Kurdish women fight for equality in Syria

By Erika Solomon

MALIKIYA, Syria (Reuters) – Like her five sisters before her, Ahin left school to help her mother at home. Now she’s training to fight.

At a remote Kurdish militia base on the grassy rolling hills near Syria’s border with Iraq, the stocky 19-year-old jumps and crawls with rows of women in olive green fatigues. Their commander barks an order, and they take position and aim their Kalashnikovs.

The training camp is a powerful sign of the way Syria’s Kurds are working to create an autonomous region. While both Islamist rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have sidelined women, in this Kurdish area, men are happy to fight alongside them. Kurdish military leaders say about a third of the Kurds’ fighting force are women. Many, like Ahin, would never have dreamed of taking up arms until recently.

“I saw all these women leaving home to defend our land and was inspired. I never thought about things like women’s equality before I joined the Women’s Defence Brigades. It was a strange decision for me to make,” she says, wiping sweaty brown curls off her forehead. “Now I’ve started a whole new life.”

Kurdish society in Syria may be conservative by Western standards, but it is less so than other communities in the country. Now, says Nisreen, the base’s 32-year-old trainer and commander, Kurdish women see an opportunity to tie their own liberation to the region’s.

“When there is war, violence doesn’t discriminate between men or women, so why do we? Women are just as much a part of this society. We will share in this task,” she says.

Like all the women interviewed for this story, Nisreen declined to give her last name.


The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful group in Syria’s Kurdish areas, has run the region since Assad’s forces withdrew in 2012, and created both the male and female militia groups that now defend the area. The PYD has ideological ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey, which fought a three-decade war against Ankara and pioneered women’s militias and quotas.

Both groups require political and military leadership roles to have co-chairs – one man, one woman. The rule is ideological, but also smart politics in a society where women have few options in public life.

“That’s a whole extra bloc of potential constituents,” says Kurdish expert Aliza Marcus. “And because it offers options for advancement, women are often the most committed members.”

Nojan, 20, who adorns her plain fatigues with a black scarf embroidered with flowers, said female fighters were particularly proud of helping beat back fighters from al Qaeda during battles late last year.

“When we arrived at the front, it was dark, and al Qaeda was close to our position … we shouted to them that we were women with weapons in our hands, here to defend our people to the death,” says Nojan.

“They told us to leave, they didn’t want to fight women.”

Ahin says that on trips home she is sparking heated debates about women’s rights with her brothers and father, who bristle at her critiques of male-dominated society.

“I want them to follow my path, but they need time,” she says, smiling. “When I lived at home, I was just a well-behaved girl. Here, I not only learned how to carry a gun, I learned how to speak. I became a woman.”

Erika Solomon is a Bending Borders contributor. Reuters originally published this story in January 2014.

Siege recipe site helps blockaded Syrians to keep eating

By Erika Solomon

From radish leaf breakfast salads to sparrow stew dinners, Abu Omar has meals covered for tens of thousands of Syriansliving under siege.

His darkly comedic Blockade Meals, a Facebook page with nearly 11,000 likes, offers cooking tips, recipe ideas and step-by-step photographs that mimic the style of foodie cookery sites. But this young mechanic-turned-rebel offers recipes that are neither organic nor gourmet: they show how to make a meal out of dwindling food supplies in areas under blockade.

One recent post recommends picking leaves from the common Syrian mulberry plant.

“You can either fry them or you can stew them,” an April post suggests. “Put them in a pressure cooker for half an hour, add some oil and spices, and then stew it another half-hour. It will become a tasty meal. Another plus: It helps move your bowels.”

The UN estimates that around a quarter of a million Syrians are living under blockade as the country’s civil war enters its fourth year. Food scarcity has been so severe in some areas that local doctors have reported cases of sickness and even death from malnutrition, most of them children.

Civilians evacuated from Old Homs under UN auspices earlier this year said many people had resorted to eating cats and leaves.

Abu Omar, who uses a nom de guerre, says he lived in Homs’s Old City under blockade for nearly two years. He and some 1,000 fellow fighters were finally able to leave the city this week through a deal with the government.

“Even more than offering recipe ideas I wanted to show we are still happy . . . We mujahideen [holy warriors] don’t have a problem making do with whatever God leaves us with,” he says in an interview with the Financial Times.

The 24-year-old Abu Omar had never cooked a meal before he and his comrades were trapped by the government siege. He learnt through friends and by trading ideas over the internet with Syrians under blockade in other areas.

“In the (besieged) Assaly district of Damascus, they make bread out of lentils for example, because they have a lot of that there. We don’t. But for ingredients we all have, we share ideas,” he said. “For example, everyone has grasshoppers.”

