KURDISTAN WORKERS PARTY (THE PKK) AND THE STRUGGLE FOR A KURDISH STATE

KURDISTAN WORKERS PARTY (PKK)

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PKK member
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was a Marxist Kurdish separatist group. Established in 1984 after the end of the Iraq-Iran War, it fought mostly against Turkish security forces for an independent Kurdish state. The PKK embraced about 10,000 fighters, including teenage boys and girls, at the peak of the insurgency in 1992, and thousands of sympathizers. According to the U.S. State Department it was the world’s most active separatist-terrorist group in the 1990s, with 3,575 attacks between 1988 and 1998. It nearest rival had 2,067.

Over time the PKK became less violent and toned down its Marxist rhetoric and boosted its Islamic rhetoric. In 1994 it soften its position on independence, calling for a semi-autonomous state within Turkey rather than an independent Kurdish state. The PKK earned money from donations by rich Kurds and sympathizers and from drug trafficking, immigrant smuggling and crime in Europe and the Middle East.

Turkish officials say that the PKK does not have wide-spread Kurdish grassroots support and it employs mercenaries and unemployed men and women from other countries. They say the silent majority of Kurds turned away from the PKK because of its terrorist tactics. According to Turkish law simply being a member of the PKK carries a jail sentence of up to 20 years. ≤

The name of the post office company in Turkey is the PTT. I know an American man who needed to mail a letter and by mistake asked someone on the street for directions to the PKK.

Kurds

There are over 25 million Kurds. They are the largest ethnic group in the Middle East without a country and one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without a homeland-state to call their own. Their homeland is in the rugged mountains where Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iran come together. Over half of all Kurds live in Turkey. Some live in the former Soviet Union. [Source: "Struggle of the Kurds" by Christopher Hitchens, National Geographic, August 1992 [♠].

The Kurds were once a nomadic people. Now most of them are farmers, or have migrated to the cities. Most Kurds have dark skin and dark hair, but, like Turks, there are some with blue eyes and fair hair. Their language is not related to Arabic, Persian or Turkish. It is more closely affiliated with European languages. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but there are also many Christians, even Jewish Kurds.

Kurdistan (“The Land of the Kurds”) extends for about 960 kilometers from east to west and 190 to 240 kilometers from north to south. It embraces the eastern Tarsus and Zagros mountains and includes the steppelike plains to the north and the foothills of the Mesopotamian plains to the south. These area have traditionally been very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, often with heavy snows followed by spring rains and heavy run off down the slopes. The harsh weather and rugged terrain has traditionally made the region difficult for outsiders to penetrate and the control on the region by outsiders has traditionally been tenuous at best.

Kurdistan covers a large area. In addition to Kurds there are also large numbers of Arabs, Turks, and Iranians living there as well as members of minorities such as Yazidis, Mandeans, and Christian sects such as the Nestorians, Armenians, Jacobites and Assyrian Christians.

Books: A Modern History of the Kurds By David McDowell Sheri Laizer, After Such Knowledge: What Forgiveness, My Encounters in Kurdistan by Jonathan C. Randal (Farrar, Straus Giroux); Kurdistan: In the Shadows of History By Susan Meiselas (Random House, 1998).

Kurdish History

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PKK militant
The Kurds have had the misfortune of living where the Arab, Turkish and Persian civilization all intersect. Throughout their history they have been ruled others: Persians, Arab Caliphs, Seljuk Turks, Mongols, Ottoman sultans, Turkish nationalists, Britain and the countries that occupy Kurdish lands now.

A common theme of Kurdish history has been their inability to create a Kurdish state. One expert on the Kurds told the New York Times that Kurds suffer from “the deep belief that the outside world is always trying to take their country away from them.”

The Kurds have a history of being used as proxies by outside powers and have been kept from unifying by the propensity of rival Kurdish factions to fight among themselves. These factions have often allied themselves with the traditional foreign enemies of the Kurds to fight rival Kurdish factions. In turn, foreign powers have often used the Kurds when it suited their goals and abandoned them without warning. For centuries the Turks denied the existence of Kurds, calling them “mountain Turks.”

