March 12, 2004: The uprising of Qamishlo

On 12 March 2004 an uprising broke out in Qamishlo which quickly spread to all of Rojava. Contemporary witnesses report about the events and the political atmosphere of that time.

On 12 March 2004, 32 Kurds were killed in clashes organised by the Syrian Ba'ath regime after a football match in Qamishlo. After this massacre, an uprising broke out and spread throughout Rojava and even to Aleppo and Damascus. The "Serhildan of Qamishlo" is considered to be the first mass uprising in Rojava and coincided with a time when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq and joint cabinet meetings of Turkey and Syria took place.

Eyewitnesses to the events at that time have spoken to ANF. Xelîl Yûsif lost his son in the massacre and later went blind from the torture he suffered. Welîd Çolî is an employee of the Euphrates Centre for Strategic Studies and was at the time in the soccer stadium. Çinar Salih, who also works at the Euphrates Centre, spoke about the political and sociological background of the massacre and the uprising that broke out as a result.

Çinar Salih: In Syria, too, the nation state has created a hateful typology of citizens. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it was supposed to be exploded somewhere and this place was the stadium of Qamishlo. But there is another place that was suspicious. During the reign of Bashar al-Assad's father, the Adana Agreement had been signed between Syria and Turkey. Thus Syria was almost made a province of Turkey. Syria had opened its doors wide to the Turkish state and the Erdogan government. This also prepared a certain basis.

Xelîl Yûsif: My son Ehmed was 25 years old at that time. On March 12 he came with a friend to the place where I worked as a pedlar. He said that he was going to the stadium for the soccer match.

Welîd Çolî: I was also one of the people who went to the match. I didn't usually go to the stadium very often, but that day I had arranged to meet a friend for the match. By mistake, we used the same entrance as the fans coming from Deir ez-Zor. That way we could see them up close. They behaved very aggressively and were just bubbling with hate. They all had thermos flasks with them. Of course, we didn't know what was in them until later. 

What was the atmosphere like on March 12th?

Çinar Salih: At that time, Syria was in a state of distress that was similar to the situation in Iraq. Syria was encircled, blocked, isolated. The government wanted to break through this blockade and improve relations with foreign countries. Turkey was considered an important pillar of the international system. Connections were to be established via Turkey. In this atmosphere, the 12th March took place. Preparations had been made. The Kurds are weak, nobody is behind them, we can beat them and break them. We must create a common ground through this, they thought.

Slogans for Saddam

Xelîl Yûsif: Buses with many people came to the city. They stuck their heads out of the buses and shouted slogans for Saddam. They swore at the Kurds. Their faces, their behavior, everything radiated anger.

Welîd Çolî: Shortly after we took our seats in the stadium, stones were thrown at us. They shouted chauvinist slogans and insulted the Kurds and their values. They shouted: "Long live Saddam!" There was an immediate confrontation.

The first three deaths

Xelîl Yûsif: When I came home for lunch, I got a phone call. I was told that there were clashes in the stadium and three people were trampled to death. I went straight to the stadium. It was an atmosphere like the Judgment Day.

Welîd Çolî: The stones that were thrown at us had been brought to the stadium in the thermos containers I told you about. Knives, sticks, they had everything with them. The Qamishlo fans were completely unprepared. They just wanted to watch the game. Three people were killed in the crowd that followed the stone throws. The police were at the scene but didn't intervene.

Xelîl Yûsif: I went to the stadium to see what was going on there. It was raining stones. They had collected a pile of stones and attacked with those. I told Ehmed to go home. He replied that the Kurds had been insulted and that he wouldn't leave.

When it comes to the Kurds, the contradictions are ceased

Çinar Salih: Because the Kurdish question is at the centre of many problems in the Middle East, many existing contradictions are ceased when it comes to the Kurds. For example, the Shiite-Sunni separation is ceased. We have made this experience during these years.

