There was a river streaming alongside our camp in the Qandil mountains. It was rather deep below us but its thundering water was constantly audible. A refreshing sound in the boiling summer heat. But also, slightly problematic too, because if your ear wasn’t trained, like mine, you couldn’t hear if there were drones in the air. For our safety, hearing the drones was crucial. However, for our independence, it was crucial not to let them define our lives. So we had to distinguish danger from intimidation. How much harder has that become, now that more advanced drone technology helps Turkey in its war against the PKK?
It is almost five summers ago that I stayed in one and the same PKK camp for three months as part of research for my book. The safety instructions prescribed that if there were drones in the air, we had to immediately withdraw into our one person tents, or go to the central space of the camp and stay put, until the drones would disappear.
Drones were, surprisingly, more dangerous than planes. That seems logical because drones can immediately drop a bomb on your head, but in that summer, the Turkish army didn’t use as many armed drones then as it does now. The problem with the flying buzzers was that you couldn’t tell if they had detected the camp or not. It was summer, the trees were abundantely green and their crowns offered protection against visibility, but you just couldn’t be sure. Even if the drone activity stopped, the danger wasn’t immediately over. If we had been detected, soon an F16 would come to throw a bomb on us. But when would that threathening situation subside after the drones had gone? Or would the drones linger in the air and were F16s on the way already?
This insecurity made drones more dangerous. The danger of an approaching F16, which happened a few times during the night, was more short term. The plane would either approach and withdraw, which meant we were not the target, or would continue to approach, and then at some point we’d have to run as high up the mountain as we could in an effort to survive. You’d have to bite on a stick to make sure your mouth stayed open. If you would, in fear, paralyze and close your mouth, you may die of the impact the blast would have on your organs. Keeping your mouth open would allow the pressure to leave your body and improve your chances of survival.
Anyway, that never happened.
One afternoon, comrade Mizgîn, who was in charge of security in the camp, warned us that there was drone activity. My tent was too hot at that time of day, so I decided to stay put in the central part of the camp, sitting on one of the bences sawn out of trees alongside a long table made of plastic vegetable crates. I was alone. Thirsty, but I didn’t dare to walk to the small stream to quench it.
I tried to detect the drone. The noise of the river and the height differences around me made it hard to distinguish one sound from another. I was turning and tilting my head to try to define what I was hearing. In front of me was an abyss, with the river down below. Before me on the left was a gradual ascent, to my right it was flat for some twenty metres to where the kitchen was, and behind that a steeper ascent. Right behind me the ascent was the steepest.
I was stunned at how totally different the reflections of all the sounds were even if I changed the position of my head even just a little bit. I regretted having left my recording device in my tent that morning because for sure, this would be an amazing radio item. Especially when not so far away a donkey started braying. It was spooky, but mesmerising.
Then comrade Hêlîn approached me. I was surprised. I thought we weren’t supposed to move..? I asked her if the drone was gone already, and she said: “Of course! You don’t hear it anymore, do you?” I told her I wasn’t sure if I had heard it at all.
She poured water for both of us and sat down next to me. “Let me explain something to you, comrade Avaşîn”, she said – that was my nom de guerre. “The drones are dangerous, but they are also a psychological weapon. But as a psychological weapon, they are only as dangerous as we let them be. We adjust our lives to the realities of the war, but we don’t let our lives be defined by it. We are on our own lands, we belong here, we choose how we live our lives, not the enemy. Remember that.”
The line between the drone as either a deadly or a psychological weapon must have become blurred since Turkey started to use more armed drones. At the time in that camp, there were some twenty minutes between being detected by a drone, the coordinates being sent to the military airport in Diyarbakır and the bombs reaching us. With armed drones, the time between detection and death has been reduced to minutes, if not seconds.
Our task that summer was to learn Kurdish. A fighter once pointed to the higher mountains in the distance, consisting merely of rocks. “Our comrades are up there”, he said, “protecting us. Without them we couldn’t be here safely”. They could hide in caves if necessary but now that Turkey’s offensive is fierce, their task is to come out and fight. To defend the land. To make sure that in the end, they stay in charge and refuse the enemy to define their lives.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan