On an empty switchback road that climbs a narrow valley pass in the mountains of northern Iraq, one finds an unusual sight–armed women at a roadblock. It’s the PKK, the formerly Marxist Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan–or Kurdistan Workers Party, a formidable guerrilla force that has been waging war in Turkey, Syria and Iraq for more than twenty-five years.
In case the presence of women fighters and red flags don’t clearly mark this as a PKK checkpoint, there is a huge stone portrait of the organization’s supreme but currently imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, scowling down from a hillside. Known as Apo (meaning “Uncle”), Ocalan is a man whose round mustached face bears more than a passing resemblance to another, more famous Soviet Uncle named Joe.
At the checkpoint the “Apocular”–followers of Apo–send me to a small cement barracks, where a dozen young guerrillas give a tour and offer tea. Two female officers are there but soon tromp off, AK-47s slung over their backs. The guerrillas’ little post is stocked with weapons and some bags of flour, its walls bear portraits of martyrs, five of whom were gunned down months before on the streets of Mosul, Iraq, by the Syrian Mukhabarat.
This mountain redoubt is just inside the Iraqi border near both Turkey and Iran and is used as a launchpad for PKK operations into Turkey, which has always been its main theater of war. The Turkish airwaves may be full of news about accession talks to the EU, but in the countryside of the southeast there are signs of war: military helicopters in the sky, paramilitary police checkpoints, the ruins of Kurdish towns put to the torch by Turkish troops.
For twenty-five years this war with no name has pitted the forces of the Turkish state against the PKK, and the consequences have been horrific: More than 2,500 Kurdish villages have reportedly been destroyed, thousands of civilians have been tortured and 30,000 people have been killed. Even during a recent two-month cease-fire that ended on October 8, dozens of guerrillas, soldiers and civilians were killed. Yet despite the scale of the carnage, the Western press has remained relatively quiet, seemingly unwilling to expose the brutality of the Turkish government–a prime American ally and possible EU member.
For a few years the war seemed to be winding down. Ocalan was captured, and Syria, which once hosted the guerrillas, turned on them. But now the violence is up and running again, thanks in part to the US conquest of Baghdad, which has resulted in an increasingly secure Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Iraq–a new rear guard for the PKK. Despite a troubled, even violent, history between the PKK and the two more right-wing Kurdish parties that control northern Iraq, 3,000 of the PKK’s 5,000 guerrillas now operate out of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The American government considers the PKK a terrorist organization on par with Al Qaeda. But without the inadvertently US-created safe haven in Iraq, the PKK probably couldn’t survive.
Many of the young fighters patrolling the mountains here say they joined up during high school. They are the ambitious, brave but frustrated and downwardly mobile working-class kids of the small towns and middle-sized cities of Turkish Kurdistan, a few of them are from Syria and Iran. Their grievances are on one hand specifically Kurdish, while on the other merely articulate frustrations typical of young people struggling at the margins of the global economy: no work, no education, no peace, nothing but this cause and this group to give hope and meaning.