The Dispirited Descent of Turkish Rebel Kurds in Iraq
Wext: Monday, 27.September. @ 00:00:00 CEST
By Robin Shulman
QANDIL MOUNTAIN RANGE, Iraq, 26 / 09 / 2004 — Sunrise came to the women's camp in shafts of white light through woven roofs, but Aristan Manzur slept past 10. She had a fever again, and fluid blocked the air in her lungs.
She woke and walked slowly down a rocky path to the stream for a breakfast of tea, cream-filled cookies and cigarettes. Soon she hiked back to her bed of dusty blankets to sleep.
Manzur, 21, had trained to become a Kurdish guerrilla leader since she was 10. Her group, formerly known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, but renamed the People's Congress of Kurdistan, or Kongra-Gel, fought the Turkish government in a 15-year civil war that left 30,000 people dead. But in 1999, the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured, and the guerrillas retreated to these stony mountain passes of northern Iraq.
This summer, several thousand of the rebels returned to Turkey and resumed attacks against the military. But Manzur and a few thousand other rebels remained in the Qandil mountain range, no longer wanting to fight.
Those who stayed behind form a guerrilla force without a war -- a lethargic, semi-retired group of former fighters, with many ill and homesick members among them. But they still have weapons, and Turkey remains wary of their intentions. Their presence in northern Iraq is a source of pressure and volatility in the one part of the country that has been mostly calm.
Turkey, which maintains special forces troops in northern Iraq, is pressuring the U.S. and Iraqi governments to quash the Kurdish guerrillas, and the Turkish prime minister said recently that his patience was "wearing thin." Iraqi and U.S. officials have said they are not ready to fight the guerrillas to get them to leave the mountains.
"Iraqi forces have too many things on their plate" to fight in the Qandil range, the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said in a telephone interview. "The new Iraq definitely will not tolerate the presence of armed foreign militias on its territory."
Many of the guerrillas say they want to leave the mountains but do not have a safe way to do so. Most of them are from Turkey, where they would likely be imprisoned if they returned. Few have ID cards or documents from any country.
In the past, Turkey has offered limited amnesty to guerrillas who had not killed anyone, on condition they inform on their comrades. Few of them surrendered. Many now say a broader amnesty could lure them out of the mountains.
"People want to go down from the mountains and participate in political change," said Murat Karayilan, 48, a vice president of the Kongra-Gel, an umbrella organization for about eight Kurdish rebel groups. "For the last five years, we've been telling the Turks to solve it this way. No one has been listening."
Namik Tan, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, said: "There will never be an amnesty program for terrorists. People who killed others, innocent people, how could you offer them amnesty?"
In the cool, fresh air of a recent night, Zalal Anitos, 26, sat on a blanket and explained that she had been trained to fight since she was a child.
When she was 11, she said, Turkish soldiers burned down her house in a Kurdish village in southeastern Turkey, killing her uncle. On nights that followed, she said, government helicopters bombed the area, killing her neighbors.
The Turkish government had outlawed the Kurdish language, and at home, her family spoke in whispers. But Anitos said she barely spoke at all.
She was recruited at 13 by the PKK, which is unique in the region for including an almost equal number of women as men. The years passed in a blur of violence, and she does not recall how many Turkish soldiers she killed or how many comrades she lost.
Her life as a fighter ended with the PKK's unilateral cease-fire declaration in 1999. When she was 21, Anitos felt bereft of purpose, she said, cut loose from her certainty about the value of armed struggle. She wanted to kill herself, she said, but instead came here.
This summer, she decided not to return to Turkey to fight. "We don't need any more martyrs," she said.
Manzur, said that she, like Anitos, was raised in the guerrilla organization. She was taken in and reared until she was 17 by Ocalan himself, she said, along with a group of other children whose parents were guerrillas.
When Ocalan was captured, Manzur, speaking in careful English, said she watched her comrades vacillate over purpose and mission. Many gave up their Marxist-Leninist ideology. They dropped the goal of establishing a Kurdish state and began demanding cultural rights and greater political participation in Turkey.
Meanwhile, the region around them also changed. Neighboring countries became less friendly to the Kurdish armed struggle and many guerrillas came to believe that it was futile, Manzur said. She opposed the resumption of fighting this summer.
"I was very close to those who left," she said. "But it became clear to me that they don't know what they're fighting for. And if they don't know, then how can they fight?"
These days, talk in the mountains focuses on leaving. "Can I get an Iraqi ID card?" one guerrilla whispered urgently to a visitor.
A driver from the nearby village of Ranya, who said he transported supplies to the guerrillas, said he recently met a 17-year-old fighter by the roadside. The guerrilla pleaded: "Please take me with you -- I'm with the PKK and I want to run away. Put me in your trunk," the driver recalled.
Gradually, some guerrillas have left to join Ocalan's brother, Osman, who abandoned Kongra-Gel last winter and in August announced the creation of a nonviolent group that is hiding elsewhere in northern Iraq.
But at the mountain hideouts, the training routines continue. New recruits continue to arrive, some of the rebels said, though many said they were fleeing family troubles as much as political problems.
At the Zargele camp in the agricultural lands of the valley, young guerrillas lay on the ground face-down. They laughed as they tried to load weapons, and then aimed the heavy machine guns at stone targets down the field. One bullet hit the ground and bounced down the field. A few hit the targets, smashing the rocks. Then the training session was abandoned in favor of a game of soccer.
At night they occupied themselves by changing guard duty each hour so that every guerrilla got a turn to patrol the camp, with the twin lights of flashlight and cigarette.
"This is where we can engage the enemy if the enemy comes here and attacks," said Najbir Ahmed, 30. Then, laughing, Ahmed said she often asked herself who, precisely, the enemy was.
The U.S.-led war in Iraq reshuffled old alliances in the region. Iran and Syria, which had long harbored the Kurdish rebels, have in recent years confronted them with force. Frequent clashes broke out this summer on the Iranian side of the border, and a band of four rebels left the fight to walk to one of the camps in Qandil. One man showed a journal of confrontations he kept in a slim calendar in his pocket. Every day for the past few months was marked with the names of the dead and wounded.
Across the stream in a camp for female leaders, a half-dozen women leaned in to watch the Olympics on a generator-powered television. That day, the Iraqi interim president had said at a news conference that the guerrillas could not stay in the mountains.
Asked if they were worried that they might be forced off the mountain, the women were silent as all eyes fixed on the television. "Maybe," one woman finally said, without taking her eyes from the women's gymnastics.
A week later, Manzur sent an e-mail saying she had left the PKK.
She had arrived in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul with dozens of other former guerrillas, she said later in a telephone interview.
"We were living on the mountain without any hope," she said.
Far from the mountain base, she said she suddenly felt a sense of hope. She hoped a passport could be forged so she could attend a college in Europe. She hoped to work there for Kurdish rights.