In Deepest Kurdistan: A Wary Welcome for Peace with the Turks

A ceasefire ordered by their imprisoned leader gives the embattled minority hope for a historic peace

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Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), gestures in front of an image of Abdullah Ocalan during a rally to celebrate the spring festival of Newroz in Istanbul on March 17, 2013. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Tucked into Turkey’s south-easternmost corner, between Iran and Iraq, nestled by mountains studded with ghost villages, Hakkâri, a town of 70,000, is forlorn, violent and cold. It is March 21, the day local Kurds celebrate their new year and the coming of spring, but thick sheets of snow still cling to the mountains and fields. Usually, it’s after the snow melts that the fighting begins: when militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), ensconced in the mountains here or across the border in northern Iraq during the winter months, begin to launch attacks against Turkish military outposts. Last summer, PKK fighters attempted, in vain, to take control of parts of the province, inflicting significant casualties on Turkish troops and suffering tens if not hundreds of losses themselves, helping to make 2012 the bloodiest year on record in Turkey’s Kurdish conflict in more than a decade. This spring may yet turn out to be different. For once, the melting snow may herald peace, not war.

At the local headquarters of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Turkey’s main legal Kurdish party, dozens of men gathered to wait for a statement from the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, or Apo, as he is referred to by most Kurds. Öcalan, who was captured by Turkish special forces in 1999 and is serving out a life sentence on an island prison near Istanbul, had been in talks with Turkish intelligence officials for the past half year, prompting anticipation of a ceasefire deal. Even here in faraway Hakkâri, as Kurds waited for his words, there was hope, moderated by past experience and caution, that an end to a conflict that has spanned three decades and claimed more than 40,000 lives was finally within reach.

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And so came the news. Onscreen, a pair of BDP deputies read Öcalan’s statement to a crowd of over 200,000gathered in Diyarbakir, one of the largest cities in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast. In front of the TV in Hakkâri, all was silence, except perhaps for the steady click clack of prayer beads turning between the men’s fingers.

Öcalan’s letter, read out in Kurdish and Turkish, was brief. Crucially, and as expected, Öcalan made a call for PKK militants inside Turkey, said to number about 3,500, to withdraw to their strongholds in northern Iraq. “Let the guns fall silent and let ideas speak,” his statement read. “We have reached the phase when our armed elements should retreat beyond the borders.” Later that day, Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s Iraq-based military commander, announced that he was ready to implement the ceasefire.

Öcalan’s was also a call for national unity and, as such, a sign of how the PKK’s goals have shifted over the years – from an all out fight for a Kurdish national homeland to a struggle for political and cultural autonomy within Turkey. “Turks and Kurds fell side by side as martyrs in Gallipoli, fought together in the War of Independence, and launched the National Assembly of 1920 together,” Öcalan said. “The reality dictated by our common past is the need to found our future together.”

As the man who launched the PKK’s insurgency 29 years ago and is often blamed for the grim toll it’s reaped, Öcalan is seen by most Turks as a terrorist thug. To the country’s 12-to-15 million Kurds, however, he is a hero, the man who took on a state that denied its biggest minority basic rights and in doing so put the Kurdish question square in the middle of the Middle East’s political map. To the Kurdish movement in Turkey, he is also beyond reproach. That Öcalan’s speech would be well received in a place like Hakkâri was, therefore, a foregone conclusion. At the end of the broadcast, the men instantly rise to their feet, chanting in Kurdish, “Bijî Serok Apo”, or “Long live leader Apo!”

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“It was an excellent speech, everything we could hope for,” says Ismet Abdulmecit, a local BDP administrator. “Now the ball is in the government’s court.”

Aliza Marcus, the author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, agrees on both counts. “Öcalan spoke about peace and moving to a next phase without locking the PKK or the government into anything,” she says. “He made the basic point that [Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan wanted, which is we need to stop the fighting and we are going to withdraw, but he gave the PKK what it wanted, which is, we are not going to disarm until there is a deal.”

The deal itself, or deciding what goes into it, will be the hardest part. The PKK leadership on the ground “is more hardline than Öcalan,” says Marcus, “and they are not going to give everything up until they know what is going to happen to them.” Erdoğan has pledged that he will make sure that Turkish troops stand back as PKK fighters leave Turkey. But that, as far as the PKK is concerned, is just the bare minimum. The group expects not only a complete end to military operations, says Marcus, but “quick movement on the parliamentary side in terms of changing the constitution to satisfy Kurdish demands for cultural rights and education.” Whether Erdoğan is ready to take such steps, she says, “is still open to question.”

Hakkâri, picturesque as its surroundings might be, is a grim reminder of how much more it will take to undo the legacy of three decades of conflict. Evicted from surrounding villages during the Turkish army’s scorched earth campaigns against the PKK in the 1990s, families that once lived off farming and husbandry remain down and out. Unemployment is above 40%, incomes are roughly a quarter of what they are in the western part of the country, and what little investment there is, say locals, comes from the state. They point to the unfinished buildings and metal huts lining the potholed, uneven roads as clear indication that the government is loath to dip into its coffers for a town that votes for the BDP. The security situation remains tense, with panzers cruising the streets and checkpoints popping up on the roads into town. According to Ismail Akbulut, a local human rights activist, more than a thousand people across the province, including BDP politicians, journalists and municipal officials, have been jailed over the past few years on what he says are trumped-up charges of abetting the PKK.

Nevertheless, hope is beginning to surface. “Because of the peace process, there’s been a positive atmosphere here in the last few months,” says Akbulut. One reason, he says, is that the government has finally decided to talk to Öcalan. Over the past decade Erdoğan has introduced piecemeal reforms intended to give the Kurds some cultural and language rights but has shied away from more far reaching measures, fearing a Turkish nationalist backlash. His government, though it has opened secret channels to the PKK during the past few years, has hitherto left Öcalan on the sidelines. Now, says Akbulut, it has finally come to its senses. “Öcalan is the right interlocutor,” he says. “If you make war with the PKK, then you must make peace with its leader.” Öcalan will deliver, even after 13 years in prison, says Abdulmecit, the local BDP official. “The PKK will definitely listen to Apo.”

The fact that the Kurds’ hero and Turkey’s most powerful prime minister in decades have both thrown their weight behind the talks may prove key, but it may also foreshadow trouble ahead. The more Erdoğan and Öcalan become involved in the process the bigger the chance that its course may come to hinge on their personal ambitions – even more power for one, and freedom for the other.

Already, there are signs that Erdoğan is using the prospect of peace and further Kurdish reforms to win the BDP’s support for a new constitution that would provide Turkey with a U.S.-like presidential system. Having pledged that he will not run for prime minister again, Erdoğan may want to ride the success of the peace process – or its failure, if he can pin it on the PKK and Öcalan – straight to the presidency.

Assuming Erdoğan does not disappoint, Kurds like Islam Dayan, 56, might just give the Turkish Prime Minister what he wants. Dayan, a Hakkâri shopkeeper, doubts that the government will keep up its end of the bargain and completely suspend operations against the PKK. But, he says, if it does, and if peace comes to the southeast, Erdoğan will get his wish. “Today, the prime minister might have 50 or just over 50% of the vote,” he says. “If he succeeds, he’ll have the Kurds on board. We will vote for him, everyone, and give him 70%.”

Freedom for Öcalan may turn out to be a harder nut to crack. Most Turks, including the government itself, won’t hear of it. Kurds, on the other hand, at least those close to the BDP, may make it a sine qua non condition. Öcalan himself, knowing that it could scuttle the peace process before it even begins, has wisely steered clear of the issue. For now.

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