Uta Schneiderbanger with Kurdish name Nudem, which means “New Time”, was born on July 20, 1961 in Mühlheim an der Ruhr in Germany. Since her youth she has been active in leftist movements, especially in the women’s movement. Uta heard about the new Kurdish liberation movement for the first time at the end of the 70s. From this first day on, an ever stronger relationship developed between her and the struggle of the Kurdish movement. In 1994 she joined the PKK. She was a member of the KONGRA GEL and as such she worked in the disciplinary committee and especially in the women’s structures. On 31 May 2005 she died in a car accident in South Kurdistan, together with her friend Ekin Ceren Doğruak, Sehid Amara.
Like many others, Uta lived a practical anti-imperialist internationalism. She understood the meaning of the Kurdish liberation struggle in its global importance, also for a revolutionary movement in Germany, which she never forgot. In an interview, which she gave shortly before her accident, she talks about her way into the mountains of Kurdistan, internationalism and the work in the women’s movement.
What led you as a German to the Kurdish guerrillas? Who is Uta?
I come from a Catholic working class family. At first I was active in the church. In the seventies there were very progressive circles even in the Catholic Church. We were especially influenced by liberation theology in Latin America. There were pastors who joined the guerrillas against the oligarchy and for the poor population. I left the church when the official church, the Pope in the Vatican, rejected liberation theology. Then I joined a communist party. I didn’t see much difference in understanding. Because of the patriarchal structures, I finally separated from this party with a large group of women and joined the anti-imperialist movement. They were circles close to the RAF ideology. From the beginning I was active in both the feminist and the socialist movements. I was committed to an independent women’s organization, but because I was convinced of the need for revolutionary change in society as a whole, I also worked in mixed socialist contexts. There was an ideological and practical connection. But I was independent in organizational terms.
How did you get to know the Kurds and the PKK?
1977 or 78 I got to know Kurds for the first time. They were in the Turkish left at that time. But they told about Kurdistan and knew about all the uprisings in history. They also spoke of a newly founded Kurdish party. That aroused my interest. I remember these discussions well. As a feminist I found the Kurdish need for an independent organization normal and right. Because I knew the patriarchal structures in socialist movements, I didn’t have much confidence at this point. Those who oppress women also oppress other peoples. But these comrades neither took me seriously nor understood me. Anyway, I was shocked when I visited them at home. Comrades who were very revolutionary and progressive on the street behaved very differently at home. There they became pashas.
In the eighties I got to know the first people from the PKK. During this time we mostly worked together on days like May 1st, September 12th, Newroz and on current occasions with the PKK and Turkish left groups. When the YJWK [Union of Patriotic Women in Kurdistan] was founded, we asked about autonomous women’s work. But it didn’t start until 1987-88. We worked together with these women. In Berlin we founded an international women’s council. And the Kurdish women were also there.
What was it like when you joined the PKK as a German woman?
In 1994 I took part in the YAJK Conference in Europe. I was very excited. The atmosphere was completely different from what I knew from the seventies. I remembered silent housewives who had no awareness of women’s liberation and rarely visited the kurdish community center. Now I felt very close to them. Because I had started learning Turkish in 1992, we could now discuss more with each other and I understood much more. But I was completely sure only after I had read Abdullah Öcalan’s defense writing. I had no difficulty at all reading these books. I felt as if all the contradictions in my political life were being resolved. Feminism, socialism, real socialism or the concept of democracy, these were points I had always been stuck on and which I could not solve. I saw many open questions like hierarchy, revolutionary logic, the degeneration of the national liberation movements, nationalism and internationalism. But we had always been moving around these questions without getting much further. Abdullah Öcalan shows a comprehensive system by bringing all these questions together into one synthesis. He creates an alternative, a solution, a way out of this system. I admired that.
But I must also say that it was not an easy decision for me to join the PKK. It took a very long time. I have been thinking about it since 1992. But as a German I also always felt responsible for the revolutionary development in Germany. To go away and leave my comrades alone meant betrayal. After 1990, we worked very intensively and founded a new women’s organization. We were looking for solutions for a new era. But especially because of our extreme dogmatism we did not manage that. I still feel a responsibility towards Germany. But no solution can come from Europe alone. I am convinced that the development of democratic confederalism in the Middle East will also influence Europe and Germany. Just like national liberation movements since 1968, the idea of democratic confederalism also can shake the world. I wanted to be a part of the way towards it.
There are many militant liberation movements in the world. Why did you not choose another movement, but the PKK?
As an anti-imperialist, feminist movement we were of course in solidarity with the liberation movements of other countries. We had contact with each other and founded international women’s platforms. Internationalism and internationalist solidarity movements were very strong in the seventies and eighties. Most interest has been in Palestine and the liberation movements of Latin America. Due to the mass extermination of Jews during the time of German fascism, many Germans felt responsible for a solution of the Palestinian-Israeli question. In my opinion, that is also the right thing to do. But our responsibility should have included all massacres, genocides and any kind of fascism and militarism. The liberation forces in Latin America are close to Europe with their culture. That is why there was so much interest in them.
Interestingly, solidarity with Kurds and Turks was always weak. And yet they are the largest group in Germany. It is easier to show solidarity with a people and its struggle that is far away, because then you can idealize it. That is not possible with Kurds and Turks. They are our neighbours, colleagues, classmates. You can see the reality of their lives and you can’t idealise them, you can’t make them the object of your own dreams. Solidarity cannot be done from an armchair. I have been particularly interested in cultural differences. I wanted to learn about them, to know and experience everything. The development of the Kurdish movement and especially of Kurdish women has become very attractive for me in the past years.
Within the KONGRA GEL you are a member of the disciplinary committee. How is your work going? What kind of difficulties do you face?
I was very inexperienced when I started this work. I’m not a lawyer either. I have only come into contact with the existing legal system as a defendant. That was the case for most of us. That’s why we worked pretty unprofessionally. Within this year I learned that it is not very difficult to act according to strict rules. But making just, humane and conscientious legal decisions is very difficult. This issue needs to be discussed much more. We have to find new methods. A lot of time, research and discussion is still needed to get this committee to work properly.
At the same time, we have also observed the problems that exist throughout the movement, such as hierarchical thinking, class and gender issues, in the disciplinary committee. This has had a negative impact on our work. We need to overcome that. This must be discussed and, if necessary, fought against. Our task is to become clearer. After all, we learn from our mistakes. This principle also applies to the disciplinary committee.
You were born and raised in Germany. What did you feel when you first came to the mountains? Did you find it easy to be a guerrilla?
The first time I went to the mountains was for the first KONGRA GEL Congress. I was incredibly happy. This feeling has calmed down a bit when I saw the reality of the organisation close up during the congress. But nevertheless I experienced very nice moments. Especially with the women from the HPG I felt very comfortable. There I had no difficulties at all. Of course I had problems walking, but I didn’t actually had to walk much. Unfortunately I could barely enjoy the fantastic view because I was always busy taking breath and looking on the way in front of me.
What do the mountains mean to you?
For me, the mountains of freedom are no longer a slogan, but reality. Despite all the difficulties, or perhaps because of them, life in the mountains offers many opportunities to individuals. Here you can develop and overcome your individual boundaries. You can live in a human way. This is confirmed by the charisma of the comrades here, by their shining eyes, their laughter, their attitude, whether man or woman. The Europeans are like living dead. Despite all material possibilities their eyes are dead and show stagnation and hopelessness. We fought especially against extreme individualism and alienation. We were looking for an organised, collective and human life. In Europe this was very difficult. Perhaps it is the hardest of all struggles. My greatest aspiration was to live in the mountains. For a short time I was able to make it real. That makes me very happy.
How would you rate the third KONGRA GEL meeting?
It was very different from the first congress I attended. The atmosphere was much clearer, more determined and more relaxed. Especially the attitude of the women has changed a lot. There is a strong unity between the women resulting in great strength. Of course, there are still many weaknesses. It would be wrong to deny that. The patriarchal, hierarchical state logic still exists. The understanding of democracy is not quite clear. But for me the most important point is that a positive development happens. The existing problems are well known. But the will and the efforts to overcome them are very great. That is a development that gives us reason for hope.
After all, we are trying to overcome a structure marked by thirty years of war and even a 5000 year old system. We have tried to take Öcalan’s perspectives and turn them into resolutions in order to create a solid basis for practical implementation. We are all responsible for putting it into practice. Overcoming our mistakes and weaknesses and creating a free life is only possible through an organised and determined fight at grassroots level.
And how do you see the level of development of the women’s liberation movement? What kind of relationship and joint work should take place with other women’s movements?
As I said earlier, women have become much stronger. The discussions before the Congress, especially the concrete discussions at the previous Women’s Meeting, have done much to give strength to the Congress.
The weaknesses are obvious, but this time women’s positions have been much more clear, responsibly-minded and open. I consider the contact with other women’s organisations worldwide to be very insufficient. We must make democratic confederalism known as an international solution and establish practical relations. I think, for example, that the Gabriella women’s organisation in the Philippines, the women’s cooperatives in India and the way in which Zapatista women live and fight are very important. There are many more examples of this kind. We must learn from each other. That is an important pillar of democratic confederalism.