The Kurdish National Motto, with origins older than anyone can remember is simply: "The Kurds have no friends." Some put it another way and say "Our only friends are the mountains." The mountains have bene both a curse and blessing. They have provided them with a refuge but also isolated then from the attention of the outside world.

Kurdistan After World War I

Kurds in favor of an independent Kurdish state were encouraged by the defeat of Turkey in World War I and U.S. President Woodrow Wilsonn’t call for the self-determination of non-Turkish peoples.

In 1919, the European allies proposed an independent Kurdish state in the Treaty of Sevres. In 1920, as part of Treaty of Sevres, Kurds were told that if they elected for independence from Turkey they would be granted it in a yearn’t time. A Turkish revolt to the treaty was led by Ataturk. In 1923 when a final settlement was made in the Treaty of Lausanne there was no mention of Kurdistan.

The division of the Kurds into different countries was primarily the work of European colonial powers, namely Britain and France. Britain annexed southern Kurdistan and affixed it to Arab Iraq. Interest in oil discovered in Mosul area in 1927 also helped screw the Kurds out of a state.

The Kurds have a long complicated history of activism beginning in the 1920s when secular and religion leaders launched various movements for independence and autonomy. Their success or failure depended largely on the ruling regime in the country where the efforts were launched and the geopolitical interests of the world powers. Revolts by Kurds in 1925 and 1930 were brutally put down.

Independent Kurdish State

The Kurds briefly had their own state after World War II. It was founded in 1946 in Iran with the help of the Soviet Union and was called the Republic of Mahabad. It only lasted for eleven months. After its collapse there was a brutal reign of terror.

During World War II, British and Soviet troops invaded Iran and forced the Shah to abdicate and name his son as his successor. The Soviets occupied northern Iran and the British occupied southern Iran, with the Kurdish territory in Iran acting as buffer zone. The main city here was Mahabad, which gave its name to the new state.

When the war ended the Soviets continued to occupy their zone and allowed Iranian Kurds and Kurdish guerillas from Iraq to establish an independent state in January 1946. A few months later the shahn’t army marched on Mahabad and the Kurds surrendered without a fight, partly because the Kurds were mainly interested in the right to use their language and not a state and thought they could negotiate that concession.

The United States was worried that the shah would take revenge against. In a private audience the shah told a U.S. representative, “Are you afraid I’m going to have them shot? If so, you can set your mind at rest. I am not.” He kept his word. He ordered the Kurdish leaders hanged.

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PKK members

Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK

Abdullah Öcalan was the leader of the PKK. Known as Apo, or Uncle, to his followers, he was a Marxist guerilla commander form the old school: a big and burly man with a thick mustache and a cruel streak. He once ordered the execution of 61 PKK members for disloyalty and surrounded himself with “servants and maids.” He never tolerated dissent and boasted about followers will to commit suicide on his command..

Those that knew Ocalan described him as “a mentally unbalanced tyrant” and a charismatic leader. He became the spokesman for the Kurdish cause almost by default because so many moderate Kurdish leaders were imprisoned. To many Turks he was a “baby killer” and a “bloody terrorist.”

The son of a Kurdish father and Turkish mother, Ocalan (pronounced OH-jah-lahn) was born in 1949. In the late 1970s, he studied political science at the University of Ankara, where he was exposed to and inspired by Marxism. When he was a student he was jailed for seven months for handing out leftist leaflets. Later he dropped out of university and had a falling out with leftists because they didn’t embrace the Kurdish cause.

In 1978, Ocalan met with with a half dozen fellow students in the village of Fis and began plotting a separatist uprising. This ragtag group evolved into the PKK. In the early days the group earned money by robbing banks and jewelry stores and raided Turkish and Greece land owners in and around Diyadakir. It took six years of propaganda and coercion to encourage enough Kurds to take up arms to make the movement a force to be reckoned with.

In 1980, Ocalan slipped across the border into Syria and lived there until he was forced out in 1998. He married the daughter of a Turkish intelligence officer. Their 10 year union ended without any children as he grew suspicious about her loyalty.

Kurdish Hezbollah

Hezbollah was a Kurdish Islamist group that operated in southeast Turkey. Different from the Hezbollah group in Lebanon and not associated with the PKK, is was a militant and secretive group that wanted to establish an Islamic state. It carried out assassinations and was responsible for the death of hundreds of people. Many members were traditionalist, rural Kurds.

