[News] In the Kandil Mountains with the PKK

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Fri Nov 9 15:01:39 EST 2007


November 9, 2007

Among Ocalan's Disciples

In the Kandil Mountains with the PKK


There are 100,000 Turkish troops just across the border preparing to 
launch an invasion of northern Iraq in order to eliminate the 
guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The US has labelled 
the PKK 'terrorists' and the Iraqi government--in spite of the 
arguments of its Kurdish members--has told the guerrillas to disarm 
or leave its territory. Iran has denounced the Iranian wing of the 
PKK as a pawn of Israel and the US, and intermittently shells its 
camps in the Kandil mountains. The PKK, which led the failed 
rebellion of the Turkish Kurds between 1984 and 1999 and had been 
largely forgotten by the outside world, is suddenly at the centre of 
a new crisis in Iraq that may culminate in a Turkish attack.

The PKK guerrillas are surprisingly easy to find, but that is because 
they want to be found. For the first time in years journalists want 
to talk to them. All year Turkey has been threatening to send its 
army into northern Iraq as a result of pinprick attacks by the PKK 
inside Turkey. But an invasion is about the last thing Erdogan wants: 
it would achieve little against the PKK and discredit him with 
Turkey's 15 million Kurds, many of whom voted for his moderate 
Islamist party in July's general election. Even a small war might 
deflate Turkey's economic boom and strengthen the power of the army 
within the state. But the fighting is getting more intense. A PKK 
attack early in the morning of October 21 killed 16 Turkish soldiers; 
eight others were captured. Erdogan has talked tough, but so far 
avoided ordering the Turkish army across the frontier. If another PKK 
attack of similar magnitude takes place, he may be compelled to act.

The PKK headquarters are in the Kandil mountains, which run along the 
Iraqi side of the border with Iran. They form one of the world's 
great natural fortresses. The mountains, which will soon be covered 
in snow, are broken by deep gorges and hidden valleys. Aside from a 
few army supply roads, built by Saddam's engineers during the 
Iran-Iraq war, the only way to travel in the region is on foot or in 
four-wheel drives on tracks that disappear entirely where streams 
have washed them away. At the end of October I hired a driver and a 
four-wheel drive and drove from Arbil, the Kurdish capital, two and a 
half hours east of the Kandil to the village of Sangassar in the 
plain just below the mountains. I was worried that the Kurdistan 
Regional Government, under pressure from the US to sort out the PKK, 
would have ordered the soldiers at its checkpoints to stop 
journalists passing through. At one police outpost soldiers in green 
camouflage were hauling concrete blocks to construct a new building. 
The last time I was here, the Kurdish police had been quick to say 
that the Kandil was under PKK control. After a talk with his 
superiors on the phone, Lt Col. Ahmad Sabir of the Frontier Guards 
had said we could go on but that 'we have no control beyond this 
point and no responsibility for what happens to you. You may meet 
PKK, Iranians on the border or shepherds with guns.' This time, 
though, the police just glanced at our passports and wrote down our 
names. The road, one of those built by Saddam, zigzagged up the side 
of a valley between steep hills covered in small oak trees before 
reaching the top of a pass where a solidly built PKK outpost stood. 
On the mountainside a mile away, picked out in stones painted black 
and yellow, was a gigantic picture of the PKK leader, Abdullah 
Ocalan, who was captured and imprisoned by Turkey in 1999. The PKK in 
the Kandil must be one of the few guerrilla movements which can be 
detected from space.

The PKK soldiers, wearing traditional Kurdish uniform with loose 
baggy trousers and carrying Kalashnikovs and grenades, looked relaxed 
but disciplined. They told us to drive to a village called Kurtak; 
the idea was not tempting because there were only a few 
dangerous-looking paths. The Turkish air force would have no 
difficulty striking the village thanks to the PKK's habit of building 
megaliths. On the hillside above Kurtak large stones had been 
gathered and painted to spell the words 'APO', meaning 'People's 
Protection Force' -- one of the many names of the PKK. Earlier this 
year, in another part of the Kandil, I saw an exotic mausoleum to the 
PKK dead (3o,ooo are said to have died during their 
15-year-liberation war but the real figure is probably twice as 
high). The mausoleum is built on a small plain deserted except for a 
herd of grazing cattle; penned in by soaring mountains, it looks like 
an advertisement for holidays in Switzerland. The outside walls are 
painted white and red and guarded by a couple of PKK soldiers. Inside 
the gates are ornamental ponds and flowerbeds overlooked by a 
3o-foot-high white column on top of which is a miniature yellow star, 
the symbol of the PKK. The cemetery, built in 2002, holds 67 ornate 
marble tombs with the names of very young male and female fighters 
inscribed on them. Further north, closer to the Turkish border, they 
have hidden a museum at the bottom of a gorge; a gold-painted statue 
of Ocalan, still regarded with devotion, stands in the forecourt. 
Fountains spray water into the air through nozzles made out of the 
tops of lethal Italian-made mines that hop into the air when touched 
and explode at waist height.

