Kurdish Freedom and PTSD: War, Depression, Suicide, Silence
For many in the West, the first time they heard the words ‘Kurds’ or ‘Kurdistan’ was when images emerged in mainstream media of young women and men fighting against ISIS. However, this was not the first time the Kurds were attacked. For decades the Kurdish liberation movement and communities have been subjected to horrendous acts of systematic violence and institutionalized oppression. Entire generations of Kurds have witnessed multiple wars, massacres, invasions, displacements, and state-based terrorism, which have severely impacted the collective health and character of the Kurds.
The Kurd’s efforts at self-liberation have come at a great price. In the jails, at the frontlines, entire generations bore witness to a history of suffering and grief. The electrocutions, the water boardings, the sexual assaults, the broken bones, the beatings, and the countless terrors emanating from the four states who have occupied the Kurdish people.
Although our tortures are more known, one matter remains in the margins, the issue of mental illness and PTSD within the Kurdish community itself. Mental illness, informed by toxic patriarchal notions of mental illness remains largely taboo, wrapped in shame and hidden away, is barely touched on. Mental illness is also a gendered issue, one that impacts men and women differently within the borders of Kurdishness. For instance, the use of sexualized violence on Kurdish women, the mutilation of their bodies, and the murder of their children has placed an enormous emotional burden on women within the community.
Now, those same failures towards recognizing PTSD within Kurdish women has branched out onto others, particularly those Western volunteers who have volunteered to fight on behalf of the Kurdish people. With Rojava and increasing awareness of the concept of Democratic Confederalism proposed by the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, a new trend emerged where internationalists, anarchists, and leftists—(plus some right-leaning ex-military who were not even ideologically aligned)—started to enlist with the YPG-YPJ in the fight against ISIS.
As “outsiders” who often had a limited if not a cursory understanding of the Kurdish issue, many were thrown into a deep end of the Kurdish liberation struggle through the intense violence that was occurring in the war against ISIS. The emergence of an increasing international involvement based on volunteers has added another layer of complexity to any discussion surrounding mental illness, PTSD, silence, gender and Kurdishness. Many of the YPG-J fighters have returned to their homes, and have taken with them a plethora of horrendous experiences from the frontlines.
The tragic suicide of Hawro Christian (Kevin Howard) this week attests to the need for the creation of processes, structures and mechanisms in a war that is increasingly international and no longer solely just about Kurdish liberation. Rojava and its structures, both on an ideological and institutional level, must accommodate for this. Hawro Christian’s death has raised important questions within the Kurdish community about the role, responsibilities, and connections with internationalists both during their active duty on the frontlines, as well as once they return to their home countries. It has also raised important questions about the lack of support and means for fighters outside and inside of Kurdistan. It has highlighted the cultural practice of mental health and issues of PTSD remain largely ignored and at best causally dismissed—a dangerous practice that urgently requires revision within the region.
On a personal note, during my time in Rojava I was intensely interested in Rojava’s approach towards mental health, particularly because I worked daily with displaced families, working in the camps with orphaned children who had survived the 2015 massacre and widowed women. Trauma was ever present, living side by side with the victims.
To understand the current situation in Kurdistan, and specifically in Rojava in relation to mental health, we need to understand several important factors which heavily impact current issues and limitations in this regard. Firstly, this entire discussion needs to be prefaced with the idea that a war-torn, deeply traumatized, embargoed society that has traditionally lacked access to health care and education, are at a severely disadvantaged position to begin with. Under no condition should Rojava be compared to Western societies who incidentally with their abundance of resources, expertise, and capacity still fail to address mental health adequately. This is especially true in places like America where returning vets are met with alarming rates of homelessness, mental illness, poverty, and suicide being the norm for many.
Secondly, due to a lack of unbiased academic research and information on mental health in Rojava, it should be noted that what I am about to state is as a direct result of my personal experiences working in the civilian side of Rojava’s new system for 4 years. For this reason my statements are undoubtedly subjective assumptions. Yet, I feel this is a necessary attempt to open a discussion, while highlighting my personal experiences and conclusions in a process to raise awareness.
For starters, the approach in Rojava in relation to mental health demonstrates the dominance of a particular narrative. This narrative is important because it highlights the ways in which the oppressed rationalize their oppression and responses, but also the limitations of under-developed societies in treating mental illness. Rojava’s approach is based on a critical approach and rejection of Eurocentric normative values surrounding psychotherapy. Meaning, they reject the capitalist notion (often promoted by and for the interests of Big Pharma) that pathology is an individualized sickness where a person lacks the appropriate serotonin or chemical receptors; with a heavy emphasis on prescribed medication and ‘treatments’. Thus, in their view, in the system of capitalist modernity, mental illness is seen as an individual problem as a result of periods of extreme stress such as exams, bereavement, divorce, stresses of work and so on; all situations that eventually pass or get ‘better’.
