpack but I want to go over a few things as I see it, and comrades from within and without the Kurdish freedom movement should feel free to disagree. I’d be the first to acknowledge that while fairly fluent in Kurmanci the nuance of some political debates was often lost on me and sadly while the writing of Ocalan and others that have inspired the revolution can be easily found in English, it’s often hard to find internal discussions about the revolution’s inspiration from within the movement. That said here goes – hopefully avoiding upsetting everyone!
First of all the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) functions as I see a state would. It has fronts and borders which it is necessary to monitor and keep secure. TEV-DEM has centralised control over most logistics, industries, healthcare, education and, as Engels said and Lenin elaborated on, there are “special bodies of armed men” whose role it is to defend the region, police it, spread the revolution and stamp down reactionary elements. From an anarchist reading one could interpret these statements as a criticism but in terms of realpolitik, I must say centralisation and militarisation of society are essential to fight and win a civil war as a revolutionary government. Would we criticise the Paris Commune, the early USSR or the Spanish Republic for being made up of centralised elements essentially under party control, defended too by a military of militias of workers and peasants? I’ll just say any ultraleft illusions towards the state I held before going to Syria quickly fell by the wayside when the state was both directly accountable towards local commune democracy and the only thing between me and a televised decapitation.
Secondly the economic aspect of the revolution is well behind the social victories that it has achieved – there’s a few things here. As Marxists we see the productive classes as the prime movers of social change and thus the prime movers in history. Specifically in our context we see the international working class as fulfilling this role today. The primary productive classes in Northern Syria are agricultural workers, state employees working in oil, logistics, civil service and smaller urban workers such as blacksmiths, bakers, mechanics, butchers and community based manufacturers that fall somewhere between proletarian and artisan. Due to the lack of a proper homogenous working class that Marxists would usually point to as whom the reigns of revolution should be left to, the social successes have not been reflected in economic change. There is stratification between classes who labour and those who profit from it that TEV-DEM, due to their reliance on local leaders, have found hard to overcome. Especially as the markets in Northern Syria are dominated by what could be described as a war economy, the vast majority of industry and agriculture is under contracts with TEV-DEM and the SDF, meaning that while the conflict is active, economic shakeup could be detrimental. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been models of different economic organising, albeit not through a Marxist lens. There are large successful cooperatives organised and run by local people mostly in the agricultural sector that divide food and profits among their communities. Oil and bread is free for all who need it, houses and homes are state subsidised and last year the first industrial union for workers in Rojava was established. These elements should be praised but the broader reluctance by some quarters to plan and establish a program of exploration and workers control should rightly be criticised from a Marxist perspective. However, we should always be mindful of criticising from afar given the economic realities of fighting a war while under economic boycott from Turkey et al.
A defining feature of the DFNS are the councils and communes which are, behind TEV-DEM, the primary decision makers, significantly so on a neighbourhood and village basis. More successful in urban settings than rural, a fact that shouldn’t surprise any decent Marxist, the commune is the backbone of the revolutionary system. Directly inspired by the American anarchist Murray Bookchin and the experiments in Bakur, the democratic system which Ocalan describes as Democratic Confederalism is the official model of the Northern Syrian revolution. Others may be better placed to describe this system but as I saw it via several commune meetings (large public affairs with several generations of local people of all genders and ethnicities), the people are united by three things – running their communities democratically in their interest, a love of very long meetings, and a love of chain smoking round a table. Communes appoint Asayish, distribute resources, make decisions on local policy and laws and appoint people to serve in the YPG/SDF. I’ve seen weak communes and strong communes and there’s various factors that impact their effectiveness, but I do see Democratic Confederalism – albeit with Marxist economics, as the best way forward for any current revolutionary movement – as explicitly the firm fixture of participant democracy in the bedrock of whatever revolutionary experiment we build next.
It would be remiss to discuss the revolution without going into the social gains made for women and ethnic minorities in the region. These have been well documented elsewhere but I stand by the fact that I’ve never seen women properly liberated before or since. Now a revolution takes time and there are still reactionary elements which the movement must confront in terms of gender and ethnic relations but the system of autonomous councils within the wider commune backbone have achieved relative ethnic harmony and a huge leap forward in social and civil rights. This is an exceptional victory given that the region is so fraught with violence and division that it could have quickly gone the way of the former Yugoslavia – one need only point to the horrors that take place daily in Afrin under the rule of the Turkish-backed Islamists to see the stark difference in social rights, attitudes and the general freedom and liberty of the population under TEV-DEM.
