by Fréderike Geerdink
The gangs of Daesh were a few hundred metres away from the military base of the PKK at the frontline near Kirkuk. That fact didn’t distract the fighters that evening. Some were slaughtering a sheep that had been brought in from a base closer to the city, others were sitting on the concrete kitchen floor putting a chocolate cake together. Most of the fighters were too young to have even been alive when the historical event took place that they were preparing to celebrate the next day, on 27 November 2016. They were going to celebrate – and I’m sure you guessed already – the founding of the PKK thirty eight years earlier, on 27 November 1978.
Not all Kurds are happy with the PKK’s existence. Some even get angry when I mention the decades-old struggle. What, they ask, has the PKK brought except violence, death and destruction?
It’s a legitimate question. To start answering it, I’d like to ask a counter question. Do you think the Kurdish armed and unarmed movement had any idea that now, twenty years into the 21st century, the Kurdish question would remain unsolved? That Kurds would still not be granted self-determination? That Kurdistan would still be occupied?
Years ago, I was interviewing a man who had been part of the movement as a journalist since the 1970s. At some point, he felt he needed to clear something up that he thought I didn’t fully grasp – and he was right. He said: “You know, when this movement started, we didn’t foresee that the struggle would take so long. We honestly thought that in a few years time, Kurdistan would be free”.
In those early years, that meant that an independent Kurdish state would have been carved out. Already since the 1990s, this objective has radically changed and nowadays the struggle is for self-determination within the existing borders of the countries where the Kurds live. But the states that occupy Kurdistan have categorically denied the Kurds their rights. Instead, they have continued to suppress, forcibly assimilate and kill them.
International law says that nations have the right to self-determination. The first article of several important international treaties from the 1960s says so. The problem of the Kurdish nation is that it is not occupied and colonized by an external power, like the African and Asian countries that kicked out their European colonizers in the 20th century, but by the authorities of the countries they are living in. Kurdistan is an ‘internal colony’. If they want to kick out their occupiers and found their own state, the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria would have to be redrawn. International law explicitly bans that when it’s against the will of existing states, as those same treaties state that the integrity (read: borders) of existing countries must at all times be respected.
To grant ‘internally colonized’ nations rights, other treaties have been adopted. Europe has many, in which for example language rights, political rights and cultural rights of indigenous nations, like the Sami, Frisians, Basques and Catalans, are laid down. Turkey has never signed any of these treaties. The Kurds who demand that Turkey respect such rights, even when they do it with words and not weapons, are designated as ‘separatists’ and ‘terrorists’.
Does this justify the PKK’s violent struggle? Kurds who say it doesn’t, angrily or desperately ask questions. Why doesn’t the PKK withdraw from the mountains in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, so Turkey stops bombing the area and people don’t have to vacate their villages anymore to save their lives? How could the PKK arm and train the youth in the cities in southeast Turkey in 2015, resulting in city wars that destroyed historical neighbourhoods, cost many lives and caused many people to flee their homes? Why doesn’t the PKK lay down its arms to open the road to negotiations? Doesn’t the PKK’s struggle only complicate the Kurds’ lives, to say the least?
The questions are understandable. Kurdish history is drenched in blood and people want it to stop. But Turkey’s state of mind hasn’t changed at all, so Kurds would be without any self-defense if the PKK laid down its weapons now. Kurds would be left to the will of the Turkish army, meaning certain death, and to the will of the Turkish state, meaning certain assimilation. Also now, as the 42nd anniversary is celebrated, it’s not the PKK that has to lay down its arms, but the state.
At that Kirkuk frontline, fighters explained to me what the PKK meant to them. The day they became fighters, they felt it as a re-birth. They compared that to the situation of the Kurds as a nation. The Kurds existed but have only started to be aware of who they are and stand up for their identity since the PKK emerged. The frontline fighters were proud to be part of the struggle.
It is saddening for sure that many Kurds, especially those from Turkey, can only live their Kurdish identity to the full when they are away from official society. It shouldn’t be that way. The young fighters I met that day on the Kirkuk frontline, shouldn’t have been there. They should have been living in a free Kurdistan already, with a PKK no longer a guerrilla force but the official self-defense force of the nation after the withdrawal of the Turkish army from Kurdish lands.
As long as that free Kurdistan doesn’t exist, Turkey is to blame for the violence, death and destruction. As long as that free Kurdistan doesn’t exist, those who fight for it can only be respected.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.