Children of the PKK
By Katrin Kuntz, Onur Burçak Belli and Emin Oezmen (photos)
The civil war is escalating in southeastern Turkey, with the government pledging to stamp out militant Kurds. Young Kurds, who used to hurl stones and Molotov cocktails, are now fighting on the front lines in several cities.
It was midday on a Thursday at the end of December when Rozerin Çukur left her home, supposedly to pick up class notes from a friend. She never returned.
Rozerin wandered through the narrow streets of Sur, the tangled old town neighborhood in Diyarbakir, a city of one million in southeastern Turkey. An attractive 17-year-old, Rozerin was wearing her school uniform and carrying a book and a pen in her bag.
“Just a few hours later,” her father says, “my daughter was inside the war.” She supposedly joined the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), a group supported by the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and which since September has been fighting against the Turkish army in the streets of Diyarbakir, using Kalashnikovs and booby traps.
Rozerin was killed by a single shot to the head. Since January 8, her dead body has been lying in the sealed-off old town of Diyarbakir. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city’s ancient heart has also long been the hub of Kurdish resistance. Rozerin’s parents are holding a vigil in a community center in the city together with dozens of other parents whose children have been killed in the most recent civil war in southeastern Turkey. The parents say they only want one thing: to be able to provide a decent burial for their children. But the Turkish state, they say, has made it impossible to recover their children’s bodies.
State officials view the dead young men and women as terrorists — as violent members of the PKK. Parents say they have been told that they can enter the old town in small groups, but that Turkish officials are demanding that they remove the weapons from the hands of the dead. And the parents do not want to touch the weapons. “The soldiers,” they fear, “would shoot immediately.”
Now, mourning mothers are sitting on a dais, covered in heavy carpets to fend off the cold. They are holding framed photographs of their children in their hands. Just a few hundred meters away, shots can be heard, as can mortar explosions. Sirens pierce the air — but the parents don’t even look up.
The latest curfew in Diyarbakir’s old town has been in force for the past 70 days. Since the conflict between the Turks and the Kurds — between the government and the PKK — once again flared up last summer, anyone seen on the streets during a curfew is considered a terrorist and a PKK supporter.
Just a ‘Terror Problem’
The state is using extreme force against the PKK. Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently announced that he intended to annihilate the fighting force and promised to continue the battle “until the area is cleansed of all terrorists.” There is no “Kurdish question,” he said, just a “terror problem.”
Bitter house-to-house fighting of the kind seen in Diyarbakir is also taking place in other surrounding cities. The PKK focused its earlier attacks primarily on military targets and police stations. But since the state has laid siege to the cities, the radical Kurdish youth movement YDG-H has taken up the fight there as well.
Until recently, the YDG-H was seen as a collection of disillusioned youth who defended themselves from state violence with rocks and Molotov cocktails. But now that the government has set its sights on ridding the cities of PKK sympathizers, the group has armed and organized itself with the PKK’s help. They are now fighting on the frontlines while experienced PKK fighters are hiding in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Around 10,000 Turkish police and military personnel are engaged in operations against the fighters, with checkpoints set up on roads in the region and columns of tanks and water cannons moving back and forth. Entire city quarters, such as in the city of Silopi, have been destroyed.
Civil war has returned to the far east of Turkey. Just one year ago, it looked as though the peace process, which Erdogan initiated with the PKK back when he was still prime minister, would hold. In 2013, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan called for a cease-fire, which ultimately held for more than two years. But then came the June 2015 elections, in which Erdogan’s Islamist-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its absolute majority. It blamed its diminished results on the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which received a sensational 13 percent of the vote, marking the first time it had ever sent delegates to Turkish parliament.
That was the moment at which Erdogan finally lost all interest in the peace process, and called for new elections to be held in November. The five months prior to those elections were among the bloodiest in Turkey’s recent history. In the wake of a devastating attack on the Kurds in Suruç, for which Islamic State (IS) is believed to have been responsible, the PKK killed Turkish police officers in revenge and accused Turkey of collaborating with Islamic State. In response, Erdogan intensified his attacks on PKK positions — and the PKK countered by calling for Kurds to declare autonomy in Turkish cities. The violence that ensued, combined with the AKP’s pledges to ensure security, led to Erdogan’s party regaining its absolute majority in the November vote.
Since then, the Turkish state and the PKK have seemed bent on escalation. The militant Kurds from the PKK — which is still considered a terrorist group in the West as well — are fond of ignoring their own role in the current situation. Erdogan may have sought conflict, but the PKK was more than happy to oblige and quickly reached for its weapons.
It is impossible to say with any certainty how many people have lost their lives in the recent fighting. The government claims that “3,100 terrorists and 200 security personnel” have been killed in the last year. The pro-Kurdish HDP speaks of 340 dead “civilians” and 400 casualties among the security personnel and “members of the Kurdish movement.”
It is far from the first time that tensions between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority have erupted in violence. Between 1984 and 1999, the PKK and the Turkish government fought a brutal civil war, costing the lives of some 40,000 people.
