“When we say defense, most people think of weapons, but this is not all” – HPC, North and East Syria’s Civil Defense Forces

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HPC members guarding community croplands near Heseke, June 2023

 

Introduction

While North and East Syria’s (NES) Women’s and People’s Defense Units (the YPJ and YPG) have taken worldwide headlines for their role in the defeat of ISIS’ caliphate and continue to garner attention, a much lesser-known force in NES is the HPC – Civil Defense Forces. The HPC exist across the region of NES: small, neighborhood groups of volunteers who undertake defense activities on a local level in a decentralized manner. HPC-Jin is the women’s arm of the force. RIC followed the activities of different HPC groups around NES, visited HPC centers, and interviewed several HPC members to shed light on their work, explore how “defense” is defined within the HPC and see the challenges they face.

Night patrol

In Hililiye neighborhood, Qamishlo city, a 15-man group, comprised of both Kurds and Arabs, meet in a communal building around 7pm and make their plan for how they will split up, guarding the different streets for the night. Some wear radios on their jackets, keeping them in contact with the Asayish (professional Internal Security Forces) within the city who can alert them to any unusual activities on a wider level. The group splits into three teams and ready themselves to make patrols until around five in the morning.

“We have been doing this since the beginning, since 2012, 2013. It was not under the name of HPC then, however. We didn’t even have proper weapons back then; we went on patrol with knives and sticks,” says Hassan, who works in a bakery in the city. The group explain that they all work normal jobs in the daytime, so do not sleep much. The youngest member of the group says some nights he sleeps only two hours, while the oldest member said he sleeps six.

“We do our protection job after work. We don’t all go out every night; it depends on the situation and the needs. We do our paid work in the day, and then every two or three days I do the night patrol until whatever time is needed, maybe until four in the morning. It is important because of what can happen at night. If people from outside the neighborhood come, we will notice and we will watch out. There is always the threat of ISIS. Some people are selling drugs. We do everything our neighborhood needs”.

The group explain how they organize and plan their work. “Every week those who are responsible for the organization for this neighbourhood sit together to discuss. Then every month those responsible for each neighborhood in the city come together for a meeting. Also, twice a month all the members of each individual neighborhood come together and have their own meeting. These meetings are partly an organizational meeting, partly an educational session. We discuss what has happened, teach about how to do the night patrol well, for example how to be moving. Whatever happens in our meetings, we make our plans and preparations for the next month based on that.”

Riyad, who wears one of the radios, says that the HPC’s effectiveness is based on the closeness of communities here: “We all know each other. Everyone knows everyone in our neighborhood.”

While the Asayish and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF – which includes the YPG and YPJ) take professional responsibility for security in NES, HPC still plays an important role, says Hassan. “We are in a sensitive situation. Things here are not so good, with the attacks from Erdogan. Hence, we need to be ready to defend ourselves. If a war starts, we must be ready as ordinary people. Men are mostly doing the night shifts, which means patrolling with weapons. The women do fewer night shifts and more day work. Everyone is sacrificing stuff for this work. We must be alert to all things. In this neighborhood there are six or seven women in the HPC-Jin, and the same for our next-door neighborhood. The men’s number is more.”

A few miles away in Kudurbek neighborhood, Hussein is also convening his group for the night. “The Asayish can’t do everything,” he explains. “They already have a lot of work anyway. Plus, the thing is that we are from this neighborhood. This is our home. We know who is in every house, we know what is normal and what is unusual. This is an advantage. 15 nights ago, we found someone stealing and we were able to stop him.”

That night, one eight-person team and one three-person team head out. The eight-person team is comprised of two women and six men. One woman works as a teacher in the day. She says that she was one of the first teachers in the Autonomous Administration (DAANES) schools. Another person is a former YPG member who was wounded fighting ISIS in Raqqa.

They explain that they don’t all carry weapons on their night patrols because they don’t want to appear intimidating or threatening as they walk around. “Sometimes we are called into family homes too. It is not good to bring a gun into a home like that, so only a few of us actually have a gun for patrols.” An hour later, a call arrives from a local family, concerned around a strange noise. A few of the team heads towards the house, greets the family and checks the vicinity. One person goes onto the roof of the house to see if they can spot anything. In other neighborhoods there are other reasons for patrolling unarmed. In Qamishlo city, the Syrian government still controls a few blocks plus the airport vicinity. “In the neighborhoods that border the [Syrian] regime areas, HPC won’t show weapons, so that the regime forces don’t know they are on patrol. It is more subtle.”

The group checks cars on the street for car bombs. A group of youth pass by and call a greeting to the HPC team. On that night, nothing unusual emerges and the team can head home to catch some hours of sleep.

