Fikirye Byrum is a 38-year-old Kurdish woman with a thin frame, a white headscarf and a nest of wrinkles around her eyes. She lives in the eastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir in a modest four-bedroom apartment with her two sisters, mother and four remaining children.
When the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) openly called on all Kurds in the region to join their defence against ISIL, Fikirye’s 21-year-old daughter Evrim carefully broached the topic. She asked her mother how she felt about those crossing into Syria to defend her people’s community.
“I told Evrim that if I didn’t have children, I, too, would’ve gone to help my people,” Fikirye told Al Jazeera, while holding her youngest child in her arms.
On April 3, Fikirye was out of the house when Evrim told her grandmother she was heading out to university. That day Evrim left her phone behind and kissed her baby siblings goodbye.
When her mother arrived home in the evening, she waited a few hours before calling her daughter’s friends to locate her whereabouts. With still no word from her daughter, the next day she went into Evrim’s room and saw a note by her bedside.
“[In her note] she said I shouldn’t worry about her,” Fikirye told Al Jazeera solemnly, while taking a deep breath before lighting a cigarette. “That’s when I realised she had searched out the PKK.”
Evrim is the third member of her family to join the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant group that carried out a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state and is now engaged with their Syrian affiliates (YPG) in a fight against ISIL. Her younger sister Raperin also left unannounced three years ago. She was only 16 when she joined her uncle in the PKK ranks.
Kurdish families in Turkey have long dreaded the day when their children would join the PKK. While the commencement of the peace process was supposed to offer a new way forward in their quest for greater autonomy and liberation, the threat posed by ISIL has now compelled thousands of young Kurds to protect their persecuted communities.
I'm angry at the entire world. They push us to death against ISIL while still labelling us a terrorist organisation.
Because fighters traverse the Syrian border undocumented, the number of people joining the PKK in recent months remains uncertain. But as more cross the border to battle this new threat, their families are left with mixed emotions of despair and honour.
Emre, a 48-year-old shop owner from Diyarbakir, says that his 23-year-old son also joined the ranks of the PKK three months ago after celebrating Eid al-Adha with his family.
“I’m angry at the entire world,” said Emre, while showing Al Jazeera a photo of his son. “They push us to death against ISIL while still labelling us a terrorist organisation.”
Walet, a 35-year-old Kurdish activist working for Mayader – an organisation managing funeral arrangements for those who lost relatives – said that the corpses of 170 people from eastern Turkey have been retrieved from Syria since January.
In 2012, the US State Department listed the PKK as the deadliest terrorist group in Europe. And though many Kurds have questioned the group’s quick resort to violence, family ties with fighters and harrowing memories of state repression have influenced many children to identify with the organisation at an early age.
Emre’s close friend Estere says that his 2-year-old son makes the peace sign whenever he sees references to the PKK on television. Despite Estere’s unwavering support for his people in Kobane, he’s already anxious about his son’s potential departure when he grows up.
“If he wanted to join, there is nothing I could do to stop him,” said Estere, while pouring a glass of tea in Emre’s shop.
|Evrim is the third member of her family to join the PKK. Her mother’s greatest worry is that the youngest son will also do so in the future [Al Jazeera]|
Most families receive no word about their relatives, until they die. Fikirye’s neighbour promised to look for Raperin while visiting northern Iraq last year.
He returned two weeks later with a photo of her sitting in a field among her fellow combatants.
Although comforted by Raperin’s picture, Fikirye still hadn’t received any word about her eldest. In October, she turned on the television and recognised Evrim’s corpse in the news. Falling to her knees, she wept.
“We’re proud of our children,” Fikirye told Al Jazeera, after opening Evrim’s bedroom for the first time since finding her letter by her bedside. “They’ve done nothing shameful.”
Evrim’s room was tidy. The bed was made and her old school books were stacked on a bookshelf next to the door. Sitting on top of the bookshelf stood a collage of portraits. Evrim’s high school graduation picture was among them.
While coming to terms with her daughter’s death, Fikirye keeps her bedroom untouched and her door closed at all times.
As of today, Fikirye’s greatest worry is that her 16-year-old son may also depart to protect his people in Kobane. Resigned to her fate, she finds refuge in her daughter’s memory and bitter honour in her death.
“We still suffer from the pain,” Fikirye told Al Jazeera, while looking at her son. “We understand that after our children leave, they don’t come back.”