Welîd Çolî: When we left the stadium, we saw that the people from Qamishlo had gathered there. The people just wanted those responsible to be called to account. Instead, the police started shooting at the crowd.

Xelîl Yûsif: I was told that Ehmed may have already gone home. So I went home but he was not there. I went back to the stadium. In the shared taxi another passenger said that a young man had been shot. He described the dead man and I remember screaming, "My son!". The driver turned to me and said: "Hundreds of thousands of people are on the road, how do you know it is your son of all people?" We drove on but were forced to turn back because of the weapons aimed at us everywhere. When I returned to our house in Hilêliyê, a dust-covered youth from my relatives was sitting there. When I asked him what was wrong with him, he came to me in a pitiful state and said, crying, "We have lost Ehmed."

How could I have known that this bullet had hit my son and that this single bullet had caused an uprising from Dêrik to Serêkaniyê and on to Afrin, Aleppo and Damascus?

Welîd Çolî: The next day the dead were to be buried. The state imposed a curfew, but this only led to even greater anger and people poured into the streets. And there they were attacked. Altogether 32 people were killed, hundreds were injured. Throughout Rojava and also in Damascus, Aleppo and other cities, Kurds, regardless of their political views, took to the streets and demanded accountability.

Political parties played no role

Çinar Salih: This uprising took the state by surprise. It had become a habit that people were constantly being shot and killed and everyone was silent about it. But this uprising was not organized. No party or political force was ready for it. Also in other parts of Kurdistan such a reflex from the "small south" [former name for Rojava] was not expected. The political parties did not play a serious role in this uprising. Some parties even played a negative role. What was special was the natural organization of the population against the oppression that occurred in this uprising.

Welîd Çolî: These incidents lasted for several days. After that, a state of emergency was declared. Arrests and torture began. Some did not survive the torture. The Kurds could no longer move freely. Later, the period of economic pressure began. The people became increasingly poorer and could no longer make a living. Therefore the migration of labour to the metropolises began. This went on until 2011.

Dungeon, hunger, degradation

Çinar Salih: There was a great uprising, but it was broken because there was no support. Actually, we have to look at what happened afterwards. The prisons filled up. At least one person from each family went to prison. The people were degraded. Many moved to the cities. In Rojava, no Kurds were wanted to remain. In the cities of Syria, people also had a very hard time. They had to do everything for a piece of bread. They tried to take away their dignity.

After March 12, the state was very afraid of the consciousness and the social ethics of the Kurds. Therefore it had to drive them apart. Maybe it also took an example from the Turkish actions in Northern Kurdistan. Those were the days when Erdogan met with the Assad family. The Kurds were wanted to be wiped out by being put in prison, starving and being driven to the metropolises. Years ago, the Turkish state laid down the strategy that no more than ten percent of the population should be Kurds in the Kurdish cities. The same was tried here after 12 March.

Even funerals were attacked

Xelîl Yûsif: We set out with many people to bury the dead. There too we were attacked, many young people died. The prisons were full of Kurds. The young people were sent to the prisons in Hesekê and Damascus. Days later, when the mourning period was over, I wanted to set up my stand in the city centre. The Muhabarat [Syrian secret service] stopped our car on the street. They wanted to check the identity cards. I took my identity card out of my pocket and gave it to them. I was thrown on the ground and beaten on the grounds that I had a cigarette in my hand. Five or six people kicked my head and said they were playing ball. I lost consciousness. Later my eyesight deteriorated and I went blind.

Fire of revenge

Çinar Salih: It must be said quite clearly that if the Rojava revolution had not taken place and things had continued like this, there might not be anything Kurdish today. But the revolution might have been even more successful if there had not been the March 12. Because the revolution was made only by those who were left after 2004.

It came so far that people did not even show two of the colours yellow, red, green at the same moment because they could be arrested and tortured for it. But inside the people felt the ever-burning fire of revenge. This fire has never been extinguished.