 

 

Hililiye neighbourhood night patrol, Qamishlo, January 2023

 

Defense without weapons

In January 2023, NES’ general HPC-Jin committee opened an academy in the city of Heseke to give educational sessions to women who were working within HPC-Jin. The inaugural session soon commenced, with one held in Kurdish language and the other in Arabic language. Both sessions lasted for one month, with participants from all across NES gathering together to attend classes every day.

Amongst the 25 participants at the Kurdish-language course is a child who has come with her mother. Amara, who is giving classes on the day RIC visits, explains that “we try not to have kids here, because we want every participant to focus on themselves and their learning, so ideally kids are left with family or friends, but sometimes it happens. This time we have one child here with her mother. But she too can be a part of HPC. HPC means defending your area by caring for it. Anyone can do that.”

Shireen is one HPC member who has come to Heseke from the city of Amude. She asserts that the meaning of self-defense goes beyond taking up arms. “When we say defense, most people think of weapons, but this is not all. Knowing the neighborhood you live in, knowing your community, knowing your people… all this is self-defense.” The weekly work of HPC-Jin varies, says Shireen. “For example, once a week, we do a meeting for the whole community; once a week a meeting just for the women of HPC-Jin; once a week we go around and visit different families to hear about their current situation. In this way, we build relationships in the community, which makes it stronger”.

Zeyneb, a HPC member originally from the now-Turkish-occupied Afrin, tells RIC: “Humans are more than just bodies, so self-defense is more than just physical protection. Everyone can take up the responsibility of protecting society, be this from the physical side, or from the side of culture, language, essential things related to defending our values as a society. So, on the one hand, we [HPC] can be a force to militarily defend the land, and on the other, we are also here to defend our society. […] Defense without a weapon is foundational. The final step of defense is taking up a weapon. Before you work with weapons, your thoughts and values are necessary to consider. Who are you fighting against? For what? In this way, you can make your armed fighting stronger. For example, after the Afrin war we saw so many refugees flee to Shehba. In Shehba the situation now is so difficult. Life is harsh and opportunities are scarce. HPC plays a role in terms of maintaining morale and strengthening the will of people there. Because there might be war there any day, and society there cannot defend itself if morale is low.”

Coming from Tirbespi, Asiyah is a long-time HPC member. She explains that the HPC group she is a part of is diverse in its tactics. “As HPC-Jin we have two identities: defense in a military sense and defense in a social sense. We do both. There are those people who are in the position that they can take up a weapon for armed defense. But picking up a weapon and going into war isn’t the only thing we need in terms of defense. Anyone – from 7 to 70 – can defend their society. A seven-year-old child can defend in certain ways. For me personally, as an older mother, I feel this deeply. For example, in relation to information. You can defend your society as an old woman sitting outside the house and keeping an eye on the comings and goings in the neighborhood, knowing what movements are occurring, being really alert and conscious of what is going on. If something happens – an explosion or a fight – you can be the person who will be able to help or be able to say what happened where.”

Many of the women interviewed in the academy reference the 2022 ISIS prison breakout in Heseke city. At that time, while the city population was locked down with a curfew imposed as the security services swept neighborhoods and battled escaped ISIS prisoners, photos of older women carrying rifles in the Heseke streets, doing their street patrols as part of HPC, garnered social media attention. Asiyah tells RIC that the role of HPC in those days was broader than just street patrols. “HPC was ready in all cities at that time in case the ISIS fighters were getting out. HPC were, of course, on the ground in Heseke. Because HPC is connected with the population, they could report where ISIS had gone in the city. They could quickly learn who had gone where and what houses people had fled from. […] Even children had thrown stones at ISIS. Then, when people were fleeing their houses in the neighborhood around the prison, HPC were organizing their sleeping arrangements, and later helping them back into their homes. I work in Tirbespi myself. There have been ISIS movements there too. As the HPC women there, we have been a part of the capture of nine ISIS operatives in the city in total. Maybe we haven’t witnessed war directly, but if something happens in the city we will be right there.”

Loreen comes from the city of Heseke and has been involved with HPC work for five years. She tells RIC: “In the Heseke war, the news spread that ISIS gangs were attacking the prison. We prepared ourselves and went to the area. The residents of that area were fleeing their homes. We took them and got them into a school in a safe area and looked after them for days. We organized logistical things for them, went from family to family to talk and gave whatever help was needed. After the fighting, we went from house to house to help people move back in and helped those whose houses were destroyed from the fighting”.

Asiyah adds that in wartime, while HPC members do the jobs that are best suited to them – logistical needs, making food for fighters, medicine and health work – all that are old enough should be trained to use weapons in some way.

