Photos from YPG press office
Camouflage-clad soldiers, their faces obscured by scarves, square themselves and bend their knees. The heavy coffin is placed on their shoulders. They walk the coffin through the hospital, descending a flight of stairs that leads outside, where two rows of Kurdish onlookers have assembled, watching as the funeral procession leads out to the road. They clap along as stout Kurdish women sing songs of mourning, ululating every so often.
There is a picture of a young man pinned to the front of the coffin. He is smiling. A smattering of facial hair adorns his face, there is a red scarf tied around his neck. His name is Robert Grodt, and he is from upstate New York. He is from New York, but he died in Raqqa, in Northern Syria.
The flag-draped coffin is loaded into a van. A pall-bearer sits casually, one arm protectively draped across the foot of the coffin. He holds a red-and-black flag — the universal symbol of anarchism — as one would a rifle. The flag flutters in the wind; it streams out from the van as the vehicle lurches to a start, as the van begins the arduous journey to Iraq.
“Şehid Şehid!” the crowd of onlookers cry, as the van disappears from view. Şehid means martyr, and Grodt has earned the title. He died in the battle to retake Raqqa from ISIS — also known as Daesh, in this part of the world — his title shifting from “heval” (meaning: “comrade”) to “şehid” in an instant.
Grodt died fighting for Rojava, a region in Northern Syria. It is an independent society that has risen from the ashes of the Syrian Civil War; an experiment in radical democracy inspired by the anarchism of Murray Bookchin, a political thinker from, strangely enough, Vermont.
Rojava is a multi-ethnic society, consisting mainly of Kurds, but also Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Yazidis, and many other groups. There is great religious diversity in this region—mostly Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, with small parcels of Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews. Before the war, the population was around 3.5 million — it is now down to 2.5 million, the difference having fled to refugee camps in Iraq and Turkey. A small minority braved the Mediterranean Sea and drowned in an effort to reach Greece and Italy. Those who survived are scattered throughout Europe.
Those who have stayed are protected by autonomous militias, the YPG (the Rojavan People’s Protection Units) and the YPJ (the women’s auxiliary unit). The militias see intense fighting and sustain massive casualties. It isn’t surprising — they are surrounded, to the north, by a hostile Turkish state. To the south, east, west — ISIS.
Rojavan political thought is deeply influenced by Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK (the Kurdistan Worker’s Party), who is currently languishing in a Turkish jail. The PKK was founded in the 1970s for the national liberation of Kurds in Turkey. It originally subscribed to a fairly standard Maoist philosophy of national political organization — a heavy, top-down state structure, with an unquestioned, charismatic leader at the helm. It was only in prison, where Ocalan discovered the work of Bookchin, did he start to question this structure. Through his emissaries, Ocalan sent a surprising message to his followers on the outside: Forget how we used to do things. Now, we are anarchists. It took a little adjusting, but Rojavans have mostly adapted well to the shift in political winds.
The political structure of Rojava is intensely democratic, adhering to what Ocalan calls “democratic confederalism.” Local neighborhood councils, consisting of 30 to 150 families, make up larger city councils. There are councils for local religious organizations, for educational institutions; councils for youth, for political parties, for various ethnic groups. Each council operates on principles of direct democracy: Anyone can bring up a topic for discussion, and anyone can vote on anything. The system works well with traditional Kurdish forms of negotiation and arbitration.
Proportional gender representation is mandatory; there is a quota of at least 40 percent of either gender in the higher councils of Rojava. Gender equality is extremely important to Rojavan society, and that is an entirely new development. This is an area that used to have honor killings, a region of the world where women simply did not exist in public life. Now, women fight wars and govern cities.There is a similar representational quota in place for the ethnic minorities of Rojava; it is part of the Rojavan commitment to radical pluralism.
