‘My revolution across Syria and beyond’

Graduating from university in Britain during the financial crisis, Macer Gifford found himself, like so many others, restless and adrift.

He managed to get himself a job in finance, as a currency trader, but always had one eye focused elsewhere: on the news, on the world outside, on the ‘so-called Arab Spring’.

Now, at 30 years old, Gifford has spent the last three years in a radically different occupation: embedded in Syria with the Kurdish Popular Defence Forces (YPG), and now with the Syriac Military Council – one of the groups within the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military coalition which is leading the battle against so-called Islamic State in Syria.

Macer Gifford during the interview with New Internationalist
Macer Gifford during his interview with New Internationalist. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

On March 17, 2016, delegates from various northern regions of the Syrian state, including Rojava, proclaimed the ‘Federation of Northern Syria’. Whereas both the Government and Syrian opposition groups rejected the idea, Gifford talks of a ‘revolution in every sense of the word’.

‘The Middle East has been waiting for a revolution to come along, it’s almost like a renaissance for this part of the world,’ says the British volunteer, who labels himself an internationalist. Using a pseudonym to protect his identity, he spoke to us from the western front line in the on-going battle for Raqqa, so-called Islamic State’s main stronghold in Syria.

What brought you from Britain to Syria?

I went to university to study politics and international relations and I was determined to work for a charity or to continue my work for a political party.

I’ve always wanted to get out to travel to work for a charity, but because I finished my studies in 2008, during of one of the worst recessions ever, I got into finances.

Although I enjoyed it, I wasted most of my time looking at newspapers, following events around the world; I still wasn’t doing something that I thought was making a difference.

So when the chance to come here arrived I didn’t hesitate. There were fewer than 10 foreign volunteers embedded with the YPG when I arrived in December 2014, but I was invited by the people here when I let them know about my intentions. I knew there was a revolution taking place here and I told them that I was in it for the long run. I did a lot of research before I came.

My first trip was just over five months and then I went back home. I didn’t realize back then that the Kurds would keep advancing south. Soon it started to seem that that it was the Kurds on the ascendance, not Daesh (so-called Islamic State).

After that first trip I was very tired. I had fought for over five months, I had seen a lot of friends die and I was keen to get back to Britain to rest and to explain my family what I had been up to.

One of the many Arab-Kurdish meetings taking place in Raqqa province.
One of the many Arab-Kurdish meetings taking place in Raqqa province. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

But you decided to come back again. Why?

During my first trip I had identified several needs. I had seen people get injured and die for a lack of both medical knowledge and equipment.

I came up with the idea of [establishing] a medical unit [two ambulances and foreign doctors to cope with the lack of basic knowledge on the frontline]. It ended up training a lot of Kurds. We made an open call for doctors who had experience on the frontline. We needed people who were politically aware, who understood what was going on and who knew they were here just to help.

You talk about a ‘revolution’ taking place. Can you elaborate?

What pockets of the West fail to understand is that it’s impossible to plant a western styled democracy and that will fit like a glove.

One of the things I've truly understood since I came here is how, via imperialism, communities in the Middle East have been cut up between straight lines to a point where countries are almost ungovernable because they have such large minorities.

What we’ve been waiting for is an indigenous democratic movement, somebody who comes from the Middle East that will recognize the diversity of the region, understands its history – something Americans never managed to do – and builds a sustainable future for everybody.

And who better to do this than the Kurds, who have been brutalized by the countries where they live in? Through this suffering has emerged a greater understanding of what they want to achieve.

Now the Kurds are liberating themselves, why should they treat local Arabs, Turks or Persians the way they treated them for so many years? They’ve, helped devise an ideology, Democratic Confederalism, which gives rights back to the people and promotes a shared future.

This a localized movement and that is very much part of its success. The Kurds have lived side-by-side with Christians and Arabs, and they understand that it has to be like that. This is a revolution in every sense of the word. The Middle East has been waiting for a revolution to come along, it’s almost like a renaissance for this part of the world.

A view of Raqqa's frontline.
A view of Raqqa's frontline. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

How long will you stay?

I don’t consider myself a soldier any more. It’s true that when I came here I wanted to fight Daesh, but nowadays I consider myself as an observer to history in the making, to fundamental changes in the Middle East. Everyone is doing their part, whether it’s picking up the garbage in the streets, teaching Kurdish or running the local councils.

All this is happening during a violent confrontation, during a revolution and a conventional war against a well funded and trained enemy which is determined to destroy everything they’ve achieved.

The Middle East is a hotbed for revolution and I want to see how far this goes. I want it to spread beyond Syria. Fascism, Nationalism, fundamentalism and all the ‘isms’ that we don’t like find a very good audience in the Middle East because of poverty, a lack of education, communities alienated by the governments… That’s the fertile ground for all these isms.

With the Middle East we in the West need to start thinking about how important it is to invest in the region, to invest in their jobs, to give them a secular education and build a democratic framework like that of Democratic Confederalism that gives them rights, then the Middle East will have a much brighter future than it has now.

Macer Gifford as he meets New Internationalist.
Macer Gifford as he meets New Internationalist. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

How do you see the country and the region in the next five years?

There’s a difference between your hopes and what the future might bring. I want to see is a peace treaty between Assad and the SDF and I also want the Turks to withdraw from Syria.

I really think the SDF should be the democratic opposition to Assad. The country might be divided in two: one part run by the regime and the other by the SDF. Assad is a dictator but not a fool and I think he’s willing to negotiate with the SDF.

I want to see the end of the civil war and I want to see the federation as a model for the rest of the region.

We will surely defeat Daesh but I also want the revolution to spread across Syria and beyond.

All photos by Karlos Zurutuza


If you want to know more about Kurdistan, read the other exclusive interviews for New Internationalist:

Riza Altun, co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union and executive member of the Kurdistan Communities Union: A turning point for Kurds across the Middle East

Zagros Hiwa, the first point of contact for reporters looking to cover the Kurdish guerrilla movement: The face behind the PKK story

Bese Hozat, female co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union: ‘Freedom can’t be contained by a wall’

‘A state is not a solution to the Kurdish question’

One hundred years after the borders in the Middle East were arbitrarily drawn by foreign powers, the whole region is being shaken by a war that could redesign it – with Kurds playing a major role in the process. New Internationalist travelled to the northern Iraq to meet and know more about the Kurdish vision.

At a secret location in the Qandil mountains, we meet Bese Hozat, the female co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization for the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and other Kurdish groups.

‘We’re witnessing a third world war in the region,’ says Bese, amid the threatening echo of Turkish bombs hitting the area.

One year ago, the last failed peace process between Ankara and the Kurds led to an escalation of tensions, against the backdrop of a failed coup against the Turkish government. Bese Hozat, what do you make of these events?

For us, there was never a peace process as such. In 2013, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was in sore need of a ceasefire due to a difficult situation both in the local and foreign arenas. Their main target was to get control of the state, so fighting was not in the interests of the AKP – their goal was to instrumentalize the so-called ‘process’. The ceasefire was just a tactical move.

The Kurdish movement took significant steps in the ceasefire, such as the withdrawal of their fighters from Turkey and the release of prisoners. But the AKP soon realized the Kurdish movement was gaining strength thanks to the revolution in Rojava, the liberation of Yazidis and the fight against ISIS. All these events brought international recognition. Besides, Turkey’s Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a party closer to the interests of Kurds, got 13 per cent of the votes in the June 2015 general election, so the AKP decided to kill the process and started a fierce fight against the Kurdish people in the cities.

‘The aspirations of the people for freedom cannot be contained by a wall’ – Bese Hozat

They started attacking the guerrillas with the most sophisticated techniques as well as by using Daesh (Isis).

The heavy isolation of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, is yet another eloquent proof of this. He’s under heavy solitary confinement, and his lawyers have not been able to meet him since July 2011. Not even his family can meet him. The Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) went to the İmralı Prison Island, where he’s held, to conduct an investigation on February 2016. But they made no public declaration whatsoever, claiming that Turkey didn’t allow them to make any statement.

Is the EU turning a blind eye on the Kurdish issue in Turkey?

EU country members ties with Turkey are deeply pragmatic. They show a very hypocritical approach. Europe knows Turkey is conducting genocide policies against the Kurdish people but they will never lift a finger for us. Before their eyes, and under their witness, entire Kurdish cities in the south-east of Turkey have been razed and destroyed.

The EU is fully aware we’re suffering crimes against humanity but Turkey is blackmailing Brussels by playing the refugee crisis card.

