Qandil, Asharq Al-Awsat- In the aftermath of the nine days of fierce battles that took place two weeks ago between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters and the Turkish Forces, the situation still remains very tense. Turkish forces withdrew suddenly and incomprehensibly from the Kurdistan region, contrary to expectations that they would remain there for a long time. However, the strict and comprehensive curfew imposed by the Kurdistan government on the region, especially in the areas with heavy Kurdish rebel presence and in remote villages, is still ongoing and had started before the outbreak of the latest battles.
Any car passing through the town of Sanksar, which is part of the Qalat Dizah town in the Sulaymaniyah province or through the towns of Soran and Rowandiz in Arbil is subjected to thorough searches and lengthy interrogation about the reasons for visiting the Qandil villages. Journalists and media personnel in particular are barred entry and cannot access the Qandil Mountains irrespective of their pretexts or justifications.
For this reason, a reporter from Asharq Al-Awsat had to disguise himself in traditional villager’s clothes and arranged transport with a taxi car that frequently travelled these roads. The taxi driver had cleverly planted a camera and recording device that were secretly concealed in the car; however the latter was emitting loud static noise that was painful to the ears.
Sitting amidst a group of villagers, we reached the last checkpoint in Sanksar where the Peshmerga forces were stationed. The fall of heavy rain proved to be our saving grace as the security men did not get the chance to thoroughly check our identity documents and search the car before dropping the passengers off as usual. Thus, we passed through the checkpoint without any problems and made our way to Leyoozi, which prior to the battles was the main PKK Kurdish rebels’ stronghold.
This village, comprised of 35 houses, has mostly been razed to the ground as had five other neighboring villages after a series of Turkish raids that preceded the ground operations by approximately three weeks. The raid had also destroyed many residential houses, in addition to the only hospital (affiliated to the PKK) that used to provide the villagers with treatment and medicine free of charge.
During the air raid, a rocket fired by a Turkish forces aircraft landed 50 meters from the hospital building and largely demolished it, while another rocket remains lodged five-meters deep in the mud in front of the hospital door. Since it had not detonated, everyone keeps a safe distance from it thus making efforts to rebuild the hospital and area impossible for fear of activating it. The villagers are deeply concerned and believe that it is like a time bomb that can explode at any moment.
A junior ranking fighter, assigned the duty of accompanying Asharq Al-Awsat on its mission, spoke into his military radio transmitter and soon a Kurdish rebel vehicle drove up and took us to a secure place at the foot of a chain of mountains that was surrounded by large rocks. There we met with a tall dark-skinned man in his forties named Ahmed Deniz who a few weeks prior to the outbreak of battles had been appointed to take charge of the Foreign Relations Office of the PKK’s political wing ERNK (Eniya Rizgariya Netewa Kurdistan, aka National Liberation Front of Kurdistan) succeeding Abdul-Rahman al Chadarchi, who according to one of the fighters had been dispatched on a mission to another area far from where we were.
After greeting us, the chief of the party’s foreign relations office wanted to know what the international press, and especially the Arab press, thought of the PKK and its cause. Deniz who joined the PKK in 1991, in response to the question about the number of casualties on both sides said, “The official statistics that we received from the People’s Defence Force leadership, the PKK’s armed wing, confirms that at the end of the clashes, 125 were killed and 150 injured on the Turkish forces side let alone the hundreds of soldiers and other senior ranking officials who have fled and deserted the army service. All this was a direct result of our solid resistance and defense firstly, but also due to the cold weather. As for the human losses on our side during the first week of the battle that began 21 February 2008, they amounted to five injuries and then nine, and on the eighth day four fell during the final battles. This means that the final census is nine killed and nine injured.”