Hezbollah held late night meetings in mosques. Its victims included soldiers, businessmen and villagers, some of whom were hacked to death. The group emerged in the 1980s and was bitterly opposed to the PKK and its Marxist, atheist ideals. Hezbollah was reportedly enlisted to by Turkey to carry out missions against PKK targets. It also carried attacks against Christans, who were driven from parts of southeast Turkey.

During a police raid of a Hezbollah hideout, the remains of dozens of people who had been tortured were found. In January 2000, 80 suspected Hezbollah members were arrested and the bodies of 25 of their victims were recovered. Seven of the bodies were found in the basement fo a house in Konya. The members were rounded up and the bodies were found after two Hezbollah commanders were captured in Istanbul and talked to police.

Turkeyn’t Offensive Against the PKK

In 1978, the Turkish military declared martial law in predominantly Kurdish southeast Turkey. The Turkish government spent about $8 billion a year (a fifth of the national budget) and tied up 300,000 soldiers, gendarmes and local Village Guards in its struggle against the PKK and other Kurdish separatists. Over a 15 year period in the 1980s and 90s Turkey spent more than $100 billion on the struggle.

Most Turks supported the government offensive against the PKK. The Turkish government has little tolerance for ethnic diversity. This sentiment can be traced to Ataturk who believed that ethnic diversity undermined unity and was exploited to whittle down the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk equated separatism with weakness.

The 95,000 Village Guards used by Turkey in the struggle against the PKK was made up mostly of Kurdish fighters and was the first line of defense for Turkey against the PKK rebels. They fought mostly for the money which they could use to support their large extended families. Village Guardsmen were often recruited after being told they had a choice of joining or having their village burned down. Their loyalty was often questioned and thousands were purged. Some were involved in crimes and used their positions to settle long standing blood feuds.

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PKK Conflict

Fighting Between the PKK and Turkey

The PKK launched it first cross border attack against Turkish targets from Syria in 1984. Between 1984 to 1999 the conflict claimed more than 37,000 lives, including 5,300 civilians, 5,500 Turkish soldiers and 23,650 PKK fighters (according to Turkish government statistics). During the 15 year period 3 million Kurds were forced from their homes. The Turkish military said it could have wiped out the PKK in days if had wanted but using enough force to do so would have entailed killing lots of innocent civilians. This is one reason, they said, the struggle went on for so long.

The PKK attacked villages and killed women and children. Many of the victims of their attacks were people connected with the Village Guards, who were regarded by the PKK as traitors. The PKK also bombed schools and hospitals and tourist sights and kidnaped foreign tourists. PKK terrorist killed 50 Turkish teachers in southeast Turkey and hundreds of schools were closed. When new teachers in Turkey finished their training they were supposed to spend two years teaching in the east. It is not difficult to see why many of them did not want to fulfill this obligation.

The PKK is also believed to have been responsible for bombings in Istanbul in early 1994 that killed two tourists and the shooting of 33 unarmed Turkish soldiers in 1993. Worried about infiltrators, Ocalan ordered the execution of at least 61 PKK members, including 20 that were hunted down in Europe. On June 24, 1993, Kurdish militants raided Turkish diplomatic missions in 25 Western European cities, demanding an independent Kurdish state.

Kurds are believed to have been behind attack on Turkish banks, businesses and institutions in Germany. Turks and Kurds have fought each other in the streets of Belgium. There was some speculation that the PKK might have been behind the assassination Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.

In 1993, thousands of Turkish troops were deployed in the Kurdish areas and authorized to take out intensive sweeps and evacuate villages. The Turks employed a scorched-earth campaign that proved to be effective militarily but was not so effective politically. Turkish forces systemically captured, killed, crushed and destroyed the PKK but in the process alienated Kurds and members of the international community. Fighting in 1993, resulted in 4,180 deaths, 1,511 of them civilians. This was up from 2,600 in 1992.