(Wash them and fry them, he says in one post. “They’re tasty.”)

On Blockade Meals, Abu Omar also suggests planting a garden with radishes – the leaves grow quickly and make good salads until the vegetable matures. If something tastes bad, hide the taste with pomegranate syrup – a locally made sweetener.

Most important, he says, are the right cooking utensils. “The pressure cooker is the best friend of the besieged. It will cook anything,” he writes in one post, with a picture of a battered metal pot. “I’m in love with my pressure cooker.”

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces began using blockades as a tactic in late 2012 in an effort to choke supplies to areas where they were unable to dislodge rebel fighters.

There are several blockaded areas around Homs and Damascus – cities where the government wants to cement its control in order to hold the country’s strategic centre. Rebels still hold large swaths of northern and eastern Syria.

Some opposition-held suburbs of the capital that refused to make a deal with Mr. Assad’s forces have been besieged for more than a year and a half.

Rebels have adopted the blockade technique themselves, particularly in the northern province of Aleppo, where they have besieged two loyalist towns as well as the government-held half of Aleppo city. Abu Omar, now out of Homs, hopes to enjoy the taste of freedom with one of his two favourite meals: fried fish or chicken liver.

There is one blockade recipe he plans to keep using: fried green figs. “Cut them in half, salt them and fry them. The taste is something between fried eggplant and potatoes – delicious.”

This post originally appeared on FT.com

On Crossing the Border: David and Eyad in Jerusalem

By Daniel Estrin

At the Israeli army checkpoint, David barely slowed down. His pale skin, blue eyes and confident smile identified him as an Israeli. Even when Israeli soldiers signaled to him to stop or slow down, he just waved and drove past, spitting dust behind him.

Each time he did this, and it was often, he was thrilled and terrified. So was his Palestinian boyfriend, Eyad, who would sit in the back seat. It is hard to describe how dicey pulling this stunt off is in this part of the world. But for David and Eyad, sneaking Eyad from the West Bank to David’s apartment in Israel was worth the risk.

It is extremely rare for an Israeli to fall in love with a Palestinian. Gay love is an even trickier prospect.

There is, of course, the bitter conflict waging between the two peoples. Sleeping with the enemy is, in most circles, considered to be a betrayal to one’s family, identity and nation.

There are legal barriers. Israel bans Palestinians from joining their spouses in Israel, citing fears that Palestinians could carry out attacks if given entry to Israel.

There are physical hurdles. Security forces carefully police the frontier between Israel and the Palestinian territories. No Israeli is allowed to enter Palestinian-governed areas, and no Palestinian is allowed into Israeli areas, without special permits.

You don’t need a special permit, however, to enter a dating website.

In early 2012, a 29-year-old Israeli man from Jerusalem began chatting online with a 29-year-old Palestinian man in the West Bank. They lived just a few miles, and worlds away, from each other.

The Palestinian asked the Israeli what his name was. (Their real names are not revealed here, for their safety and privacy.) When the Israeli responded with a Hebrew name, the Palestinian thought it was a joke, a fake nickname.

“I was speaking to him in Arabic, and he saw my pictures, and I didn’t seem like an Arab,” David, the Israeli, said. “He thought I was fooling him. And eventually I told him I was Jewish. And he was shocked. And I asked if problem. And he said, ‘no, no.’”

Many Palestinian gay men do not reveal their real names to the Palestinian men they meet online. Strangers, even gay strangers, cannot be trusted to keep their sexuality a secret. Homosexuality is one of the most extreme taboos in Palestinian society.

David was not the first Israeli man Eyad chatted with online. But none of them with were willing to meet him, a Palestinian, in the West Bank. They thought it would be dangerous.

David agreed to meet him in a town in the West Bank, taking circuitous, Jewish settlement back roads to avoid Israeli military checkpoints.

“I still remember his face. How happy he was,” Eyad, the Palestinian, said of their first date. “I told him, you are in Jerusalem, and I am in the West Bank, and there is a wall between us…it’s not a good idea to draw expectations. Like, we cannot really go far with it.”

Then, as if defying gravity, they fell in love. To be a couple – this kind of couple, in this unforgiving place – required creating a life of fiction. David didn’t tell his parents for a very long time about his relationship with Eyad. And Eyad hid his own sexuality from his family, as well as the true nature of his relationship with David, who became a frequent and welcome visitor to his family’s village home.

“I really can’t tell what would happen if someone from Palestine knew that I am gay. People here in Palestine, they say that, oh, that guy was talking about this, he should be killed,” Eyad said. “I live in a big lie.”