A portrait of Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) female leader Bese Hozat
‘The era for nation-states is over,’ says Bese Hozat, female leader of Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

How do you compare the last military operation in Turkish areas of Kurdistan to those back in the 1980s and the 1990s, which resulted in thousands of villages being destroyed and a mass population displacement?

Turkey has been waging a three-decade long war against the Kurds with the backing of NATO. The difference between the two mass scale operations is that Turkey is no longer fighting with its ground forces because they have proved useless against us. So they’re fighting us by using their air force as well as more sophisticated weapons. Nowadays we’re facing the is the most intense war period against the Kurdish movement.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders have decided to call an independence referendum on 25 September. Can this pose a milestone in the Kurdish struggle?

A referendum is a natural and democratic right of the people’s, regardless of its aims. The Kurds in the four parts of Kurdistan are entitled to their right of self-determination and also to their right for a free life in Kurdistan. However, our movement’s approach is not about building a state – a state system will not be to the benefit of the Kurdish people but a thorn in their side.

A Kurdish state will never be a solution to the Kurdish question. It would deepen the fight with our neighbours and bring decades of war against the Arabs well as chaos and suffering.

We vow for the Democratic Confederalism system for the four parts of Kurdistan. A democratic federal system will be more libertarian and democratic for our people in South Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan region).

The era for nation-states is over. A state does not buy freedom because it’s a bourgeoisie system that enforces repression on the people by an elite.

The Kurdish movement you lead has consistently denounced alleged ties between Masoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan.

However, Barzani was the one who called for a referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence, which doesn’t seem to be in Ankara’s interests.

Barzani called for a referendum because of the difficulties he’s facing.

There is no democracy in South Kurdistan. The Kurdish Parliament has been blocked for more than two years, the opposition has been silenced and the people are facing grave economic and social problems.

The KDP (the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party) is centralizing all the authority through family rule and a highly antidemocratic system. There’s been a social backlash, and Barzani wants to tackle it by calling a referendum, which has been used as a threat and a blackmail against those who criticize the ruling system. The rhetoric is ‘if you are against us you are against independence.’

‘The US, Israel and Britain supported Daesh until they realized it had got out of their control’ Bese Hozat

Barzani and Erdoğan’s relations are dirty, there are a lot of secret agreements we think are against the interests of the Kurdish people – like the one which allows Kurdish oil be piped out directly to Turkey [bypassing the Iraqi government]. Erdoğan and the AKP won’t support the referendum, but they need the support of the KDP for their campaign against the Kurds.

The sad truth is that Barzani represents the legacy of collaborative Kurds and Turkey, that of an occupying force.

Turkey is building a new wall on its border with Iran, dissecting predominantly Kurdish areas on both sides of the border. What is your response to this?

Turkey is building walls on its borders as a sign of their policies. but the aspirations of the people for freedom cannot be contained by a wall. Before, our borders were littered by barbed wire and minefields, but those proved useless, so now they have resorted to a wall.

Our response will be to continue raising the political struggle in the four parts of Kurdistan until these walls too become meaningless.

Washington is backing your people in Syria but the local Kurds have also struck deals with the Russians. What do you think of the role both major powers are playing in the region?

The interest in the Kurds of these two powers is rooted in their regional interests and their plans to redesign the region. They want to minimize the power of traditional regional states which are too dogmatic in their positions – because they are an obstacle for global capital.

We’re witnessing a third ‘world war’ in the region, which started in 1990-91 with the Gulf War, and which then brought war to Afghanistan and Iraq. We can also include the arrest of Öcalan as part of this chain of events.

In this situation, the Kurds have become the one and only democratic force. They’re fighting Daesh and Al-Qaeda, both of which pose a great threat to human values.

The Kurds are playing a big role in redesigning the region along democratic lines, so the US and Russia have strengthened relations with the Kurds in a bid to further their own interests.

Ankara claims arms handed to the Kurdish forces in Syria by the US are also falling into the hands of the PKK. Is there any truth to this in your view?

These are all lies. They stick to this narrative in order to prevent any support for the YPG (People’s Protection Units). [The YPG is a mainly-Kurdish militia in Syria, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces.]

The PKK was present long before YPG came to exist, it has a 45-year long struggle behind it, and it has waged armed resistance for over 30 years – whereas the YPG was created only five years ago.

Getting weapons has never been a problem for the PKK, especially in a region like this.

You have claimed Al Qaeda and Daesh are ‘instruments created by the capitalist system’. Could you be more specific?

The seed was already planted in the region. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the old Baathists approached-Al Qaeda, but the US and Europe capitalized on this force because they wanted to use it as an asset against the hegemony of Shiites. The US, Israel and Britain empowered radical fanatic Sunni Islamic groups as a means to contain the spread of Shia hegemony in the region.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar also played a big role in the rooting and flourishing of such groups. Even after Saddam Hussein was hanged, Turkey had very good relations with Sunni groups around him.

With the beginning of the war in Syria, Turkey established direct relations with Daesh. The US, Israel and Britain supported Daesh until they realized it had got out of their control. It was only then that these powers decided to take measures, but Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar stuck to their previous policies. Saudi Arabia started changing its policies only recently – when it had problems with Washington – but Turkey and Qatar have not yet cut all their relations with Daesh.

One of the main reasons for this is that the cadres of the AKP are very close to these radical ideas. Daesh is being progressively minimized, but the AKP is taking the cover of the legitimacy of the state to build a state of its own. Conservative. It's no longer a secular state but a religious, sectarian, nationalist and racist state. It’s an exclusive system which denies different social, religious and cultural identities within its borders. Nowadays, the biggest threat to the region is not Daesh but the regime the AKP is building in Turkey.

All photos by Karlos Zurutuza.

If you want to know more about Kurdistan, read the other exclusive interviews for New Internationalist:

Riza Altun, co-leader of the KCK and executive member of the Kurdistan Communities Union: A turning point for Kurds across the Middle East

Zagros Hiwa, the first point of contact for reporters looking to cover the Kurdish guerrilla movement: The face behind the PKK story

Macer Gifford, the British currency trader who left all to join the Kurdish front line: ‘My revolution across Syria and beyond’

Is Brussels training human traffickers in Libya?


Refugees aboard the Astral-Proactiva Open Arms NGO vessel, one of several conducting search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean. © Karlos Zurutuza

It was a short sea patrol through Libyan waters aboard the only operational coast guard boat in port. It’s just 11 nautical miles between Zuwara – a coastal town close to the Tunisian border – and the oil and gas refinery of Mellitah. The quay of the Italian-run complex marks the boundaries between Zuwara and the neighbouring town of Sabratah.

‘We cannot go further east because those waters belong to Sabratah,’ explained one of the two sailors on aboard. ‘Each one controls their waters without interfering in the neighbours, you know?,’ he added, over the rattle of the outboard motor.

Six years since the uprising that ended Muammar Gaddafi’s four decades of rule, three governments vie for power in the Libya: one in the east, and two in the west, and only one of them is backed by the UN. The rule of law, however, is enforced on the ground by none of them. Rather, a myriad of militias across the country carry this responsibility. Each town has its own local council, its own armed forces and, in the case of the coastal cities, its own coastguard.

An average rate to jump on one of these rafts is around 500 euros (USD$545). Despite their apparent fragility, they are much more reliable than the majority of the wooden boats used by smugglers.

Karlos Zurutuza

Murky waters

‘We have no resources,’ Reda Issa, commander-in-chief of the Libyan Navy blurted from a corrugated iron barrack at the port of Misrata. It’s a statement that echoes in almost every office of the fractured Libyan administration.

Much of the fleet was destroyed during the 2011 NATO bombing campaign and, according to the high official, three medium ships and three RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boat) are all that currently comprise the core of a Libyan navy tasked with patrolling a 600km-long shore between Zuwara and Sirte. It’s such a shorthanded force that an offensive that expelled the Islamic State from their stronghold in Sirte at the end of last year relied on private vessels, including a civilian ship with a mounted anti-aircraft gun on deck – very much the naval version of the ragtag armoured pick-ups ashore.

‘We need 10 ships exclusively dedicated to rescue missions, as well as helicopters and other equipment ... We are in bad need of the most basic resources, you know?’ Issa said.

Migrants and refugees in Libya wishing to cross to Europe get occasional work in construction.

Karlos Zurutuza

The Libyan Coast Guard commander acknowledged that collaboration between coastal towns ‘could be better’, but expressed optimism over EU-backed training of 89 Libyan cadets that officials began to receive at the end of October 2016. The training program was included as part of Operation Sophia, the EU’s joint naval operation to combat human and arms trafficking in the central Mediterranean. And, on 8 February, Federica Mogherini, High Representative for the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Vice President, delivered the first diplomas to those Libyan coast guards trained by the programme.

Begun in the spring of 2015 as a 12 month, 11.82 million euro program (about USD$13 million), Operation Sophia was last extended in June 2016 until 27 July, adding two supporting tasks: the training program for the Libyan coastguard and navy, and contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.

The operation has proven a controversial program, partly owing to several incidents between the Libyan fleet and some NGOs engaged in search and rescue missions in the area. Sea Watch, a German NGO operating in the Central Mediterranean, asked the EU to reconsider its project to train the Libyan coastguard after a tense incident last October.

A spokesperson for the NGO said Libyan sailors ‘attacked the refugees, hitting them with clubs’, while preventing the German group’s two speedboats from intervening. Dozens of migrants are feared to have died after the attack.

‘Migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks are well ingrained into local patterns of life, employing facilitators while paying off authorities and other militias’

Libyan authorities rejected the accusations and accused NGOs of working in the area of ‘violating Libyan territorial waters’.

‘We understand the humanitarian goal of these organizations but we ask them to abide with international law. If they want to contact us all the lines are open,’ Ayub Qassem, spokesman for the Libyan Navy said from his desk in downtown Tripoli.

In 2013, the Italian navy set up a rescue operation called ‘Mare Nostrum’, which turned out immensely successful and saved some 150,000 people. But the high political cost added to Rome´s difficulties to finance the mission – nine million euros per month (US $9.90 million) – led to its suspension in October 2014. A few days later, FRONTEX took over and pulled back to European territorial waters. As a result, the death toll in the central Mediterranean was 30 times higher than when the Italian vessels were conducting rescue operations. On a recently released report, the European Border agency suggested that NGOs have become accomplices to human traffickers by providing a reliable shuttle service for migrants from Africa to Europe, lowering smugglers’ costs and improving their ‘business model’.

‘EU authorities accuse us of contributing to a “pull factor” but what happened after Mare Nostrum was discarded proves that, whether we are here or not, migrants and refugees will keep trying to cross these waters,’ said Juan Matias, former MSF project coordinator aboard Dignity 1 – one of the three rescue boats operated by the NGO.

In 2016, more than 5,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean, hitting a record high.

Karlos Zurutuza

Sea fees

Last December, a man who claimed to be a former member of Zawiya’s security forces explained under condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals that the local coastguard was charging a fee for each rubber boat willing to cross its territorial waters. Smugglers rafts which had not been paid for were allegedly intercepted by boats crewed by local militias and taken back ashore, were the migrants would be retained and only released after paying a ransom.

Such claims could not be corroborated independently. However, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya claims to have received credible information that some members of state institutions and some local officials have participated in the smuggling and trafficking process.

Old trends

Operation Sophia has precedents. In the spring of 2013, the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) launched a mission to support the Libyan authorities in improving and developing the security of the country’s borders

Antti Hartikainen, Director-General of Finnish National Board of Customs who was heading the EUBAM's mission in Libya in 2013 told this reporter that the lack of a central command in the Libyan navy was a problem already back then. ‘It has always been like that. They have these units which operate mostly on their own,’ said the official.

Hartikainen claims it’s nearly impossible to identify crew on the boats, or even identify the identities of officials in the local command structures.

‘The economic situation has deteriorated dramatically over the last years. The Government is not able to guarantee the salaries so the chances that members of the Libyan coastguard could be linked to mafias are greater,’ stressed Hartikainen.

Refugees aboard the Bourbon Argos – run by Doctors Without Borders – look at the Sicily coast just before disembarking

Karlos Zurutuza

Public operational reports available at Operation Sophia’s website does not address how the EU training program coordinates with a Libyan fleet lacking a central command, and do not address how the program avoids infiltration by individuals linked to smuggling mafias among their trainees.

A leaked document disclosing a six month report for Operation Sophia, covering the period 1 January to 31 October 2016, acknowledged that ‘migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks are well ingrained into local patterns of life, employing facilitators while paying off authorities and other militias.’ The document also stated that mafia groups relied on the NGO fleet in the area to carry out the rescues, but that presence of European naval joint operations had not contributed to increasing the flow of migrants, as the ‘push factors’ – the incentives causing people to board boats in Libya – are in each passengers’ country of origin. ‘The number of persons rescued by our assets accounts for only 13 per cent of the total number of migrants rescued so it cannot be regarded as decisive in terms of a “pull factor”,’ the report also underlined.

Despite repeated requests for comment spanning the past two months, officials from Operation Sophia declined to comment for this story.

This article has been amended on 5 May 2017 to include the quote by Juan Matias, former MSF project coordinator aboard Dignity 1 – one of the three rescue boats operated by the NGO – and an improved description of the Italian navy's Mare Nostrum operation.

Why I write for New Internationalist


The historical fortress in Nalut, Libya, one of Nafusa’s biggest Amazigh towns. by Karlos Zurutuza

It's difficult to write about the under-reported when editors want 'sexy' subjects, writes Karlos Zurutuza.

I knew Rojava was a great story since I first set foot in northern Syria. However, I'd soon realize it was too early for the world to know about the plight of the Syrian Kurds. It was the spring of 2008.

'Are there really Kurds in Syria?' an editor who pretended to be a knowledgeable person on the Middle East blurted over the phone. 'Thanks for this Karlos, but I'll give it a miss,' he added. Many others like him would follow suit.

That first batch of stories – which included an interview with Salih Muslim, the very man who'd emerge as the leader of the Syrian Kurds four years later – was finally published by a humble Basque newspaper I still have the privilege to work with.

I went back to northern Syria just after the Kurds took over their territory, in the summer of 2012. The majority of my colleagues were flocking to either Homs or Aleppo, so I got used to hearing questions like: 'What's the story there, Karlos?' But a great deal of editors would still stick to the regular answer: 'I'll give it a miss.' Okay, 2012 was still too early. We had to wait until the outbreak of the Islamic State in 2014 to finally discover the Syrian Kurds, their unique revolution, and their fierce stance against Islamic extremism. Colleagues wanted contacts, and Rojava didn't look that far fetched for editors. The Syrian Kurds were finally 'sexy'.

As a freelance journalist I've always had this taste for the under-reported. I love the feeling of following stories in long forgotten areas, usually across the vast strip of land between occupied Western Sahara and Eastern Balochistan. The main disadvantages are that there are no fellow colleagues to share a beer with at the end of the day, and the average editor tries to be not too rough when turning down yet another impossible pitch by 'that eccentric guy.'

Luckily enough, there are also those who genuinely care about the under-reported, not just what’s trending on Twitter. I can count them with the fingers on just one hand, but it's only thanks to them that I've managed to survive as an 'off the radar' journalist for more than a decade. I knew that the New Internationalist would add to that exclusive list when I got an almost instant reply for a story on the Libyan Amazigh people. While I'm writing these lines, the Baloch are running a campaign on social media to remind the world that their land was annexed by Pakistan in March 1948. We did cover their 'black day', exactly one year ago.

It might be too early for the world to know about Nafusa – the main Amazigh stronghold in Libya – or the long forgotten conflict in Balochistan. But for the New Internationalist, it's already news.

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It’s a critical time to build media that brings people together – not drives them apart. That means journalism that creates an inclusive global community, and emphasizes that the struggles of people are often in opposition to the same elite-driven globalization and share the same aspiration to a global, common good.

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On 1 March, we launched an ambitious Community Share Offer, opening up ownership of New Internationalist to ordinary people all over the world. If you are interested in joining us, visit factsandheart.org.

A turning point for Kurds across the Middle East


Riza Altun, Kurdistan Communities Union executive member and co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). © Karlos Zurutuza

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast is witnessing, what is possibly, an unprecedented peak of violence. Fierce clashes between Turkish security forces and urban militants have levelled districts to the ground. The ongoing post-coup crackdown in Turkey targets Kurdish political representatives as new fronts also open for Kurds across the Middle East. ‘It’s a turning point for our people,’ says Riza Altun from the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Qandil mountain range.

The whole Middle East region is in turmoil. How are the Kurds coping with this scenario?

The Kurds have actually come to the forefront of the political agenda. In Iraq they enjoy a federal status and in Syria they have enforced self-rule through a system of cantons.

In Iran we are witnessing a lot of democratic developments and changes are also visible Turkey where, under the leadership of the PKK, the Kurds have proved a legitimate political force.