Rozerin’s father, Mustafa Çukur, 52, is sitting on a plastic chair in the community center. In his mourning, he has turned inwards. “This war won’t end anytime soon,” he says. “I just didn’t want it to take my girl.” His daughter has become something of an icon in eastern Turkey.
Rozerin’s father lived through the horrors of the 1990s, a period during which almost every Kurdish family in the region suffered some sort of trauma. He says that once, Turkish troops tied a naked woman to a horse and drove her through the village. His family was forced to flee the violence, though he long refrained from telling his daughter much about his past. “Otherwise, she would have immediately become too political,” he says.
Rozerin wanted to become a psychiatrist, her father says. She only became radicalized once the state imposed the curfew. She constantly asked, he says, why it is a problem to be Kurdish.
In December 2015, he says, Rozerin heard that a three-month-old baby had died in the fighting in the old city quarter of Sur. “She couldn’t sleep anymore after that,” her father says. Shortly afterwards, when the curfew was briefly lifted for a few hours, Rozerin disappeared. Forever.
The parents of Diyarbakir have long since lost hope for a peaceful solution to the crisis, as called for by the pro-Kurdish HDP. Nevertheless, they gather closely around Figen Yüksekdag, the co-leader of the HDP, during her current travels through the crisis zone. They want to know how they might be able to recover the bodies of their dead children. Yüksekdag can only report that her party-ally Selahattin Demirta was in Brussels talking to the European Commission. “He spoke about the civil war,” she says.
She doesn’t, however, say that Europe is currently more interested in Erdogan’s refugee policies than in the Kurdish question. But everyone knows that anyway. Those who can are now fleeing the crisis region.
The next morning, Figen Yüksekdag is in Gira Mira, a hamlet located one hundred kilometers south of Diyarbakir. The HDP has called a press conference, but police have blocked entry to the village, forcing journalists to take a hidden path through the fields to meet with the co-leader of the country’s third largest party.
Yüksekdag is a quiet woman with long black hair and soft facial features. She is surrounded by hundreds of citizens of Gira Mira, many of whom had sought to take part in a protest march in the nearby city of Cizre one day earlier. But they were stopped by army water cannons.
Fighting has been particularly intense in Cizre this month. In an operation that the Turkish government says came to an end on Thursday, 31 people were shut up in a building without food or water for over two weeks, dying one at a time. The Turkish military even prevented an ambulance, located just a hundred meters away, from picking up the injured. Government sources claim that terrorists had fired at the ambulance.
“We call on all people in Turkey to lift this darkness,” Yüksekdag calls out. “This country is ruled by a dictatorship. Everyone should rise up in the defense of freedom.” It is impossible, she said, to recognize this “government of massacres.”
Her political party is in a difficult spot. The HDP has always rejected armed struggle, but the government views it as a criminal organization nonetheless. President Erdogan accuses it of being nothing more than an extension of the PKK and he refuses to even talk to the party’s parliamentary deputies and the HDP has become completely isolated. Twenty-four Kurdish mayors have been arrested in recent months, along with critical journalists and intellectuals.
Breaking Off the Dialogue
At the same time, though, the party is under pressure from the PKK. Yüksekdag’s co-leader Demirta called for Kurdish autonomy in December and has been under investigation by state prosecutors ever since. Yüksekdag is likewise in danger of losing her parliamentary immunity.
“Prior to June 7, there was a dialogue, but Erdogan broke off this dialogue,” Yüksekdag says. “There was a chance for peace, but the AKP saw this opportunity as a defeat because Erdogan saw dangers to his presidential system.” She believes, however, that Turkey’s future depends on the strengthening of the parliamentary democracy. Kurds, she insists, are only demanding an administrative reform that would transfer a small part of the central government’s authority to the local level.
“The HDP offers a democratic space between the government and the PKK,” Yüksukdag says. “Erdogan is destroying this space. It makes sense that the Kurds are once again turning to the PKK.” She smiles bitterly.
Erdogan’s foreign policy is also bent on preventing Kurdish autonomy, even beyond Turkey’s borders. Just recently, the president of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq called for a referendum to be held on the founding of a Kurdish state. And nothing is as worrisome to the Turks as the Kurdish quasi-state Rojava in northern Syria. The Syrian arm of the PKK, known as the YPG, is currently trying to establish a contiguous Kurdish corridor there.
But it is the YDG-H youth organization that is fighting on the frontlines in Turkey. The group’s members mostly grew up in the cities where they are fighting and they know them well. They set up booby traps, lay mines and fight as snipers. Turkish officials claim that they take their orders directly from PKK headquarters, but the PKK denies it — officially at least.
Most of the fighters are young, with many of them under 20 years of age. They don’t wear bullet-proof vests or helmets and seem quite small next to the extremely well-equipped regime soldiers. But they have become an urban guerilla force to be reckoned with. Nobody knows how many of them there are: They tend to organize in cells of 50 fighters each to defend city quarters. Some supporters from western Turkey have likewise joined them.
Army Snipers on the Rooftops
In Nusaybin, a city directly on the border across from the Syrian city of Qamishli, fighting has died down recently. Since Oct. 2, 2015, there have been 40 days of curfew in Nusaybin, the streets are torn up and building walls are pierced with holes. Hundreds of paving-stone barricades block the pathways through town and trenches often open up behind them. Huge plastic tarps have been stretched between power poles to block the view of army snipers on the rooftops.
