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 ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.


Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).