With the disintegration of the status quo in the Middle East and the struggle against Islamic terrorism, the Kurds have presented themselves as a reliable alternative.

On the negative side, we are facing the dire consequences of the support that foreign powers give to regional regimes. Some Arab countries, and particularly Iran and Turkey are against the gains of the Kurds. That the USA, Russia and the EU have not revealed their policy toward the Kurds poses a major threat.

Kurds have enforced a self rule in the northern parts of Syria.

Karlos Zurutuza

Can you elaborate on this?

Russia follows a policy of securing local regimes and the US seeks its own interest in the region through NATO. These two key international powers follow a tactical relation with the Kurds but they keep their ties with the regimes.

The US allowing Turkey to invade Syria, and Russian support for the regime in Damascus shows that these powers follow a policy of strategically interacting with regional states.

However, tensions between Ankara and the Kurds have escalated over the last months and a number of Kurdish towns have been levelled to the ground. Couldn’t this have been avoided had the PKK not broken the ceasefire with the killing of two policemen in Ceylanpinar, in July 2015?

Our hypothesis is that those two policemen were killed by people who acted on their own, without informing us. However, the current scenario cannot be explained just by the killing of these two policemen.

Even recently, an AKP official declared that these two policemen were killed by Gülenists. The event has been used as a justification for the fight against the Kurds and also for the struggle against the Gülenist movement.

Looking back we can see that the presence of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in power is a new situation inside Turkey. They want to establish a new Turkey whose founding leader will be Erdogan and whose founding party will be the AKP; this against the background of the first republic, who’s founding leader was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. What is happening in Turkey now is that the first republic is coming to an end and the second republic is emerging.

The replacement of the Kemalist-nationalist regime by a moderate Islamist one is part of an international plan for Turkey and the region. Hadn’t it been for the support of the West and the USA, the AKP could not have come to power. Its internal policy was based on weakening the power of Kemalists and the army as well as by filling the power vacuum with its own assets.

All this has to be addressed within the wider framework of the reshaping of the Middle East. Back to the two policemen, I can assure you that several Turkish security officials were killed before them but the actions weren’t highlighted by the state and the media.

But you dug trenches and set up checkpoints manned by armed people in several Kurdish areas of Turkey. Many claim you brought the war to the cities.

We’re a 40-year old freedom movement which vows for democratization in Turkey and the solution of the Kurdish question. We do not accept the legitimacy of a regime which refuses to accept these terms. This said, it’s not accurate to blame the YDG-H (a Kurdish youth movement) for the destruction of our cities.

The community is entitled to defend itself against AKP’s aggression. It wasn’t a plan drawn by the PKK but a measure taken by the people which got the support of both the YDG-H and the PKK.

PKK co-founder Riza Altun served 13 years in Turkish jails and was also imprisoned in France in 2007.

Karlos Zurutuza

When we compare the results of the Turkish elections in June and November we come across a sharp fall in the results of the pro-Kurdish political forces in Turkey. Are decisions in Qandil taken without taking into account their impact on the political arena in Turkey?

The HDP (Peoples' Democratic Party) got 13 percent of the votes in the June elections, something which prevented the AKP from gaining the majority to form a government.

After the power vacuum that followed the election process there were only two feasible ways. The AKP could have opted for solving the Kurdish question through democratic means but they preferred to establish a fascist regime that would try to erase its opposition.

From 7 June to 1 Nov, the HDP was not able to conduct an election campaign; offices were burned and/or raided and political rallies forbidden. A number of HDP members were arrested, banners and posters were outlawed and Kurdish political representatives could not speak on TV.

The whole situation was worsened by a chain of bomb attacks in Suruc, Ankara, Diyarbakir… This is the atmosphere of terror that hampered the results of the HDP and democratic forces in the November elections.

Kurds claim they have made significant moves toward peace with Turkey such as removing their troops from Turkish soil and releasing prisoners.

Karlos Zurutuza

You mention those attacks but those committed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons have caused several civilian casualties recently. What's your relation, if any, with them?

It's widely known that there may be former PKK members within their ranks but I want to underline that we have no organic link whatsoever with them. They accuse us of passivity while they present themselves as a group which vows for more radical actions.

Doesn’t the failed coup in July 2016 prove that Turkey is really facing, growing, existential threats?

There are a lot of obscure points to understand. We acknowledge that there was a coup orchestrated by Gülenists and Kemalists. The West and the USA also had a share in the coup but it was not too strong.

However, everything developed under the eyes of Erdogan. It’s hard to imagine he wasn’t aware of what was going on. Erdogan used the coup as a justification to enforce his own coup, in order to curb all opposition against Erdogan, who finally managed to accomplish all what he had been intending to achieve.

Hundreds of thousands of people were purged; from lawyers to teachers, from NGOs to trade unions. He got rid of every element labelled as hostile. Kurdish co-mayors were arrested and replaced with appointed trustees and they managed to silence the democratic media.

A PKK fighter holds his position in the Kirkuk front against ISIS.

Karlos Zurutuza

Erdogan recently said that Turkey would not allow Sinjar district to become another Qandil. Is that your goal?

Sinjar is a part of Kurdistan where people suffered a genocide attempt so we feel the responsibility to protect them from being massacred. Over the last two years we have been able to defend Kurds in many places such as Rojava, Kirkuk, Sinjar, Makhmur… But now the AKP regards PKK and the Kurdish struggle as the main obstacle to fulfil its dreams of one-man rule under Erdogan. Now we’re fully aware that Turkey is planning to conduct military operations in Sinjar and Qandil soon.

You have consistently denounced the tactical relation between Masoud Barzan, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Erdogan. But you do collaborate with Peshmerga forces on the ground. Isn’t this a contradiction?

We are facing profound and intense tensions because of Barzani’s policies. His strategic relation with Ankara is going to bring about very serious threats for the Kurds. Despite these threats, we are not for an internal fight among the Kurds as we’re going through a period which has witnessed lots of gains for the Kurds. If we unite we will succeed but Barzani’s ties with Ankara are an obstacle for Kurdish unity. We want Barzani to align with the Kurds, and not with Turkey.

What will Trump’s victory mean for the Kurds and Middle East?

The change of president may lead to some tactical changes but not necessarily to strategic ones. What we know is what Obama did. He stuck to an imperialistic policy, it’s never been about enforcing democracy or anything that can be beneficial for the people in the region.

They have created tensions among different actors to ensure their own security through chaos and instability. Let me give you an example: Washington is helping the YPG (People's Protection Units) from the air in its fight against ISIS while it gives full-fledge support to Turkey to invade Jarabulus – northern Syria – something which poses a threat to Kurdish gains in their struggle against Jihadists.

Whether it is America or Russia, It is impossible for a hegemonic power to be democratic. I don’t understand American internal policies but their foreign policies have proved fatal for the people and have nothing to do with democracy.

If you want to know more about Kurdistan, read the other exclusive interviews for New Internationalist:

Zagros Hiwa, the first point of contact for reporters looking to cover the Kurdish guerrilla movement: The face behind the PKK story

Macer Gifford, the British currency trader who left all to join the Kurdish front line: ‘My revolution across Syria and beyond’

Bese Hozat, female co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union: ‘Freedom can’t be contained by a wall’

‘Libya needs to start again from scratch’: Interview with the President of the Amazigh Supreme Council


Kharie Elhamesi is the elected president of Libya's Amazigh Supreme Council. © Karlos Zurutuza

Khaire Elhamesi chairs the Amazigh Supreme Council (ASC), an umbrella organization for the eight main Amazigh locations in Libya. He won his seat in August 2015 through a ground breaking election process from which the 26 executive members of the ASC were elected, in groups of three, for each location: a delegate of the municipal council, as well as two other candidates – male and female – elected by each community. In municipalities where there is an Arabic majority, two extra seats are allocated for two towns with an Amazigh population.

The ASC held its first congress on 27 September, 2011 agreeing on a clear demand for the constitutional recognition of Tamazight, their language. The organizers also decided to create representative bodies for each of the Amazigh towns in Libya. The one in Zuwara – an Amazigh coastal enclave as well as Elhamesi’s hometown – was elected in November 2011, in Libya’s first ever democratic election.

Over the last year the council has been holding monthly meetings in their Tripoli headquarters, or as often as security conditions allow.

Five years after the war that ended Moamar Gaddafi’s four decades of rule, Libya looks as unstable as ever. Your areas, however, look safer than others in the country.

Even before Tripoli fell to the rebellion, in August 2011, we knew it would take a long time for the various factions and sensibilities in Libya to reach an agreement. We decided not to wait until things settled down by taking our own path.

A pressing priority was the protection of our territory and today we have consolidated defence units in each of our locations, something which contributes to the high levels of security that we enjoy despite our many enemies. There’s also another key factor: we are a concentrated majority in our areas, mainly because we have barely mixed with our Arab neighbours.

The right for an autonomous region of our own is embodied in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

I’d also like to highlight the brigade combating migrant smugglers in Zuwara. It’s a local initiative which has dealt a major blow to the scourge of human trafficking to Europe.

Other Libyan towns, such as Misrata, also boast of high levels of security. What makes you different from the rest?

In the political arena we have created our own electoral commission and organized elections with representation quotas for women. And let’s not forget the huge steps taken toward the standardization of our Tamazight language. We managed to stop the decades-long Arabization campaigns and today our schooling system offers education in our own language.

We even have an Amazigh Language and Literature Department at the University of Zuwara. It’s also important to mention the commission for the revision of the text books to avoid radical Islamic content littering Libya’s schools. I’m proud to say that our Tamazight language books are the only ones in which a Libyan child can come across a Libyan Jew, Muslim and a Christian.

A Tamazight language class in Jadu, in the Nafusa mountains.

Karlos Zurutuza

Yet both rival governments of Tripoli and Tobruk agree that you want to break the country.

I challenge anyone to prove it. Gaddafi also stuck to that narrative and, unfortunately, both governments follow suit. We’ve always held out our hand to anyone who accepts the diversity of Libya but we are also blunt in the sense that we will not accept being treated as second class citizens again. That is, by far, the most poisonous legacy after four decades of Gaddafi in power: the systematic rejection of the different, be them non-Arab, non-Muslims... It’s a mindset deeply rooted in the psyche of the Libyan people and it will take generations to get rid of it.

However, the ASC has not yet been clear on their model of state for both Libya and its Amazigh community. Would you vow for an Amazigh autonomous region? Eventually a federal state like the one supported by the Kurds in Syria?

We follow with great interest the developments in Rojava given that the Kurds are another people seeking their place among the Arab nationalist and the Islamic pressure. There are many parallels between them and us. However, their political model cannot be extrapolated to Libya as we are talking about two different social and political scenarios.

In any case, the right for an autonomous region of our own is embodied in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is true that we have not yet made a clear statement in this regard but an Amazigh autonomous region is a model that is increasingly getting greater acceptance among our people.

A autonomous region that includes the Nafusa mountain range and the coastal town of Zuwara?

This is something we should consider very carefully because, among other things, there are around 200,000 Amazigh living in Tripoli, who actually make the majority in two districts.

An Amazigh political demand on display in the streets of Zuwara.

Karlos Zurutuza

The rival governments of Tripoli and Tobruk have the backing of countries such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, UAE and Egypt. Who supports you?

Both inside and outside the country we tend to forget that Libya is in North Africa, and not in the Persian Gulf, and not even in the Middle East. We therefore seek allies among our Mediterranean neighbours, both in Europe and in Africa. A few weeks ago we met with members of the Democratic Renewal Movement in Niger. Also, an ASC delegation met with EU senior representatives in Paris and Strasbourg last June.

The Algerian government has also stated explicitly that the Amazigh in Libya are an asset for security in the region, although we are fully aware of Algieria’s belligerent position toward our brothers in Kabylia.

We follow with great interest the developments in Rojava given that the Kurds are another people seeking their place among the Arab nationalist and the Islamic pressure

We belong to the Mediterranean basin, and that is where we must look for our natural allies, be it recognized states such as France or Italy, or stateless peoples like Catalans and Basques.

The third government at stake in Libya is the so-called Government of National Accord, which has the support of the UN. Could this one be another potential ally?

They have never consulted us or called the ASC for talks so we cannot support a political entity that does not recognize us. This self-proclaimed ‘Government of National Agreement’ which includes former members from Tripoli and Tobruk is actually revitalising the other two governments whose term expired long ago. Libya needs to start again from scratch, with new and democratic institutions capable of articulating the will of all Libyans.

Khaire Elhamesi is President of Libya’s Amazigh Supreme Council.

To be black in Libya

To be black in Lybia
A refugee from Tawargha explodes in anger after her brother was kidnapped by militias in Tripoli. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

It’s easy to spot them sweeping the streets of Tripoli dressed in orange jumpsuits. Some others are more elusive, like those in the Gargaresh district, in southwest Tripoli. They line up along the road waiting for occasional work in construction. The atmosphere in Gargaresh is always tense and everyone seems reluctant to speak. Chiboy, a 22-year-old Nigerian, explains the reason behind the deafening silence.

‘This is like a game of Russian roulette,’ said the young migrant, holding a spade. ‘We can either jump on the back of a truck for a job in construction, or end up in the back of a pick up that will take us to a detention centre,’ he explains, constantly keeping an eye on the busy road.

On a good day, Chiboy will make around $5.00. There are also those days in which his contractor will refuse to pay him after an exhausting journey. But it can be much worse.

Lybia's black community
Sub-Saharans wait to get occasional work in construction, in Tripoli's Gargaresh district. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

‘When I arrived in Tripoli six months ago they put me in prison. All of us inside were black, hundreds. They would beat us on a daily basis. One day they gave me a mobile phone and told me to call my family back in Nigeria. While I was speaking with my sister, they kept beating me. They told her she had to pay $740.00 (1,000 Libyan dinars) as a ransom, otherwise they would beat me to death,’ recalls the migrant.

He was lucky and the money finally arrived a month later through other Nigerians in Tripoli. ‘Those who can't afford it are either killed in prison or sold as slaves for construction work,’ points the young Nigerian. Several around him nod. Many have undergone a similar experience in which the procedures and the amount of the ransoms followed a similar pattern.

There are estimated to be some three million migrants and refugees in Libya, mostly Sub-Saharans. They wait and work toward their passage to Europe in a country which now has three governments – one in the East, one in the West and one backed by the UN – none of which are able to govern. The judicial neglect is rife, but Shokri Agmar, a lawyer from Tripoli, pointed to a more pressing problem for the foreign workers:

Displaced children from Tawargha play at the makeshift refugee camp in Janzur Naval Academy, west of Tripoli.
Displaced children from Tawargha play at the makeshift refugee camp in Janzur Naval Academy, west of Tripoli. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

‘They’re in a state of complete and utter helplessness,’ underlines Agmar. ‘Us, Libyans, rely on our own militias to protect ourselves but migrants lack a militia of their own so they are defenceless against the constant threats. Whatever happens to them, no one will lift a finger, and they cannot keep a low profile because of the colour of their skin,’ added the lawyer.

Despite the surge in shipwrecks and other incidents at sea over the last months, Chiboy and the rest in the coastal Gargaresh will jump on a raft to cross the Mediterranean as soon as the gather the amount to pay a passage.

‘What else could we possibly do?’ says Basiru, a 32-year-old Gambian. ‘There’s nothing for me back home and I prefer to risk my life at sea rather than staying in this country.’

Missing a ghost town

A Libyan passport however is no guarantee to avoid abuses if you are one among the more than 40,000 inhabitants of Tawargha scattered across several refugee camps throughout the country. Today a ghost town, Tawargha was the only town in coastal Libya with a black majority, its inhabitants being the descendants of former slaves who were emancipated from slavery during Italian rule spanning early-to-mid 20th century (1911-1943). During the 2011 war Gaddafi's forces used the city as a base for a brutal two-month siege of neighbouring Misrata. Libyan rebels eventually broke the siege and sought revenge on the people of Tawargha, whom they saw as responsible for Misrata's suffering.

The plastic and corrugated iron shacks that once housed Turkish construction workers near Tripoli’s airport have been the closest thing to ‘home’ for hundreds of families displaced since 2011 in the Fallah and Tarik Matar camps. Mabrouk Suessi, a former physical education teacher in Tawargha, is Tarik Matar spokesperson and executive member of the Tawargha Local Council, the umbrella organization for this displaced community.

‘We hardly ever leave the camp as we face all sorts of abuses, from kidnappings to brutal beatings that often result in the death of the victims,’ denounces Suessi. Behind him, a poster still shows the set of luxury apartment blocks this muddy place was meant to be after completion of construction. ‘The militias have even broken into the camps and kidnapped our young boys at gunpoint,’ claims Suessi, the proud father of two twin sisters born in these barracks.

The market in Murzuq, a Tebu stronghold in southern Libya.
The market in Murzuq, a Tebu stronghold in southern Libya. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

In a report released last January, Human Rights Watch denounced the local council of Misrata and affiliated militias for continuing to prevent the residents of Tawargha from returning home. The New York based NGO also pointed out that Tawarghans face ‘harassment and arbitrary detention while perpetrators continued to benefit from impunity since 2011.’ Statistics are eloquent, but the fact that dark skinned people are called ‘Abid’ – literally meaning ‘slave’ in Arabic – a term used openly and casually to refer to black people in North Africa and the Middle East hints at the depth of the problem.

In 2013, the then Libyan government offered to build 500 homes for the Tawarghan refugees in Jufra, an inhospitable region deep in the Libyan desert. The Tawargha Local Council has repeatedly rejected the idea.

The dire situation faced by the displaced in both camps close to the airport area is a common currency amid the rubble of the former naval academy of Janzur, in western Tripoli, today home to 300 Tawarghan families.

‘We are Libyans and we want to go back home, that’s it,’ said Abu Musa, a Janzur camp resident. ‘There were other well known Gaddafi strongholds during the war, and also of lots Moroccans and Algerians who fought for Gaddafi, but none of them suffer as we do’, lamented Musa, before rounding up his whole speech in a resounding statement: ‘It’s just because we’re black.’

Libyans, yet not Arabs

Six hundred and thirty miles south of Tripoli, the city of Murzuq rises as an unexpected human settlement in the flat Saharan sands of southern Libya. The majority here are Tebu, inhabitants of the vast and inhospitable desert region criss-crossed by the borders of Libya, Chad, Sudan and Niger. As the rest of their Subsaharan neighbours, they are also black and, along with the Amazigh, they are part of Libya's non-Arab indigenous population.

Among their most remarkable achievements in recent years is a cultural awakening launched just as Gaddafi lost his grip over the south. Books were released in their language for the first time ever; students were taught at school in their mother tongue. Things had changed for the better after decades during which many had been prevented from getting healthcare, education and employment, and even deprived of citizenship.

Since the war in 2011, the Tebu had been watching the worrying events in the rest of Libya from the safety of their remote areas. ‘Do you see what those Arabs on the coast are doing to each other?’ blurted a Tebu militiamen in Murzuq while watching on TV the serious clashes between rival factions in 2014 which would eventually lead to the split between Tripoli and Tobruk governments. However, the war ‘on the coast’ would finally reach Libya’s southernmost gate in 2015, when the Tebu became engulfed in a proxy war with their Tuareg neighbours. The arrival of the Islamic State, whose militants have exploited the power vacuum to expand their presence all over the region, has just made the environment more deadly and complex.

Tebu militiamen get set to go on patrol in Murzuq, in Libya's southern desert.
Tebu militiamen get set to go on patrol in Murzuq, in Libya's southern desert. Photo by Karlos Zurutuza

Adam Rami Kerki is the head of the Tebu National Assembly, the main political organization for this people in Libya – today aligned with the UN backed government. The representative spoke of ‘complete and utter racism’ and denounced discrimination ‘rooted in the idea that non-Arab indigenous people should not be part of a self-declared “Arab state”.’

For the time being, with no single central government and security and oil revenues falling, Libya is often labelled as a ‘failed state’ where minorities remain the most vulnerable. A report recently released by Minority Rights Group International – an NGO with more than 40 years of experience working with non-dominant ethnic, religious and linguistic communities – categorized Sub-Saharan migrants, ‘black Libyans’ – in reference to Arabized black Libyans such as Tawarghans – Tebu, alongside the Amazigh, as communities ‘at risk of Genocide and Mass Killing’.

The report comes as no surprise for Kerki. ‘What makes you an Arab?’ asks the Tebu leader. ‘Is it the colour of your skin? Your religion? Your mother tongue? We may not be Arabs but we are definitely Libyans, and, above all, human beings.’

Balochistan, Asia's blackest hole


Members of a displaced Baloch family from Pakistan currently living in Kandahar, Afghanistan. by Karlos Zurutuza

Culture against all odds

It was hanging on the wall of one of the many hairdressers in West London

On a yellowed piece of paper in a frame, The New York Times reported that Kalat – the old kingdom which corresponds roughly to Pakistan’s Balochistan modern province – was an ‘independent sovereign state’ as of 12 August 1947.

‘We had a state of our own for eight months until Pakistan annexed our territory by force eight months later, on 27 March 1948,’ the barber said while he finished the job with his razor. I could not help thinking of the late Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, producing the Palestinian pound note that he would always carry with him as a proof of the previous political existence of the country under British rule.

I had, of course, heard of the Baloch but that slight man in his fifties was the first I had ever met. That encounter sparked my curiosity and a few months later I set foot on Baloch soil for the first time. It was June 2009 then.

In retrospect, I have to admit that during that trip to Balochistan I was barely familiar with the Bugtis, the Marris, the Mengals, and the rest of the clans that make up the Baloch tribal fabric, nor the history behind them. However, I was well aware that the Baloch story was likely to be the most difficult one to cover due to the media blackout enforced by the government. Foreign journalists need special permission to visit the area and permission is hardly ever granted. If journalists risk visiting without permission they’ll face deportation in the best case scenario.

Fighters of the Baloch Liberation Army at an undisclosed location in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Karlos Zurutuza

But why is this such a sensitive area?

Other than being Pakistan’s biggest – yet least populated – province as well as the most neglected one, the Baloch in Pakistan share borders with their kin in both Iran and Afghanistan. The area also boasts enormous reserves of gold, gas and copper, as well as untapped sources of oil and uranium. In addition, it has an enormous strategic importance as a hub for future oil and gas pipelines and for its 620 miles of coast at the gates of the Gulf. Since the occupation of their land, ethnic Baloch insurgents have launched a series of armed uprisings against the central Pakistani government.

Islamabad’s response has come through constant military operations in areas where civilians are displaced, the funnelling of fundamentalist groups into Balochistan, or the so called ‘kill and dump’ policies directed against dissidents, which sometimes include school teachers and intellectuals, as denounced by Amnesty International in its 2015/2016 Pakistan report.

It was only thanks to the help of local activists that I got to meet victims of torture and abuses by the Pakistani security services and the relatives of the myriad of missing Baloch – around 20,000 according to local sources. The situation is so desperate that many are seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, the UNHCR in Pakistan still doesn’t include the Baloch among its ‘people of concern’ list. I did ask the head of the mission in Kabul about this. He said I was the first journalist to ever raise the question and he labelled it as ‘a pending issue.’

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Culture against all odds

The Pakistani Baloch refugees add to the Afghan Baloch which are scattered all across the country, but who still make the majority in Nimroz, the only province in Afghanistan which shares borders with both Iran and Pakistan. Zaranj, the provincial capital located 559 miles southwest of Kabul, lies within walking distance of the official border with Iran, across the Helmand River. For centuries, the local Baloch have lived on the banks of one of the country’s main water sources, but the droughts of the past 10 years have forced many families to leave their native land.

Life is doubtless hard in this remote province but, unlike those in Pakistan or Iran, the Baloch in Afghanistan don’t face persecution for their ethnicity, at least not from the government. This has led to a surprising cultural revival ran by volunteers with very little resources. Today, Balochi – their language – is taught not only at schools in Nimroz; there’s even a Balochi department in the University of Kandahar and Zaranj’s National Radio and Television continues to work unbothered on their daily program in Balochi.

Mir Mohamad Baloch, a Baloch from Zaranj who described himself as a ‘political and cultural activist’ told me that the main threat to their existence comes not from Kabul, but from Tehran.

‘The Iranian government is constantly trying to quell any Baloch initiative here as they consider us a potential threat to their security,’ he lamented.

Their neighbour’s presence was most visible in the Afghan Baloch villages that once found themselves lining up only too close to the Iranian border. Tehran started building a wall in 2007, which is preventing local farmers from attending their crops or meeting their relatives on the other side of the border, just a few hundred metres away. Surviving in this long forgotten part of the world gets even harder; people cannot make ends meet and villages become emptied one after the other.

A sit in for the disappeared in downtown Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's restive Balochistan province.

Karlos Zurutuza

‘Enemies of god’

A group of US geologists who visited the Iranian side of the border in the early 1970’s determined that the landscape was ‘the closest thing to Mars.’ Today, however, most roads are paved and schools and hospitals don’t look as derelict as those in Afghanistan, but the piece of land inhabited by the Baloch in Iran – Sistan and Balochistan province – is also the most neglected one in the country. Taj Mohammad Breseeg, a Baloch historian and university teacher whom I had-had the chance to interview in Quetta –Pakistani Balochistan’s provincial capital – told me that the region had been annexed to Iran in 1928. Repression by the central government, he added, resulted in a ‘mass exodus of the local population and saw virtually every Baloch place name changed to a Persian one.’