Protection of culture was a theme repeatedly raised in conversation by the academy participants. Toleen, who comes from Kobane, stated: “You can defend your language, your culture and your neighborhood without a weapon. Along these lines, education is so important for us. Learning your own language in order to share it and teach it is equivalent to defending it. Or learning about your own culture. We have come to this academy to learn, but the things we learn here we don’t keep to ourselves; we aim to share them with our neighbors and society.”

When asked what lectures have been most important for the women so far, the first answer comes from Toleen: “We have had classes on the history of women and on the issue of patriarchy. As women it is so important to learn about these things because we are oppressed by patriarchy and men. Think of defense in a bigger way. I want to be able to protect myself and my people against patriarchy too. Education is like protection.”

Originally from Aleppo, Nadia now lives in Heseke. She tells RIC that fighting requires uniting people together. “In the war in Aleppo, you saw kids and mothers helping. You can fight with language, culture or a camera. If I just take a weapon and go fight this is so wrong. It is the worst thing. It is fighting like ISIS. Just using a weapon… no… you must fight with everything. Also, you can’t fight as an individual; you fight as a society. Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, all as one.”

 

 

HPC Jin academies in Kurdish (left and center) and Arabic (right) languages, Heseke, January 2023

 

Changing minds

After over a decade of HPC work, the numbers in each local group still remain small and for the most part comprised only of older people.

On the Kudurbek neighborhood patrol, Hussein states that a worsening economic situation stresses household finances, making unpaid work unsustainable for many: “In our neighborhood there are 42 HPC members in total. The number has remained pretty constant throughout the years. New people join, but also people leave. Because the economic situation here has become really difficult, and this HPC work is not paid of course. So, some people have decided to stop.”

“Convincing people is a struggle,” says Zeyneb in the Heseke academy, referencing efforts to encourage new people to join HPC activities. “People here spent so many years experiencing life under the Syrian state. The idea of people defending themselves is kind of strange for some. We just have to talk to people as individuals, see how we can influence their perceptions through discussion but also insistence. If people aren’t convinced at first, then I try a second time, a tenth time. Or if a man is putting barriers in front of women participating, then we talk to him and explain.”

Asiyah asserts: “If people don’t accept us, our goal is to change their minds. We say to them, ‘you need to protect your families and children.’ We don’t say, ‘you need to go to the front-line.’ There is ISIS here, plus many other threats such as people with bad intentions coming into our neighborhoods. The point is to build up the connectedness and strength in society. If people see something bad, we want them to be telling us so we can get it sorted.” Yet, she adds that in the beginning, before she got involved with HPC, she too did not see its value: “It was like these old women wearing long clothes, saying they would protect society. But now I see what the meaning of protecting the people is. HPC made a meeting which I was asked to go to. At first, I wasn’t convinced. But I went to a second meeting and then decided to start working with HPC. HPC means to protect people. This is not taking a gun and going to the front-line to fight but fighting within our societies. In the beginning it was all older women in HPC-Jin, but now actually we see a few younger women also here.”

The struggle to convince men in the community that women are able to also do armed HPC work was referenced by many participants at the HPC academy in Heseke. Loreen was adamant that, “if men do not accept the work we are doing, we just say ‘no. I can do what you can.’ For example, if two men are going out on patrol, we say ‘no, I will go in the place of one of you, and if you don’t let me, I will go anyway.’”

Amina is the current coordinator of HPC in Tabqa. In NES’ Jazira region, the HPC is quite well-established, whereas in Arab-majority regions such as Tabqa, efforts to build such community defense forces are still in the early stages. She tells RIC that while many people in her region “do have a strong idea of defending the family or tribe – one that is quite conservative,” sentiments regarding defending a heterogeneous and multi-ethnic society are less passionate. “I personally faced some difficulties from my relatives and people around me, the families. I would not say that everyone in society is happy with the work of HPC. It really is about mindset. People have entrenched positions and are not open to change. One thing also is that the mentality of the Baath party still lingers. Also, when the Free Syrian Army entered the region, people were influenced by their looting and violence.”

Outreach and education efforts are important, says Leyla, but only go so far. “There are only 10 women in our group in Girke Lege, but we recently held an education class and 10 more women came. There was such interest and motivation. But younger women particularly are not so interested. Look at our region: there are Turkish attacks all the time. The situation is one of war. Hence, young people don’t want to live here. They want to leave. This is hard: people are wanting to leave instead of to defend.”

Origins

RIC also interviewed Nebir, the co-chair of HPC in Qamishlo, in the HPC center in the city. He explains how HPC came about and what community defense work was occurring when the “Rojava Revolution” began. “Imagine the situation in the beginning,” he says. “Rojava was really under siege from ISIS, from gangs of the [Syrian] Opposition, from Jahbat al-Nusra. The Syrian state was gone. We saw the clear need for our society to be able to defend itself because we had no security.”