The fighting in the early 1990s took place mostly in Turkey. Turkish security forces in the eastern town of Cizre exchanged gun and mortar fire with the PKK nearly every night. "When the sun goes down, the shooting starts," said one Turkish journalist. When the sun comes up damaged is assessed and often the wounded and dead are civilians. By the mid 1990s the fighting was winding down. Many of the PKK bases in Turkey had been destroyed and the group was operating mainly out of bases in Iraq and Syria.

Turkish Death Squads and Turkish Atrocities Against Kurds

More than 3,200 Kurdish villages were emptied and destroyed and torched by Turkish forces. One victim told the Independent, “They took me out of my house and burnt it before my eyes. They burnt two or three houses, 22 people lived there.” As far as the role of Turkish soldiers in the death of innocent Kurds he said, "[the soldiers] lack of training may provoke such incidents."

Death squads killed civilians. Civilian "mystery killings" were common. Most took place in the early 1990s. Thirty-one pro-left and pro-Kurdish journalists and newspaper distributors were killed "death squad" style in 1992-93, when more journalists were killed in Turkey they were in the war in Bosnia.

Kurdish victims were often tortured before they were killed. The body of one victim, whose throat had been slit, was found with pieces carved off his ears and his fingers had been burned down to stumps from electric shocks. His identity card was left in a wound in his neck.

Kurdish journalist Hasan Özgun told American journalist Kevin McKiernan that the killers always approach from the rear and fire a single pistol shot in the back of the victim's neck. Özgun himself was shot and he said he believed the death squads are funded and trained by the Turkish state.

Members of the village guards and counterinsurgency units were found to be involved in criminal activities such as gang rapes, kidnaping and extortion. Overall though reports of criminal activities by Turkish forces were relatively rare.

PKK Bases in Iraq and Syria

The PKK had numerous bases and training camps in Syria and the Syria-controlled Bekkaa Valley in Lebanon. After being driven from its positions in Turkey the PKK also set up bases in Iraq. Fighting between rival Iraqi Kurdish factions led to a break down in their authority there and allowed the PKK to thrive.

In March 1995, about 35,000 Turkish troops, backed by air power, invaded the United Nations protection zone in northern Iraqi to hunt down PKK guerillas, who were accused of having bases there, setting up a buffer zone to keep the PKK from infiltrating into Turkey. Hundreds of Kurds were killed. Turkey was accused of setting up a security zone like the one set up by Israel in southern Lebanon.

The operations from the Turkish point of view was considered a success. Turkish forces occupied a zone stretching along the 290-kilometer, Iraq-Turkey border and 40 kilometers inland. They were able to move in and out of Iraq for several years at will and weakened and dismembered PKK positions in Iraq. Turkish forces used American-made warplanes and artillery to pound Kurdish position and used American-made Black Hawk helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers to hunt down Kurdish guerillas in the cold mountains. The success of the operation was attributed to improved intelligence, counterinsurgency methods and cooperation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led the Iraqi Kurd Massoud Barzani.

Cornering and Capture of Ocalan

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Abdullah Ocalan
In October 1998, Syria promised to close down PKK camps in its territory and expel Ocalan after Turkey threatened to attack PKK targets in Syria. Ocalan was forced to flee Syria and went from country to country begging for asylum. He flew first to Russia, which denied him asylum. He surfaced next in Italy and was arrested and threatened with extradition to Turkey but was allowed to stay in Rome under the protection or armed guards because the government legally couldn’t turn over someone to a government that had the death penalty. After a while the Italians forced Ocalan to move on.

After that he disappeared and moved between several countries in Europe and resurfaced in Greece, where he had arrived disguised as a Turkish diplomat with the help of a friend, a Greek naval commander. When Greek intelligence got wind of what had happened it told Ocalan he had to go. He was given te option of going to Libya, Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco but he refused. Instead he was given a Greek-Cypriot passport and sent to Nairobi, where there is a large Greek expatriate community. In the meantime, U.S. intelligence agents has been following Ocalann’t progress by tracking his cell phones calls, and persuaded several countries not provide him with sanctuary.

Ocalan arrived in Nairobi on February 2, 1999. He was given refuge in the Greek ambassadorn’t compound. Unfortunately for him there were a lot of Western intelligence agents in Kenya because of the bombing of the U.S. embassy there by Al-Qaida terrorists a few months earlier. Intelligence from some country, believed to be Israel or the United States, tipped off the Turkish government to his presence in Kenya.

