Remembering Hevrîn Xelef
On International Woman’s Day we remember Hevrîn Xelef, a woman for our time and for all time.
The world is rarely black and white, but in the life and brutal death of Hevrîn Xelef we face an awful and real example of good pitted against evil. Hevrîn was clearly a remarkable woman, but she was more than an individual heroine. She was part of a movement, and it is this that should ensure that her achievements and her martyrdom will continue to resonate far beyond the corner of Northern Syria where she lived and died. Hevrîn exemplifies the struggle for the future of our bitterly divided world; and the predominantly Kurdish autonomous region in Northern Syria has become the front line of the fight against fascism and for a peaceful, fair, green, and democratic future. As so often, this is a fight in which women are playing a central role – and this time women’s rights are central to that fight.
Hevrîn was born in Dêrik in 1984. Her mother has long been an active supporter of Abdullah Ocalan, whose political philosophy inspires the Kurdish movement and is responsible for its focus on women’s freedom. Her family’s commitment to the Kurdish struggle cost the lives of her sister and four brothers.
Hevrîn studied agricultural in Aleppo, and when the Kurds established an autonomous region in Northern Syria, she put her knowledge and energy into establishing civil institutions. She set up an academy, and when the war started with Daesh she was working with the energy committee in Cizîre. Her mother recalls that Hevrîn told her family that she couldn’t help them with electricity until she had sorted the power of the whole neighbourhood.
In 2018, Hevrîn helped found the Future Syria Party to bring together different ethnic groups and help people to determine their own democratic future, and she became its General Secretary. As she explained on the eighth anniversary of the start of the Syrian war
The popular uprising against the crisis and the struggle of the peoples of Syria have been carried out with great sacrifice, and have turned into a war. The lasting crisis in Syria, which has caused the expulsion and murder of the population, cannot be resolved without a political solution.
One of her political comrades told the BBC, ‘We lost a leader who was working on empowering women and worked on achieving unity and peace.’
Hevrîn’s gentle manner belied an inner strength, and her devotion to the cause was total. A friend described how, when they lived in the same compound in 2017,
She would wake up at five in the morning and would not stop working until midnight, whether that involved traveling to the Deir Ezzor region, which was recently liberated from the Islamic State, to tutor children and teenagers there in math, or meeting with Arab tribal leaders and helping resolve their many disputes in her role as the secretary-general of the Future Syria Party.
It is not quite a year since we were celebrating the pulling down of the last Daesh flag over Syrian territory and its replacement with the flag of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units, the YPJ. Even then, as we celebrated, we were aware that this very victory opened up a new risk, because the Kurds would be seen as no longer needed. However, the suddenness with which they were abandoned by the United States came as a shock, not least to the US forces themselves.
Without the protection of US air power, and with Russia equally ready to sacrifice the Kurds to their own strategic interests, Northern Syria was left vulnerable to Turkish attack. And, as in their previous invasion of Syria, at the beginning of 2018, when they had occupied the Kurdish region of Afrîn, Turkey has employed ground forces made up of jihadi gangs, including men who had previously fought for Daesh and Al Qaeda. Turkey’s President Erdoğan had made clear his intention to drive the Kurds out of Syria and replace them with Arab refugees from other parts of the country, and these brutal gangs, which Turkey has named the ‘Syrian National Army’(SNA) make sure that it is unsafe for the Kurds to stay in their homes. Once-peaceful Afrîn is now gangster territory, where pillage and rape are commonplace, kidnap for ransom has become a main economic activity, and jihadi fighters lord it over everyone who doesn’t share their twisted version of Islam. This brutality has been repeated other occupied areas.
Trump announced his decision to withdraw US forces on 6th October, following a phone call with Erdoğan. On 9th October, Turkey invaded the autonomous region of northern Syria. On 12th October Hevrîn left the relative safety of Hasakah early in the morning to take the M4 road west to Raqqa. Later that day her mutilated body was retrieved from the roadside, along with the bodies of eight other civilians, including her young driver. A video shared by men from Ahrar al-Sharqiya, one of the SNA groups, who had crossed into Syria from Turkey that morning, shows them surrounding her bullet-ridden car, and a woman’s voice can be heard from inside. This has been identified as Hevrîn, explaining in Arabic, ‘party leader’ (BBC News Channel, ‘Our World – Who betrayed Hevrin Khalaf?’ 25 January 2020). The autopsy concluded that she was dragged from the car – with her hair pulled so hard it ripped her scalp – and beaten on her head and legs before being shot dead.
Awful as it was, this was not an isolated anomaly, and no accident. Turkey has deliberately unleashed a reign of terror as part of their dual aim to eliminate the Kurds and establish a new Ottoman empire. President Erdoğan has built his strength on an uncompromising religious nationalism that has had no problem in giving logistical support to Daesh or whipping up prejudice against non-Muslims for political gain, and has no sympathy for women’s rights.
The horror of this murder ensured that it received international coverage, but that hasn’t been enough to make international leaders sanction Turkey for their invasion, or allow a seat for the Kurds in the various deliberations on the future of Syria. Political self-interest takes care of that. And while Hevrîn is celebrated as a peacemaker, she was so much more. She was a leading figure in a radical movement, and the only way to truly honour her martyrdom is to ensure that her ideas and her cause live on.
One of the delegates at the conference I attended recently at the European Parliament in Brussels was a small head-scarfed woman in black. When she spoke the whole room was moved by the natural power of her speech, even though most, like me, had to rely on translation to understand what she said. That women was Hevrîn’s mother, Sûad Mustafa. She told us that Hevrîn once asked her if she was frightened that one day she might have to receive her daughter’s dead body, and she had replied, no, because it would be a sacrifice for the revolution. But she had tried to persuade Hevrîn not to travel that fatal morning. And Sûad made it clear that she didn’t regard the attack as targeting Hevrîn alone, but as an attack on the co-existence of different peoples, on women, and on peace.
People from all over the world are inspired by the Kurdish movement’s practical demonstration of a humane alternative to the cruelties of capitalism. Sûad described her daughter’s voice as ‘the voice of humanity’, and she told us that, with her daughter’s funeral, a new generation of girl babies was being named Hevrîn. The struggle goes on.