From London: For Kobane, For Humanity
From London: For Kobane, For Humanity
“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
Since the beginning of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)  attacks on Kobane, countless anti-ISIS demonstrations have taken place within Europe, including in Cologne, Torino, Paris, Copenhagen, Graz, Stockholm and London, organized predominantly by the Kurdish diaspora. In this article, I will attempt to explain the nature of these demonstrations in the UK, specifically in London where the large portion of the demonstrations took place. You may be wondering why we need such analysis when most of us have some form of an understanding of these protests. However, a coherent breakdown of the demonstrations will enable us to understand both the disposition of the demonstrators and the role they have played in the political endeavours of the Turkish government in the past few months. This article is in no way an attempt to delve the situation in Kobane, or the international community’s response to the crisis, but rather to elucidate particular aspects of the demonstrations. It is purely the product of my observations in the last couple of months.
I do however want to offer a brief introduction regarding Kobane, one of the autonomous Kurdish communities in Northern Syria. In doing so, I anticipate it will help us understand the origins and the nature of the protests, which have transpired globally over the last several months.
Kobane is one of the cantons of Rojava and declared democratic autonomy in January 2014. It is right to say Kobane has developed a symbol of Kurdish aspirations for an independent state. Although the Kurdish resistance throughout history has never really been constricted to borders, Kobane has certainly reinforced this belief and transpired in to a global symbol of Kurdish resistance. ISIS has been attacking Kobane for several months now, and as a result approximately 200,000 Kurdish refugees have fled from Kobane to Turkey. With the battle of Kobane raging, thousands of people took the streets in Turkey to protest the Turkish government’s reluctance for solidarity with Kobane Kurds, as many of us observed, escalated into violence that killed at least 31 Kurdish people, 2 police officers and wounded 360 others. There has been contradictory analysis of the protests in Turkey within Turkish media, but as I do not have the intention or the capacity within this article to explain the situation, I will leave that for someone else to discuss.
The first anti-ISIS protests in London can be traced back to July 2014, where a group of London based Kurds and non-Kurdish supporters gathered in Trafalgar Square with banners condemning the attacks on Kobane. As of then, countless protests in and around London have taken shape. Both young and old people have taken part in these protests, helping make banners or making their own miniature billboards. The key messages on some of the signs have included; ‘ISIS is the enemy of humanity’, ‘Kobane is Kurdistan’, ‘Jin Jiyan Azadi Biji YPG’ (meaning ‘Life Woman Freedom Long live YPG’) and ‘Support Defending Civilians in Kobane & Rojava’. Other symbolic objects have included flags, but not only one type of flag, as I will explain in the next section. In addition, while the protests started primarily with the support of the Kurdish diaspora, it has attracted supporters from various groups and grown tremendously over the last few months, as I will illustrate.
The anti-ISIS demonstrations in London for the major part have been led and organised by the Kurdish diaspora in the UK. These include, southern and northern Kurds. Crowds in thousands have gathered mainly outside 10 Downing Street, Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and the Embassy of Turkey. Following those meetings, smaller demonstrations have been organised in northern and north-eastern London. In other parts of London, demonstrators flocked one of the capital’s busiest underground station forcing it to close down. There have also been numerous sit-in protests including the ones on Westminster bridge, Heathrow airport and Victoria station. Hence, the anti-ISIS demonstrations, mostly took place within the Kurdish community outside iconic edifices, which are spread around London. What people seem to have done is took initiative and increased the Kobane support within the UK. As you may observe in some of the links attached to the case examples above, the Kurdish youth have been one of the key activists of the Kobane protests in London.
Youth activism in general is something to be quite fond of considering the concerns around young people and their lack of political participation. From my observations, even going back to the Gezi solidarity protests in London in the summer of 2013, the Kurdish youth in the UK appeared to be highly politically aware and active. They participated not merely by attending marches, but also volunteering to hand out flyers, provide information to non-Kurdish interest groups or supporters and assisting with the organisation of demonstrations.
Kurdish activists in London have also been resorting to more controversial demonstrations to raise awareness of the situation in Kobane, like the recreation of a ‘sex-slave’ market in Westminster. The protestors staged a ‘sex-slave’ market where men dressed in costumes, led a group of chained veiled women and encouraged passers-by to bid for them. One of the speakers from the fake ISIS group, claimed, “This is what Sharia means” to draw attention to the treatment of Kurdish women captured in Syria and Iraq.
The solidarity with Kobane demonstrations is not merely made up of Kurds. Yes, Kurds have been the predominant groups and the organisers, but not the only group that has participated. Non-Kurdish people like me also attended these demonstrations. I am a Turkish Alevi, brought up believing in what some define as ‘left-Kemalism’, so Kemalist notions of secularism and Turkishness combined with leftist ideals, which primarily comes from Alevism. My stance on the Kurdish struggle is perhaps a result of my own identity, due to the fact that I am part of, –what many define as a ‘minority’ religious group in Turkey– that today still deprives of many rights.
The non-Kurdish supporters of the Kobane demonstrations include organisations such as; Daymer, a non-profit civil organisation and registered UK charity that provides advice and advocacy mainly for Kurdish and Turkish refugees and humanitarian entrants in England. I also include the Britain Alevi Federation (Britanya Alevi Federasyonu), the umbrella organization for Alevis living in the UK. Despite some conventional belief, Alevi people are both Turkish and Kurdish speaking. Other people and groups that have partaken in the demonstrations include Peter Tatchell Foundation, an independent body that works on particular human rights issues, Mark Thomas, performer and activist, Jean Lambert, Green Party MEP for London and Margaret Owen OBE, human rights lawyer. In the Global Day for Kobane rally on 1st November 2014, Greek Cypriot activists participated with banners and Greek and Greek Cypriot flags, and used the slogan “Free Kobane-Free Kyrenia” and “Freedom for Kurdistan”. There may be some others I have missed out, but the above is a vindication that non-Kurdish actors have supported the Kobane demonstrations in London.
