Derik, Syria – “Assad is gone! I am very happy. Until now, we didn’t even have ID cards,” says Abdi Karim, 56, with a tired but big smile.
Karim is a fighter in the People’s Defence Units (YPG) in Derik, a city in Syria’s Kurdish area in the northeast near the borders of Turkey and Iraq.
The YPG is an armed militia that has been publicly active in this region for at least the last four months. Recently, the YPG and residents of Derik – known as al-Malkia in Arabic – forced the last of the regime’s troops and police to leave the city.
“We have the rifles to protect the people here, just to protect,” Karim said pointing at his old AK-47 and talking in the building where President Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence services once had their base in Derik.
There are about 2 millions Kurds in Syria, where they make up about 10 per cent of the population and live mostly in the north and northeast of the country. Under al-Assad’s government, the Kurds say they lacked full citizenship rights. Without identification cards, many said they had a difficult time finding jobs.
In April 2011, days into Syria’s uprising, al-Assad passed a law granting Kurds without citizenship Syrian nationality, but many say this has not benefited them.
In Derik on November 12, celebratory gunfire was heard and crowds cheered and chanted in the streets after the last of al-Assad’s forces left town. A truck blasted Kurdish music and people on top delivered speeches in the Kurdish language, which they say had been forbidden for decades in the region.
‘Inshallah, everything is going to change’
A few hundred people gathered at the so-called President’s Square in the town centre, where the music went on and dozens of girls danced in circles holding hands.
A group of youth tied a rope to a big statute of Hafez al-Assad, former president of Syria and father of Bashar al-Assad. The other end of the rope was tied to a bulldozer, and after a struggle, they managed to pull the statue down.
Dozens of people followed the scene from the balconies and rooftops around. “We have been in this unfair system for a long time and now we want to take it down,” said Abdulgafur Omar, 39, who owns a mobile phone shop.
“If [Assad] came in now and saw us here, singing in Kurdish, he would lose his mind.”
– Bengin Judi, Kurdish Syrian
“When Bashar al-Assad was here there was no justice, he had a big problem with Kurdish people, he wouldn’t accept Kurdish language,” said Omar. “Now, insh’allah [God willing], everything is going to change.”
Since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, government forces have been losing their grip on Kurdish areas. Last July, overstretched because of the ongoing conflict, al-Assad’s forces started to retreat from some enclaves in the region.
The Kurdish political parties and the YPG started filling the power vacuum, eventually expelling al-Assad’s forces from several predominantly Kurdish towns.
In most cases, it happened without violence. The exception was the town of Serekani – or Ras al-Ayn in Arabic – right on the border with Turkey, which was taken over by Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters on November 8, despite shelling from government forces.
According to reports, al-Assad’s forces now only have some control of three cities in this oil-rich and mostly Kurdish province: Hasakeh, the capital, Qamishlo, and Terbaspiye, where there are unconfirmed reports of fighting between Arabs and Kurds.
“If he (al-Assad) came in now and saw us here, singing in Kurdish … he would lose his mind,” says Bengin Judi, 46, who plays the çumbus, a traditional musical instrument similar to a banjo.
In another part of town, a school has becomes the first public Kurdish-language school of Derik, hosting classes in the evenings.
“Before now, even when I was staying at home, I was afraid of speaking in Kurdish,” said Rasul Suleiman, 57, who recently retired as a public worker in the Ministry of Agriculture. Under the regime, Suleiman would still speak Kurdish with his family but he never learned to read or write it properly. Now, he comes to the language school two hours a day for five days a week, hoping to learn enough to become a Kurdish teacher himself.
‘State’ within the state’
Residents of Derik and other places in Kurdish areas have also been organising a miniature “state within the state”. They say they have formed a regional People’s Council or Parliament, as well as other local councils in the main seven cities in the region.
Elections for new local councils took place last December, and people chose among individuals and not political parties, “because we wanted all – Christians, Arabs and Kurds – to come to vote”, explained Yusef Haji, 44, a tall businessman and member of the regional council, made up of 365 people, including 10 Arabs, seven Christians and the rest Kurds.
Council members say they recently outlawed poligamy in Kurdish areas, even though the Syrian government allows a man to marry up to four wives.
According to Haji, members of this government come from or follow the guidelines of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the biggest Kurdish party in the region.
When there are problems, people in Derik now do not go to the government’s judiciary but to their own “popular court”, made up of nine people elected by the local council. Eight members are Kurds and one is a Christian.
“Our court is not just about law or just about religion, it’s for the whole of society,” said Khonef Ahmed, a 26-year-old teacher and one of these nine judges. All members of the court are teachers except for two lawyers and one farmer.
People in Derik and the rest of the region have also set up their own security forces. They now have civilian police administered by the local councils and a military that, in practice, is the YPG militia, which in theory answers to the High Kurdish Council.
Some people in Derik complained about the PYD holding too much power and not leaving any political space for other parties. Some also said the militia is actually the armed wing of the PYD, a claim the group has denied.
Many people here fear their region could face new attacks from the Syrian government or rebel groups seeking control because it is oil-rich and borders Turkey and Iraq.
“We would defend ourselves if (regime forces) come back,” said Armanj Khabat, 20, a YPG fighter guarding the checkpoint at the entrance of Derik.
The checkpoint had been manned by Assad’s soldiers but now shows off the YPG’s red colour and the star. “And if the FSA comes, we will defend our region because we don’t accept any other force here, only YPG.”
Aisha Hashan, 23, a Kurdish-language teacher, says the city “now has its freedom”.
“Now,” she said, “I want the same for other parts of [Kurd-majority regions].”