To finally try to answer your question, I think that it would be accurate to describe the Rojavan revolution as something like a bourgeois revolution, although there are proletarian elements and a workers party involved in building the ranks of the cadre needed for the struggle. The revolution is primarily one for rights for women, for ethnic minorities and for the populace as a whole. It’s a transitional moment. History no doubt works in stages and I think that to fight against feudalism and barbarism for inalienable rights and local democracy, no matter how ‘liberal’ it may look from a Marxist perspective, means a victory may pave the way for more progressive elements and classes to take the reigns. The revolution isn’t over, hell the war isn’t over, and these things take time – I just think we shouldn’t just judge the revolution on what we see now but on what gains might be made, globally and locally, using this model in the years to come.
Prometheus: Obviously there are many motivations for joining the struggle in Rojava. What was it about the revolution that drew you to travel to join the revolutionary forces? Could you explain what it is like for internationals in Rojava?
You know when I was in the country, my unit was interviewed for a comrades film ‘Belki Sibi’ which means ‘Maybe tomorrow’, the Kurdish equivalent of the Spanish Mañana Mañana. Internationalists, when asking when things will be delivered, when they can use the internet, when drinking water will arrive or when offensives are scheduled to take place, are likely to hear the reply ‘Belki Sibi Heval, Inshallah’ which generally means I don’t know mate it’ll happen when it happens. In this interview, while wearing a scarf and a field hat, I said Anti-fascism is an important reason that lots of people are here, myself included. Despite my best attempts, my dulcet Yorkshire tones being played back to me in a police interrogation has to rank as the most spectacular but by far not the only time that my accent has got me into hot water.
Anti-fascism was a major motivation in me making the decision to partake in armed conflict with the Caliphate but it was certainly not my only reason for travelling to Northern Syria. I guess you can split it into a series of personal and political factors that led to me first of all traveling to Syria and secondly deciding to fight on the frontline. It’s important to note that I signed up for 6 months of civil work with my delegation and as such felt obliged to see that work to its conclusion. After those 6 months in Kobane and Qamishlo working with TEV-DEM I joined the International Freedom Battalion (IFB) alongside comrades from the UK and dozens globally. My motivations to travel abroad were many – firstly to see the revolution I’d read so much about and to help grow and defend it where I was able. I was at a point in my life personally, after dropping out of university, where my options were to organise with Deliveroo workers or travel to northern Syria. While neither is more or less important than the other in terms of work militants should be involved in, I decided on the latter. It was a once in a lifetime chance to participate in a revolution and by luck I’d found myself with the means and contacts to take that chance. Without a doubt there was an element of adventure and swashbuckling to the whole thing. I’d be a liar if I claimed there wasn’t – but at the end of the day it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. To be a socialist is to be an internationalist and I saw it as somewhere between duty and desire to join a revolution. Of course this is a tale as common to our movement as anything, from the International Brigades of Spain in 1936 to Engels fighting on the Baden barricades in 1849, or more recently of course internationalists journey to Palestine and Latin America to engage with revolutionary elements there. Our movement has always been global and that push to join your comrades abroad is always greater in the context and urgency of a civil war and revolution. I was motivated by internationalism, Anti-fascism and the desire to experience and support a revolution that was taking place in my lifetime. I think that desire is a strong one. Brecht probably engaged with that desire best when he wrote ‘To Those Who Come After’ but the feeling that you’re fighting for something, for a liberation that you won’t live to see, is no doubt partly a cause of the vicious ennui and the resentment towards each other endemic in our movement. I feel that part of the reason myself and others have travelled to Syria, as our comrades did in Spain, is the desire to not just practice what you preach, but attempt to fight or indeed die for socialism in your lifetime, as something not just on paper but something solid you can grab and feel and experience.
My work in Syria was teaching English, supporting commune organisers and engaging with local organisations. But primarily I was there to learn from the revolution and from my new comrades within it. To spread the word about it and to serve as an example for other Westerners who may wish to do the same. We attended meetings, funerals, demonstrations, worked in cooperatives, in schools and in logistics. If we were doctors, scientists, mechanics or engineers, our objective was to teach and if we were young comrades then our objective was to learn. The same can be said of the local cadre as much as it can be said for volunteers. Although there came a time when I begrudged my civil work and was eager to join my comrades on the front I was lucky to have this experience. I’d seen what the revolution was doing and that it was working. I’d learnt Kurdish and some Arabic which would prove useful later as most of my International Tabur (Unit) didn’t speak Kurdish. I’d been able to see that what we were making in Northern Syria was worth defending. I would never have gone to Syria just to fight, because before I arrived I would never have seen myself as capable or useful, but having been there as a participant my decision to move from civil to military work was crystal clear.
