Though polite, my host is guarded and visibly nervous. I wait with my translator in a room decorated with photos of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. We have just arrived in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq, unexpected. In another room, phone calls to Syria are being made, to confirm the name of the contact I’ve given. The three of us sit on the floor, without speaking.
After a while a few other men filter in. Tea is served, then food. Pleasant discussion gradually picks up as we are joined by two more men who sit down to eat. Nothing is ever announced concerning my contact or the phone calls, but it is understood that I am now trusted.
The fellow who had been waiting alone with us begins to smile, and much of the tension leaves his face. A Kurd from Turkey who has fled to Iraq has good reason to be wary of strangers. The Turkish government considers most of them terrorists, and I am told that some of its roving secret service agents have been to the refugee camp. Turkish officers have been there too, to negotiate the return of some seven thousand refugees, mostly families.
Everyone says that they want desperately to go back to their homes, but they don’t trust the government. Even if they did return, many of the homes are no longer there. I hear stories of killings, imprisonment, and torture; they are familiar; I’ve heard them again and again in the southeast of Turkey where the Kurds live, far from the beaches and tourist spots.
At the end of World War I, when England and France divided up the Middle-East into the countries and borders that we now recognize, it is safe to say that the greatest care was not shown to draw those borders in such a way that would reflect cultural, ethnic, and tribal differences; the most obvious example being that a huge region, inhabited by the Kurds and referred to as ‘Kurdistan’ since almost the beginning of recorded history, was not even included. A map was drawn up for Kurdistan but later rejected in favour of giving the land to its surrounding countries; Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia and Iraq. All five of these governments fear Kurdish nationalism, and each have taken what they’ve deemed appropriate measures to deal with it. In Saddam Hussein’s case this entailed the gassing of the city of Halabja, in Northeast Iraq, in March 1988.
In Turkey, shortly after it was made illegal to speak the Kurdish language in 1983, fighting began between a group of armed separatist Kurds and the Turkish military. The conflict raged for over a decade and by the time a cease-fire was called in 1998, some 37,000 people had died (mostly Kurds), and the Turkish military’s systematic destruction of more than 3,000 villages and forced displacement of civilians had created over one million Kurdish refugees.
Though the armed separatist group in question once controlled whole regions of Southeast Turkey, the fighting has stopped and they now live in hidden encampments in the mountains of North Iraq. Once a Marxist-style revolutionary group called the PKK, they have gone through many changes in ideology and practice. Now, they claim to be a democratic organization that no longer fights for a separate Kurdistan, but only for basic civil rights in Turkey.
They are on the European Union’s and US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, and the changes of stated ideology and new name, Kongra-Gel (or people’s congress), are viewed by many as simply a way of evading negative repercussions for their past actions, which include the killing of civilians.
It is they I’ve come to meet.
Night has fallen, deep in the mountains near the Iranian border, and a female guerrilla fighter, named Hebun, and I are talking about the American civil rights movement. A row of AK-47s is behind her, stacked against a wall of sandbags, lined with plastic to keep the rain out. We sit in an in-ground shelter, part of a series of sprawling camps that are intentionally hard to find. Outside, a portrait of Che Guevara hangs on the limbs of a tree.
Hebun’s eyes are piercing, her voice confident. She became a guerrilla fourteen years ago when the Turkish military destroyed her village in southern Turkey, while she was still in high school. She fled to the hills where she had to learn quickly about carrying a weapon and traveling at night. In time, she became a military commander with five hundred men and women under her command; she now sits on the Defense Council.
As we talk, people of different ages listen intently and take turns offering points or questions. Everyone I’ve met seems energized by philosophical and historical discussion, especially when human rights are the topic. The conversation turns to the rights of women in the Middle East.
She tells me that, for a woman, the very act of going to the mountains to fight alongside males was a revolutionary act. In the beginning it was difficult to adjust, but she says it’s been successful, and wants the camps to stand as an example to other women of the Middle East and elsewhere; an example that men and women can work together as equals.
As the conversation continues, there are many inquiries into the current status of America’s women, racial minorities, and the poor. They have an amazing grasp of American history (offhanded references are made to Woodrow Wilson and Civil War generals I’ve never heard of) and they have a great respect for Constitutional law. What they seem most anxious to discern, is if it really works in practice.
They tell me they’re trying to make democratic ideals work within their own society, and they look up to America for help in this. They are well aware of the US State Department’s official policy toward them, but everyone wants to know what the American public thinks of them, and feel sure it must be a more favorable view.
There is silence in the room when I reply that most Americans have never heard of them.
In Kongra-Gel’s constitution, among the listed duties of its members are, “Fight against discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, religion, language and nationality, and respect the existence and the rights of the `other`.”
Zubeyir Aydar is the president of Kongra-Gel, and a former Turkish Parliament member. “We want to work together with America, and with anyone else who wants real Democracy in the Middle East,” President Aydar says. “They haven’t even given us a chance to talk to them.”
He feels that America would be a natural ally to Kongra-Gel, but it thinks it has no choice other than to keep Turkey happy. “They (America) will do whatever Turkey says.”
Though the US government considers marginalized Kurds who fought against Saddam Hussein, to be freedom fighters, it still considers marginalized Kurds who fought against Turkey (America’s ally) to be terrorists.
Pressure from Ankara to “dissolve” Kongra-Gel in exchange for Turkey’s support for the ongoing American operations in Iraq may result in US forces attacking the 5000 or so remaining guerrillas. Warnings from the State Department have already been issued and rumors are that it could happen before the end of the summer. If that’s the case, the debate about whether or not Kongra-Gel’s recent changes are a deception, or a true and honest attempt to work with others, may not matter much.
As I’m leaving the camp the next afternoon, I see Hebun at a roadside checkpoint, speaking to a guerrilla fighter in his teens. She approaches me and repeats something I’ve heard several times on my visit.