By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 11, 2007
RANJ PRAKH, Iraq -- In the jagged mountains of northern Iraq, hard-bitten Kurdish fighters are increasingly besieged. To the west and north, Turkish troops are massed along Iraq's border. From the east, Iranian artillery is shelling the guerrillas' bases. And now from the south, Iraq's government, under heavy U.S. pressure, has begun to suppress the only sanctuaries the fighters have known for more than three decades.
Yet, in conversations at their frontline bases, members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, say they are determined to fight for their cause. They are motivated by long-held grievances and recently born suspicions -- not least over the health of their imprisoned founder, Abdullah Ocalan. They have stepped up attacks against Turkish soldiers in recent weeks, fearful that their leader is being poisoned, a charge Turkey denies.
The fighters' determination highlights how much the movement is still driven by a man who has spent almost nine years in a Turkish jail serving a life sentence. "His prison is very bad," said Abdul Rahman Chaderchi, the PKK's chief spokesman. He demanded that Turkey give Ocalan treatment "urgently or change his location until he is freed."
With winter's thick snows approaching and the United States vowing to tackle the PKK, the specter of a Turkish invasion of Iraq is fading for now. But the guerrillas' underlying concerns reveal a movement that is attempting to stay relevant.
PKK leaders are worried about the increasing popularity of Turkey's Islamic-oriented ruling party. In July elections, record numbers within the Kurdish minority backed the party, which has eased some restrictions on Kurds expressing their identity, eroding support for the PKK and its dreams of a Kurdish homeland in Turkey.
Turkish investments in northern Iraq have soared since the U.S.-led invasion, linking Kurds in Turkey and Iraq not only economically but also in opposing conflict that could disrupt this lucrative trade.
Increased shelling into northern Iraq this year by Turkey and Iran has convinced the fighters that these nations are colluding to suppress the aspirations of Iraq's Kurds and their quasi-independent region and to seize Iraq's northern oil reserves.
Above all, the PKK's sense of relevance is closely tied to Ocalan's fate. Here in the rugged cocoons of this vast terrain, he is both hero and guru. "Our lethal weapon is our will and our belief in Abdullah Ocalan," said a PKK commander at his base north of the village of Sharanish.
Nabi Sensoy, Turkey's ambassador to the United States, said the Kurds' allegations of Ocalan's mistreatment were unfounded. "He is under medical surveillance not because his health is bad or because he has been poisoned, as they claim, but in order to make sure these allegations can be refuted. It means we are taking good care of him," Sensoy said.
In the northern Iraqi region of Ranj Prakh, three logs blocked an unpaved road near the Turkish border -- the first sign that the guerrillas were in control of the rugged landscape. A few feet beyond, words were scrawled in Kurdish script on the tan wall of a crumbling guard post: "Long live our leader Abdullah Ocalan."
A female fighter sat under a canopy of tree branches on a nearby hill, her Kalashnikov rifle at her side. A Turkish Kurd, she had fought her country for nine years. "I joined for freedom," she explained. "I lived in a community where I had no identity because I was Kurdish. And in the Middle East, freedom for a woman is very limited. So I am here."
In the PKK, men and women are deemed equal, on and off the battlefield. Nature is cherished. Family ties are severed, replaced by bonds among warriors so disciplined that sex is prohibited. "Abdullah Ocalan is not a human being. He's an ideology, a concept," said Akbar Jehangir, editor of Homeland Son, the official magazine of the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party, which is run by Iraqi Kurds and is closely aligned with the PKK.
Describing themselves as a "democratic humanitarian movement," the PKK's leaders insist they want a peaceful solution and said they are only defending themselves from Turkish attacks. They have killed more than 40 Turkish soldiers in the past month.
"Self-defense is a legal right in all laws," Chaderchi said. "Turkey is displacing Kurds and burning villages. Aren't these actions terrorism? How many times have we announced a cease-fire but Turkey was staging military campaigns against us?"
Pressure is mounting on the fighters. President Bush has given Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a commitment to root out the PKK, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. Last weekend, Kurdish security forces in northern Iraq shut down offices of Jehangir's party and vowed to stop the guerrillas' supply routes.