Between two barricades, a door stands open, leading to the neighborhood community center. Inside, 28-year-old Omer, who is from the neighborhood, is trying to light a fire with damp wood. He is surrounded by young men and women fighters drinking steaming black tea with sugar. On the walls hang pictures of young “martyrs,” as they call them, as well as a portrait of PKK leader Öcalan. Omer’s nom de guerre is “Azad,” which means “Freedom.” Two months ago, he came from Istanbul, having abandoned his factory job to support the fight against the Turkish state.
In the 1990s, hundreds of people were executed in Nusaybin, with the army running over them in tanks. More recently, in September 2015, the mayor was arrested because she allegedly supported the call for autonomy. To replace her, Ankara sent a permanent local representative, equipped with the power to make decisions on all important issues of public life.
Omer is a charismatic leader and his voice cracks as he tells of the battles he has fought in. “The entire Middle East is reorganizing itself,” he says. “The Kurds have never before had such a great opportunity as they do today.” Until recently, the young people here attacked Turkish security personnel with Molotov cocktails. Now, they have transformed into a defensive unit, with more and more civilians joining all the time. They call themselves YPS, which, in Kurdish, stands for Civil Protection Units.
“We have organized ourselves because the state is attacking us with weapons in our cities,” Omer says. The plan is for the civil defense units to develop into a single fighting force in southeastern Turkey. In the process, young Kurds in Turkey are forging an identity. Indeed, the YPS has a comparable attraction to that of a young European’s favorite football club. Just that, with the YPS, they have to grow up quite a bit faster.
‘The Time for Kurdistan’
Omer has talked himself into a rage. He compares Erdogan with Hitler and says that if Erdogan has something against the trenches in Nusaybin, then he should “eliminate the trench between Rojava and Turkish Kurdistan” — meaning he should get rid of the border. “The time for Kurdistan has arrived.”
Omer knows the histories of many revolutions. “The Soviets, Mao, Fidel:” Their struggles have inspired him. He too has a terrible personal history, complete with family members having been raped and executed. “We have been engaged in the fight against the Turkish state for decades,” Omer says. He received his training from a PKK cell in Istanbul, he says.
Much of what Omer says departs from the official line, which holds that the YPS is not trained by the PKK, nor does it accept underage fighters, women with children or those who are married. It also is not officially demanding a state, but is seeking democratic autonomy and an end to capitalism.
Where, then, do the weapons come from? “Anything can be smuggled,” says Omer. Later, in a house in the city, another fighter will show the entrance to a tunnel leading to Syria. YPS fighters write up lists with everything they need, including weapons, money and new shoes. The fighter says that the PKK then sends everything they need through the tunnel, and often it is more than they ordered.
In the evening, Omer disappears into the tangled streets, soon to be replaced in the YPS house by some 20 young fighters. They hunch on the floor over plates of rice and chicken and the mood is upbeat. They joke, sing Kurdish freedom songs, stoke the fire and drink tea. The fighters receive their weapons training here, but also ideological instruction: everything about Öcalan, the role of women in the PKK and even the fighter’s dictum that one shouldn’t sit with legs crossed.
“I am in love with Öcalan,” says one girl. A boy says that he used to be a shepherd, but now wants to fight. Another speaks of Öcalan’s writings. There are female and male units, with many of the fighters looking extremely young, some as though they were still in puberty, but they don’t seem naive. The PKK has become their primary purpose in life.
When night falls, they sling their Kalashnikovs over their shoulders, cover up their faces and go out on patrol through the streets of Nusaybin. They boisterously begin singing a fighting song, triggering gunfire from the Turkish security forces. In response, they simply sing louder.
A Close Call
Rengin is 19 years old. She has a particularly beautiful voice and is the leader of a new YPS unit. She too returned to her homeland from Istanbul and has already fought in Cizre, Suruç and Silopi. Last summer, she also took part in a two-week PKK training camp in Cizre, despite their being no official connection between her group and the PKK. She says that five trainers came from PKK headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq to provide instruction to 300 people. The question, though, is the degree to which the young Kurds are allowing themselves to be instrumentalized by the PKK for their purposes.
“My dream is a free country,” says Rengin. “We want our earth.” Holding her Kalashnikov, she then sits down next to the fire in the community center for her night watch duties.
Erdogan has promised to “cleanse all city quarters of terrorists” by the springtime. The PKK is planning to fight back with a large offensive, also in the spring. Many in the area believe that the experienced PKK fighters hiding out in the Qandil Mountains will come to the cities for the fight and that the current battle between the young fighters of YPS and the government is merely a test run. There are no indications from either the PKK or the Turkish government that they are prepared to return to the peace process anytime soon.
The next morning, Rengin and the others pry paving stones out of the ground using pickaxes for use in the construction of another barricade. They listen to music as they work. Each time they approach the intersection with their wheelbarrows, shots are fired by the security forces. In one instance, a round just misses one of the fighters. And they all laugh in astonished disbelief.