After decades of war, can the Kurds finally find peace?

PKK militants retreat to Iraqi mountains after deal with Turkish government

Qandil

On Wednesday, some 2,000 Turkish Kurd guerrillas will begin their withdrawal from Turkey to an inaccessible mountain stronghold in northern Iraq. Moving in small groups, the fighters will take one to two months to retreat, assuming the Turkish army sticks to a de facto ceasefire, says a leader of the Turkish Kurd rebel movement, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). The pullout is the first step in a fragile process of reconciliation between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority after 29 years of guerrilla war in which 40,000 people have died.

The PKK guerrillas leaving Turkey will head for the Qandil mountains, one of the world’s great natural fortresses, in the Kurdish autonomous region on the Iraqi side of the border with Iran. Still keeping their weapons, they will wait in camps hidden in deep valleys and gorges to see if Turkey reciprocates by ceding a share of power to its Kurdish minority, which numbers some 14 million and is concentrated in the south-east.

Sabri Ok, a member of the PKK leadership, said in an interview with The Independent in a safe house in Qandil that some fighters believed that if “we continue our armed struggle we could get results”, but there has been no real opposition to a peace understanding. Negotiated by the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan, held in the Turkish island prison of Imrali since 1999, the peace terms are vague. But, ever since they were read out to a crowd of one million Kurds gathered in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, on 21 March, there is no doubt about their swift implementation by the PKK. A ceasefire was immediately declared, which Mr Ok affirms the Turkish army is sticking to. He says “there are some drones and warplanes flying, but not as many as before and there are no attacks”. This restraint is very different from the last PKK unilateral withdrawal from Turkey ordered by Mr Ocalan in 1999 when its fighters were mercilessly harassed by Turkish forces and suffered heavy losses.

Mr Ok, a middle-aged man who has spent 22 years in Turkish prisons, admits that quite a lot could go wrong. Asked what would happen if the Turks attacked the retreating guerrillas, he replies firmly that “if there are any bombardments, anything at all, the withdrawal will stop immediately and our guerrillas will retaliate”. In such a case, the PKK hopes that the world will conclude that “Turkey wants war”.

Overall, there is an expectant mood among PKK militants and the Kurds in general in the belief that the political geography of the Middle East is changing in their favour. The 20th century treated them harshly, the post-First World War settlement denying Kurds self-determination and turning them into a persecuted and unrecognised minority without a state, spread between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. So far the 21st century is turning out to be much more friendly to the 30 million Kurds in the region. Svelte Iraqi Kurdish politicians sitting in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), use almost the same cautiously enthusiastic words as grizzled PKK military commanders in claiming that the Kurds are politically stronger than ever and can no longer be marginalised and persecuted as second-class citizens. “There is a great awakening of the Kurds in the whole region,” says Mr Ok. “The Turkish state and army tried to finish us and they failed.”

And it is not just in Turkey that the news for the Kurds is good. In Iraq, the Kurds are better able to assert their national independence than many members of the United Nations. There is an economic boom as foreign oil companies pour in. The civil war in Syria is enabling the Kurdish 10 per cent of the population concentrated in the north of the country to seize control of their towns and villages and lay the basis for future autonomy.  

In the warm spring weather in the Qandil it is not obvious that its meadows and mountains were until very recently a battlefield. The steep hillsides are green with thick grass and dwarf oaks, while behind them rise mountains where black crags stick out from the melting snow. Herds of black-faced sheep and goats graze in the fields and there is the sound of cow bells. An old Iraqi military road zigzags up the side of a mountain above a gorge until it reaches a pass that is one of the few entrances to the Qandil. It looks peaceful enough but at a sharp bend there is a commemorative shrine with pictures of a Kurdish family killed when their car, its mangled wreckage still visible in a shed nearby, was hit by a rocket from a Turkish aircraft in 2006. 

No army could expect to fight its way into the Qandil without the risk of suffering devastating casualties. Its caves, canyons and heavily wooded valleys have provided sanctuary from Turkish air attacks. The official PKK spokesman Roj Welat denies that their fighters ever suffered many losses from hostile aircraft, which is likely enough given the broken terrain. Some civilian buildings were not so lucky and Mr Welat points out the pancaked remains of the Qandil Youth Centre, hit by a rocket earlier this year. Rubble is strewn across one end of the centre’s football field where a single goal post survives.