But at two frontline redoubts, the guerrillas displayed no fear of capture or death from Iraqi Kurds, even though they were near border checkpoints operated by the Kurdistan Regional Government, the semiautonomous body that administers three northern Iraqi provinces. These knife-edge spires and webs of goat trails are their time-tested ally, impossible for conventional armies to penetrate, fighters said.
The guerrillas refused to give their names because they were not authorized to speak to a reporter who found them by asking villagers and border guards for the locations of their camps.
Over hot tea and, later, a dinner of lukewarm rice, tomatoes grown near their base and bread they had baked, the guerrillas said they were impelled into a life of war by Turkey's persecution of Kurds and treatment of Ocalan. Some said they had grown accustomed to their way of life and principles.
"We don't like war or violence. I'm young. I want to live my life," said a fighter in his mid-30s. "But I have a faith that makes me stay here."
The PKK, founded in 1974, launched an armed struggle against Turkey in 1984. Since then, more than 30,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands of Kurds have been displaced in eastern Turkey. In 1999, Ocalan was arrested and jailed.
But the PKK, driven by its founder's teachings rooted in Marxist-Leninist philosophy, continued to stage attacks from mountain bases. A few years ago, a sister group began launching assaults inside Iran, where Kurds are also seeking rights. Today, PKK leaders say they no longer seek a separate state inside Turkey, but rather more autonomy for Kurds, official recognition by Turkey of Kurdish culture and identity and, of course, Ocalan's release.
"What we want is basically the fundamental rights that are natural for people to have," Murat Karayilan, the top PKK leader, said in an interview in the Qandil Mountains in September.
After graduating from college in Turkey, Karayilan went to work for the Turkish government in 1980. But, he recounted, he quit three months later after he was marginalized for being a Kurd. "This period was like I was in jail," Karayilan said. "So from my work, I took my bag and I came to the mountains. This is what we have to do."
Since then, several thousand Kurds have followed this path. About 3,000 fighters are in the movement. Most hail from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, but their ranks include Kurds who are German, Russian and Swiss citizens, fighters said.
When new recruits arrive, they take lessons in Kurdish history and read Ocalan's treatises on politics, history, philosophy and the environment, many written in prison. They learn to call him "Apo," the Kurdish word for uncle.
Recruits are encouraged to inform on each other if they spot a breach of Ocalan's principles. "We teach new recruits all about Abdullah Ocalan; then only, we gave them a gun," said the PKK commander near Sharanish.
He joined in 1990, when he was still in high school. Since then, he has not seen his parents or brothers, he said. "My PKK brothers will protect me more than my real ones," said the commander, short and stocky and wearing an Ocalan pin on the left side of his chest.
He said he had "thousands of mothers" amongst the Kurdish people. Following the PKK's codes, he never wed. "We are married to the land," he explained.
Jehangir said, "If you join the PKK, you have to leave your wife, not divorce her. Your relationship with her will be friendship, not husband and wife."
In Ranj Prakh, the fighters wore similar olive vests and traditional Kurdish baggy pants -- including the women, who typically don't wear such clothing.
There appeared to be as many female fighters as male. They shared duties -- cooking, washing, standing guard. When it was time to head into Turkey on a mission, the women joined the men. The women shook hands with male visitors, a taboo in many Middle Eastern societies, and refused to have their cigarettes lit for them by men, viewing it as a gesture of subordination.
In this valley, deer abound. But the guerrillas do not hunt them, on grounds they must protect nature. Nor are they allowed to pick fruit from a tree unless it is completely ripe. They may drink milk and eat eggs, and some of the fighters admitted they have killed and eaten chickens. Now, Jehangir said, a campaign is underway to get fighters to quit smoking, deeming it unhealthy to nature and man.
"A human being is part of the universe, so a human being is not allowed to damage the environment," Jehangir said. "The PKK believes there should be no difference between human beings and animals. Nobody is higher than the other."
When asked how a PKK fighter then can justify killing Turkish soldiers, Jehangir replied that the guerrillas can kill if it is in self-defense. "The life I have just described is a beautiful life," he continued, his voice filling with pride.
Correspondents Joshua Partlow in Baghdad, Molly Moore in Paris and Nora Boustany in Washington and special correspondents Dlovan Brwari and Zaid Sabah in northern Iraq contributed to this report.