With regards to the likelihood of the Turkish forces carrying out further operations against the PKK rebels during the coming spring or summer: “The Turkish forces have been preparing to launch an attack on us for a long time and there has been intensive training in the mountainous Simara region. In light of the harsh weather conditions there, a large number of the Turkish soldiers died as a result of the severe cold despite being well prepared with all the necessary equipment to fight in battles in the snow and on the mountainous terrain,” he said
Deniz added, “Turkey has suffered a major military, political, economic and historical defeat and numerous senior military leaders have been killed – and the burial ceremonies were aired on Turkish television. However, what was unexpected in the aftermath of the battles was the brave resistance that the Kurdish people demonstrated in all parts of Kurdistan and which embodied the most elevated meaning of national spirit that we hold in highest regard and respect. We always anticipate the enemy’s attack.”
Asked whether the fighters collected the bodies of the Turkish troops, Deniz replied, “The People’s Defence Force is currently comprehensively sweeping the area in which the battles erupted in search of mines – many were planted by the Turkish army there, and they are also searching for the enemy’s fallen troops in the battlefield.”
As to whether the party was expecting Turkey to initiate dialogue with him following the recent battles, the head of the PKK’s Foreign Relations Office said, “Turkey has been waging a fierce war against us since 1984 and with the assistance of superpowers, such as the US and Israel, while Ankara still pursues a policy founded upon annihilating the Kurdish race and denying their existence and rights and vehemently rejecting political dialogue and the discourse of political understanding despite the PKK’s multiple calls for a unilateral ceasefire – on five successive occasions – with the intention of ending violence and opening the door to dialogue. This is why we do not expect any initiations on Turkey’s behalf as long as it remains committed to its policy that rejects any achievements for the Kurdish people in the four parts of Kurdistan. However, we anticipate Ankara will changes its military tactics against us to keep up appearances, especially since before the battles erupted it had declared that it would strive towards resolving the PKK’s issues and the problems in Kirkuk at once. But the rejection it sensed in public opinion made it back down on the Kirkuk issue so that the PKK issue remained, in addition to some secret undeclared goals.”
Regarding the strategy used in the latest operations, Deniz said, “[their strategy] manifested as forcefully charging towards the Barzan region, south Kurdistan and seizing full control of al Zab, which contains various strongholds and headquarters affiliated to the People’s Defence Force, then advancing towards the Qandil Mountains and keeping the troops there for a long period of time. And thus Turkey becomes a real and effective partner in executing America’s special plan for the new Middle East, but it has been dealt a blow and suffered defeat. As such, Turkey might, as part of its military tactics, launch another series of air raids on the region running parallel to a partial mobilization of its forces to carry out swift operations to target rebels for two or three days. It could then withdraw and retreat with the aim of convincing the world that it is not targeting the Kurdistan region but rather the PKK forces. Its intention, of course, is to test the international and local public opinion before destroying the Kurdish people’s gains in southern Kurdistan.”
Deniz stressed that the political, military and media circles in Turkey are currently witnessing controversial debates over the benefits and results of the recent battles and over the reasons and motives that necessitated all these enormous human and material losses. He added that when one of the Turkish army commanders told the media that 240 of the 370 Kurdish guerillas in al Zab were killed, he was severely mocked by a reporter who asked, ‘Well, why didn’t you bring back the bodies with you? And why didn’t you advance to Qandil and settle there if you had indeed obliterated all the fighters in al Zab?”‘
As for the likelihood of the party vacating the Qandil area and laying down its arms, Deniz said, “This is not part of our plan; the harsh Qandil Mountain’s region has always been an essential and constant refuge for the rebel Kurdish forces. Here I need to highlight an important matter, which is that there is absolutely no presence of the People’s Defence Force in the Qandil Mountains – with the exception of some offices and headquarters that carry out the political and administrative functions of the party. It is worth pointing out that the Qandil region is under the control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is a licensed and official party that is part of the resistance in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK or the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistane). Even if some PKK fighters came to the area, they would not settle there. As for disarming; it should be emphasized that the Kurdish people are peaceful people who shun violence and war and truly believe in democracy and are fighting for it. For our part, we have explicitly and repeatedly stated that the PKK’s issues will not be resolved through violence and military means but Turkey is acting irrationally and continues to pursue a policy of war and violence. It is insistent upon this and will adhere to it until there is only one man left standing, meaning that whenever Turkey senses that there is a legitimate and peaceful approach, it intensifies the violence and attacks against us. Just as what has happened before the outbreak of the recent battles, the People’s Defence Force issued a peaceful initiative document comprised of several paragraphs. This is why you will always find that the number of Kurds killed during the ceasefires invariably exceeds the number of fighters falling during the Turkish operations and attacks on us, which compels us to continue to resort to arms to defend ourselves and our nation as long as the Turkish military operations subsist. We are not keen to carry arms; in fact, we reject it.”
