Vacuum of uprising gives Syrian Kurds rare freedom

Kurdish children in Afrin

On the main road to the northern Syrian town of Afrin, armed men stand beneath green, red and yellow Kurdish flags, welcoming truckloads of their displaced Arab neighbors.

They wave through pick-up trucks carrying women and children, granting them passage to Afrin, where a rare safety prevails thanks to a delicate Kurdish balancing act that has granted the population a first taste of autonomy.

The checkpoint is a bold signal of just how radically life has changed for the Kurdish population in the north of the country since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime began in March last year.

The men running the post speak openly in Kurdish, and some sport yellow vests featuring black stencils of the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK.

Ocalan is reviled as a terrorist in Turkey where he is serving a life jail sentence for his leadership of a bloody uprising launched in the southeast in 1984.

But in Afrin his picture hangs on walls and in shops, and his face appears in women's lockets.

The change is the result of an understanding the Kurds have reached with both the Syrian government and the rebel forces.

State troops have withdrawn from the region, but a token security facility, complete with an untouched portrait of Assad hanging from its facade, remains in Afrin.

"They don't move outside of the building," says 50-year-old Fathy, who helps man the checkpoint. "They call if they need bread or water and we deliver it to them."

The rebel army is also banned from entering the region unless they are unarmed and in civilian clothes.

"They come to Afrin because our shops and markets are open, they buy food and other supplies. But no one is allowed to enter with weapons."

The only weapons allowed into what the Kurds here refer to as Western Kurdistan are under the authority of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD.

Turkey has accused the group of being a front for the PKK, which the United States has warned must be denied a safe haven in the region.

But while Fathy admits that some of the weapons used to protect the area come from the PKK, he and other residents insist the group is not present in the area.

"As Kurds, of course we would like to invite them here, but we know that the Arabs and the international community believe that the PKK are terrorists, so we would not let them come here now. And the PKK respects that," says Khaled, a 27-year-old Kurd who defected from the Syrian army earlier this year.

Inside Afrin, the regime's departure has allowed Syria's Kurds to experience a first hint of long-awaited self-rule.

At a newly-established cultural center, a 67-year-old who gives his name as Mr. Jangvar is teaching a class of Kurdish woman to read and write their once-banned language.

One-by-one, they stand and haltingly repeat the eight vowel sounds of the language.

"The Kurdish people were banned from reading and writing Kurdish language, so we learnt person to person in secret," Jangvar says. "When someone was found with a Kurdish book he was jailed and tortured."

The center also offers lessons on Kurdish history, poetry and music, all available for free.

In the director's office, a picture of the Kurdish poet Ehmede Xani hangs opposite the picture of Ocalan.

"He's one of our most important poets," Khaled says. "His poems are seriously, truly wonderful."

For Arif Sheikhu, a member of the loose coalition of Kurdish parties and town councils that now oversees the region, this new-found autonomy is the result of a decades-long struggle that stands apart from the current uprising.

"The Syrian revolution complements our fight for our legitimate rights, but even if the uprising stops – and I don't believe it will – our revolution will continue," he says.

Since the regime pulled back, the area's 365 towns and villages have all formed their own local councils, with a regional committee of 400 members available to consider matters that affect the area as a whole.

"Forty percent of the committee is women," Sheiku says proudly.

"Women in our society have full freedom. They can do whatever men can do, they can wear what they want, do what they want, be what they want."

Despite his pride in the autonomous system set up in the region, and his unabashed admiration for Ocalan, Sheiku is careful to make clear that Syria's Kurds are not seeking independence or a state.

"We are first and foremost Syrians," he says. "We want a self-administered system for Syrian Kurds, and democracy for the whole of Syria."

"We look at the Iraqi Kurdish model as outdated. All states are a form of oppression," he adds.

At 60, Sheiku has spent decades waiting for Kurdish autonomy, but he says he always believed it would come one day.

"It didn't come as a surprise. It took blood, fighting, organization and many years. But now that we have it, we will protect it very carefully."

Kurdish children cool off in a river in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin, on the Syria-Turkey border, on Thursday. (AFP/Aris Messinis)