A little further on is the shattered ruins of a house and an outhouse owned by a man named Mam Kokha Kadir. He has now moved to the safety of the plains below Qandil, his former neighbours speculating that the purpose of the air attacks was to drive out the civilian population of the mountains “rather than kill the guerrillas”. Turkey has used aircraft and ground troops for decades to make fruitless forays into northern Iraq in pursuit of the PKK, the main aim apparently being to show the public back in Turkey that the PKK was being given a bad time. The PKK was never going to win a ground war inside Turkey and the movement’s greatest achievement has been to survive repression of extreme ferocity. Founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan as a Marxist-Leninist party, it was for many years dedicated to seeking a separate state for Kurds by means of armed revolt against a state that refused to admit Kurds existed as a separate nationality. It launched a campaign of armed struggle in 1984 that has continued, broken by a few unilateral ceasefires, until today. From the beginning the Turkish army and security forces retaliated with mass arrests, executions and death squads.

Some 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed by the Turkish army in the 1990s and at least one million Kurdish villagers driven from their homes. Torture was common with prisoners beaten half to death, thrown into vats of excrement, sodomised with batons, savaged by dogs and subjected to other medieval torments. Prisoners report that to avoid being tortured they were compelled to shout “I am proud to be Turkish” and “a Turk is worth the whole universe”.

The Turkish security forces believed that the capture of Mr Ocalan in 1999 must lead to the collapse of the PKK. This seemed to make sense; he was notorious as the movement’s ruthless and authoritarian leader. But instead of becoming irrelevant in his prison cell, Mr Ocalan has remained in control of the PKK which now seeks autonomy rather than separation. In the eyes of many Kurds his imprisonment gave him the allure of a martyr who became a symbol of Kurdish suffering and resistance. Stencils and pictures of the face of the PKK leader stare out from rocks and cliff faces in Qandil and are carried at every Kurdish demonstration in Turkey. I visited a cemetery filled with the graves of PKK fighters in a pretty valley where one gravestone bears the name of Kemal Aslan, who burned himself to death in 2011 to protest  against “the illegal capture” of Ocalan in Kenya 12 years earlier.

The PKK survived as a symbol of the determination of Turkish Kurds to establish their identity and win equal political and social rights. It bounced back after so many setbacks and defeats because the Turkish state used collective punishment against Kurds as a whole and punished moderate dissidents as terrorists, while offering no concessions. Elected Kurdish officials, journalists, human rights workers and activists were jailed. Ten years ago the PKK seemed to be becoming isolated and irrelevant, but events showed that it had not lost its popular support or organisational strength. Mr Ok says with some pride that “the PKK is enjoying the most powerful period in its 30-year struggle”.

Is the armed struggle coming to an end? A message from Mr Ocalan read out to the vast demonstration in Diyarbakir in March said that a new Turkey is being born and it is “time for the guns to fall silent and for ideas to speak”. This might happen but is not inevitable. Self-interest should impel the Turkish state to conciliate the Kurds in Turkey as well as in KRG and northern Syria, but Turkish rhetoric still has to be matched with action such as the release of Kurds from prison, an end to the all-embracing anti-terror law and constitutional changes. 

Some Kurdish politicians in northern Iraq argue that the PKK has made a mistake in making their concessions up-front leaving them with little leverage against Turkey in future. Mr Ok says that if Turkey continues repression despite PKK concessions “it will not be good for them, it will not be good for anybody”. If the guerrilla war resumes it may escalate because the PKK can look for support to Turkey’s growing list of enemies in the region such as Iran and Syria. Turkey could, and should, end its draining and unwinnable conflict with its Kurdish minority, but this does not mean it will do so.

Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
Review: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Sport
Tour de France 2014Sir Rodney Walker on organising the UK stages of this year’s race
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan in ‘Jamaica Inn’
TVJessica Brown Findlay on playing the spirited heroine of Jamaica Inn
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Sport
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull
football
Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
film
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit