Tea in a Warzone: Holidaying with the PKK
By Katia Lloyd Jones
[names in this article have been changed to protect their identities]
“Biji Kurdistan, Biji Kurdistan, Biji Kurdistan!” “şehîd namirin, şehîd namirin, şehîd namirin!”
Somehow I had gotten sidetracked from my post-Uni holiday and found myself in the middle of a crowd of PKK members rushing an ambulance carrying their martyred friend back from the mountains. Everyone was chanting, crying and beating their chests for şehîd Berfîn Rêbaz. The words “long live Kurdistan!” and “martyrs never die!” echoed through the mountains.
The Kurdish community makes up the largest ethnic community to have no independent nation-state, despite having strong cultural, linguistic, and ethnic differences with their Arabic and Turkic neighbours. Kurdish land and influence was first dissolved with the creation of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Following its collapse, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) was drafted by the Allied Powers and promised an autonomous Kurdish homeland. This promise never eventuated and instead the Kurdish population became ethnic minorities across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. As a result, Kurdish culture was heavily suppressed and a decades long history of genocidal repression begun.
The Anfal campaign brought the Kurds to the forefront of global media, with Saddam Hussein being widely condemned for such extreme maltreatment of his own citizens. However, Turkey, home to the largest Kurdish population in the region, has weaponized many of the same tactics as Hussein, including chemical attacks, illegal incarceration and torture and the targeting of civilians without consequence. The Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party are their main target; an armed resistance group that has been active since the 1970s. Considered a terrorist group by the majority of the international community, for many Kurds and other ethnic minorities in the region, the PKK are the only thing standing in the way of their total elimination. It was with the PKK that I would be spending the next four weeks.
In 2012, the Rojava Revolution occurred and images of unveiled and armed Kurdish women battling on the front line against ISIS took over our screens. The YPJ and PKK women represented a drastic change occurring in the Middle East, the depiction of weak and oppressed women was being challenged on a massive scale. For the Kurdish community, this was a moment they had been waiting for, the world was finally paying attention. This was short-lived though, and once the world had become desensitized to the violent clashes occurring in the Middle East the media moved on to other events.
However, ethnic conflicts, genocide and war do not cease to exist just because the media is no longer reporting on it, and for the Kurdish community in Basur (Iraq) and Rojava (Syria), ISIS was still a very real threat, as was Turkey. In fact, the city of Kifri, which I visited toward the end of my journey in Kurdistan, had only been liberated from ISIS months before I arrived, and their black flags could still be seen in the more rural areas.
I had been sitting on the side of the road casually explaining to a Kurdish youth what Australia was like, swatting away flies and trying desperately to find a shred of shade to escape the 47 degree heat when fifty or so Kurds suddenly jumped up and ran onto the highway to block an ambulance. The ambulance was transporting the body of Berfîn back to Sulaymaniyah. She was a PKK commander in the mountains until she fell victim to a white phosphorous attack carried out by Turkey.
Soon, police sirens joined the cacophony of Kurdish cries of “şehîd namirin”. Police had pulled alongside the ambulance, desperately trying to create space for it to continue its route to the mosque in Sulaymaniyah, some 2 hours away. I was certain the protest was about to become a riot. I was in the middle of the crowd, being pushed closer and closer to the ambulance and the police. Just as I started to get concerned that the police were losing their patience, I felt my arm being pulled and myself getting pushed away towards the bus again. The protest was over.
This was a pace that I would soon learn to embrace. My days in Kurdistan were mostly waiting, either in someone’s living room or on the side of the road, but always hours and hours of waiting. Then, in an instant all hell would break loose. My friend Zoran aptly summed it up;
“Hurry up and wait, this is the Kurdish way”
We were loaded into the bus to get back to Sulaymaniyah so that we could meet the ambulance at the mosque. I asked Birwa why we were going there, many of the Kurdish revolutionaries in the PKK are not religious so it seemed strange that a PKK guerrilla would be having a traditional Islamic funeral. She told me;
“Unfortunately, not all the Kurdish people are accepting of Rojava. Berfîn was from a very traditional family, they wanted her to stay home, get married, have babies… but she ran away to the mountains to fight for the Kurdish freedom. The family, they don’t want anyone to know how she died and what she had done because they believe it will bring shame. But for us, we know her and she was our friend. She will want the world to know she was fighting for Kurdish freedom and freedom for everyone, so we will go and give her a martyr’s farewell.”
This was not my first introduction to the internal complexities of the Kurdish cause, but it was the first time I realized how deeply embedded it was. In Basur, the division in regards to what Kurdish freedom meant is extremely fragmented. This micro example of the family of Berfîn and her friends in how to commemorate her death was symbolic of a much wider problem. City to city differed in allegiances, for example, our friends from the PKK in Sulaymaniyah were considered enemies by the Barzani-led Kurdish government, who believed the best way forward was traditional capitalism, but in North-East Syria the PKK were considered heroes and the Barzani’s defectors.
The Hevals [comrades] were chanting out of the bus windows and waving their flags of Abdullah Öcalan; occasionally a car would pass and honk in support, resulting in the bus erupting in cheers. The bus sped on, past the mountains and into the city. Open support of Öcalan and the PKK was a dangerous act in Sulaymaniyah, but the flags remained hanging proud.
The mosque was eerily quiet for Kurdistan. We sat in corners waiting for the ambulance once again. The sun was beginning to set and the temperature was finally dropping. You could feel the exhaustion. Heads hung in hands. It had been a long day for me, but for the Kurdish people, today was nothing out of the ordinary; their lives were a constant cycle of fighting and burying their friends. You could sense the deep despair that the conflict had created in their hearts, but a strong determination was similarly ever-present and unwavering.
