Murat Karayılan*, a top official of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), answered the questions of Deniz Kendal from Yeni Özgür Politika on a range of topics concerning both past and recent events.
In this part of the interview he speaks about the siege of Sinjar by ISIS in 2014 and how thousands of Yazidi people were saved from massacre. Medyanews summarizes essential messages for the readers:
So what did you do as an organisation against ISIS?
But we, as the PKK, do not adjust ourselves to the permission of external forces, especially when it comes to the defense of our people. We always plan and carry out the work we need to do with our resources, relying on our own strength. This is a core principle for us. Therefore, although our relations were somewhat good, when the Southern forces did not give their consent, we prepared and sent some experienced groups, mainly the command units, so that we could intervene with our means in case any bad situation developed there. We sent 12 experienced comrades to Shengal under the responsibility of the heroic commander Dilşêr Herekol, as it was reported in the press earlier. In addition, we sent a group of 8 comrades from our command level to Mahmur Camp under the responsibility of the heroic commander Tekoşêr, who had a great contribution in our struggle. Similarly, we sent a group to Kirkuk.
Of course, these groups have started preparations. Research had been initiated to train some young groups that can resist against a possible situation, both within the framework of exploring and recognizing the area and in relation to local powers, and to prepare them for war. There was already a kind of infrastructure for defense in Mahmur. In the meantime, we bought the weapons in the Southern market and made preparations as spares in Mahmur, Kirkuk and various places.
Comrades who went to Sengal trained a youth group of 9-10 people well. They knew the area. However, three of those friends were captured by the KDP forces in Sengal. In fact, one of them already worked there in the community. Two of them were from the group we sent. But the rest did a certain amount of work with patriotic people, with a few comrades who had been doing social works there for a long time. Martyr Sait Hesen has a very important role in this regard. In particular, both he and his family and clan provided very valuable contributions in terms of owning, protecting, guiding and working with this group, who went there to aid and support them. In this sense, Sait Hesen had a very important effort and role in the intervention that took place.
How would you summarize the current atmosphere when ISIS attacked Sengal on August 3, 2014?
At that time, ISIS was intervening everywhere with a high morale and motivation, and no power could stand against them. Neither the Syrian army, nor the Iraqi army, nor the peshmerga, and other many organizations and structures in Syria; none of them could stand against ISIS. The peshmerga forces could not hold out against the attack on Sengal. Therefore, they quickly started to leave Sengal. At the moment, while we are saying these words on this subject, we are not aiming to expose anyone necessarily. It was a reality. ISIS had a serious psychological advantage. To create fear in people wherever he went, they first captured some groups and brutally beheaded them. Instilling fear in this way, people were running away before they reached the place they were going to take. It had come to such a point that ISIS was specifying the dates they would go to for the cities for invading. So to speak, those who fled before that date were already running away, and those who remained were handing over the keys of the city to ISIS. Many of these retreating forces fled without any conflict or contact with ISIS. In fact, there are 22 settlements at various levels consisting of cities, towns, and villages, from Mosul towards Mahmur, and there were Iraqi military forces in all of them. ISIS forces reached Mahmur without firing a single bullet anywhere. Yet our forces resisted and stopped them in Mahmur Refugee Camp. In other words, even the strongest powers became hesitant against ISIS, which emerged as such a terrifying force. As I just mentioned, even the states of Europe did not want to interfere; ‘it is a big trouble; let’s not get into this trouble,’ they said. Local forces could not stand it either.
How did the attack on Sengal take place?
After the esteemed commander Dilşêr Herekol reached us at around 9 am on 3 August and told us about this terrible tragedy, we asked him, “If we intervene with our military battalions, can your group lead them? Do you recognize enough about the land? How strong is your dominance status? In this regard, what might be the rate of dire situations and losses in terms of our intervention forces? ”. The comrade immediately replied; “we are ready; we got to know the land, we had a certain amount of dominance on the field. We’ve been working hard since we got here,”. I asked him, “Is there anyone from the locals with you?’’ Comrade Dilşêr said, “There is no one with us except the 9 young people we have already trained here,” and told us that Memo’s group clashed with a group of friends at the top of Shengal Mountain, and that he was also based in Sinunê town. Later we realized that while he was talking to us via the communication device, ISIS was also close to him and was giving that conversation to us amid the very conflicts.
