by Fréderike Geerdink
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) camp where I was having tea with a few fighters was located on a route between two villages so locals passed through every now and then.
It was Eid al-Fitr and many people were paying visits to their families. The atmosphere was cordial, as witnessed when two men passed by who asked if they could sit down and have some tea. They turned out to be peshmerga. Tea was poured. I’ll never forget the conversation that evolved, especially now that the tensions between the PKK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are rising. It gave me a clear vision of how strong the Kurdish armed forces would be if they could unite.
Let me point out, just for clarity, that the two peshmerga who were visiting the PKK camp were not on duty, but using their days off during the religious holiday to visit family in the areas that are under military control of the PKK. If armed and on duty they would, of course, never have gotten permission to cross into PKK territory. Just as the PKK do not walk around armed in, for example, Erbil or Sulaymaniyah. The peshmerga and the PKK do not bother each other militarily, that’s the understanding.
What I remember from the conversation and the setting is that the middle-aged peshmerga seemed to be somewhat nostalgic about the times that they too were stationed in the mountains, back in the days when they – maybe not literally them, I don’t know their personal stories, but the peshmerga in general – were resisting and fighting the genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein. Incredibly hard times, with a lot of heavy sacrifices made, but fighting for the very survival of their people and their culture. It couldn’t be more honourable.
The peshmerga shrugged their shoulders, said that such a life in the mountains wasn’t possible for them anymore, since now they had wives and children and family responsibilities. They had to supplement their peshmerga salaries with jobs as taxi drivers to make ends meet. One of the PKK fighters, a very experienced heval in his thirties, understood them very well, and said that the guerrillas’ duties were only to their people and the movement and that this one one of the reasons they weren’t married and didn’t have children. The struggle needed their full dedication.
But also, the heval said that he could never be a peshmerga, also not when he wouldn’t be married. Because the peshmerga had become the armed militia of a powerful clan, instead of the armed force protecting the interests of the people. The visiting peshmerga were KDP, but they could have been Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) peshmerga too: it’s the same story for the peshmerga of both parties. The heval said that he’d rather die than to be the underpaid protector of capitalist, feudal interests, and he was very serious.
And just as the PKK fighter understood the choices of these two KDP peshmerga fighters, the peshmerga likewise fully understood the reasoning of the guerrilla fighter. They all knew the realities of their lands very well. They poured more tea, found common ground in their love for Kurdistan and wished each other a happy eid. Ever since, several PKK fighters told me that the last thing they would ever want to do in their lives was to turn their weapons against another Kurd or another Kurdish group. Only when there would be absolutely no other way, they’d do that, but only with incredible agony. They didn’t need to tell me anymore, as I had seen the brotherhood over those cups of tea.
But I saw the differences too. I shared a post about it on Twitter this week, which triggered a lot of reactions. I said that that it is not the peshmerga that is now in the mountains at odds with the PKK, but the KDP’s peshmerga, which serves the Barzani clan. Many Kurds were angry and told me that the peshmerga are the legitimate and constitutional armed force of the Kurdistan Region. Well, I never disputed that and of course they are, but the reality on the ground is different, and that is that there are now several peshmerga forces, serving different clan interests.
The chance that they will unite further than the current degree of unity that has now been realized under the Ministry of Peshmerga is small, as the relationship between the KDP and PUK has only worsened since the Kirkuk developments in October 2017 and since the new leaderships of both parties. This is truly an incredible pity, because the current situation weakens the Kurdish people against their real enemies, like Erdoğan, ISIS and Assad, to name a few.
I know this division hurts many Kurds. The parents of a friend of mine were peshmerga in the 1970s and early 1980s, and I’ve heard her point out several times that the peshmerga are originally not partisan but fighters for the people. The peshmerga used to be what the PKK is now. In fact, the guerrillas used to call themselves peshmerga too, as this magazine from the 1980s shows, which I received on twitter during the intense debate over my tweet. They refrained from using the term to refer to themselves in the early 1990s, when the KDP and PUK fought their civil war with their peshmerga forces.
What if the peshmerga united again? What if they would all stop serving the capitalist, feudal interests of their filthy rich leaders and decided to stand up for nothing but Kurdistan and its people again? How strong would they become? Look at the capacity the Kurds have already shown, for example in the fight against ISIS, and how the PKK has remained unbeaten by the second biggest army of NATO since the early 1980s. Combine all this power, all this love for the mountains and the deserts, for the streams and the valleys, the cities and the villages, and Kurdistan’s real enemies wouldn’t stand a chance.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan