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Tuesday, May 3, 2016
- Rudi Mohamed Amid gives his script one quick, last glance before he goes live. “Roj bas, Kurdistan (Good morning, Kurdistan),” he greets his audience, with the assuredness of a veteran journalist. However, hardly anyone at Ronahi, Syrian Kurds’ first and only television channel, had any media experience before the war.
After Syria’s uprising began in 2011, local Kurds distanced themselves from both the government and opposition, sticking to what they call a “third way”. In July 2012, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad loosened his grip on Syria’s Kurdish region and that the country’s biggest minority – between 3 and 4 million, depending on the source – claimed those parts in northern Syria where the Kurdish population is primarily located.
The relative stability of the northeast led to a myriad of civil initiatives that were unthinkable for decades. The Kurdish language, long banned under the ruling Assad family – first Hafez and then his son, Bashar – gained momentum: it was taught for the first time in schools, printed in magazines and newspapers, and it is the language spoken on air through the Ronahi (“Light” in Kurdish) TV station.
But despite such significant steps, life in this part of the world remains inevitably linked to the conflict.
“I was studying oil engineering at the University of Homs, but I returned home, to Qamishli – 600 km northeast of the capital Damascus – when the war started,” recalls Reperin Ramadan, 21, operating one of the three cameras at Ronahi’s studio.
Syria’s northeast is an oil-rich region, so had Ramadan finished his studies, he could have applied for a job at the Rumelan oil field, less than 100 km east of Qamishli. The plant has remained under Kurdish control since March 1, 2013, but it has gradually come to a halt due to the war.
Besides, Ramadan’s former university town has been levelled to the ground after being heavily bombed by Assad´s forces. Unsurprisingly, Ramadan says he has “completely ruled out” becoming an oil engineer.
Once the programme is over, Perwin Legerin, general manager, helps to unwrap boxes of light bulbs, waiting to be hung from atop the TV set. Meanwhile, the 28-year-old briefs IPS on those who make all this happen:
“250 people work as volunteers at Ronahi TV. Funds come from the people, either here or in the diaspora and our employees get between the equivalent of 30 and 90 dollars per month, depending on each one’s needs.”
Legerin added that Qamishli hosts the channel’s main headquarters, and that there are also offices in Kobani and Afrin – the two other Kurdish enclaves in Syria’s north.
Supplying the three centres with the necessary equipment is seemingly one of the biggest challenges.
“We still lack a lot of stuff to be able to work in proper conditions mainly because both Ankara and Erbil – the administrative capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan region – are enforcing a blockade on us, hardly letting in any equipment across their borders,” lamented Legerin.
The young manager admitted that the recent Sunni uprising in the bordering western provinces of Iraq poses “yet another threat to Kurdish aspirations.”
Against all odds, Ronahi still manages to reach its public seven days a week, mainly in Kurdish, but also in Arabic and English. There are interviews with senior political and military representatives, documentaries, funerals of fallen Kurdish soldiers, but also a good dose of traditional music to cope with the war drama. Needless to say, fresh news and updates from the frontlines are constant.
But not every Syrian Kurd supports the station. Several local Kurdish opposition sectors accuse Ronahi of being biased and on the side of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant party among the Syrian Kurds.
“I cannot but disagree with such statements,” said Perwin Legerin. “We show stories from all sides and all peoples in Rojava – that´s the name local Kurds give to their area – and Syria, but there´s little we can do if somebody refuses our invitation to come to our studio and share their point of view.”
Syrian Kurdish politics are, indeed, a thorny issue. A majority of the opposition parties are backed by Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) while around three others are backed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani.
The PYD has repeatedly said that it has an agenda akin to that of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Salih Muslim, PYD co-chair with Asia Abdullah – they scrupulously follow gender parity – told IPS that Ronahi is “a mirror of society in Rojava which has already become part of people´s life.”
For the time being, Syrian Kurdish forces keep engaging in clashes with both government and opposition forces. Sozan Cudi knows it well. This young soldier was just a high school student when the war started. Today, she receives video training at the station, two hours a day, three days a week. Ronahi´s management told IPS that their training courses are “open and accessible for anyone willing to participate.”
“Three of us were told by our commanders to come and get training in media for a month,” recalled the 20-year-old Cudi, a member of the YPJ (Kurdish initials for “Women’s Protection Units”). The YPJ is affiliated to the YPG (People’s Protection Units), a military body of around 45,000 fighters deployed across Syria’s Kurdish regions.
“Journalism in Syria often involves working in the frontlines and not everyone is ready to risk that much,” noted Cudi. “I´m ready to hold a rifle to fight our enemies, or a camera to show their atrocities, whatever is needed to achieve our rights,” she added, just before her lesson.
Serekaniye – Ras al-Ain in Arabic, 570 km northeast of Damascus – is one of those towns which has seen intense violence over the last years. Abas Aisa, a producer at Ronahi, escaped just in time from this village on the Turkish border where Islamic extremists have reportedly been funnelled into the area to quell the Kurdish autonomous project.
“Our small village had a mixed Arab and Kurdish population, but many people have left and the place remains under the control of Jihadist groups,” Aisa, whose family is Arab, told IPS.
The 30-year-old is one among several other non-Kurds working at Ronahi. He said he has always been fluent in Kurdish thanks to his neighbours back home.
“My parents are still in the village, so I’m constantly thinking about them,” admitted Aisa, explaining that he doubts he will go back any time soon. Nonetheless, he believes his parents will feel reassured “as long as Ronahi keeps reaching their living room.”