In short, when he said that he could lead the forces if the forces arrived, we said, “Ok; we are setting off the battalions this evening immediately; a battalion is ready. You should meet them tonight.’’ Actually one of our battalion units was very ready at the Rojava border. This is how we decided to intervene to Sengal. Of course, we informed the KCK Co-Presidency of our decision at noon; comrades also replied to us saying ‘ it is appropriate; do what is necessary’. Thereupon, we put our forces into action to intervene in Sengal. That known Sengal intervention developed in this way. In other words, while everyone, whether civilian or military, was fleeing to get out of Sengal as soon as possible, our forces were in a rush towards arriving to Sengal. On the top of Sengal Mountain, our comrades moved swiftly without hindrance to reach the group of 4-5 friends who were in conflict under the leadership of the heroic comrade Memo. Some even warned their friends and said, “There is ISIS in front of you, where are you going?”. However, the friends managed to reach the other comrades in Sengal by advancing rapidly without listening to anyone.
What kind of plan did you have during this intervention?
Our plan was primarily to protect Şengal Mountain. The surrounding was plain, and ISIS had tanks and armoured vehicles. However, we did not have such opportunities. Therefore, we planned to defend the mountain, not the plain. We directed our troops accordingly, and our forces that reached the area first took it under protection on this basis. Of course, ISIS wanted to seize the mountain as well. They made many moves, but our comrades hit and did not let them go. Afterwards, ISIS constantly attacked for three months to capture the mountain. However, our forces’ ability to manoeuvre and fight on land was much higher than that of ISIS. They didn’t have much experience in that direction. Therefore, they understood that ISIS could not be effective in the land conflict, the war waged in the mountainous area. As a result, while they dominated the city and the plain, we dominated the mountain.
How were YPG forces involved in the process? Did the YPG intervene at this stage as well?
While our forces established dominance on the mountain, the message was given to all Sengal people that everyone should climb the Sengal Mountain. Everyone headed towards the mountain. In this context, the plains villages and townspeople on the Southern Kurdistan line headed towards Sengal Mountain. But this time, tens of thousands of people gathered on the mountain; There was a water and food problem. We made calls for it. But our call did not receive any serious support. Some helicopters came and threw water from the air, but as this water was not enough, even one of those bales of water fell on people, if you remember, and therefore two people lost their lives. A great tragedy was imminent. Deaths began due to thirst in the hottest point of summer; primarily, children and the elderly passed away.
We then applied to the YPG Command in Rojava. They were already watching the process; the comrades we sent first went to Rojava and reached Sengal via that region. We suggested offering support and opening a corridor between Sengal and Cezaa, a township in Rojava. They also said ‘ok’ and put their own military forces into action. There was a castle formerly held by Saddam; ISIS had taken over there. Comrades in Sengal Mountain stated that a corridor could be created if this castle was taken. The castle was attacked, and captured YPG forces settled in it, and other necessary places along the line were also held; in this way, we secured the corridor. In this way, our people, who previously had to leave Sengal on foot, now have the opportunity to exit by vehicles.
I think there was no vehicle opportunity in Shengal to exit…
In this regard, the Rojava administration called on all the people of Rojava to take action to save our people in Sengal, anyone with a truck, bus or passenger car. And indeed thousands were mobilized. Thus, the transfer of people who were facing hunger and thirst in Sengal to Rojava began. Of course, every vehicle brought with it supplies and water. In the 10-day period from August 8 to August 18, exactly 120,000 people were evacuated from Mount Sengal to Rojava. This process continued after that. This was a major humanitarian evacuation operation that no state could do easily. But the power of the people, the sensitivity and possibilities of our people in Rojava; and at the same time, this great transfer took place as a result of the YPG guarding the corridor, the HPG forces protecting the Sengal Mountain, and the coordination of a clever commander like Egîd Civyan who managed everything perfectly.
At that time, there were also people who did not prefer to leave the corridor and stayed on Shengal Mountain with your military forces. How did you achieve this?
At that time, we thought that it would not be good for all the people to leave Shengal and that it would be difficult to return. We shared this thought with our esteemed pioneer comrade Zeki Şengali. He also saw fit. In fact, comrade Egîd Civyan, as the commander of the intervention forces, was also managing this whole process in Sengal. We presented this proposal to friends Egîd and Dilşêr; that not everyone should go. We stated that as many people as we could take care of could stay with comrades on the mountain. Since the corridor was opened, a certain level of supplies could also be taken. If there were too many people left, it would be difficult to meet everyone’s needs. However, we expressed our opinion that if 10 thousand people stay, we can meet the needs of these people. Here they are discussing this suggestion with comrade Sait Hesen. Sait Hesen says that he, his family and his clan will definetely stay with them. Likewise, some other family and clanic circles accepted this proposal; on this basis, about 10 thousand people remained in the Serdeşt Camp; all our other people moved to Rojava.
* Murat Karayılan is a member of the PKK Executive Committee and Commander at the Kurdistan People’s Defence Headquarters.