A revolution is messy and different internationalists have different experiences of it. The language is the key thing -, once you can grasp that you can come to terms with where you are, be useful and properly work within the revolution. Without the ability to communicate you can find yourself feeling like a burden and that’s very difficult for some, especially those that go over there with big ideas of themselves. You might be a big fish here but in Syria as ersatz cadre, with all the expectations and responsibilities of the local revolutionaries, you’re more a minnow than you might have seen yourself at home. For me the adjustment was relatively easy – it was my first time abroad as an adult, I was 20 years old and used to, for want of a better word, following orders. I’d been through education, dropped out of uni and always had some kind of job since I was about 12 years old so I didn’t mind being a grunt, in terms of civil work or military. I was mostly working with local cadre my own age and once I’d got the Kurmancî Kuridsh down I felt at home. You know I had a running joke that I ate much better in Syria on the fresh fruit and veg and bread from the local coops and communes than I had in the UK. I was also lucky that I was the fifth member of my old organisation – Plan C – to go there, so I’d been prepped and introduced to comrades abroad by my friends and that helped my transition over there. It was genuinely like coming home. A real feel of inclusiveness, solidarity and that brilliant feeling you’re making tangible history, a feeling that I’ve personally found it hard to find since. Fundamentally the attitude towards internationalists is that you have gone there as a revolutionary – you’re treated as an ersatz cadre, you wake up early, you train, you eat together, you cook together, you debate together, you do your work together. On the front or in civil work you are expected to have military discipline – it’s no tea party that revolution! You are expected to take part in criticism and self criticism. You are expected to work hard and be disciplined. For some that’s a culture shock but to be quite honest exactly the kind of culture shock that many in the Western left would do well to experience. The most difficult part of the experience for me was and is the adjustment of coming home, from being part of something to being treated by the police as one of the fascists you were fighting, the comrades you’ve lost and what can seem like the drudgery of life in the UK – at the very least I certainly miss the weather. For me again I’m lucky in that I’ve been supported by comrades both materially and emotionally but that’s not the case for everyone of course. Last year Jamie Janson took his own life, in part due to the harassment by police and untreated PTSD following his volunteering in the International Tabur in the YPG. Although a lot of this discussion centres volunteers from the West, at the end of the day, I could go home. The same cannot be said for volunteers from Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran who signed up for life, knowing that return home means torture and death. Or local volunteers who have lost everything in the conflict. We can’t have a discussion about what happens to international volunteers when they get home after Syria without dealing with the fact we’re lucky to have homes to come back to.
Prometheus: Could you tell us what it was like at the front for ordinary volunteers and fighters? Apart from the fighting, the guard duty and routine did you find time to discuss and to learn from comrades in your units?
So after completing the civil education projects with TEV-DEM I volunteered to join the International Freedom Battalion midway through the operation to liberate Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. We naively thought at the time that this would be something of a final victory over Daesh, however we would be proved very wrong in the coming months. I was already somewhat involved with the Turkish and Internationalist volunteers of the IFB, having worked alongside SYPG, the civil organ of one of the parties involved in the IFB, and as a result had a close relationship with them. The decision was obvious however – I would rather have been in an explicitly communist Tabur than in a YPG Tabur. This was motivated by several factors. Although I was near fluent in basic Kurmanci Kurdish at this point, in combat my language skills would have been a liability. Also, the IFB gave a space for internationalists to meet and discuss the political and material realities of struggle in their homeland. I was honoured to meet, fight alongside and discuss strategy and tactics with comrades from Turkey, Kurdistan, Iran, France, Italy, Greece, Ireland, Denmark, Holland, Sardinia, Brittany and the USA among other ethnicities, nationalities and countries of origin. Another discussion should be had on this but I would place volunteers from Britain and Ireland on the most numerous demographics behind Turkish comrades – as such Turkish and English were the primary languages used in the Tabur. In addition there was a strong mentality that the IFB should be a popular front – we had Anarchists, Apocis (supporters of Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK), Unaligned Socialists, Marxist-Leninists, Maoists and Communists of all stripes from various international parties and platforms. This created an atmosphere of discussion and debate, and just the right amount of comradely dunking on the anarchists. Among these demographics there was often a decent ratio of women (notably moreso from the Turkish and Kurdish movements, although a handful of women comrades came from the European communist movements), there were gay, bi and lesbian comrades including myself present amoung our ranks and a trans comrade amoung our leadership cadre. Fundamentally the IFB was a diverse military unit representative of our European, North American and Middle Eastern revolutionary movements. This isn’t to say there weren’t issues – naturally often cultural and political disagreements took place and while there was unit level democracy there was an appointed leadership from the Turkish parties that led the IFB. We were there as volunteers on their dime and time so it was established and respected that they should have some authority over military and social decision making.