Call for Action
On 1st November, 2014, thousand people, including Kurds and non-Kurdish supporters, gathered in Trafalgar Square as part of a global rally against the ISIS atrocities in Kobane. The Global Day for Kobane was a call-out signed by notables like Noam Chomsky, members of the House of Lords, Desmond Tutu, lawyers, writers and academics to draw more awareness and show solidarity with the resistance against ISIS.
Looking at this picture taken on this day, it is evident that the demonstrators are from different Kurdish groups and organisations. Many of the Kurdish demonstrators waved banners bearing the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned head of the banned Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani (Kurdistan Worker’s Party – PKK), as he is still perceived as the general leader of Kurdish resistance. Others were bearing the Kurdistan flag, currently used as the official flag of autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq and the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (Group of Communities in Kurdistan – KCK) flag. Despite the possible differences between these groups, they have participated equally in every demonstration. Non-partisan Kurdish protestors, on the other hand were holding banners, which read; ‘Your silence is killing children’, ‘Kobane is not alone’; ‘Air drop aid to Kobane. Don’t let ISIS massacre Kurds’ and ‘Stop Turkey’s smear campaign’.
The common discourse of the demonstrations has been that the international community and Turkey have done little to address the threat ISIS pose to the people in Kobane. They have expressed fury and outrage to the lack of response of the international community as they have been calling for humanitarian and military assistance. Military assistance meaning arming and helping the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units – YPG) fighting ISIS, gain access to military equipment to stop Kobane fall into the hands of ISIS. While there is no way to fully understand the thoughts of each demonstrator, the majority appears to believe that Turkey has been supporting ISIS by opening its borders and permitting free movement to ISIS members, treating wounded members in Turkish hospitals, whilst simultaneously calling the Kurdish fighters in Syria “terrorists” who should not be armed by Turkey or the US. For this reason, many demonstrations have also expressed concerns of the conditions of Kurdish refugees fleeing Kobane in Turkey, including their treatment by the Turkish forces.
Demonstrators have also called for the Turkish government to open up a corridor to allow movement of arms, fighters travelling from Iraq into Kobane and also to stop supporting ISIS. Turkey eventually opened its border in October 2014, as a result of pressure within and outside its borders, to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross to the Syrian border to join fight against ISIS in Kobane.
Whatever your views on the Kurdish issue in the Middle East, one should not deny the humane essence of these demonstrations. People travelled from different parts of Britain and gathered on numerous occasions in the cold and rain with the intention to raise awareness to the plight of Kurds in Kobane. For the most part, the demonstrations that I have witnessed, have been peaceful. In addition, they have been supported by different groups, even if the groups have differences. This is not to repudiate that there may have been and there may still be aspects of the demonstrations that could be criticised.
History has shown us that when any kind of injustice has been overturned, it is because people acted as citizens in a timely manner. Despite the disappointments, each day of our life in political terms, we observe each day of our lives in political matters, the quote (beginning of text) from Howard Zinn; one of the most renowned thinkers and activists of our time who sadly passed away in 2010, is encouraging and reminds us that change is feasible, even in times of uncertainty.
As the battle in Kobane continues, it is with no doubt we will be seeing more demonstrators marching in the streets of London, shouting ‘Biji Biji Kobane’ (Long Live Kobane). Though, one very familiar slogan I heard at the last demonstration has stuck with me; “This is only the beginning, we will keep resisting”, the slogan of the Gezi resistance. I guess this comes as no surprise, as the majority of these people were standing and marching through the same spots, including Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street, in the summer of 2013 during the Gezi resistance. Could the criticisms surrounding the Kurdish movements struggle for human rights in Turkey prevent one from empathising with the Kurds on the verge of life and death in Kobane today?
Editor’s Note: As Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), we are thankful to Fikret Eğilmez for sharing all the photos used in this article.
Please cite this publication as follows:
Eğilmez F. (December, 2014), “From London: For Kobane, For Humanity”, Vol. III, Issue 12, pp.66-74, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=7599)
ISIS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, is a jihadist group developed out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and founded in 2013. It currently refers to itself as the “Islamic State”, declaring itself caliphate and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph. Its exact size is unclear, and includes many foreign jihadists from i.e. parts of Europe and wider Arab world.
 Further reading on Kobane: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/10/kobane-explained-what-so-special-about-it-201410216033364111.html
 Canton Based Democratic Autonomy of Rojava, Kurdistan National Congress https://peaceinkurdistancampaign.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/rojava-info-may-2014.pdf
 Guardian, September 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/22/isis-onslaught-kurds-syria-disaster-turkey-refugees
 Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units – YPG)
Recommended article: http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_3_No_2_Special_Issue_January_2013/29.pdf
 Member of European Parliament
 Order of the British Empire
 For further reading on YPG: http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54016
 Turkish authorities alleged help; http://www.ibtimes.co.in/isis-turkish-army-helps-injured-jihadists-reach-hospitals-by-lighting-sky-flares-611901
 BBC, October 2014: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29685830