The situation is reminiscent of the Paris Commune of 1871, a flowering of radical socialist democracy that existed for a wink. The situation is even more reminiscent of Revolutionary Spain — the oft-romanticized period of worker-led insurrection that bloomed from 1936 to 1939. Each case is characterized by remarkable grace under fire — these revolutionaries carved out a space of liberation in the midst of war: the end of the Franco-Prussian War in the first case, the Spanish Civil War in the second. Rojava, much like these earlier examples, has flourished with war raging on all sides. And a real danger exists, that like the previous examples, that Revolutionary Rojava will meet a bloody end. The Commune was crushed in a “Bloody Week,” as government forces marched on Paris, retaking it from the revolutionaries. General Franco won the Spanish Civil War; he violently crushed the anarchist and socialist opposition. He was the dictator of Spain until his death in 1975, and ruled with an iron fist.
It is one of the reasons so many western recruits have flocked to defend Rojava: it is a flower of radical democracy, blooming in the midst of unspeakable violence. Rojava is a respite from the violent, fascistic, Wahhabist Salafism of ISIS, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. If Rojava loses this battle, if ISIS closes in on free territory, the population of Rojava will not just be subjugated — it will be enslaved, slaughtered, liquidated.
How did Rob Grodt — upstate New Yorker, family man — become a martyr for the Rojavan revolution? How did this soft-spoken, kind young man, only 28 at the time of his death, end up in Syria? What compelled him to pick up a rifle and fling himself into the most dangerous war zone on earth?
To explain how Grodt found himself fighting for the YPG, we have to understand what kind of person Grodt was. It would be a mistake to characterize him as a daredevil, or a thrill-seeker. Grodt, at the core, was an idealist, a “true revolutionary,” in the words of a friend of his (we can call him Andrew,) also fighting for the YPG, who I corresponded with over email. “He was a man [who] risked his life for a lasting peace solution in the Middle East,” says Andrew.
As has been widely reported in the media, Grodt met his partner, Kaylee Dedrick, in the revolutionary cauldron of Occupy Wall Street. Grodt, a street medic, cared for Dedrick after she had been pepper sprayed by the police. There’s more to the story; more than was told to the media — Andrew relayed more details to me. Grodt stayed with Dedrick for hours, throwing himself into her care, washing her eyes out with liquid antacid solution, then milk, then taking her to the basement of a movie theater, where there was a wash sink. “Rob kept cleaning Kaylee in the sink, even though his arms were now covered in spray and burning,” Andrew writes. “He just kept at it.”
A few weeks later, Grodt and Dedrick announced they were pregnant. “Rob was so happy. He loved his daughter from the moment she was conceived,” says Andrew. Their daughter, now four, enjoyed brief renown as the “Occubaby,” so named because she was conceived in the camps at Zuccotti Park.
After Occupy, Dedrick and Grodt settled in upstate New York. Grodt settled into his new family life well, but the urge to plug into where the action was — the desire to do real and lasting good in this world — didn’t go away. Grodt, who had been eagerly watching the movement for Kurdish independence since 2004, decided, after speaking to Dedrick, to join his friends who were already in Rojava.
Grodt’s death has made international news. He has received write-ups in The New York Times, The Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle, and BBC. Something about his baby-faced idealism combined with his colorful Occupy history has struck a nerve with the world. Justin Woodruff, Californian by way of Australia and supporter of the YPG, has started a GoFundMe fundraiser for Grodt’s child, hoping to raise enough to provide a small inheritance for her. As of this writing, Woodruff has raised a little over $9,500; about forty thousand to go.
Grodt is hardly the first volunteer to insert himself in a foreign war-zone for the sake of an ideal.
In December of 1936, a young and impatient George Orwell arrived in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and the center of revolutionary Spain. He arrived in a moment of absolute revolutionary fervor. “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists,” wrote Orwell in his classic memoir of his time at war, Homage to Catalonia. “Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black…. Above all, there was belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.” Everyone, from the barbers, to the waiters, to the soldiers, to the commanders — everyone, was now a “comrade.” Orwell, coming from straight-laced, class-obsessed England, had a hard time understanding what was going on, but he “recognized [this] immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
International volunteers began coming to join the YPG in 2014. In the beginning, they were mostly apolitical or veered to the right, politically. They were mostly veterans from the American and other militaries, who recognized the YPG as a way to fight back against the growing tide of ISIS. These recruits found themselves at odds with the leftist culture of Rojava. According to an interview Brace Belden, probably the most famous of the American volunteers in Rojava, gave to the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House last year, these volunteers (“dipshits,” in Belden’s colorful account) were disturbed by, well, all the communism. Things are different now. The ideological makeup of the foreign recruits has flipped, essentially. In Belden’s estimation, about 75 percent of all volunteers are left-wing.
