Rojava: A safe haven in the middle of Syria's brutal war

Story highlights

  • Rojava is a small strip of land in northern Syria that's home to a remarkable revolution
  • Power vacuum left by the war has allowed Kurds to create a secular, multicultural community

Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist and writer. Her books include "Enslaved: The New British Slavery." Gupta visited Rojava in northern Syria recently during research for a forthcoming book co-written with Beatrix Campbell, "Why Doesn't Patriarchy Die?" Follow her on Twitter: @RahilaG. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)As world leaders grapple with how to end the Syrian war, most people in the west are struggling to look beyond the bombs, destruction and refugee crisis to understand the tangle of alignments that is Syria.

What is often hidden from view is that a strip of land in northern Syria, known as Rojava, contiguous with south-eastern Turkey, is home to a remarkable revolution. And I do not use the term "revolution" lightly.
    Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Rojava's predominantly Kurdish population of around 3-4 million has effected a bottom-up transformation of society into a direct democracy, organized into three self-governing, Swiss-style cantons.
      Rahila Gupta
      The change has been inspired by the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan -- a founder member of PKK, (Kurdistan Workers' Party), who has been languishing in a Turkish jail since 1999 for treason -- and driven by the participation of women at every level.
      Rojava momentarily hit the world stage in early 2015 after Kurdish fighters -- with American air cover -- valiantly liberated the city of Kobani from ISIS's grip after 112 days of fighting. For the U.S., the Kurds of Rojava are the only reliable, effective fighting force against ISIS on the ground.
      The U.S.'s support for Rojava brings them into direct confrontation with their NATO partner, Turkey, which sees opposes giving the Kurds a place at the Geneva peace talks.
      The western media is often so focused on covering the war in Syria that the public's only glimpse of this society is through eye-catching, "sexy" pictures of the female YPJ fighters. Beyond the photo-op, we are rarely given any insight into who they are.

      Going to Rojava

      The moment I crossed the border at Peshabur from Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG), the semi-autonomous Kurd-controlled region in northern Iraq, into Rojava it was obvious I was somewhere quite different.
      There were no malls, no motorways, no skyscrapers, no billboards; the only hoardings were pictures of "martyrs" who gave up their lives to defend the revolution.
      Boys at a martyrs' funeral.
      It's an effect of Rojava's cooperative-based economy, which is driven by the needs of the people, rather than profit. The man who runs the border crossing at Peshabur is paid the same wage as the 17-year-old who serves tea. It's an equality that I saw replicated everywhere I went.
      Strangers called out "Welcome to Rojava" enthusiastically, delighted that a foreigner had come to visit.
      The border was marked by the Tigris River and there are refugees on both sides carrying vast amounts of luggage.
      More are going into Rojava than leaving because word has spread that not only is it relatively peaceful but it is a secular, multicultural community genuinely open to the myriad ethnicities present there: Arabs, Turkmen, Yazidis, Arameans, Armenians and more.
      Later, an Arab shopkeeper I spoke to at the souk in Qamishlo, the de facto capital of Rojava, told me the same thing. He'd just fled Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS's self-declared caliphate, which is intolerant of all except a particular breed of hyper-religious Sunni Islam.

      Married young and illiterate -- now learning to read

      During the 10 days I was in Rojava, I was taken care of by the Kongira Star women's organization.
      Each night, I stayed with a different family and encountered the warmth and simple hospitality of a people with little to share but a lot to give.