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.
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.
Further into the valley, at the base of a huge mountain on the other side of which lies Iran, is a PKK headquarters camp. Under the shade of an arbor at a long table sits a troika of older, unarmed men. Two of them are visiting from Denmark; one, named Miro, heads the PKK’s Europe-based Radio Roj. Like the military forces, the broadcasting is funded by donations from the large Kurdish diaspora, various front businesses and governments hostile to Turkey, which over the years have included the Greek, Syrian and Iranian intelligence services. Miro and his friend seem ready to talk but the man in charge, Said, is part of the guerrilla political directorate and assumes a standoffish attitude. Before him sits a slim volume on Nietzsche.
He starts asking me questions. Who do I write for? How did I get here? What are my politics? “What do they say about the PKK in America?” asks Said. “They say you’re terrorist. An interview might help get your side of the story out,” I suggest. The negotiation wears on and then, abruptly, Said renders his verdict: no interview.
But seeing that I am angry he offers a lunch of flat bread, pickled hot peppers, preserved figs and potato salad. Then, despite his officious rejection of an interview a long political discussion ensues. Miro, the head of Radio Roj, speaks English, so we switch between translated Kurdish and English. “We’re more flexible now,” says Said. “It is not all as simple as America is the bad imperialist. We hope the US will help broker an agreement with Turkey.”
The subtext of the discussion is one of war-weary restlessness. Said says that the PKK is no longer Marxist or revolutionary but socialist, “like Sweden.” The party, he reminds me, now calls itself the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress. But everyone including its supporters still calls it the PKK. So what do they want? “A democratic solution. The freedom of Ocalan.” Beyond that he and all the PKK communiqués remain vague.
Why did they abandon Marxism? “The Soviet Union collapsed.” Said brings out books by Murray Bookchin, the Vermont based anti-urbanist writer, and a copy of Immanuel Wallerstein’s After Liberalism. “What do you think of Bookchin?” asks Said, then adds: “An anarchist. Too extreme. Wallerstein is very useful.” As for the war with Turkey, he says: “We want to negotiate. A dialogue.”
Said won’t say exactly what the PKK will settle for from the Turkish state. The cease-fire has just expired and he seems embittered, like the young fighters. He claims that while the Turkish president made a big show of parlaying with rebel Kurds, the security forces took advantage of the cease-fire to hunt down PKK cadre. “No more cease-fires for us.”
Interestingly, our conversation keeps turning back to the chaos in central Iraq. It is clear the PKK is very worried about that war’s outcome. “This is not Vietnam,” says Miro. “What the US has created, this is more like Afghanistan.” “The insurgents are fanatics,” adds Said.
Does the PKK support the US occupation like the Iraqi Kurds? No. They want the United States out: “The Americans are only making it worse, but they won’t leave the region.” What would follow a US pullout in Iraq? “It’s too complicated to say.” When I suggest the possibility of endless war, Miro, Said and the others look at me blankly, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Then Miro says, “Now you Americans are here. You are part of this complicated region.”
As we bid farewell the mood is warm but sad. Turkey now has the upper hand. The guerrillas want this fight to end; their ideological commitments of times past have crumbled. They admit to their excesses.
Now they are tired, trapped in a wedge of mountains, much of their beloved Kurdistan a charred crater of suffering. And–as is demonstrated by the brutal occupation, chaotic crime wave and guerrilla fanaticism just south of them in Mosul–at a certain point war is no longer a means but merely its own self-fueling end.