Last October, from an air-conditioned room in Athens, 22-year-old Stefan Bertram-Lee started posting memes supportive of the so-called Rojava Revolution in a Kurdish region of Syria.
Bertram-Lee, who goes by gender-neutral pronouns, is a recent uni graduate with a blond surfer’s mane and anarchist leanings. They wanted to be more than just an armchair clicktivist. In April, they traveled to the now-autonomous region of Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan, where an army has been fighting ISIL, Al-Nusra, and the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2012.
After a convoluted journey that required three flights and a trip across the Iraq/Syria border, Bertram-Lee arrived at a training ground for the YPG, or People's Protection Units — the main armed service in Rojava. After six weeks of training in military techniques and the ideology of Democratic Confederalism, Bertram-Lee was transferred to an outpost with a Turkish Communist militia in the central/eastern portion of Rojava. There, with the encouragement of some veterans of their battalion, they began working hunched over a ZedAir laptop, wearing full military fatigues in a 100-degree room, making memes.
While I was interviewing Bertram-Lee, they posted a meme to Facebook that said “Disappointed by society, young people are fleeing to Rojava,” superimposed on a black-and-white gif of a man running frantically through the woods.
Bertram-Lee is one of hundreds of Westerners who have reportedly traveled to Syria to volunteer for Kurdish forces fighting ISIS. The YPG is a predominantly Kurdish military force that has come to power in the northern reaches of the war-ravaged state. The Rojava Revolution has seen the radically egalitarian, un-hierarchical, collectivist, and non-statist teachings of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish leader, implemented in a discontiguous region consisting of three separate “cantons” or administrative areas. Öcalan has termed his political ideology, which can be traced in part to the leftist writings of the late Vermonter Murray Bookchin, “Democratic Confederalism.” Democratic Confederalism proposes a highly decentralized form of societal organization, coupled with radical egalitarianism in regards to sex, religion, and nationality.
The collectivist principles of the revolution in Rojava have inspired a number of Western leftists to venture to the region. Profiles have been written in the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, VICE, and, most recently, The New Yorker. In March, it was reported that Brace Belden, the Californian florist at the center of the Rolling Stone piece, would be portrayed in a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
The YPG and its sister organization the YPJ, an all-female fighting force, are reported to have troop levels in the 30,000-50,000 range. In May, the Trump administration said it would continue arming the group despite objections by the Turkish government, which consider the YPG to be a terrorist organization.
Bertram-Lee’s journey to Rojava has been supported by comrades. After graduating in 2016 with a degree in philosophy from the University of Essex, Bertram-Lee moved to Athens, Greece to live among other anarchists, squatting and dumpster-diving in the city’s gritty underworld. Bertram-Lee followed the Rojava conflict closely, reading the news from the front and following the social media accounts of volunteers like Belden, aka @PigPissGranddad (the account has been closed). In October of 2016, Bertram-Lee borrowed a friend’s Wi-Fi and started the Facebook page Dank Memes for Democratic Confederalist Dreams, wanting to broaden the message and add some levity to the conversation.
Previously, online outreach for the movement consisted of dramatic, weighty messaging, according to Bertram-Lee. “All about the martyrs, hero sacrifice, pictures of guns and people that carry them,” they said.
Bertram-Lee’s tone also opposes the severe, deadly-serious tone of ISIS, a competitor in all things, including recruiting.
“The Kurdish freedom movement finds it hard to communicate to non-Kurdish European youth,” Bertram-Lee continued. “And it takes itself very seriously.”
The page started to gain popularity earlier this year, and now has over 2,000 followers, including some active and former fighters with the YPG, Rojava’s military forces. “I’m happy the ‘troops’ like it,” Bertram-Lee wrote.
In addition to supporting the revolution, Dank Memes takes aim at Western youth culture (the memes are in English, although Bertram-Lee hopes to soon translate them into Turkish). In “How other people are spending their summer vs me” some young white people are shown frolicking in what looks like a foam bath, while on the other side of the frame two soldiers wearing red balaclavas are holding machine guns in front of a wall that reads “Socialism will win.” Or “That outfit that boosts your self-esteem,” which shows a picture of a white woman wearing tight jeans, next to a picture of a female soldier carrying a rocket launcher.
The page’s most popular meme was posted on June 13, and received 243 responses. It features a photo of Jane Kaczmarek from Malcolm in Middle standing with her hands on her hip, yelling. Superimposed are the words “Listen buddy if you’re not gonna recognise the reality that all slavery in society is based on the slavery of women then don’t even both coming home tonight!” Many of Dank Memes' most popular posts have to do with the radical feminism at the core of Öcalan’s philosophy.
“I make memes to promote a cause first,” Bertram-Lee wrote via email. “Besides, I don’t have that much of a life outside of politics/philosophy.”
Bertram-Lee joined the United Freedom Forces in May. The UFF — often referred to by its Turkish acronym, BOG — is a predominantly Turkish communist militia bolstered by Western and other international volunteers. It is the largest of the militias under the International Freedom Battalion umbrella according to the Carter Center, an NGO. The IFB contains nine factions of leftist groups within it ranging from anarchists, communists, and anti-fascists, to Turkish communist parties. It is inspired by the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, which were a paramilitary group of international leftists that fought the fascist Franco regime in the 1930s.
“I didn’t want to speak of things I hadn’t experienced,” Bertram-Lee said of their decision to leave their comrades in Athens to volunteer as a soldier in Rojava. They said their mother was shocked and stopped talking to Bertram-Lee when she heard about their plans. “I don’t think she knows how to react,” Bertram-Lee said.
The former philosophy student, who is around five-foot-three, has received training on an AK-47, Glock, M16 rifle, PKM machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, they said. Luckily, their base has been relatively peaceful since skirmishes with Al Nusra three years ago, but when it comes to fighting, Bertram-Lee is straightforward. “I mean, we’re soldiers,” they wrote. “It’s good to get a form of military experience.”
“Westerners play with their laptops and phones, Turks watch TV or just sit around drinking tea. Occasional volleyball.”
The international fighters and Turks for the most part keep to themselves during down time, Bertram-Lee said. “Westerners play with their laptops and phones, Turks watch TV or just sit around drinking tea,” they said. “Occasional volleyball.”
Bertram-Lee spends part of the day working on a laptop. Their “office” is a repurposed dining room with white walls, sparsely decorated with a yellow flag depicting a hammer and sickle surrounded by a Venus symbol; an indication of the group’s feminist ideology. Lining another wall are photos of martyrs killed by ISIS and other hostile armies in the region — including a photo of the Californian Michael Israel, who was killed in battle in 2016 and is pictured holding a machine gun.
“If I need to write something long, I do it on the dining room table,” said Bertram-Lee, who hopes to eventually get promoted to the media “office” in a nearby room. “Cause I don’t have a desk.” They like to listen to trap music while working.
War and visual propaganda have gone hand-in-hand dating back centuries. From Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “Join, or Die” cartoon; to Red Army recruitment posters during the Bolshevik Revolution; to World War II’s Rosie the Riveter, “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and “Buy War Bonds”; to “I want YOU” posters, images like these serve up a quick shot of ideology to sway opinion and affect hearts and minds. Images with words superimposed on them, that is. In other words, Bertram-Lee is not the first propagandist to channel the power of war memes.
“Not to imply that my amazing fans couldn’t read Öcalan if they wanted to,” Bertram-Lee said, referring to the ideological leader of the Kurdish liberation movement, but “not everyone wants to read long essays all the time.”
Based on Bertram-Lee’s description, days at the UFF base appear to have plenty of down time for making memes. The daily routine has soldiers waking up at 5 a.m., followed by a lineup, where militia members chant “Long Live Socialism!” and “Long Live Revolution!” in Turkish. Then on to light physical training, followed by breakfast at 7 a.m., The Internationals (volunteer fighters from abroad) are then given free time. At 2 p.m., people gather for around two hours of military and/or ideological training (or later, if it’s too hot). Dinner is at 7 p.m., followed by an evening meeting. Then more free time.
According to Christopher, a fan of Dank Memes who said he is an American-born volunteer fighter with the YPG in a different division than Bertram-Lee, the memes provides a fresh look at the revolution’s ideology. “I thought it was flippin hilarious when I first saw it,” he wrote via Facebook chat. “Also because it was so niche.”
(Christopher didn’t provide his last name because he was concerned about getting doxxed by members of the alt-right, he said, but I was able to verify his identity and the fact that he is physically in Rojava.)
Christopher, who said he was working in a bicycle shop in Brooklyn before leaving for Kurdistan a few months ago, also emphasized the need for levity amidst frequently discouraging, and depressing circumstances. Just this month, he said, two of his American friends — David Taylor, a Marine from Florida who he met at the YPG Academy, and Robert Grodt, a Californian who he met during Occupy Wall Street protests — were killed fighting in and around Raqqa.
“The war here is really brutal and if you don’t laugh you will get torn up,” Christopher wrote.
Bertram-Lee’s meme-making is supported by the more experienced UFF soldiers on their base, who decided to give them a laptop and internet access, both limited resources. Bertram-Lee said they were introduced to the militia by a former UFF soldier — an American who has been featured in the press before — who was a fan of Dank Memes and vouched for them to some of his comrades.
Earlier this week, Bertram-Lee too left for the front lines near Raqqa. While the UFF base has been relatively peaceful, the same cannot be said of Raqqa, where a coalition of American, Syrian and Kurdish forces are laying siege to the ISIS-controlled city with bombing and ground campaigns. The YPG has encouraged all volunteers to travel to the front lines at least once.
“I want to see the guys and I’m bored of here. And the Party likes all Westerners to go at some point,” Bertram-Lee wrote.
“At which point I won’t be meme-ing.”