The e-mail revolution

International action is here: last week's outpouring of Kurdish anger owed almost everything to the internet and satellite TV
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he message came at 11pm Greenwich Mean Time. It dropped in Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm and London. From The Hague to Jerusalem, Paris to Zurich, the e-mail instructions: time to make the Kurdish people's anger known. Within hours that anger had taken the entire world by surprise: embassies across the globe had been stormed by Kurds protesting at the arrest of their leader Abdullah Ocalan and his enforced departure from Nairobi to Istanbul.

The drama reached its crescendo in London with the self-immolation of 15-year-old Nejla Kanteper outside the Greek Embassy in Kensington, which had been taken over by 60 Kurds. The revolt-by-technology, begun with an internet message, continued inside the embassy: the men kept in touch by mobile phone with fellow protesters across the world. They had taken control of Greek and Kenyan embassies in 20 countries to protest at Ocalan's arrest despite his plea for refuge at the Greek embassy in Nairobi.

Abdullah Ocalan is not an attractive man. To Western audiences used to manicured, media-friendly politicians, or who as adolescents were thrilled by the idea of "romantic" revolutionaries typified by Che Guevara, Ocalan (pronounced Oh-ja-lan) looks like a Hollywood portrayal of a Soviet party apparatchik. Called a "devil" by a triumphant Turkish press, Ocalan's heavy features and gleaming eyes have glowered at millions of TV viewers. But to his youthful followers, caught up in the drama of his abduction by Turkish special forces, he is the embodiment of a freedom fighter. They concentrate on him as leader of their struggle; the ruthless way he ran the Kurdish Workers' Party - the PKK - enforcing party loyalty by not only shooting alleged "collaborators" with the Turkish government, but their entire families as well, is not mentioned. So how did this unappealing figure manage to inspire such a response to his abduction from a mainly young constituency?

The PKK is organised like the IRA in effective cells which have infiltrated Kurdish communities wherever the diaspora has taken them. Tight- knit Kurdish communities help support the struggle for Kurdish independence by providing internet site addresses. Party decisions and orders can be transmitted instantly around the world to hundreds of domestic sites. The operation is run with military discipline - and military penalties for betrayal or dissent.

According to sources close to the Kurdish movement, Ocalan's entourage signalled pre-arranged plans for demonstrations all over Europe at key diplomatic addresses as soon as he was arrested. The messages were not even sent in code: after Ocalan had allowed himself to be tracked by using a mobile telephone in Kenya, the Kurds no doubt felt far more secure in their use of the net.

The ease with which the internet can be used to organise political demonstrations has alarmed security forces around the world. With so many domestic sites it is considerably more difficult to track important intelligence. Within a few hours of Ocalan's abduction hundreds of party supporters had been mobilised and put on to the streets of Europe. The party hierarchy had prepared for any eventuality when Ocalan was recently forced out of Syria and began his odyssey in search of refuge - an odyssey that has ended with Ocalan's humiliation by video in which he pleads for mercy in anticipation of a quick trial and execution.

As leader of the PKK, the Turkish government holds him responsible for the deaths of 29,000 people during the separatist campaign he has masterminded. The Turks, meanwhile, have been criticised around the world for their repression of any rights for the Kurds, whom they insist on calling Mountain Turks.

The Ocalan story is one of betrayal and bloodshed - characteristics shared by the haphazard struggle for Kurdish independence; a struggle that began after the First World War and ever since has erupted across the borders of five nation states.

The geographical area of a notional Kurdistan takes in northern Iraq, western Iran, the south-east of Turkey and small areas of Syria and the former Soviet Union. The Kurds number between 20 and 25 million and have an ancient history. They claim to be the descendants of the Medes and are mentioned by Xenophon as the "Kardukai", a mountain people who harassed his march to the sea. Despite a distinct identity, however, the Kurds do not share a common language or even a common policy towards statehood.

Ever since the settlement following defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, vested interests of countries as varied as Britain, Iraq and Turkey have put paid to hopes of even limited autonomy for Kurdistan. Massive oil deposits have been key to other nations' desire to control the area. The principle remains to this day: the Kurds get support when their interests coincide with those of the nation states in which they live or the wishes of the great powers. The former Shah supported the 1970s Kurdish revolt in Iraq until it suited him to come to an agreement with the Iraqi government over the Shat-al-Arab waterway. The Iraqi government still supports the Iranian Kurdish guerrillas despite gassing their own Kurds. President Assad of Syria supported Ocalan and his Turkish Kurd insurrection until Israeli and Turkish co-operation threatened Syria in a potential pincer attack. Israel supports whichever Kurdish group acts (however indirectly) in its interests.

And it's not just national governments that betray Kurdish aspirations. All over the troubled border areas of Iraq and Iran there are monuments to the dead: Kurds murdered by Kurdish rivals. It is especially true in Turkey where the majority of Kurds live. The Turkish government has transformed the Kurdish region into a gigantic military area, enforcing curfews against the PKK who, in their turn, murder fellow Kurds who do not share PKK aspirations.

Turkey is the key to understanding the ferocity of the guerrilla war. Of all the states that have Kurdish minorities, only Turkey has consistently refused to recognise the Kurds. Until the 1970s open terror was the main government weapon used to control them. Reliable reports detailed extensive rape, executions, beatings, hangings and the burning of villages. Ocalan and his guerrillas were the result.

In north London, the collective memory of that persecution inspires young people like Nejla Kanteper. In her bedroom there are cosmetics and Teletubbies but there is also a shrine to Ocalan - posters of him in heroic pose, the Kurdish flag draped by a bedside table. The message is clear. Kurdish teenagers as young as 15 will set themselves alight for the sake of a man, who by any standards, is as brutal and ruthless as his enemies.

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