By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 8, 2008
ZAP VALLEY, Iraq -- On the day the Turkish soldiers withdrew from Iraq, 40 Kurdish guerrillas convened to bury five of their dead.
The corpses were wrapped in black plastic and camouflage tarp, lashed to stretchers fashioned from branches, and draped in the flag of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. In silence the guerrillas stacked large rocks into five piles, resting the stretchers end-to-end on the cairns. They stood in two rows with machine guns pointed above the mountains that surrounded them and waited for their leader to speak.
"The Turkish army could not capture any of our territory, could not get one of our bases, our weapons or even a scrap of nylon," Bahoz Erdal, the 39-year-old military commander of the Kurdish guerrillas, told his serried ranks. "The Turkish army didn't have any chance to rest. When they attacked, we hit them. When they made camp, we hit them. Even when they pulled back, we hit them."
The conclusion of the eight-day battle last Friday along Iraq's northern border was described by Turkey's government as the scheduled end to a successful incursion that crippled its enemies, destroying hundreds of their caves and hideouts. But ultimately the battle ended where it had begun, with the intractable guerrillas in sole control of hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain.
At the funeral, the quiet ending to their latest war, some guerrillas bowed their heads but no tears were shed.
"In the last 10 days in Zap, our fighters displayed their historic heroism," Erdal told his soldiers. "In this defense, you brought back again the fighting spirit of the PKK."
A Washington Post correspondent and staff photographer who spent five days inside rebel territory during and after the battle -- the only reporters allowed to accompany the guerrillas through this period -- observed a self-sufficient society, with its own rituals and traditions, that bears no resemblance to the rest of Iraq. Access, however, was limited to the people and places the guerrillas chose to reveal, and it was difficult to verify details of the battle because of the vast distances between locations.
What was clear was that years in these snowcapped mountains have forged the fighters into rugged ascetics. Although they have based themselves in northern Iraq, they are oriented elsewhere, choosing even to live on Turkish time, an hour behind Iraq's. They are based in the heart of the Islamic Middle East but are largely uninterested in religion or the cultures they abandoned in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. They relate their struggle to those of the American revolutionaries who fought the British crown, and the Cuban guerrillas who followed Fidel Castro down from the Sierra Maestra mountains.
"We are fighting for democracy, for freedom," said Osman Delbrine, a 32-year-old guerrilla with eight years in the mountains. "We are fighting for peace and for all Kurds in all nations."
Their tactics can be ruthless. They slip over the border to blow up Turkish soldiers and retreat back to Iraq. It is more unusual for them to be on the defensive, protecting their territory from Turkish attack. The PKK, with 4,000 to 5,000 fighters, according to the U.S. State Department, represents less of a threat than it once did to the Turkish government. But the group is benefiting from a resurgence of nationalist feeling among the 25 million Kurds dispersed throughout the region.
The PKK leaders say they are no longer fighting for an independent Kurdish state, or even to replicate or expand the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. Rather, they say, they want their people to speak Kurdish in schools, to receive national identification cards, to have equal rights for women, to avoid persecution by state security forces, and to gain respect and political influence wherever they live. To walk among the guerrillas, however, is to feel some are also fighting to prolong their communal, socialist experiment and to be left alone.
"In society, in the cities, I feel like someone is choking me," said Berivan, a 27-year-old female guerrilla. "In the mountains I feel free."
The guerrillas receive no salaries. They sew their olive-drab wool uniforms and treat their wounded. They have no homes and live in peripatetic motion, walking goat trails and dry creek beds, through mossy boulder fields and across slabs of brindled rock. The small villages that dot this territory are abandoned now, the lone paved road deserted. The guerrillas sleep on bedrolls in caves or under the stars, drink spring water and eat what they can forage or smuggle in from civilization.
"Our life is totally different than yours," one guerrilla said.
Although the PKK welcomes visitors, the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq has tried to bar outsiders, particularly journalists, from entering the area where the authorities effectively tolerate the guerrillas. After receiving an invitation to tour the area, The Post's journalists hiked for eight hours, first up a rocky path for herders to the top of a mountain overlooking Kurdish towns to the south, then down a precipitous slope a local guide said was littered with land mines. Along the way, it was necessary to shimmy across a steel bridge mangled by Turkish bombs and crouch below boulders when warplanes flew overhead. The mountains rang with the spatter of gunfire and the discharge of distant bombs. At dusk, the first guerrilla -- wearing camouflage and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle -- appeared from behind a tree in a rock-strewn ravine. Others soon emerged, and one of them held out his hand.
"Welcome to our mountain," he said in English.'He Was My Best Friend'
The Turkish military invasion, known as Operation Sun, began Feb. 21 with an aerial bombardment, followed by a push of a reported 2,000 ground troops in various passes across the 200-mile border Turkey shares with Iraq.
The thrust of the ground battle targeted the Zap Valley, a crucial region in the western portion of the guerrillas' territory, home to their headquarters, training camps, underground storage rooms, burial plots and fighters manning their Russian-made antiaircraft Dushka machine-gun positions on the snowy peaks. Erdal, the high-strung, fast-talking guerrilla commander, abandoned his medical school studies in Damascus, Syria, two decades ago to join the PKK. Since then, he has fixated on fighting Turkey.
"It's not random that they are attacking this area," he said. "The army that they brought is enough to capture an area like Zap. But when you use a very big army, it's difficult to organize, and your movements will be slow."
