Before either of us left for Rojava, we were walking on a tree-lined path in my neighborhood and talking about it. I was more afraid than her. I remember saying that if somebody close to me would die, some mythical status of theirs as a martyr would be of no consolation to me.
I wasn’t yet much familiar with the shehid (martyr in Arabic and Kurdish) culture of the Kurdish struggle. For me the word martyr carried religious connotations and didn’t seem to have anything to do with my worldview. In my native language the word is nowadays used only to describe negative, guilt-tripping behavior.
A year into being in North-Eastern Syria, another conversation with a different friend. She said she felt sorry for the Spanish Civil War veterans she had seen in a documentary, because they lost the fight. I said something about how the ideology survived, and her reply was “Yes, but all their friends died!”. I noticed immediately how much my reaction was influenced by the time spent taking part in the Rojava revolution. Her reply seemed all wrong. I didn’t say anything since I thought it would sound heartless, even kind of crazy coming out of the blue like that. But who would want friends who are not willing to fight fascism until the end, in circumstances like the ones in Spain at the time? Could you ever be more proud of any friends than those who fell in such a struggle? This pride in your fallen friends does require having other, living comrades around you though, ones who feel the same and with whom you know you can continue the struggle and keep alive the memory of those who gave their lives for it – a culture of shehids.
The biggest reason I am lacking in braveness, that I don’t have a strong urge to be on the front lines in Rojava, is the thought of the pain it would cause my family back home if I were to fall. But if I knew that to them my death would be not only a cause of sorrow but also of pride, giving them an honorary status in the society surrounding them, I would carry so much less worry. In the society I am from, there is no culture of struggle.
As in Palestine, in Rojava society the culture of honoring the shehids is everywhere. The memory of them is kept alive vividly, children are named after them, their histories are recounted daily on TV. Almost every fighter’s nom de guerre is that of somebody who has fought and fallen before them. You see pictures of fallen comrades on roundabouts, on street posts on streets named after them, at the grocery store, on the walls of offices and hanging on the rear-view windows of cars. And in the homes of countless families. These families, whose sons and daughters, fathers, cousins, nephews and nieces, have fallen in the decades long struggle of the PKK or the more recent fight to defend the revolution of Rojava, have a special position in society. Having a shehid, or, often, several of them, in the family, is something that brings great respect, and people are very proud of their shehids. It also brings responsibility. YPG/YPJ members who come from such families are expected to be the ones who understand the importance and weight of the struggle best of all and act accordingly. This pride and constantly upkept connection to the shehids is not only of the family but also of friends, neighbors, comrades and co-workers. Any cultural event or meeting will always start with a moment of silence to commemorate the shehids. The message is: We vow to keep up and continue your struggle, you will always inspire us to keep on fighting and you will never be forgotten.
One aspect that I have come to understand as part of such a culture is the lessening of individualism. I might have a tendency to think that it’s always more important for each individual to live and continue their own struggle, as opposed to what I see here, seeing oneself and others as a solid part of a continuum of a struggle, which sometimes necessitates individuals to “sacrifice” themselves. In a situation of armed struggle, people enter into it with a clear understanding that they might die (another part of the visible culture of shehids is that one can never forget this risk), and they know that it’s a risk worth taking, because the struggle for freedom will not. Of course this does not mean that people want to die or are not valued as individuals, which is clear also in the way of remembering them, recounting their personal histories, thoughts about the struggle and motivations to enter it.
In the anarchist movement, a culture of struggle of course exists, but in today’s Western one, no culture of shehids. In the past decades anarchists have not been dying in struggle in great numbers, that’s not what our fight is like at the moment. But a shehid is not only a person who died on the battlefield. It’s the honorary status of anyone who dedicated their life to the struggle for freedom, no matter how they died. We can think both of historical figures and our own comrades who have passed away as shehids of the anarchist movement.
In my own times the first person that I remember to be killed in the struggle is Carlo Giuliani, who was shot by riot police in Genoa at the 2001 anti-G8 protests. I don’t know much about him and I was not present at the protests, I was a teenager just starting to enter the anti-globalization movement, but his name and fate have stuck with me. There is also the young comrade I knew from the eco-anarchist scene who hang herself in the forest, who simply could not cope with living in this crazy capitalist reality. And then there is Mustafa Tamimi, a Palestinian anti-occupation activist who died after being shot at from close range with a tear-gas canister straight into the face in a demonstration in his home village of Nabi Salah in 2011. That time I was present, and his funeral was my first glimpse of such collective rage and mourning, where a funeral is always a protest.
What could it mean for us as anarchists if there would be a culture of shehids in our contemporary movements? A stronger connection to the past. A sense of continuity. And maybe – braver struggle and stronger commitment. When the situation demands it, we could be more ready to put our lives at risk if we were sure that our deaths would be a motivation and a renewed commitment for those who live. If we knew that even if for the sake of nothing else, at moments when all hope seems to be lost, the struggle would always be continued in honor of those who have given their lives for it, so that their deaths – and their life’s work! – will not have been in vain. Also the inevitable, great sorrow in losing a comrade and friend can be made a little bit easier if we have collective ways of mourning, of remembering, of being proud of our comrades amidst the pain of loss. This is a strong thing. A dark kind of hope.
One has to be careful and conscious with such ideas, though. Idolizing dead comrades can be a slippery slope. As an experienced comrade here once said to me, “the struggle is for a wonderful life, not a wonderful death”. Martyrdom is never a goal, the goal is freedom and revolution.
My thoughts have changed since that walk on the tree-lined path. At this point I do feel like the status of martyr could actually give me a lot of consolation, were any of my comrades to die. But I do still hope from the bottom of my heart that none of them ever would.
For the memory of all women who have given their lives for the struggle for freedom
8th of March 2021 Nancy Drew