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The War With No Name | The Nation

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The War With No Name

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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.

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Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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A 23-year-old blue-eyed fighter named Razgar explains that he has been with the PKK for a year. His politicization started when the Turkish military destroyed and forcibly resettled his village in the early 1990s. His family fled the area and moved to Istanbul. As a teenager Razgar worked in a textile factory and then, last August, he'd had enough of the police harassment, low wages and hopelessness so he joined the PKK. He hasn't seen much action, having spent most of his time in this valley guarding the PKK headquarters that are hidden somewhere further up a huge mountain.

The young fighters say they are encouraged to study, but when pressed for details, there seems to be no formal program of lectures or reading. What about Marxism, the creed that was the PKK's cause for so many years? A few of the older guys mouth rote phrases about democracy and Kurdish rights, but none of them seem very politically developed. None mention socialism.

The youngest soldier, named Jaman, is only 17. He is from a small town in northern Syria. "They don't teach in Kurdish. We have no ID cards in Syria," says the boy. As a result receiving schooling, work and state benefits is difficult. A year and half ago he joined up, fought in Turkey and then came here. Like the rest of the fighters he is somber, perhaps depressed. The mood here, devoid of joking and small talk, has an air of dread about it. It's the feeling of fearful anticipation of those headed into combat. These kids know that the cease-fire with Turkey is doomed; that means their war is far from over.

Over the decades the PKK has undergone several political transformations. It all began during the economic crisis of the 1970s, when urban Turkey's factories, universities and streets were electric with political struggle. Trade unionists and student radicals skirmished with ultra-nationalists, fascist paramilitaries and the police in a spiral of escalating violence that eventually provoked a military coup. From this ferment emerged the earliest version of the PKK: a small group of radicals who followed Ocalan with cultish devotion and fought for socialism in Turkey.

By the early 1980s the PKK had moved into the countryside and on to the separatist dream of a greater Kurdistan, an imaginary communist state that would gather up parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran and about a third of Turkey. The guerrillas drew support from the impoverished Kurds who toiled in miserable conditions on the large private cotton farms and vineyards of Turkey's southeast. These days the PKK's goals have been scaled down considerably to social democratic economic reforms, political inclusion and civil rights for Kurds within Turkey.

Part of what has tempered their politics was the capture of Ocalan in 1999. Facing a death sentence for treason, he started a public rethink on politics, strategy and tactics. Ocalan is still in a cell and the PKK is still in the field, but the people of Turkey have grown sick of the war and disillusioned with all sides. While Turkish security forces have been utterly ruthless, the PKK has also behaved badly. At the war's most fevered pitch in the late 1980s and early '90s, the Turkish government, using classic counterinsurgency methods, established a progovernment Kurdish militia force called the village guard. The PKK in turn set about liquidating village guards, in a few cases massacring entire progovernment Kurdish families, women and children included. They have also bombed civilian Turks in the cities. The guerrilla leadership realizes that these tactics were mistakes that cost them dearly in local and international support. Now they seem to be looking for a way out.

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