During one of the previous campaigns to break the isolation of PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan, I had just moved to Diyarbakır. It was autumn 2012. Political prisoners all over Turkey had gone on a hunger strike, and in Diyarbakır and elsewhere in Kurdistan, many shops had closed in protest. The tension in the city was palpable. If any of the hunger strikers would succumb, violent anger in the streets would have been inevitable. Luckily, it didn’t get that far.
But look at where we are now: almost a decade later and still, the doors to Öcalan’s cell are closed, and yet another campaign to pull them open them has started. But don’t be fooled: the door and its lock are weakening, and they will break for good.
The current campaign started in response to the fact that both Öcalan’s family and lawyers have not been able to get in touch with their client for eight months now. This is obviously a grave violation of any prisoner’s rights. Well, let’s not get into the responsibilities of the Council of Europe here and more specifically of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, because if they were willing to speak out for what they believe in on paper, they would have done so a long time ago already. Expect them to jump on the bandwagon when there is mainstream momentum for a solution of the Kurdish issue.
Because a solution to the Kurdish issue is of course what the doors of the PKK-leader’s cell at Imralı, the prison island where Öcalan is incarcerated, are inextricably tied to. When the doors are firmly shut, like now, there is no solution in sight and the repression and violence against Kurds are at the default level. Then a campaign emerges, and eventually such a campaign renders result: Öcalan’s brother Mehmet can visit, or the lawyers get access again.
But those results are limited. Of course, after such a visit or even a phone call it is clear again that Öcalan is alive and (within the circumstances) fine, and that is very important in itself. But in essence, the door only opens a crack if the isolation is broken only ultra shortly. Öcalan’s family, his lawyers and the Kurdish people can peek into his life for a second, and then the state shuts the door again.
Back then in 2012 the door opened wider. I remember the evening that the hunger strike ended very well. I lived in a tiny basement apartment, together with a friend who had invited me into her house until I would have found a place of my own. The news broke that the isolation had been lifted and that the hunger strike would end, and my friend, who also helped me with translations occasionally, asked me if I wanted to make any report about it. “Yes, let’s go to the prison!”, I said, quickly putting on my shoes. At the prison, in the heart of the city, we watched lawyers and politicians entering the prison to consult with those on hunger strike while we talked to family, activists and citizens who gathered around the prison too. The tension in the city was gone.
In retrospect, it can be said that on that evening, the door to Imralı didn’t open just a crack, but rather more widely: rumours about an imminent peace process were all around already, and on Newroz 2013, it kicked off with a speech of Öcalan read to an enormous crowd in Diyarbakır. The hope I saw in that crowd and backstage, to where I had access as a journalist, was inspiring. Would the door stay open? Was there even a change for real peace, an ‘honourable peace’, which means more than the absence of violence but encompasses justice and freedom?
We all know now that the doors of Imralı closed again, with Öcalan still on the wrong side of those doors. The peace process turned out to be a dishonest political game of Erdoğan, who finally strangled it when it turned out that it was strengthening the HDP instead of his own position. Dramatic actions have been held ever since to get access to Öcalan again, one of the most memorable the hunger strike of HDP icon Leyla Güven, which ended in May 2019 when once again, the door opened a crack again.
All these times that the door opened a crack or a little bit wider, have weakened the door. It’s locked, but not firmly enough to withstand the constant pulling and pulling and pulling on it. The state gives in temporarily and slams it back in its locks, at the same time aware that every time they close it, the pulling instantly commences again. Those who pull never get tired of pulling because they are with many and they yearn for light, for air, for freedom for their leader and themselves and everybody.
Those pulling Öcalan’s door will win. They are stronger than the one holding the key, they are stronger than the structures built on Imralı, because they get help from the inside. The people are pulling the door, and the one they want to set free is pushing from within, that push symbolised by Öcalan’s teachings that strengthen those on the outside in their struggle. The door will swing open, the lock will break beyond repair, the key will be useless and the door will never work with its lock again.
It’s only a matter of time. Pull!
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.