What made the IFB respected and accommodated under the leadership of the SDF/YPG was not only the long lasting relationship between the Kurdish freedom movement and the communist parties of Turkey but the fact that we were militarily effective. SDF units were often undisciplined and of low morale with internationalists units, that won’t be named here, having reputations for cowboy tactics and ill discipline. The IFB was treated as a cadre Tabur, equal among those cadre Taburs of the YPG. Having proved itself on the field in the last few years of conflict meant that we were offered combat operations regularly and had a good track record of success in the operations we were given. When I came to the unit, despite being relatively untrained and inexperienced, I had been in the country for over 6 months and had met and worked alongside many volunteers of my unit. This made my transition easy and I was placed in a Takim, equivalent to a section, made up of English speaking internationalists – we reported to an appointed and elected council of leadership cadre which took the place of officers – Long Live Ruzgar’s Roughnecks! In addition we had appointed and elected officials for roles like armoury, medicine, logistics, communications, education, fitness etc. We had a kitchen system wherein one or two people were relieved from daily duties to cook and clean for our three and sometimes four dozen strong unit, however in the communitarian spirit of the revolution here it was seen as a well respected position (as long as your cooking was okay – the culinary standards of some comrades meant that some days were to be feared.) In fact not to blow my own horn but my days in the kitchen were generally of a better standard than many in our unit – my little Queer Eye gift to the international communist movement maybe.
Among regular guard duty, logistics and counter insurgency tactics (patrols, sentry duty etc.) we were given operations that involved moving throughout districts of the city, clearing it of a hostile presence including Daesh fighters, snipers and improvised explosive devices (IED). The biggest percentage of casualties were down to mines and IEDs – as Daesh retreated through the city and we advanced they paved the way with thousands of explosive devices of mixed sizes and mechanics which were deadly. During the main operation I partook in, our Takim cleared over fifteen devices from a building we were in and still lost two SDF comrades from mines placed around our position. In that operation we were tasked with taking a position – named Orhan Point after a comrade we had lost before the operation; an Armenian communist named Nubar Ozanyan (Orhan Bakırcıyan), a true internationalist he had fought alongside the PFLP in Palestine and Lebanon as well as organising a decade long insurgency in Turkey. He was one of the biggest advocates for internationals in the IFB and until he fell continued to be well respected among the Tabur’s leadership cadre. We held Orhan Point, a four story apartment block on one of the key highways through Raqqa between the old city walls and the historic graveyard in the city, for about four weeks, with daily exchanges of fire around dawn and dusk with Daesh fighters. We were proud that at the point that Daesh were forced into a surrender in the city, we were one of the furthest positions into the center of the city. We did what we could as a unit you know – we certainly weren’t the best or the worst, we were well disciplined and worked to the best of our abilities on whatever role we were given by our overseers in the SDF leadership. The IFB formally disbanded before the conflict in Afrin, although comrades from our unit reformed under the name Antifascist Forces in Afrin. In that war with the Turkish-backed Islamists and the Turkish army we lost many comrades, stalwarts from the Turkish communist movements and the internationalists alike. One of the hardest losses was my friend and comrade Hauker Hillmarsson, who we knew under his nom de guerre Sahin Hosseini. He was a lifelong anarchist and organiser, having fought in climate struggles across Europe – in northern Syria he was quickly appointed as a Takim leader, he frequently organised education and fitness sessions and was one of the most disciplined and gracious revolutionaries I’ve ever had the pleasure in meeting. He was killed instantly by a Turkish airstrike in early 2018 fighting to defend the failing front lines north of Afrin. That was the tragedy of our unit I think. The international movement didn’t send their best and brightest to Northern Syria – in some cases far from it, but it seems that those that fell made up the best of us.