When their fiction began to unravel, the two crossed many of their own personal boundaries, in a place where borders matter most.

Tune into their audio documentary to hear David and Eyad tell their story.

On Keeping Quiet: Shirley in Mumbai

Shirley with her dog inside the Cusrow Baug colony

Shirley with her dog inside the Cusrow Baug colony

By Rosalie Murphy

MUMBAI — Shirley teaches outdoor yoga every morning at 8:30 a.m. and walks her dog several miles every night. It wouldn’t be a special routine except that she does it in the middle of Colaba, a crowded, wealthy neighborhood in South Mumbai. Shirley lives in the Cusrow Baug Parsi Colony. They also have access to gardens, playgrounds, a gym, a community pavilion and controlled, heavily subsidized rents – amenities Mumbai’s chaotic streets don’t offer.

Parsis are descended from Iranian Zoroastrians, who moved from Persia to India around 800 AD. There are still 50,000 of them in Mumbai. Part of that group fills 500 flats in Cusrow Baug. Shirley grew up just outside the colony, then married a Parsi man and moved in. They’ve since divorced, but now their daughter is 14.

The colony is very safe, but its insular social network frustrates Shirley. She wants her daughter to be free-thinking and to choose her own faith, whether it’s Zoroastrianism or not.

“People here never see life on the outside. They don’t have friends outside. When they travel, they don’t meet local people, they just go with each other. They don’t grow,” she said.

“Parsi” is an ethno-religious indicator exclusive to India. A person can be a Zoroastrian and not a Parsi, but not vice versa. But Shirley thinks Parsi might lose its Zoroastrian element soon. Parsi children have an initiation ceremony at age seven, but Jabawadi believes they rarely study their faith’s scholars. The community’s faith feels incomplete to her. She doesn’t practice anymore.

“Most people around here don’t even know why they do what they do. They just do it because their families do it. I don’t think that’s good,” Shirley said.

Whatever people practice privately, Shirley said religious festivals and temple visits unite the community. People worry when she doesn’t participate. And so she keeps her agnosticism a secret, which means she has few close friends inside the colony.

“I’m kind of on my own here,” she said.

On Lies of Omission: Sarah Golden in London

Kirsty is the one I turn to when all other doors slam shut.

And, yet, I frequently betray her —sometimes on purpose, sometimes on accident, and sometimes without knowing it. It can be as simple as accidentally breaking a treasured family heirloom or as complicated as making a pass at her ex-boyfriend. (She said it was okay but once the deed was done, it clearly was not.)

For over a decade now, and despite being separated by the Atlantic, we are best friends. She forgives my sporadic gaffes, and trusts in me even when I don’t.

I was nervous when she invited me to come live on her boat when I was moving to London. She had been offered a job in New York, and the switch worked well – she got a tenant, and I got a place in the last affordable housing in the city – the canal.

Kirsty’s boat was lovely. Everything in it was full of so much intention and love, including plush Rosie and Jim dolls, the stars of a kids’ British TV show from the ‘90s. And Kirsty loved her Rosie and Jim dolls.

So, perhaps, it was inevitable the morning I woke up to find Jim lying facedown on the woodstove, his limp little arm and leg hanging off the side. His body was still warm as he lay in a puddle of black, plastic blood. There was a startling black crater where his face once was. His acrylic red hair framed the concaved plastic, like a cartoon interpretation of fire.

Typical. This is exactly the type of thing that could happen to anyone. But, of course, it happened to me. It was the realization of my worst fears – I am just as irresponsible as I suspected. Kirsty trusted me with her house; I ruined something she loves. It looked like the crime scene of what I feared would be the end of our entire relationship

I decided she could not — would not —know about this! So I launched an elaborate plan to cover up the incident. I had to. One of the most important parts about enduring love is knowing when to lie.

To hear Sarah narrate her thwarted-at-every-turn search for a new doll, click here.

The Making of “The Anatomy of a Crush”

By Karen Lowe

Kyle came to the first day of a university radio lab I was teaching with a simple, jaw-dropping proposition: He had a crush on a guy he’d never met and he wanted to record — in real time — his encounters, his thoughts and feelings. A sort of audio MRI of his emotions. The class and I gasped, and then roared approval. Or, in retrospect, was it bloodlust?

Is there anything that can make you feel more ridiculous, or emotionally seared, than a full-throttle crush that goes off the rails? And that’s usually what happens. I worried that Kyle might be as vulnerable as I had been.

I was totally unequipped to handle high school crushes, meaning I had a very, very hard time playing it cool. And I fell for all the wrong guys. The kind of guy who steps on your heart and twists his heel as he turns to leave.