The evolution of the name used for the province is illustrative. Seventy years ago this province was called ‘Baluchistan’, which would later turn into ‘Baluchistan and Sistan’ before, and today is ‘Sistan and Baluchistan’. If we stick to the logic of past trends, in the future it may be called just ‘Sistan.’

The Baloch city of Duzzap, renamed as Zahedan by the Iranian authorities in the early 30's, is the provincial capital of Sistan and Balochistan region.

Karlos Zurutuza

The Iranian Baloch face a double handicap: they’re Sunni and non-Persian in a country which is ruled by the Persian-Shiite elite.

‘The Islamic Shiite missionaries sent by Tehran told us that we’d have no jobs, no schools and no opportunities unless we converted,’ Faiz Baloch, a London based journalist told me. He is just one among thousands of Baloch refugees who were forced to leave their homeland.

Amnesty International ranked Iran as the world’s second most executioner of people after China. Tehran’s most favoured argument to repress the Baloch is their alleged involvement in drug trafficking. More than half of the 1,000 executed in 2015 were accused of drug related crimes. A majority of them were also charged with being ‘enemies of god.’ Only last February, officials revealed that all adult men in one village had been executed for ‘drug offences’.

Despite the brutal policies inflicted on the Baloch by those who control their land, the world still knows very little about these people. Travelling to their remote areas can be not only exhausting, but also very dangerous. However, their diaspora is big and one can easily run into them within the world’s popular capital cities. Some may produce that same piece of news I saw at that barber shop. Even if it’s not the original copy, it does the job.

What happened to the 'other' Libyans?


The historical fortress in Nalut, one of Nafusa’s biggest Amazigh towns. by Karlos Zurutuza

New threats

We could almost say that Libya is a single-road country, one which runs between the borders of Egypt and Tunisia. During the 2011 war, the frontline was moving along the coastline which is home to 80 per cent of the population.

In the spring of 2011 we would often hear of the coastal cities of Benghazi or Misrata, but still hardly anything from the Nafusa mountain range. It's a rocky plateau that runs parallel to the Mediterranean Sea and lies about 80 kilometres from Tripoli. When the war between Gaddafi’s forces and the opposition reached a dead end on the coast, Nafusa’s strategic location played a key role. The final attack on the capital was launched from here.

The rebels would still need three months to get to Tripoli and the activity in the mountains was hectic. The most pressing need was to ensure supplies from the Tunisian border: water, food, fuel, weapons. But the local Amazigh were also striving to release the first newspapers in their language, their first radio programmes. That same legion of volunteers also had to cater for the first children ever attending classes in their native language.

Amazigh school books are released by a group of volunteers.

Karlos Zurutuza

Also called Berbers which is a term some find offensive, the Amazigh are native inhabitants of North Africa, with a population extending from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the west bank of the Nile in Egypt. The Touareg tribes in the interior of the Sahara desert share the same ancient tongue. However, the arrival of the Arabs in the region in the seventh century was the beginning of a slow yet gradual process of Arabization. Today, unofficial estimates put the number of Amazighs in Libya up to almost 600,000, about 10 per cent of the total population.

In 1973, Muammar Gaddafi launched a ‘Cultural Revolution’ under which any publications not in accordance with the principles espoused in his ‘Green Book’ were destroyed. That included those mentioning the Amazigh. According to Gaddafi, the Amazigh were of ‘Arab origin’ and their language ‘a mere dialect’. Registration of non-Arab names was forbidden, Libya's first Amazigh organization was banned and anyone involved in their cultural revival prosecuted.

Tripoli fell in August 2011. A few days later, several members of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) – the parallel government set up by opposition – landed in the capital on a plane that had taken off from Nafusa’s main road. It was then when I first met Fathi Ben Khalifa, the NTC’s only Amazigh member.

Ben Khalifa was a well-known Amazigh dissident from Libya who lived in Morocco for 16 years until he left for the Netherlands to escape Gaddafi's attempts to get capitol city Rabat to hand him over. He told me that relations between the Amazigh and the NTC had already been cut.

‘There’s no positive attitude toward our constitutional recognition and there’s even hostility against us,’ Ben Khalifa told me over a cup of coffee in downtown Tripoli. He stressed that the people in the NTC were ‘exactly the same’ as in the previous regime. ‘They're trying to project an image of being liberal and open-minded but the reality is that the majority of them still stick to the same authoritarian old methods,’ lamented the prominent dissident.

In November 2011, thousands of Libyan Amazigh took to the streets to denounce that Tripoli’s new executive was systematically marginalising them. The feeling of dejá vu was painfully present.

One of several pro-Amazigh marches in Zuwara, in Libya's northwest.

Karlos Zurutuza

The war after the war

I’ve been travelling to Libya every year since 2011, most times through one of its border crossings which Tunisia shares, in Nafusa and Zuwara. The latter is a coastal town which also happens to be the second Amazigh enclave in the country after their mountain stronghold. As I had already checked in several mountain villages, Zuwara was also littered with Arab settlements set up in Gaddafi times. Unsurprisingly, this town was one of the last Libyan spots to witness clashes between Gaddafi loyalists and rebels.

In 2012 Libyans voted in their first elections ever so the NTC could transfer the power to the General National Congress. The euphoria vanished with the first sectarian attacks – against Sufis – and the assassination of the US ambassador in Benghazi. The Libyan vessel was seemingly starting to heel soon after it had weighed anchor.

In 2013, almost any faction in Libya could put the pressure on the government by blocking some of the country's gas and crude complexes. And the Amazigh were no exception: ‘The government does not recognize us, and we don’t recognize the government,’ read a banner on display.

Amazigh militiamen get set for war in Zuwara.

Karlos Zurutuza

The rebel commander in charge complained about the 60-member constituent assembly who set to work drafting Libya’s new constitution. The crux of the matter seemed to be the six-seat quota given to the country’s minorities: two for the Amazigh, two for the Touareg and two for the Tubu. The system had been designed to rule on majorities of two-thirds plus one, so non-Arab Libyans had literally no chance of achieving their rights.

Many in Libya pointed to a model that would give federal status to the country’s three historic regions: Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the remote south and Cyrenaica in the east. The latter’s umpteenth declaration of autonomy from Benghazi also fed the craving for autonomy among the Amazigh.

It was far from being a post-Gaddafi trend for the Amazigh. A draft paper written back in 2006 called: ‘Autonomy, the concept and the establishment of the Movement for an Autonomous Region in Nafusa’ pays witness to their desire for self-rule.

The 2014 elections turned into a new turning point. The Amazigh decided to boycott the process as well as the majority of the Libyans, with an 18 per cent turnout. That was the beginning of a new civil war with Libya turning into an open battlefield where several militias grouped into two paramilitary alliances: Fajr (‘Dawn’ in Arabic), led by the Misrata brigades controlling Tripoli, and Karama (‘Dignity’), commanded by Khalifa Haftar, a Tobruk-based former army general.

Whereas Tripoli got support from Qatar and Turkey, Tobruk was backed by UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and enjoyed international recognition. The tribes loyal to Muammar Gaddafi such as Warshafana, Warfala, Gadafa or Awad Suleyman also aligned with Tobruk. In fact, the current division in the country coincides almost to the millimetre with tribal alliances maps drawn during the Italian occupation. However, a new actor emerged in 2015: today, Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown, is the headquarters of ISIS in the country.

New threats

How do the Amazigh fit into all this? Fathi Ben Khalifa points to ‘a dispute between Islamists and Arab nationalists’ in which his people should take no part. For the time being, the Libyan Amazigh are grouped into the so-called Amazigh Supreme Council. It's an umbrella organization for the 10 main Amazigh locations. Last August they conducted a pioneering election process in Libya that allocated a 50 per cent representation quota for women.

During a visit to Nafusa last December, Kaire Ben Taleb, the elected representative told me that ‘too many countries’ are supporting both governments, but not a single one Libya’s Amazigh. Isolation, he added, is rife.

‘The few times Tripoli and Tobruk come together is when they both deal with the Amazigh issue. During elections last August both governments were accusing us of breaking the state, which was exactly Gaddafi’s same narrative,’ recalled Ben Taleb.