The parallels between Orwell’s wide-eyed optimism and that of modern volunteers in Rojava are striking. Many, if not most, international volunteers in Rojava are inspired by the sacrifices made by the volunteers during the Spanish Civil War 80 years ago. Most see themselves as the moral inheritors of the tradition. But it would be a mistake to say that there’s an element of naivete at play here—that the volunteers are inspired by a romanticized version of what struggle means, what war means.
For one, most recruits have access to more accurate information about what they’re getting into — more than Orwell ever did. The internet, after all, exists now. It didn’t in 1936 — back when, according to Homage to Catalonia, all Orwell knew about the war was the biased drivel published by the partisan newspapers. For another, it’s 2017, and we have the example of an absolutely brutal century and change to reflect on. There is Rwanda, the Holocaust, Vietnam, Iraq. There is Al Qaeda, Assad, and ISIS. It isn’t possible to be naive in 2017.
Michael Israel was another international volunteer — a California native, just like Rob Grodt — who died over Thanksgiving weekend last year. (He was killed by Turkey in an airstrike, and David Roddy, Israel’s close friend, whom I spoke to for this piece, is conscious of how darkly funny that is.) Before he left for Syria, he wrote in his diary: “This will not be Jarama. This will not be Stalingrad. This will not be romantic. All you love and all who you love, you are leaving behind.”
No romanticism here.
When volunteers get to Rojava, things do not always go as planned. War didn’t quite unfold the way Orwell thought it would, either. By happenstance, Orwell ended up fighting with the anti-Stalinist, anarchist militia, POUM — but he could have very easily ended up with any number of parallel communist or anarchist parties or militias; the PSUC, the CNT-FAI. The array of choices was bewildering to Orwell, who complained that at first, it seemed “as though Spain was suffering from a plague of initials.” Orwell quickly learned that despite ideological similarities, not all left-wing parties were created equal. The communists took their orders from Soviet Russia, who were playing their own geopolitical long-game in the region and did not share the same goals as did the anarchists. The communists soon prevailed militarily against his ragtag, ill-equipped militia. They declared the POUM illegal and imprisoned all party members. Orwell was forced to flee Spain.
Because of the decentralized nature of Rojavan political organization, multiple militias have flourished within and alongside the YPG/J. There are the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). There is even the Queer Insurrection and Liberation Army (TQILA), formed by LGBTQ international volunteers. A “plague of initials,” indeed. Sometimes, the right hand seems to not know what the left is doing, as was the case recently when the SDF forcefully denied any knowledge of TQILA. (For what it’s worth, Belden confirmed to me that the members of TQILA are friends of his, and that they “definitely do exist.”)
And the war itself — it is violent, bloody, deadly. “A lot of people die,” Belden told me over the phone. “A hell of a lot of people die. A lot of people, including people I’ve been close to, have died pretty recently,” says Belden. Most of the decedents, like most of the soldiers, are Kurds or Arabs.
Belden takes a pragmatic view of the lopsided coverage of Western casualties in the conflict. “It is what it is,” he says. “Western news outlets are going to care more when a Western person dies, because it’s more newsworthy.” Belden assures me that these deaths make the news in the Kurdish communist press.
Other shocks to the system exist. In reading Orwell’s account of the war, we see how deeply he was affected by the international jockeying, by the influence of Stalin, which muddied up the purity of his war. The treachery of the politics of the front “set up in my mind the first vague doubts about this war, in which, hitherto, the rights and wrongs had been so beautifully simple,” he writes. Though the “rights and wrongs” of the war in Syria could hardly be clearer (“ISIS is, turns out, insanely bad,” jokes Belden to the Chapo hosts), the interplay of foreign interests in the region is anything but clear.