My girlfriends discreetly played for hunks with varsity letter jackets. These girls could coolly walk down hallways, eyes straight ahead, while chatting with a friend and hugging their books to their chests, knowing, with absolute certainty, the guys would turn around to check them out.

When my love interest, Brian, came into view, I felt weak and flushed. If he glanced at me, I would beam at him like some romantic rube. He was a loner, who wore black leather jackets and biker boots, slicked his hair back and smoked cigarettes. A dark-haired James Dean type with a killer crooked smile. He was a “greaser,” and I was a goner.

We didn’t mingle much at school, but we boarded horses on the same farm. On horseback, we tore through the countryside. We listened to music in the barn where he taught me to blow smoke rings. A few times, when we both got real quiet, he kissed me. I was delirious when he swooped me up in his arms when the song, “Wild Thing,”
came on the radio.

Then, he disappeared without saying a word. One day he was in school and the next day he wasn’t. His horse was gone, too. I waited dumbly with a dull, throbbing pain in my throat for him to come back, to call me. And, of course, he never did.

Whenever I hear “Wild Thing” on the radio, I feel just a little bit more alive, and I swear I can smell freshly cut hay and his Brut cologne.

Crushes are dangerous. They should have warning signs. And now, here was Kyle offering to perform open heart surgery on himself. Each week, the class waited like soap opera fiends for Kyle’s next installment. His stories were funny, inspiring and sometimes cringeworthy. And, then, he stopped coming to class or responding to calls or emails.

To hear Kyle tell his story with every excited gasp and churn, click here.

Guerillas, Gorillas and Oil: A Toxic Mix?

By Evelyn Iritani


RUMANGABO, Democratic Republic of Congo — Emmanuel de Merode knows exactly when his passion began. He was a curious young man with a dream of becoming a park ranger when he first saw the mountain gorillas, giant beasts with an intelligent, surprisingly disarming nature. 

He was smitten. 

“Every time you go into a group of gorillas, you’re blown off your feet,” said de Merode, who is now the director at Virunga National Park, home for 220 of the endangered animals. “It’s like being married to somebody you adore. Whether you’re 20 or 90. It’s the same thing with the mountain gorillas.”

Continue reading on Al Jazeera America

Restoring the shattered women of Congo

By Evelyn Iritani



Goma, DR Congo – The first thing Modestine Etoy does when the young mothers arrive at her door is listen.

It may take hours, or even days, before they are comfortable enough to share their secrets. But eventually they spill out.

The women tell stories of rape, incest or some other horrible abuse, often committed by people they trusted, such as teachers or relatives. They talk of being chased from their homes and raped by men with AK-47s, who left them for dead before moving on to claim a new woman or piece of territory in the civil war that has long decimated the eastern regions of this impoverished Central African country.

Almost always, they end with some version of “Fini mama” – Mother, my life is over.

Continue reading on Humanosphere

Oula’s Dilema

By Erika Solomon 

Today I sat on the steps of the grand mosque in downtown Beirut and tightly embraced my friend, Oula, before we said goodbye. Her brief trip from Syria marked our first visit with one another in two years, since “the events,” as she calls them, had begun to unfold. The 24 hours we spent together flew by too quickly, but it was all she could spare before returning home.

We didn’t want to let each other go. But we finally stood up without saying a word. We looked out at the sea and watched the ships slowly sailing into the port below. We reminisced about the time last time we stood there, when we took pictures with one of our friends, now in exile in Turkey.  

During that last visit, we had posed in front of the bullet-pocked statue commemorating Lebanon’s war martyrs and we had debated the politics of the brutal civil war this country is still healing from. How academic those arguments seem, in comparison to our discussions now.

In those pictures, the three of us in big sunglasses and small hats, I remember feeling that we were carefree, joyfully exploring Beirut. We were glad to have time out of Damascus. 

Syria is a place close to my heart, especially Damascus. Some of my very best friends in life I found there in the year I spent, from 2008-2009,living and studying Arabic in Syria’s capital. Before the violent uprising, circumstances seemed good – at least on the surface.

Inevitably, though, you would feel this weight that settles inside your chest, an ever-present pang of suspicion. You wonder who is watching, who is following. What can you say, who can you trust? In some ways, that is the evil of a police state, more than the threat of brutality: The way it subtly changes how you think, so that you barely notice it until you go some place where that weight seems like a silly, unnecessary burden.

As Arabic students, my friends and I used to laugh at each other when we went back home for visits and caught ourselves leaning in to whisper about our political opinions, forgetting that was no longer necessary.