A team of Maroon berets, an elite Turkish army commando unit arrived in Nairobi on February 5th as part of at top secret mission to seize Ocalan. The commandos staked out the Greek embassy and managed to photograph Ocalan, presenting this as evidence to Kenyan authorities to get their support for a mission to take him out of the country. Around the same time members of the Greek embassy staff began pressuring Ocalan that it was time for him to leave. They suggested he seek refuge in a Greek Orthodox church or a Kenyan farm. Things came to a head when he was confronted and an attempt was made to drug him. A member of his group, a woman named Dylan, put a gun to her head and threatened to kill herself .

By this time Kenyan authorities had surrounded the Greek compound and were negotiating the handover of Ocalan, who was loaded into a car and taken from the compound. On the way to the airport, where he and his group were to taken to another country in a private jet belonging to a Turkish businessman. On the plane Ocalan was handcuffed, tied to his seat and blindfolded with a stip of tape placed over his eyes. The Turkish commandos that captured him told him, "You are our guests now.” On the plane he reportedly professed his “love” for Turkey, offered his services to make peace and begged not to be tortured.

In Turkey, Ocalan was placed in a prison on Imrali, a small island in the Sea of Marmara, 35 miles from Istanbul. Like Rudolf Hess, he was the only inmate at the prison. After news of his capture made headlines Kurdish protest broke out in more than 20 cities in Europe. Kurds in Britain, Russia and other places set themselves on fire to protest the extradition and capture of Ocalan. Turkish, Israeli and Greek embassies were besieged (the Greeks and Israelis were blamed for assisting in Ocalann’t arrest). In Germany, three Kurds were killed and 16 injured by security forces when they tried to storm the Israeli embassy. Bombs that exploded in Istanbul and Adana killing two people and injuring 37 were linked to PKK sympathizers.

Death Sentence for Ocalan

Ocalan was placed on trial in a converted theater in the prison on Imrali Island and charged with treason and separatism and was blamed for the deaths of 29,000 people on both the Kurdish and Turkish sides. During the trial he was kept in a bulletproof and bombproof glass box and said he had not been tortured or mistreated. He communicated through a microphone.

During the month-long trial Ocalan repeatedly pleaded for his life, apologized to families of people who died in PKK attacks and offered to use his influence to end the conflict if his life was spared. He blamed the mistreatment of the Kurds for causing the Kurdish revolt. The government insisted that it “did not negotiate with terrorists” and said Ocalan was only making concessions to save his skin.

On June 29, 1999 the court sentenced Ocalan to death by hanging. Ocalan looked on stoically when the verdict was read while Turkish spectators, some who lost loved ones to PKK attacks, cheered and sang the Turkish national anthem. Violence broke in Europe and Turkey after the verdict was announced. Five Kurds were killed in Turkey. One was killed in Germany.

European governments condemned the decision. Few believed the execution would take place because of concerns over the fallout with the Kurds and with Europe. Death sentences have to be approved by the president and the parliament in Turkey and are given a thorough and lengthy review. Several other top Kurdish leader were also sentenced to death. As of 2012 Ocalan was still alive in a Turkish prison.

End of the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict

The capture of Ocalan for all intents and purposes brought the Kurdish conflict to an end. Ocalan began his trial by ordering his fighters to end their struggle and threatened massive bloodshed if he was executed. In February 2000, the PKK held a congress and renounced armed struggle and claimed it was going to operate from then on as legitimate political party. By that time the PKK was reduced to about 1,000 fighters, down from 10,000 in 1992.

The war was followed by an effort by Turkey to win the hearts and minds of the Kurds. Bans of the use of the Kurdish language in schools were rescinded. An effort was also made to peacefully demobilize the village guards so they didn’t use their weapons and fighting skills to earn a living from crime. There were concerns that violent factions might splinter off from the PKK and take up arms. Many Kurdish villagers were not allowed to return to their villages, which Turkish forces had destroyed. Instead they were forced to move to village towns built and monitored by the Turks.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2012

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