An hour or so passed before the ambulance arrived. The chanting began once more and the Hevals (comrades) pulled open the doors and pulled her coffin out to march it into the mosque. Suddenly, a heartbreaking wail cut through. Her mother had just arrived. She was being held up and guided by two other relatives. As quickly as she had arrived she was whisked away with the other women. She would not be allowed into the mosque to watch the ceremony, nor would she be allowed at the burial later in the night.
After an hour or so, her body was brought out to be taken to the cemetery. We loaded back into the bus to follow.
By the time we had arrived at the cemetery night had fallen and tensions were extremely high. As we made our way over to the burial her father began shouting for us to get out and leave, he denied his daughter as a PKK fighter so we were not welcome. Our friends pushed back, chanting her name and marching down to her plot, women included. The PKK had won, and her funeral would be completed with flags on her headstone and her PKK military photo on display.
Berfîn was a martyr, she had left her family and made an enormous sacrifice in order to join the guerrillas in the mountains and fight. However, now she was dead and had the PKK not ambushed the funeral, it was likely that her story would be forgotten. Their dedication to Kurdish freedom and to each other was remarkable, they would not let a single Heval be forgotten. While the whole world looked away in the face of Turkey’s continued genocide of the Kurds, they continued to show up and resist so that none of their friends and family would die in vain.
My friend Zoran told me that the chemical attacks by Turkey occurred regularly and in extremely brutal ways. When we got back to the safe house, I asked Zoran why he joined the PKK. Why would anyone risk subjecting themselves to such a painful death. He told me;
“I joined the PKK because my father was PKK, my grandfather was PKK and his father before him. I do not like killing, but when I see dead Kurdish babies killed by Turkey, this I cannot accept.”
This didn’t seem like an answer from a radical extremist wanting to spread terror across the region. It sounded like a young man, a man only three years older than myself, who had heard of and seen with his own eyes generations of Kurdish people being killed for their desire to be free. It sounded like a young man who truly felt that he had no other option than to go to the mountains and defend himself.
The more I spoke to other PKK members, their answers wove a clear pattern, to be Kurdish was to kill or be killed, and it was not a choice they made willingly. Agrin showed me a picture of him when he was in his twenties, some 30 years ago. He was standing in traditional Kurdish dress with five other individuals;
‘These are my friends, all of them killed by Turkey. I am the only one left.”
He still sat proud in traditional Kurdish dress, but years of conflict and fear had aged him. Again, this was not someone who wishes to go out and pillage and murder. It is someone who watched all of his friends killed mercilessly, their crime was simply being Kurdish.
Can these people really be considered terrorists? The West had momentarily forgotten this label when Kurdish forces were on the ground driving out ISIS and rescuing the Yezidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, yet once they had deemed that threat over, the Kurds were abandoned yet again. The West gave no support to a people facing extermination from NATO’s second largest military. The PKK remains the only organisation prepared to defend them.
Whilst in Basur, I had the amazing opportunity to meet with Nagihan Akarsel, an academic who had spent the last few years travelling the world teaching the new Kurdish theory of Jineoloji, or, the science of woman. Nagihan was never in the guerrilla forces, she was simply an academic who was committed to working for the global community to be bettered. Instead, she was murdered on the front steps of her own house by two gunman on contract for the Turkish government.
Ziryan told me;
“There was no reason for her to die, she never held a gun, she never went to the mountains to fight. Her struggle was female liberation and Turkey murdered her to hurt us. They wanted to strike fear into our hearts.”
Is this not the same sort of terrorist attacks that we in the West condemn? Is this not the very actions that Turkey accuses the PKK of doing, thus condemning them in the eyes of the entire global community? This death of a celebrated and much loved Kurdish scholar was not even reported.
The world has long condemned the idea of a large regional power invading its smaller neighbours, and the world has always condemned murder, so why do we allow the Turkish government to freely murder Kurdish people?
We can acknowledge that the PKK is far from a perfect organisation, and that civilians from both sides have been killed since their violent struggle with the Turkish state began. The purpose of this article is not to pretend such death and destruction never occurred or that the PKK’s role in such acts should be forgotten. Rather, it is a call to acknowledge the dramatic changes within the organisation today and for recognition that there is little option in Kurdistan between dying at the hands of Turkey and joining the PKK. Is it fair to refuse help to the Kurds on the basis that that the West cannot fund a terrorist organisation after leaving the community with little other protection than that very group?
In the words of the ‘Mother of Martyrs’, a local community member who’s husband was assassinated a few years ago;
“Like a fish cannot live without water, I cannot live without the PKK.”
When the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was arrested, his political change in theory was very much real. The call to cease attacks in civilian areas in Turkey was headed and since then, the only armed combat the PKK has engaged in is defending themselves against Turkish attacks.
It is time to reconsider our labelling of the PKK and recognize the pivotal role they have played in protecting ethnic minorities in the Middle East. We know that Erdogan has aided ISIS militants on their route to Syria and Iraq, I have seen with my own eyes victims of Turkey’s use of white phosphorous and drone strikes to kill PKK members in Iraq and Syria and I personally have met with an academic who has since been assassinated by Turkish gunmen despite being no more than a civilian. Turkey has had free rein to kill and torture the Kurdish people for decades and they will not stop until international pressure is applied. How much longer will we in the West ignore this in favor of having ‘eyes on the Middle East’.
The Kurdistan freedom movement is representative of something far larger than an ethnic conflict; it is representative of global powers actively letting a community die without any international support. It is crucial that we reconsider the marking of the PKK as a terrorist organisation, as they are truly all that is left to defend the Kurdish people.