The narrative in Rojava instead follows the idea that structural oppression, statelessness, displacement, etc are the dominant causes of mental health illnesses. As such, there is an explicit rejection of reliance on medication as a response to addressing mental illness. Instead, activism, participating and politicization to dismantle and challenge structural oppressions, and the importance of the commune in providing help and support, etc are emphasized. Being predominantly around women, my perception entailed women rationalizing their deep suffering as a response to the intensity of their oppression. Therefore, dealing with loss and psychological trauma for instance involved a strong commitment to the cause, promoting the plight of the collective, and minimizing individual suffering and pain. Commitment to the ideology of collective liberation, involvement in achieving this objective and being as active as possible were part of the implied rehabilitation process. There are significant merits to this argument, just as there are clear limitations.
For instance, the loss of a child at the frontlines by women were largely voiced and promoted as a gift to the community—thereby erasing in turn the lack of choice in having children participate in a war that landed on their literal doorstep due to the brutal attacks by ISIS. Additionally, within trauma-based communities where long term war and violence has been present, social expectations involves a silencing or sacrificing of personal emotions and pain for the greater good. i.e. The idea that “it’s not selfishly about me and my pain, as we’re all suffering.”
In other instances, for example, when the bodies of martyred young men and women would return, the burial process would involve celebratory ululations by the women and mothers, a practice usually confined to weddings or celebrations. The ululations were a powerful personal and collectively political message to the community and to the enemy, replacing traditional practices of self-abuse, punishment, wailing, and even self-flagellation (practiced to various degrees by women especially across the region during funerals). The replacement of the ululations reflected the evolution of the Kurdish ideology and collective psyche from victimization, fatalism and hopelessness, to one of confidence, self-awareness, and ideological maturity. This was a way of reminding the enemy “you cannot defeat me or break my spirit!”
Additionally, while working in Rojava, as part of the Kobane Reconstruction Board, we developed several projects focusing on facilities to support the injured YPG-YPJ hevals. I visited several of the “injured houses”, and worked with the architects to analyze the structures and limitations of current clinics to make adjustments and produce new designs to better support the injured hevals. Yet the focus of these houses was physical rehabilitation and as a site of respite. There was no on-site psychologist. However, there were many social activities such as dance, singing, art and theater that undoubtedly contributed to the betterment of the mental health of the injured hevals. Yet, these activities cannot singularly address severe depression and other forms of untreated mental illnesses and trauma resulting from severe physical injuries such as loss of limbs, being wheelchair bound for life, or loss of eye sight. The focus was all on one’s environment, without acknowledging the chemical process inside the brain that can sometimes override all of your surrounding conditions.
Clearly, the narrative by necessity needs to be more complex. Certainly for the oppressed our psyche, mental health and illnesses are strongly linked to our statelessness, our marginalization, the silencing and erasure of our plight. There can never be any form of collective mental health so long as the hierarchies of institutionalized oppression and violence continue against us. Removing institutionalized oppression is integral to better collective and individual mental health. Yet, as people suffer in the meantime, what can be done to minimize suffering, self-harm, or suicides?
Globally, those who adhere to this structural narrative are developing and adding to this discussion. Social awareness about the impact of institutionalized oppression, for example, is resulting in new terminologies and concepts being developed. For instance, the struggles of Black communities in America have resulted in mental health experts coining terms such as “racial battle syndrome” or “racial battle fatigue” (coined by William A. Smith, Ph.D.) where the experiences of Black communities in combating the systematic oppressions and micro-aggressions they experience at the hands of white society and institutions such as the police force.
