Kurdish rebels prepare for peace

Kurdish leaders have given a cautious welcome to the recent PKK ceasefire declaration, knowing that much work remains.

    Kurdish rebels prepare for peace
    Murat Karayilan has led the PKK since the capture of Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 [Richard Hall/Al Jazeera]

    Qandil, Iraq - On a bright day in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir late last month, hundreds of thousands gathered to celebrate the Kurdish New Year and the beginning of spring.

    While long political speeches are customary for the occasion, there was one in particular that stirred the crowd - a message from the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.

    "Let guns be silenced, let ideas speak," Ocalan said in the letter, read out by Kurdish politician Pervin Buldan.

    The historic announcement from the head of the Kurdish rebel group, who is revered among many of Turkey's Kurds, called for an end to violence and declared a ceasefire in the decades-old conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state - a conflict that has left around 40,000 people dead.

    " Let guns be silenced, let ideas speak. "

    - Abdullah Ocalan, PKK leader

    There were cheers from the throngs in Diyarbakir, but two weeks later, in a small stone house across the border in northern Iraq, the PKK's military leader, Murat Karayilan, suggested rumblings of discontent among the group's fighters.

    "The thinking of the leadership of the PKK is in line with Ocalan," Karayilan told Al Jazeera. "But the PKK is a very large organisation. We cannot say that the middle ranks all feel the same way. We are having a problem convincing all of our comrades."

    Rank and file

    Despite his incarceration, Ocalan inspires a fierce loyalty in the organisation he founded in 1974. But important though his call may be, it will mean little if it is not welcomed by the PKK fighters here in the Qandil Mountains that straddle the border between Iraq and Iran.

    Before Ocalan went public with his proposal, Karayilan said, it was put to the rank and file of the PKK. It was discussed, debated and argued over at a series of meetings here in the mountains. It was during these discussions that a rare voicing of dissent began to emerge among some of the fighters. Word got back to Ocalan, who made his frustration clear by passing messages through the handful of Kurdish politicians who are allowed to visit him in jail.

    The problem, according to Karayilan, in convincing the fighters that now should be the time to lay down their arms is that the PKK "has never been stronger". There is also mistrust over Turkey's willingness to reciprocate Ocalan's call for peace.

    "We have been trying to solve the issue peacefully since 1992 - this is nothing new," said Karayilan. "We have announced ceasefires before and, on one occasion, we even withdrew our forces from Turkey. But we couldn’t get anywhere because of Turkey."


    Ocalan has been held on the island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara since his 1999 capture by Turkish security forces in Kenya. For the first decade, he was held in solitary confinement, unable to communicate with the outside world. In his absence, Karayilan has headed the organisation.

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    To convince the middle ranks, he told Al Jazeera that Ocalan's prison conditions must be relaxed, so that he is able to communicate with his troops more easily. Even then, there is no guarantee that the rank and file will concede.

    Ceasefires have been called on four previous occasions, and they have all broken down. Nevertheless, Karayilan displayed a guarded optimism about the burgeoning peace process.

    "People are tired of clashes and divisions," he said. "They are tired of it. There has to be a new way in the region."

    Much more than a declaration of a ceasefire, he continued, Ocalan's New Year message was a grand vision, "a new approach to the problems in the Middle East".

    The PKK's leadership claim that there are several thousands of fighters in the organisation. Designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the UK, the group reportedly has roughly 3-4,000 members based in Iraq, sheltered by the impassable mountains along the border. Repeated Turkish raids on the mountains have failed to dislodge them from their hideouts. There are reportedly a further 1,500-2,000 in Turkey, where the group has carried out attacks on Turkish soldiers. The PKK has also been blamed for planting bombs that have killed civilians.

    Leaving the mountains?

    A small band of fighters are present on this overcast evening in the Qandil. They are mostly young, former students. Many female fighters make up the group's ranks, and are present in its leadership. 

    What will become of these guerrillas, who until a month ago were ready to die for their cause? That question is more easily asked than answered. Most of the PKK's members are well-versed in Ocalan's writings and seldom stray from the party line.