The monuments may have been built after most of the fighters of the 
PKK retreated from Turkey to Iraqi Kurdistan in 1999 on the orders of 
Ocalan, who had just been snatched by Turkish intelligence agents 
from a car in Nairobi. Originally a Marxist- Leninist party, the PKK 
was founded by Ocalan and like-minded Turkish Kurds in 1978 with the 
intention of launching an armed struggle against the Turkish state 
that would end in Kurdish independence. Guerrilla war began in 1984 
and by 1993 the PKK had won control of much of southeastern Turkey. 
But their guerrillas were always vastly outnumbered by the Turkish 
army, which destroyed some three thousand Kurdish villages and drove 
their inhabitants into cities such as Dyarbakir or out of the region, 
to Istanbul and eastern Turkey. Ocalan created a cult around himself 
as the omniscient leader and eliminated all his rivals. He ran the 
war in Turkey from a distance after fleeing to Syria in 1979 and 
later established a headquarters in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. He was 
supported for twenty years by Syria until Turkey forced Syria to tell 
him to leave by threatening to invade. It was while he was looking 
for another safe haven, in Kenya, that he was captured. At his trial 
in Turkey Ocalan dismayed many of his supporters by his craven 
performance, praising Ataturk, apologizing for his actions and 
expressing regret for the Turks but not the Kurds who had been killed 
in the guerrilla war. For all that, he has somehow remained the 
symbol of the PKK. He is now held in a jail on Imrali Island in the 
Sea of Marmara, the only prisoner there.

One might have expected the PKK to collapse after its defeat at the 
hands of the Turkish army and the abject behaviour of the revered 
Ocalan. It has survived as a powerful force among the Kurds of 
south-east Turkey thanks to its strong and well-financed apparatus; 
and because it had little choice but to go on fighting given that 
Turkey largely refused any concessions to its large Kurdish minority. 
'The main reason for the PKK's hold was perhaps Turkey,' Aliza Marcus 
writes in a well-informed study of the PKK. 'Instead of using 
Ocalan's capture and the subsequent disarray inside the PKK to 
undercut the nationalist group by making reforms and seizing the 
political initiative, Ankara chose to claim victory and leave it at that.'

The PKK leaders I met sitting outside a group of small stone houses 
in Kurtak were angry that their conciliatory actions towards 
Turkey--they declared a cease fire on October 14 last year -- had 
been ignored. They said they were fighting in self-defense and in 
retaliation against attacks by the Turkish army. A woman called 
Mizgin Amed, introduced as a PKK leader, said: 'Even an animal -- any 
living thing -- will fight when it feels it is in a dangerous 
situation.' She and a PKK commander, Bozar Tekin, denied that they 
were 'terrorists' and asked why less attention was paid to the deaths 
of Kurds than to those of Turkish soldiers. They claimed that an 
earlier attack, blamed on the PKK, in which 12 Turkish Kurd village 
guards had been shot dead, had been staged by the Turkish security forces.

The theory that factions in the Turkish army are fearful of losing 
power to the civilian government of Erdogan and are stirring up the 
war in south-east Turkey has many followers in Iraq. It is one of 
three major conspiracy theories that attempt to explain the present 
crisis. Its proponents argue that secular nationalist Turkish 
officers were dismayed when Erdogan and his party were triumphantly 
re-elected with 47 per cent of the vote on July 22 and further 
dismayed when the army failed to stop the former foreign minister 
Abdullah Gul, for whom they reserve special contempt, from becoming 
president. Some officers may think that an invasion of lraqi 
Kurdistan would be a good way of exciting nationalist fervor in 
Turkey. With conflict under way the influence of the Turkish army 
would once again increase. A second theory, with followers among 
Iraqi Kurdish leaders, is linked to this. Who, they ask, runs the PKK 
these days? in large part, it is still Ocalan, but he is wholly under 
Turkish military control on his island. Surely Turkish military 
intelligence is manipulating him and secretly fomenting the latest PKK attacks.

A third conspiracy theory popular in Turkey sees the PKK as an 
American surrogate. It calls itself PEJAK in the Kandil and seeks to 
foment a liberation war among the Iranian Kurds. So far there have 
been skirmishes along the border. It is true that the PKK and PEJAK 
want to present themselves as potential allies of the US. Bozan Tekin 
rather crudely claimed that Erdogan's moderate pro-business Islamist 
government supports Hamas and al-Qaida'. Turkish ministers say that 
the PKK often uses American weapons, though this proves nothing: much 
of the American military equipment delivered to the Iraqi army is 
immediately sold in the arms market. No doubt the CIA and maybe 
Mossad would like to use the Iranian Kurds against the government in 
Tehran but they are unlikely to use the PKK or its offshoots because 
of the offence this would cause to the Turks. US officials 
hypocritically--refuse to condemn PEJAK as 'terrorists', even when 
they kill Iranian soldiers in forays identical to those the PKK makes 
into Turkey.

Elements of all these theories are probably true. The PKK and the 
Turkish army have parallel interests. The existence of the PKK 
justifies the size, political power and vast budget of the Turkish 
military. The harsh grip of the army over south-east Turkey sends 
Turkish Kurds into the PKK. Both Turkish soldiers and Kurdish 
guerrillas were the losers in the last Turkish election. Erdogan's 
administration is the most sympathetic to the Kurds in years. The 
pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, which ran in July, won only 
four out of l2 seats in the Dyarbakir region, traditionally a PKK 
stronghold. When the new Turkish president toured Kurdish areas in 
the south-east he was greeted with flowers and enthusiastic crowds. 
For the first time in years, the PKK's political support looked as if 
it was disintegrating. By returning to the battlefield they may 
calculate that they can reclaim this lost support.

As a political organization the PKK may be sclerotic but they are 
still skilful guerrilla fighters. The stone houses where they meet 
visitors are far from their camps in the mountains. The nearest camp 
to Kurtak is said by those who have visited it to be at the bottom of 
a gorge that can be reached only by walking for seven or eight hours 
through the mountains. The camps are very mobile, usually consisting 
of a framework of wooden poles over which the guerrillas place 
plastic sheeting they carry with them and then camouflage with grass 
and hay. Every few weeks the plastic is rolled up, the poles left in 
place and the guerrillas move on to another camp. Those who have 
traveled with them report that they move two by two with a long 
distance between each pair. Their only vehicles are tractors and the 
four-wheel-drives they use to travel along the river beds when the 
water is low. Declarations by the government in Baghdad that they are 
going to 'cut the supply lines', of the guerrillas are meaningless: 
they have large stockpiles of food and ammunition. if Turkey invades, 
its ground troops will be able to move only slowly through the 
mountain ranges; helicopter-borne raiding parties will not be able to 
find the small parties of rebel fighters. 'Even Alexander the Great 
couldn't bring this region under his rule,' Bozan Tekin told me 
proudly. 'Three out of five of our fighters are hiding in the 
mountains in Turkey and if the Turkish army can't find them there, it 
will hardly find them in the Iraqi mountains,' Intikam another PKK 
fighter said. Erdogan himself points out that the previous 24 Turkish 
incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, carried out under an agreement with 
Saddam, never did much damage to the PKK.-

But Erdogan may not be able to resist the pressure for an invasion. 
jingoism in Turkey is a potent force and becoming more aggressive. 
Pepression of Kurds is not as severe as it used to be. It is common 
enough now to hear Kurdish spoken in the streets of cities in western 
Turkey, where, twenty years ago, the speaker would have been arrested 
for using the language. 'It used to be when I went to a dinner party 
in Istanbul and said I was a Kurd there was an angry reaction,' a 
Kurdish financier told me. 'Now when I say that several other people 
around the table say they are Kurds as well.' The change is partly 
due to the fact that so many Kurds have fled the violence and poverty 
of the south-east to settle in the more prosperous cities of the 
west. But the change in attitude is not very deep. The financier said 
that although his Turkish friends might accept that he was a Kurd, 
'when I speak about the rights of the Kurds and what they have 
suffered there is always an angry row.' Racism may have intensified 
in the last few months. The Turkish army has never made much effort 
to distinguish between non-political Kurds and PKK supporters. There 
have recently been mob attacks on Kurdish businesses in Bursa in 
eastern Turkey. In an ominous official statement, General Yasar 
Buyukanit, the chief of the Turkish general staff, said the army 
promised that 'those that have caused us suffering' would 'suffer 
even more'. His words were directed against the PKK but many Turks 
apply them to the Kurds in general. This feeling will grow if Turkey 
invades Iraqi Kurdistan and there are Kurdish demonstrations in 
favour of the PKK or against the attack.

Nationalist sentiment has grown in Turkey over the last month. The 
annual marathon in Istanbul turned into a nationalist rally; many of 
the runners carried red Turkish flags. At the same time, there was an 
anti-PKK rally in the town of Bodrum on the Mediterranean coast. Many 
of the demonstrators wore red tee shirts with the word 'Turk' on 
them. One anti-PKK protes-tor brought his dog with him and, feeling 
his dog's patriotic credentials should also be stressed, dressed him 
in the same shirt. A photograph of the pair caused a furious reaction 
in the Turkish press and the man has now been arrested and will be 
prosecuted for insulting the Turkish nation.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of 
Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq', a finalist for 
the National Book Critics' Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.

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