This is something that we, as foreigners, learned in a matter of months. How does it affect people who lived with it for most of their lives? 

The thing I’ve been most curious about, covering Syria’s revolt as a journalist, is how thousands of people who seemed so silent, so passive that I barely noticed any dissent or sectarianism could be transformed into some of the most violent participants of the “Arab Spring.” 

Surely, much of what I overlooked was a function of my own ignorance. But also I believe it was often something they were quietly taught with hardly a word said. You know someone’s sect by asking what town they are from—if that doesn’t work, then what neighborhood, what street? This, too, is something I learned subtly without even realizing it. I now have to force myself not to ask such questions when I meet a Syrian, though it’s likely the first thing on both of our minds.

Time after time, the children of parents who were longtime opponents of the Assad regime tell me that somehow they just always knew that nothing said inside the walls of their home could be repeated outside. No one had to tell them that. They made up excuses for not joining the Baath Party youth groups at school, despite pressure from teachers.

My friend, Roshak, would tell her teacher she was planning to join and would keep “forgetting.” Her father never told her outright that he was once an anti-Assad activist. She knew from a young age, though, that he had been in jail. And she knew what that meant, the same way she knew never to say anything about it to her friends.

Two months ago, Roshak came to see me here in Beirut, too.  She has a round, cheerful face, bright eyes and curly hair. Normally, just seeing her makes me smile. This time there were shadows under her eyes, evidence of the strain from living for a month with rebels near Damascus, under daily air strikes and sniper fire. To experience such danger and helplessness for a few days at a time while on assignment I’ve found harrowing enough. I have no idea how Roshak endured it for weeks on end.

For me, the most terrifying words ever uttered about the Syrian conflict came from her mouth: “After days of thinking every minute I would die, I wanted them to kill Assad’s fighters. And I wanted the rebels to torture them. To watch them suffer. I felt they deserved it, and the fact that I still feel that way – so strongly- it keeps me up at night.”

One of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know, Roshak realizes that such impulses are wrong. She just can’t stop feeling them.

Oula lives just a few districts away from where Roshak was then, but her life is completely different. She sits inside her apartment, counting the falling mortars with her father, who is slowly withering away from a cancer they are struggling to find the medicine to treat.

That is the silent killer for many in Syria now. There are plenty of dressings and painkillers coming in to treat bullet and shrapnel wounds. But those succumbing to more chronic medical conditions, because there is no longer a monthly supply of diabetes or cancer medication, watch their deaths approach in slow motion, unable to stir the world’s sympathies.

Oula appears at times determined to shrug off the gravity of her own circumstances. She once inadvertently caused a friend who was transporting some of her bags to be detained at an army checkpoint. The soldiers needed to inspect the locked bags, and Oula’s friend spent an hour on the phone with her, trying to help her remember the code for the lock.  Oula dismissively kept asking why the bags needed to be inspected.

She’s still never personally witnessed blood, or body parts, or anything other than the gory images that flash up on state television, though she’s only a few miles away from them.

“I don’t think I could survive the sight of actually seeing it,” she says. I try to tell her she needs to contemplate how she will react, what she will do, should the conflict fully invade her existence. Because the time when she will see such things, I fear, is inevitably creeping closer.

She is no different, no worse off than a lot of other Syrians. Unlike many, in fact, she has a potential way out, though it comes with an agonizing, impossible choice. That is, she must decide whether to stay in a war zone, take care of her father and pray that they can survive. Or, she can use a relative’s help to get herself a visa to America, and leave her father to die alone.

When I left Syria four years ago, in 2009, Oula walked me to the taxi that would drive me over the border. It was stuffed with people’s suitcases, chocolates and presents. But she crammed inside to give me one last hug. And we both cried, as if it was such a tragedy, to not know when we would have our next visit.

Today, I helped Oula pack some fresh salmon into a cooler filled with ice—a treat she hoped might bring her father a little joy, assuming it kept during the five, maybe 10 hours it would take her to cross the border from Lebanon and all the checkpoints to get back home. 

We held each other, dry-eyed. This time, we knew, the question was not when, but if we might see each other again. We have to believe that’s not the reality. So we made plans for her next visit, after Ramadan. The shopping we would do, the beaches we wanted to swim at.

Then I watched her, carrying her cooler of fish and walking slowly over to the taxi, as images of my 2009 departure from Syria flooded my mind.

I didn’t know back then that it would be our last shared moment in Damascus, at least for the foreseeable future. Yet saying goodbye then seemed so hard.

Now, I just hope that it’s not the last time we see each other ever.


Erika Solomon is a Reuters reporter based in Beirut, and a contributor to BendingBorders.org, a radio production house.