    Roj Welat, a PKK official and its foreign affairs spokesman, is older than most of his comrades. He joined in 1993 after living in Australia for many years. Having lived abroad for so long, he is better placed than most to imagine a future away from the mountains, but even he is reticent.

    "It is very early to be able to answer this question," he told Al Jazeera. "But since you have asked, I can say that, if the peace process develops and the mentality of violence is put aside in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, then there will be work of a different kind to be done for the development of democracy and freedom.

    Inside Story: Turkey and the PKK - a chance for peace?

    "In short, there will be plenty of work still to be done."

    Karayilan is less guarded when talking of the future.

    "If we have to leave the mountains, the PKK will continue its work to establish a free society," he said. "Not all of our comrades are from Turkey. The others will go back to their respective parts of Kurdistan and continue the fight for freedom there."

    Talk of leaving the mountains is a delicate subject for the PKK. Kurds have called the mountains home for thousands of years. For these fighters, however, they hold an even deeper resonance. It is here that they find shelter from the Turkish jets that stalk the skies and the army that outguns them. The impenetrable passes, thick forests and deep valleys provide refuge as well as a home.

    So how do they feel about the possibility of leaving them behind?

    "I have been in the mountains for 21 years, both in north and south Kurdistan," Karayilan said.

    "There may be some difficulties. We love the mountains. But a lot has changed since I joined the PKK all those years ago. Back then a person could be arrested simply for calling themself as a Kurd."

    Ronahi Serhat, also a member of the PKK's executive council and a fighter with the organisation for the past 20 years, sat alongside Karayilan, in front of a yellow flag bearing a portrait of Ocalan. She spoke with a similar reverie of her time in the hills. "You feel so free," she says of the guerrilla life.

    Shifting ground

    A little more than a year ago, in another house not far from where we met that evening, her outlook was very different. The mountains were then under intense bombardment from the Turkish airforce - a response to an attack in which 26 Turkish soldiers were killed by rebels at police and army posts in south-east Turkey.

    Back then, Serhat displayed little optimism. "We are not in the mountains by choice, it is a necessity," she said at the time. "We believe in a peaceful solution. If the environment is right, we are ready to put down our arms, but such an environment does not exist in Turkey right now."

    "A lot has changed since I joined the PKK all those years ago. Back then a person could be arrested simply for calling themself as a Kurd."

    - Murat Karayilan, PKK leader

    But for the past few weeks, the bombs have fallen silent and the PKK's leadership - following Ocalan's lead - is speaking in positive tones. And while the atmosphere in the Qandil has improved, conditions in Turkey also seem now more suited to talks.

    Recep Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey, faces a nationalist opposition which fears any talks could lead to a renewal of Kurdish demands for an independent state. Opposition leader Devlet Bahceli has accused the prime minister of "treason" for negotiating with the man dubbed the "chief terrorist".

    Turkey's justice minister, and one of the founding members of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, urged caution when commenting on the ceasefire announcement and the potential success of a peace deal. "There are no guarantees," Sadullah Ergin told reporters. "But we know what is going to happen if it does not."

    Erdogan has held firm in the face of opposition, saying he would pursue talks "even if it costs me my political career".

    His dream of transforming Turkey into a presidential republic, with him in the top job, cannot be achieved without the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. This support will not be forthcoming without the Kurdish issue being solved.

    Among the details that will have to be ironed out during the peace process will be the hundreds, if not thousands, of people detained in Turkish prisons on charges of links to the PKK.

    Erdogan has overseen the granting of greater language rights to Turkey's 20 million Kurds since coming to power in 2003, but they are still calling for greater autonomy in areas of the south-east where they maintain a majority. Requests for further official comment from Turkish authorities for this report were unanswered by time of publication.

    Perhaps most significantly, however, is that the two men with the power to end the conflict are now talking to each other. And, just as importantly, and though tentative they may be, the fighters of the mountains are also talking about reconciliation.

    "There will need to be a period of repair," Karayilan said. "Much like there was in South Africa."

    "The Turkish state has killed a lot of people. Thousands of civilians lost their lives to unknown assailants. Villages were destroyed and people went missing. We have also killed. Both sides have a lot to forgive."

    Follow Richard Hall on Twitter: @_RichardHall

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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