In terms of the Iranian role in the latest Turkish attacks, Deniz said, “We have learnt that a top-ranking Turkish delegation visited Iran before the recent battles to ask Iran to allow them access to its land and airspace to launch attacks against us – but Iran turned down their request. On the ground, we have not witnessed any role played by Iran or cooperation with the Turkish forces.”
Regarding the party’s future plans and intentions in the aftermath of the battles, “It may be considered the beginning of a new phase for us,” Deniz states, “especially since as I have previously said, the attacks targeted the Kurdish people’s gains in the south with the intention of undermining them, in addition to shifting the perspective on the Kirkuk issue so that it has become in Turkey’s favor. If Turkey has succeeded in achieving that, then the current situation in the Kurdistan region has radically changed. As such, we will verify this matter and declare once again that we do not want war and would not impose it on any party and that our conflict must be resolved peacefully – otherwise, peace, democracy and brotherhood will not be attained in the region under any circumstances. For this reason we will closely and carefully examine the most recent events so as to determine our future positions.”
Moreover, Deniz added that in light of the recent events, the PKK has proven its strength and endurance, which has only served to strengthen the foundation of the party. He added that the historic victory that the Kurdish rebels achieved a few weeks ago and the support and sympathy that they have received from the Kurdish people throughout Kurdistan has boosted and cemented their confidence and fortified their morale and strength in an unprecedented manner so that it may be said that the party is heading towards greater power and solidarity.
In light of the deteriorating health of PKK guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan who is detained in Turkey and with regards to the possibility of the party considering appointing a replacement after his departure, Deniz said, “For a long time we have been campaigning under the slogan ‘enough’ in which we uphold the message that Ocalan must be released and the attempts to poison him must end and that the occupation on the Kurdish people must cease and Turkey must accept the will of the Kurdish people. Our campaign and slogans represent a lot and the leader Ocalan represents the greatest value to us; he taught us about resistance and expression for the sake of our nation and helped us understand the true meaning of life and that the leadership in charge of this movement is collectively shared and built upon the basis of council and elections.”
With regards to the reality of the disagreements between the two commanding operatives, Murat Karayilan and Cemidl Bayik, Deniz said, “Everyone must become aware of the reality of the Turkish regime and understand it well; the war that is waged against us is multi-dimensional and complex – it is not restricted to weapons and includes psychological, economic, media and cultural wars. Turkey wants to eliminate us militarily, economically, psychologically and through the media by propagating various news reports and blatant fabrications so as to undermine the morale of our fighters and raise the collapsing Turkish morale. I would like to take this opportunity to stress that the internal system that the party follows is democratic and based upon electing the leadership through large-scale conferences. There are no conflicts between members of the party’s leadership for the simple reason that leadership positions in our party do not connote more sacrifice or dedication for our nation and people – it does not mean more privileges.”
After the interview, we headed to the village of Ayanzi and walked for about a mile until we got to the foot of a mountain to a fortified trench. There we met with a beautiful lady named Masgeen Amd, 37 years old, a resident of Diyarbakir who said she was among the leadership of the Federation of Kurdish Organizations and who was accompanied by her friend, the fighter Sariya Darsim, 25 years old.
Darsim began to disclose the details of the preparation that that Turkish forces were undertaking on the borders, “They have retreated from one area but are rallying in other areas; the attack known as ’25’ was not the first and will not be the last.”
As for the reasons behind the sudden Turkish withdrawal Amd said, “This withdrawal was a unilateral decision on Turkey’s behalf and the latest attack has proven that Turkey and its army have lost the ability to make decisions and this is something that has become known to the whole world. The United States allowed Turkey to carry out its air raids against Kurdistan and it gave the Turkish forces the green light to strike south Kurdistan. When it wanted Turkey to terminate operations it instructed it to withdraw and it did. This means that the decision was not a Turkish one and it was made in the wake of the overwhelming defeat of the Turkish forces. Had the Turkish forces triumphed militarily on the ground, the US would have allowed them to stay longer.”
Asked whether the party was ready to disarm, Amd said, “We have conditions that must be followed before we can lay down our arms; the most important of which is to announce the resolution of our issue using peaceful and political means. It is common knowledge that we have rejected war repeatedly and called against it, however the Turkish party insists on continuing it. This is why we have to fight to defend ourselves and our nation, and so long as Ankara insists on pursuing a policy that seeks to eliminate the Kurdish people we will never disarm.
With regards to the party’s fate and future, Masgeen Amd said, “The Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the people of Kurdistan have become one and the same, meaning that it has become one far-reaching and advanced popular movement that represents the will of the Kurdish people. Therefore, a movement of this kind is destined to have a bright future.”
Her expectations about Turkey’s acceptance of the party’s terms for disarmament: “We hope that Turkey could rise to that level, especially since examples in contemporary history have proven that any organized force anywhere in the world cannot quell or eliminate revolutionary movements that rise to defend the homeland – and the will of the people will not be defeated. This is why we hope that Turkey will recognize the rights of the Kurdish people and engage in rational dialogue to see the reality of the situation and renounce its policy that seeks to destroy the Kurds and detain and annihilate all our symbols and leaders.”
When asked if the PKK would stop its armed operations and move to cities in Iraqi Kurdistan like the other oppositional Kurdish-Iranian parties, Amd said, “Our presence as the PKK is not limited to the mountains. The other Kurdish forces must become well aware of this reality. The Peshmerga in Kurdistan did not lay down their arms until they triumphed in their cause. We are living on our own homeland, we have not occupied any nation or people and the contrived ideological and geographical boundaries in some parts of Kurdistan are no longer valid. These boundaries are not the root of the problem; the real Kurdish issue that must be resolved immediately and comprehensively is the present status quo. If only there can be a peaceful solution that would lead to disarmament, but it [Turkey] will propose no such thing as it seeks to break the Kurdish people’s spirit and resolve.”
In terms of the political forces and the Kurdish people’s reactions towards the recent Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan, Amd said, “The attitude of the Kurdish people, especially in the south, was honorable and praiseworthy; however the reactions of the Kurdish parties were weak at times in the face of what the PKK fighters suffered and the brutal Turkish attack against them, with the exception of President Massoud Barzani whose position was noble, honorable and worthy of respect.”
Driving 10 kilometers on a bumpy road we arrived at the village of Barkurdkah, which is comprised of 30 houses. We met with its Sheikh, Hajj Omar Hussein, 54 years old, who spoke of the fear that still reigned among his people and added, “The inhabitants of this village, notwithstanding the Turkish air raids, refused to leave their village but the concerned governmental parties that have promised us a great deal of assistance still have not fulfilled their pledges.”
His nephew Ibn Hamid Hussein, 38 years old, reproached the Kurdish parties in Kurdistan, “These parties will bring us and our region ruin destruction when they ‘explode’ their wealth in the face of the ruling regime in Iraq – but when they reach power, they will turn their backs on us and forget all about us.”