The historical fortress in Nalut, one of Nafusa’s biggest Amazigh towns.

Karlos Zurutuza

Another ‘handicap’ for the Libyan Amazigh is religion: unlike the Sunni majority throughout the country, they’re Ibadi Muslims. ‘We have to watch because Salafism is permeating society through countries like Saudi Arabia. And you come across it not only in Friday sermons but even in school books,’ Sheikh Ramadan Azuza, an Ibadi sheikh who had served time in prison during Gaddafi, explained to me.

While the Amazigh Supreme Council is currently considering the possibility of declaring an autonomous region of their own in Libya, the UN has launched a third Libyan government. It’s a 32-member cabinet which is based in a hotel in Tunis, capital of neighbouring Tunisia, due to the lack of security in Libya.

The new executive has been tasked with uniting Libya’s warring factions but, for the time being, it has already been rejected by leaders of the two existing parliaments.

The Amazigh remain prudent:

‘The only legitimate representative body of the Amazigh people has been excluded from the negotiations so we neither support nor oppose the UN plan,’ Ben Khalifa told me a few days back. The Amazigh leader, however, could hardly hide the recurrent feeling of being systematically excluded.

The face behind the PKK story


Zagros Hiwa speaks from an undisclosed location in the Qandil mountains, Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Iraq–Iran border. by Karlos Zurutuza

When circumstances allow, Zagros Hiwa always answers the phone or his e-mail. He is a mandatory first stop for journalists who want to interview a high-ranking guerrilla or simply to pay a visit to the central command of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. The area is easily reachable from the Iraqi Kurdish plains, but the situation up in the Qandil Mountains is often unpredictable.

‘Right now we are suffering continuous bombardments and reconnaissance activities of the Turkish army,’ Hiwa told New Internationalist just after the first PKK checkpoint. ‘Many villagers have lost their houses to the bombs, but there have been no civilian casualties in December so far,’ he added.

During several visits, Hiwa had arranged meetings between this reporter and several people linked to the PKK, which is banned in Turkey and regarded as a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States. He said it's not rare for senior commanders to walk for days across the massif to meet journalists. Now it was his turn to be interviewed.

The debris of houses shelled by the Turkish Army in Qandil.

Karlos Zurutuza

From an undisclosed location in the mountain range, the 40-year-old spoke of being born in the Kurdish region of Iran and still very young when the Islamic revolution shook the country in 1979. Even so, he recalled ‘vivid images’ from his childhood.

‘I remember people fleeing when the Iranian army entered Kurdistan; I remember executions in the streets ... We had to leave our village to go Sanandaj – a major Iranian Kurdish town,’ the Kurdish militant related.

Although the Kurds in Iran had played an active role in the uprising that overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the new leadership under Ayatollah Khomeini crushed a Kurdish nationalist uprising after the fall of the tyrant who had ruled the country since 1941.

As displaced peasants, Hiwa's parents struggled to make ends meet for their seven children in the city. But he was fortunate.

‘As a school student I had a very good teacher who boosted my interest for foreign languages, and I finally ended up graduating in English language and literature from the University of Sanandaj in 1996,’ he said.

He carried on in academia, earning a Masters degree in teaching English as a foreign language at the same time as he taught high school, but his path to a higher degree was barred.

‘I did pass my exam to conduct my PhD at the University of Shiraz, but the supervisory body labelled me as a “potential threat to the state,” so I was finally discarded,’ he lamented. Being Sunni and Kurdish, he stressed, was a double handicap in a country governed for and by Shiite Persians.

Zagros Hiwa poses next to the portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader.

Karlos Zurutuza

With his academic career a dead end, Hiwa joined the PKK, prompted by the ‘international plot to arrest Abdullah Öcalan,’ the imprisoned co-founder and leader of the group in 1999.

‘Öcalan's arrest spoke volumes of the abandonment Kurds have historically been subjected to. After reading Öcalan's books and discussing his ideas with fellow Kurds, I decided to join the movement in 2001,’ said Hiwa, just before pointing to a buzz overhead. ‘Can you hear it? It's a Turkish drone.’

An 'easy story'

Over the past 15 years, Hiwa says that he has had ‘all sort of duties’ within the military discipline. ‘I was even a teacher for a year,’ he recalled, noting that every new PKK recruit must complete a three-month course of military and ideological training. In 2013 he was appointed the guerrillas' press officer in the Qandil Mountains and he’s also the movement spokesperson.

Hiwa has seen the number of journalists in Qandil increase significantly since the so-called ‘Islamic State’ became active in the region in spring 2014.

David Meseguer, senior editor at Vice News in Spanish, is among those who have covered the PKK story in the mountains during numerous visits.

PKK fighters in the Qandil mountains, the Kurdish guerrilla's stronghold.

Karlos Zurutuza

‘You can even get to the area in a shared taxi from one of the locations down the valley. Zagros will pick you up at the first PKK checkpoint,’ Meseguer told me. ‘Paradoxically, today it is easier to work in the guerrilla mountain stronghold than in Turkey's Kurdish cities,’ he added, pointing to the case of Mohammed Rasool, a Vice News journalist who has been released from prison today since his arrest last August in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s biggest Kurdish town.

Tension has mounted due to an on-going offensive by Turkish security forces amid curfews and air strikes over major Kurdish cities in Turkey. Hundreds have been killed in the biggest spike of violence since a two-year truce between Ankara and the Kurdish movement collapsed in July. Turkish sources say a majority of the victims are PKK members, while Kurdish ones say scores of civilians have been among those killed.

Zagros Hiwa at one of the few PKK graveyards that have not yet been shelled by the Turkish Army.

Karlos Zurutuza

Miguel Fernandez Ibañez, a freelance journalist based in Ankara, is one of the few journalists who have reported both from inside the besieged Kurdish cities and PKK bases throughout 2015. Ibañez echoed Meseguer's assessment of the difficulties of reporting from the different locations.

‘That of the PKK mountain stronghold in Qandil is probably one of the easiest stories to get as long as you have contacted Zagros beforehand to arrange your visit. On the contrary, I'm fully aware that by reporting today from Kurdish towns in Turkey I can be deported, or even face a prison sentence in the worst case scenario,’ Ibañez said, adding that risks are ‘significantly’ higher for local journalists.

Communication lines between the Kurdish movement and media agents have been fluid since the PKK took arms in 1984. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, another familiar face in the Qandil mountains, as well as a respected Kurdistan observer, points to a ‘weighty’ reason behind this factor:

PKK fighters in the Qandil mountains, the Kurdish guerrilla's stronghold.

Karlos Zurutuza

‘The PKK wants to make sure that their message comes out, since they have to compete with the Turkish government that has easier access to news outlets and press agencies,’ the Dutch analyst explained.

The role of media proved extremely central in the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa and, today, the PKK is far from being the only dissident organization that pays attention to media relations. ‘Just look at Syria, where almost every single group has its own spokesperson,’ noted van Wilgenburg.

Back in the Qandil Mountains, Hiwa was blunt about what he labels a ‘real war’ going on in Kurdistan: ‘This crackdown shows that Turkey regards Kurdistan as a colony, and that it has invaded it. The Kurds do not want independence. The only thing they demand and struggle for is a democratic self-rule within the borders of a democratic Turkey.’

A Cizre resident produces ammunition reportedly used by the Turkish Army.

Karlos Zurutuza

Meanwhile, Hiwa's challenge is coping with the growing number of reporters who want to get the PKK story in the Qandil Mountains. He says there are a few who come ‘to confirm preconceived notions,’ but underlines that the majority of the reporters tell the truth.

He last met his family in 2005, when they visited him in the Qandil Mountains. It could hardly have been otherwise since he has dedicated himself to the PKK.

His days pass either hosting journalists or writing press releases. He also takes time to watch debates on Kurdish TV channels and to read. Apparently, his interest in languages has not faded. He recently finished reading ‘Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages’ by Canadian writer Mark Abley.

‘I still see myself as a life-long student. During my time in the mountains I have improved my English, my Turkish, my Persian and my Arabic. And, what is more, I've learned a lot about both the role and the language of the media,’ said Hiwa, at the end of an interview he had never expected.

If you want to know more about Kurdistan, read the other exclusive interviews for New Internationalist:

Riza Altun, co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union and executive member of the Kurdistan Communities Union: A turning point for Kurds across the Middle East

Macer Gifford, the British currency trader who left all to join the Kurdish front line: ‘My revolution across Syria and beyond’

Bese Hozat, female co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union: ‘Freedom can’t be contained by a wall’

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