For one, Turkey, ever hostile to anything resembling Kurdish autonomy, has declared all affiliates of the PKK (including the SFD and the YPG) to be terrorist organizations. Out of deference to Turkey, much of the international world, including America, has also declared the PKK to be a terrorist organization. However, America has resisted Turkish calls to classify the Syrian Kurdish resistance to ISIS as a “terrorist organization” — America, recognizing the use of such a force in the region, arms the SDF, which then supplies the YPG. This, as you can very well imagine, has enraged Turkey, and relations have strained between the two countries. Aid from America to Turkey has flowed a little less, in recent years, and political uncertainty is the rule, as Turkey’s President Erdogan attempts to reign in his chaotic domestic situation. (And of course, no one quite understands the Trump doctrine on foreign relations. It’s possible there is none.)
There’s a bit of a sleight of hand at work, here. Everyone knows that the YPG is probably affiliated with the PKK. They share a common support base, a common philosophy. Probably share resources and arms as well, although very little can be proven. Yet one organization is anathema to the international community, and the other is celebrated by it. And so much depends on this particular trick of definitions. It allows America, on the one hand, to maintain relations with Turkey, while arming the YPG, which, if you’ll remember, is at war with Turkey.
The hypocrisy grates, for recruits who have flown to Syria in order to fight in a just war.
Not everyone is convinced that everything is entirely copacetic with the YPG, either. There is a strain of purist critics on the left, who insist that the YPG is indelibly sullied by its reliance on American aid. These critics, marginal though they may be, have gone so far as to declare Belden — who, due to several influential write-ups in Rolling Stone and elsewhere, has reluctantly become the face of American volunteers in Rojava — a CIA plant, an arm of the American government.
And the thing is, many Rojavans, with their leftist bent, their deep understanding of the nature of capitalist imperialism — they understand that this is a devil’s deal. They understand that America, probably, will turn on them, as soon as Rojava stops being useful to the Americans, as soon as the Americans decide Turkey is worth more than they are. Belden certainly is convinced of this; he told the Chapo hosts that he believes the Americans will betray Rojava, and that everyone is preparing for stepped up attacks from Turkey. But the stakes are such that a little bit of compromise — it’s necessary, in order to be properly equipped in the fight against ISIS.
Despite everything, despite the complexity on the ground, despite the horrors of war and the hypocrisy of international powers, there is a certain amount of moral certainty that comes from fighting such a righteous battle. There is little time for infighting of any kind.
“Back home, left politics are plagued with sectarianism. People refuse to work with each other for, frankly, ridiculously trivial reasons,” Andrew says. “Here… ALL of us work together. … We are at war with a unified, barbaric form of extremism, and on every side of Rojava there are people who currently or historically have wanted the Kurds wiped from the face of the earth. Sure, there’s debates, but the things that keyboard warriors back home see as fundamental differences are just our late night talks. … We are all here to fight fascists and make sure the Rojava revolution has a chance.”
“So many of the conflicts around the world are in shades of grey, or are a struggle for the lesser of two evils, and they’re fighting over money, or oil,” Woodruff, the YPG supporter who is organizing Grodt’s GoFundMe, tells me. “This is one of those few cases of good versus evil. It’s something you don’t see very often. Maybe once in a generation.”
“What they’re building in Rojava, that’s something really special. Given time there’ll be problems. Nothing is perfect,” says Woodruff.
In a video widely disseminated after his death, Grodt echoes Woodruff. “It’s always easy to get people motivated for big, drastic conflict like war. But the day-to-day battles that aren’t about fighting — like building roads, and infrastructure — they are just as important.”
“We need to think about tomorrow, and the day after,” Grodt goes on to say. Whatever the future holds — whatever struggles and challenges lay in wait for Rojava and the rest of the Middle East — will have to be waged without Grodt.