Likewise, ground breaking research, labelled epigenetic change, has recently demonstrated that past trauma can literally alter one’s genetic makeup. The experiences of Holocaust survivors demonstrated a marked genetic change passed on to their children. The term Intergenerational Trauma is an area of psychotherapy that focuses on the impact of historically oppressed communities and the ongoing impact of these traumas and stresses passed across generations. The Kurdish communities, including the Yezidis, have suffered for decades as a result of the centrality of the oppressive one nation-state model. The rescued Yezidi women and girls are a perfect case in point. The horrendous conditions the Yezidi women had suffered at the hands of ISIS led to mental health experts creating the new concept of Complex Post Traumatic Stress (CPTS) to explain the adverse responses of the rescued women. Many of the women, upon returning, would collapse into coma-like sleeps. Other severe and unusual symptoms were observed. Undoubtedly, such responses have always existed in deeply war-torn and traumatized communities, but they had never been appropriately observed by mental health experts. Certainly these responses reflected the changing shapes and conditions of modern day warfare, terrorism, and their impact on deeply marginalized communities. Surely after experiencing over 74 genocides across history, the Yezidi community should be considered as a unique case that requires significant attention and focus by mental health researchers and experts.
Here the words of Palestinian psychologist Dr. Samah Jabr are essential. She notes that Eurocentric models of understanding PTSD are limited when applied to highly marginalized communities such as Palestinians, whose oppression is ongoing, constant and present. She states: “PTSD better describes the experiences of an American soldier who goes to Iraq to bomb and go back to the safety of the United States. He’s having nightmares and fears related to the battlefield and his fears are imaginary. Whereas for a Palestinian in Gaza whose home was bombarded, the threat of having another bombardment is a very real one. It’s not imaginary…There is no ‘post’ because the trauma is repetitive and ongoing and continuous. I think we need to be authentic about our experiences and not to try to impose on ourselves experiences that are not ours.” She goes on to note that we need to distinguish between social psychological pain and social suffering, versus personal psychological pain and suffering. The collective cannot be allowed to replace the individual and personal pain.
Her statement about the ongoing nature of experiencing oppression in places like Palestine or Kurdistan deserves merit. The people who suffer there cannot escape the violence that is imposed on them daily. However, this statement and its application to the internationalists who fought side by side with the locals in Rojava deserves an additional note. For people like Hawro Christian who has previously fought in places like Iraq and Afghanistan their trauma did not end by simply going home. This is a simplistic notion for the specific case of the internationalists. People like Hawro Christian challenge not only the stereotypical images of American soldiers that is depicted above but also demonstrates that these internationalists wish to participate in the liberation of the oppressed. These internationalists could have remained in the safety of their societies but instead chose to participate and take on the war against ISIS.
In relation to Rojava, it is possible that we can hold multiple truths and ideas about mental illness that may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Meaning, it is possible that long term experiences of war, displacement, state oppression, incarceration and so on can contribute to mental health issues, which over time can impact the genetic makeup of a society. Or that such experiences can trigger long term chronic conditions that require long term medication, therapy and counseling. A holistic approach is required in which the use of medication is not looked down on—as is the case even in the most developed and advanced societies still. An approach where multiple approaches are available to cater to the various needs of patients ranging from civilians to military personnel.
Mental health must be considered just as essential as other pillars of rehabilitation of society. How far can gender equality, for instance, be achieved if we do not address and acknowledge the long term impact of trauma and war on a society? Or can we effectively address issues of domestic violence within society if mental health support is not integral to that process? I ask these questions, deeply aware that I am coming from a position of relative privilege and education. Expertise, education, awareness and institutions are required, a lengthy long-term process that requires significant funding and support which undoubtedly Rojava at the moment severely lacks. Yet, it is not an impossible task.
In light of the tragic death of Hawro Christian, this discussion is more essential than ever. The internationalists who fought deserve support, awareness and ongoing care. So do the hevals that are still fighting on the front lines. As a community we have a moral responsibility to break down taboos about mental illness including PTSD. Breaking the silence is an important starting point. But we also need to develop networks, institutions and processes in place to support the soldiers, be they Kurdish or Western, Arab, Yezidi, Christian or otherwise, with informed, educated and expertise based and grounded mental health both across Rojava and abroad. The gift that Hawro Christian gave to the world in fighting so fiercely and bravely in the war against ISIS must be repaid with a deeper, more courageous approach from all of us towards those suffering from depression and PTSD. As individuals we can reach out and support each other, but much more is needed to address this terrifying illness effectively and long term for all involved.
Efforts are currently being made by some of the hevals to produce safe houses for the western hevals to rehabilitate within but this project is still in the early stages and requires funding and support. The project will surely require support in the form of funding, but also of experienced mental health practitioners to provide their time, love, and support. I will provide more details about this project as they emerge, so watch this space for future updates. Until then, let’s take care of ourselves and each other.
Edit: please note that the original article called Kane by his YPG name Heval Zagros. However, close friends have noted that he preferred to be called by his Assyrian name, Hawro Christian, given to him by the MFS while fighting in Raqqa. Apologies for the mistake.