In the end, Erdal said, his guerrillas drove Turkey back down from the mountains after killing more than 120 of its soldiers; Turkey claimed to have lost 24. The disparity was larger on the guerrilla side: Erdal and several others insisted that just 10 of their own were killed, while Turkey put the number at more than 230.
One of the corpses lashed to the branches on the day of the funeral belonged to Ayhan Eruh. During preparations for the funeral, the names of the dead were written on scraps of white paper tied to their chests. This was a scene Roshat Sarhat, a 30-year-old guerrilla who once was a journalist in Istanbul, had no interest in seeing. He stayed in an abandoned stone hut on a hillside far from the service. The bare single room was silent but for the crackle of his radio and the buzz of a surveillance drone high overhead.
"He was my best friend," Sarhat said. Eruh had died on the first day of the battle.'The Mountain Teaches Us'
Throughout the fighting, the hundreds of guerrillas used the same battle-tested tactics they have relied on for years: Move quickly, hit and retreat, harass and confuse the more-powerful enemy. They carry AK-47s, sniper rifles, shoulder-fired rockets and hand grenades.
"Some of our attacks required only five guerrillas, and others used 50 or 60," Erdal said. "For example, you send five guerrillas to a huge army at night, they attack them and leave the area; then these soldiers cannot sleep until the morning. In a different situation, you use 50 or 60 guerrillas to hold a mountain."
After President Bush met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in November to discuss the PKK problem, the guerrillas rushed to make arrangements for battle. They stashed ammunition, weapons, food and water in caves and crags throughout the mountains, for quick resupply. Inside one such cave, they installed a cylindrical, metal wood-burning stove and chimney to heat a room constructed of army green cloth and plastic tarp.
"The mountain is a school for us," said Elif, a 32-year-old commander who dropped out of interior design school in Turkey 10 years ago to join the PKK. "The mountain teaches us how to walk, it taught us how to live in cold weather, how to go without eating for a long time," she said. "The Turkish soldiers have huge bodies, but they can't stay in the snow for more than a couple hours."
In the mountains they communicate using cellphone text messages or speak in code over hand-held Yaesu radios on ever-changing frequencies. If they occupy an abandoned home, they blanket the windows to hide the light and build fires at night to hide the smoke. "We are not scared," Sarhat said. "But we are always careful."
Sarhat, a somber, serious man, joined the PKK a decade ago after working as a television reporter in Turkey. He was born to Kurdish parents in the city of Van but did not learn his ancestral language because teaching it in the schools was forbidden. As he grew older and studied Kurdish history, he felt increasingly angry that his culture was suppressed.
"Anywhere the Kurds live in Turkey, you can't act like a Kurd. You can't have your own identification, you can't have your own history or culture," he said. "I realized that they took my nation's rights, our education, our identity. Then I decided to join the PKK."
In wartime the guerrillas fill various roles. There are medics with UNICEF first-aid kits, cooks and videographers, frontline fighters and logisticians. Yet they are also uniform down to the smallest details. They smoke one brand of cigarettes, Business Royales, and nearly all wear peach-colored Turkish Mekap sneakers with orange laces.
The guerrillas are not a people's army or ad hoc insurgency, but a trained paramilitary force that requires every new recruit to attend a three-month camp to study military tactics and become indoctrinated in the ideology of the imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK's separatist war against Turkish authorities, which began in 1984 and lasted for a decade and a half, claimed the lives of about 35,000 people, mostly Kurds in southeastern Turkey.
In the PKK enclave in northern Iraq, Ocalan's chubby, mustachioed face is emblazoned on hillsides, flags and small pins the fighters wear on their vests. The reverence they exhibit toward Ocalan, captured in 1999 in Nairobi and now in a Turkish prison, borders on cultish. After assassination attempts against Ocalan in the 1990s, guerrillas immolated themselves and some became suicide bombers. To the governments of Turkey, Iraq and the United States, those tactics solidified the PKK's reputation as a terrorist organization.
"We don't want any mother in the world to have to receive the body of her dead son," said Hadar Afreen, a 26-year-old guerrilla who grew up outside Aleppo, Syria. "We don't want to fight; we want to be peaceful. But if they attack us, we will defend ourselves."
The PKK recruits many of its fighters when they are teenagers or college students and has been criticized for exploiting young people and effectively trapping them in the guerrilla force. But more than a dozen people interviewed last week said they came to the fight willingly. Some said they joined because their villages had been attacked or relatives slain by Turkish soldiers.
Afreen came to the mountains as an 18-year-old after she was told by Arab teachers she must join Syria's ruling Baath Party while in high school or face expulsion. She was familiar with the books of Ocalan and considered him a hero. She left a note for her parents saying she was joining the PKK, sneaked out of the house and has not spoken to them since.
"What I'm doing here is more important than my parents," she said.
After Erdal's speech at the funeral, the guerrillas, in solemn procession, marched the corpses up the mountainside, through wild grass meadows and over footbridges spanning two rushing creeks, until they reached their stone-walled cemetery surrounded by craters from Turkish bombs. With shovels and picks, they dug five spaces in the rows of cinder-block graves. They pushed the scraps of paper bearing names inside clear plastic bottles and placed them in the graves. Then they covered their dead with dirt and blank stone slabs and dispersed without ceremony back into the mountains.
Staff photographer Andrea Bruce and special correspondent Dlovan Brwari contributed to this report.