Nebir Ismail, co-chair of Qamishlo HPC, January 2023

Hussein, Kudurbek’s neighborhood coordinator, is also in the Qamishlo HPC center. He adds that “there was the Syrian revolution, but it was chaos. Things were in ruin. We, as the Kurdish people, did not align ourselves with the Opposition against the Syrian government, nor did we put ourselves with the government. We took a third way.” From 2012 onward, Kurdish-led forces were taking cities from the hands of the Syrian government – and then Islamist factions and ISIS – one by one, but the organization and administration of this armed force was light initially, says Hussein. “Things were not formal. Our young people were fighting in the military, liberating areas. Then, once a city was liberated, we had to make sure it was kept safe. But HPC didn’t exist in a formal way, under the name of HPC. Who were we? Just ordinary people. Civilians, not military. In the early days we didn’t have weapons, except a few people who had personal ones. But if we took a [Syrian] regime point, we could sometimes take their weapons.”

“The Asayish didn’t exist at that time,” says Nebir, “and military forces couldn’t come into the cities and neighborhoods. On this basis, HPC was playing the role that the Asayish play today: setting up checkpoints to secure neighborhoods and stopping agents of ISIS, Turkey and the Syrian regime from being able to get into places. Our military forces were few at this point. Society itself had to take up the role of self-defense. We made sure cities were not left empty, we patrolled from evening until sunrise. There would generally be 10 or 12 main points we would defend: the main roads through which people would come and go. Or streets leading to the direction of those areas where there was still ISIS. We organized all the patrols. Everything was on us. It was like this until around 2015. By 2016, our checkpoints were no longer needed anywhere; the Asayish were doing their job, with their own checkpoints. At this point we reduced the scope and scale of our patrols, and the work of HPC instead became oriented towards information. We are workers, housekeepers and child-carers in the daytime. We do our work as engineers, shop-owners, mechanics and drivers, but we make sure to stay aware of what is going on, what is happening where, and we give information to the people of our area if bad stuff is occurring. We are civilians; we are not military. But in the night, we go out and we get told if something is happening that we need to solve. Our main work is actually talking to people. We have made many meetings, gathering people together, speaking about the situation. We have put in a lot of effort just so that we could get a few more people to understand the importance of keeping our community tight and protected.”

Hussein compares the situation now to that when HPC was founded: “We don’t have big obstacles now like before. ISIS is largely gone. The situation is far more peaceful than before. But, for example, in the recent Turkish attacks we had a lot to do. We went around the houses in our neighborhood and made sure people were okay and also that people were not fleeing in fear. Some people did flee, leaving to the countryside for a few days. Their houses were therefore empty and we kept watch so that there was no stealing.”

Leyla says that while each group carries out its activities autonomously, there is a high degree of organization between the groups. “We coordinate with the other HPC-Jin groups close to us, like in Rimelan, for things like meetings and marches. Our coordination is very tight.” Internally, each neighborhood group meets twice a month to “discuss what work has been done, what work is in front of us and how things are going.” Then there are also meetings that bring together HPC groups on a regional level. The first general congress of HPC was held in 2014, in Qamishlo city. HPC-Jin formally announced itself in 2015, but women were doing this work informally before then anyway.

All those within HPC are also part of their commune, tells Nebir. “Us HPC members will go to the commune in the daytime and help with things if we have time. But not everyone in the commune will join HPC. There is also the defense committee of the commune, but that is different. HPC is far bigger, whereas the defense committee is just a few people who are tasked with protecting the commune. HPC can in fact be everyone, whereas on each commune committee there are just a small number of people who are elected for that position.”

“These fields are also our existence”

In June 2023, by the side of the main road from Qamishlo to Heseke, RIC meets Ahmed and Mahamed; two HPC members who have been standing near the roadside wheat fields under the blazing sun since the early morning and intend on staying there for the rest of the day. This has been their routine every day for the past month. They explain to RIC that they are protecting the wheat fields from fires; those started accidentally or intentionally. “Two years ago, there were a lot of fires, but this year it hasn’t been like that. Last year the rains were so bad that the crop was minimal, so fires were also not such an issue, but this year the rains were good and our wheat is plentiful. We want to make sure it gets harvested safely so we are watching over the fields.” If they see a small fire, they have the necessary kit to extinguish it but if it is large, they will call the fire service from Heseke. Alongside this, through their very presence, with small HPC teams dotted around the crop fields of the region, they hope to dissuade or catch arsonists. “We have had people paid by the Turkish state to start fires in previous times”, they explain. Ahmed says that fires spread fast, pointing to the dry expanses of cropland. “Protecting these fields is self-defense for the people here. Wheat is our main food and income. These fields are also our existence,” he concludes.

HPC-Jin flag, Qamishlo, October 2023