We Went Into the Mountains Where Turkey Bombs the PKK
But one air strike hit a village, destroying houses and killing a mother of four
It was 4.00 a.m. and Nabi Hassan was asleep when the first bomb exploded. The jet engines screaming overhead left no doubt as to what had happened — the Turkish air force was targeting his village.
Hassan immediately put his clothes on and ran outside. The house of Ayshe Ahmet was destroyed. The explosion buried her body under a huge pile of rubble, but the remaining six houses nearby were still standing. A few minutes later a small crowd had gathered around the ruins. “There was at least 20 people,” Hassan said.
Almost everybody who lived in Zargali, located in a valley inside the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, wanted to know what happened to the mother of four peshmerga, whom at that time were all away fighting Islamic State in Kirkuk.
Then the crowd heard the distinctive noise of a drone overhead. Probably one of the Predators that Ankara acquired from General Atomics, which would make it an unarmed surveillance drone that went into service in early 2015.
At 4.10 a.m., the jets returned and started bombing again, destroying several other houses in the village. Most of the people ran for their lives and into a ditch a few meters away.
Nobody really knows how many bombs the planes dropped that night. Local shop owner Renas Rojhilat said 14. Our guide reported 16. Amnesty International claimed 11.
But the results are clear, where a cluster of houses once stood there is now nothing more than a pile of rubble filled with everyday household objects. During our visit, we saw a pair of pink sneakers, pillows and even a broken PlayStation game console left behind.
Eight people died and 20 were injured. Ankara claimed there were operatives with the Kurdistan Workers Party — or PKK — in the village, but all the evidence collected by independent investigations suggest otherwise. The Turkish government has announced an inquiry, and will make the results public at an unknown time.
For Hassan, Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is as merciless as Saddam Hussein. “The Turks bombed our village because they want to intimidate us, force us to push the PKK out, but that will never happen,” Hassan said. “PKK is a movement from the people for the people.”
Life in the Qandil Mountains has never been easy. Since 1997, at least 25 civilians have died in the area from Turkish air strikes targeting the PKK, which Ankara along with many Western countries — including the United States — consider to be a foreign terrorist organization.
In 2003, a jet engaged a car as it descended into the pass that leads to the valley. The PKK claims the strike killed a family of four. The vehicle’s wreckage remains on the side of the road as a sort of memorial to the martyrs.
The 28-mile-long valley has been home for the PKK since 1982. Even when the organization based its headquartered in Syria until 1998, it maintained a guerrilla presence here. This was mainly for strategic reasons, as the mountains are very difficult to penetrate.
The PKK established training camps and live inside tunnel complexes with camouflaged entrances. Guerrillas monitor the only road that goes through the valley from unfixed checkpoints. Every day, the fighters change their positions, but they still check everybody who passes through.
“In times like this, we don’t go around during the day. We move at night and we blend in with the environment,” PKK spokesperson Zagros Hiwa said. “More importantly we don’t go to the villages, we don’t want to put civilians in danger.”
A famous saying among the Kurds is “no friends but the mountains.” This is even truer for the PKK, founded in 1978 in Fis, Turkey, with its roots in Marxism-Leninism.
In 1984, the organization began an armed struggle with the Turkish government. The objective — an independent Kurdish state. More than 40,000 people died, most of them Kurds. The war destroyed thousands of villages, as hundreds of thousands of people fled to other cities.
In 1999, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan — known colloquially as Apo — was arrested in Nairobi. In 2013, he called for a ceasefire and urged PKK forces to withdraw from Turkey. That truce appears to be over now.
On July 24, the Turkish military began a new campaign against the PKK, launched air strikes and has made thousands of arrests in southeastern Turkey. Ankara claims to have killed hundreds of guerrillas, but the PKK denies this, stating that the true number of guerrillas killed by Turkish air strikes is closer to 20.
“I joined the PKK straight after Mr. Ocalan was arrested,” Zagros said. “I felt his solitude and the loneliness of the Kurdish people.”
He is a tall man with grey hair and a black mustache. His manners are polite, and he speaks a refined English. As with most of the guerrillas, he doesn’t like to talk about his life. During the past 16 years, he has never left Qandil.
“You can leave the PKK,” he said. “But to go back to Turkey you will have to renounce the party.”
There are people who have left, he claimed, who disagree with shifts in the party’s goals and ideology since the early 2000s. “It was a long process,” Zagros continued.
The organization renounced its Marxist-Leninist roots and embraced Democratic Confederalism, which “is open towards other political groups and factions,” Ocalan wrote in prison. “It is flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented.”
Feminism and ecology are the central pillars of the new ideology.
The PKK abandoned its quest for the formation of an independent state, agitating instead for an autonomous region in which Kurdish rights would be respected. It’s a kind of federal statehood. Ankara would handle foreign and monetary policies, but the Kurdish state-within-a-state would conduct a social revolution based on self-governance, self-defense, autonomy and women’s liberation.
That dream became reality in northern Syria, where the chaos of the Syrian civil war gave the organization space to implement these ideas. On July 19, 2012, the PYD — a Syrian-Kurdish political party and PKK proxy — created the state of Rojava within three cantons in northern Syria.
Life is regulated through a social contract, a sort of constitution. That same year, the People’s Protection Units — or YPG — emerged as Rojava’s military force. Soon after, the organization established the all-female YPJ. First a voluntary force, Rojava introduced conscription in November 2014, creating discontent among the youth.
The YPG tried to distance itself from the PKK, denying any affiliation on the ground as of November 2014, but the distinctions between the two groups are far blurrier in reality. Many PKK members joined the war in Syria, especially after Islamic State gained military supremacy by capturing American military equipment left behind by the Iraqi army in Mosul, becoming a serious threat to Rojava.
“Most of the Syrian guerrillas asked to go to Rojava and we let them go,” Zagros said, who nonetheless stressed the YPG’s autonomy from the PKK. “We don’t interfere in their military or political decisions. We have a common base, we follow certain political ideas.”
Most of the PKK members became YPG commanders and started training the younger generation, mirroring their own training up in the mountains. Guerrilla warfare combined with political indoctrination is an important part of any Kurdish fighter’s training. They read Ocalan’s writings, learn about women’s liberation and train to conduct small-unit ambushes and how to fight in urban areas.
“Any guerrilla fighter knows imagination is a very important skill, we all learnt how to adapt on different terrain,” Zagros said.
In 2010, the PKK had at least 11,500 members, according to the German interior ministry in its annual report on extremism. The war in Syria drained many resources and the death toll was high. The PKK has since buried the bodies of some fighters its Qandil cemetery.
“The families can choose where to bury their relatives. Some decide to send them back here with their comrades,” Zagros explained while visiting the graveyard.
At the entrance, the PKK had placed a huge picture of Fernand Egid, one of the founding members of the organization who Turkish forces killed in 1986. According to Zagros, the new wave of Turkish air strikes is not surprising. “Erdogan lost the elections and now he is trying to crush the PKK while implementing repression in the cities,” he said.
In June 2015, the Peoples’ Democratic Party — a pro-Kurdish political union — surpassed the 10 percent threshold to sit in parliament. This prevented the ruling Justice and Development Party from securing an absolute majority. Zagros claimed that the PKK is just targeting Turkish soldiers in self defense.
“We want to negotiate peace and we are willing to do so with an independent third body sitting at the table. It could be the U.N. or the E.U., but there must be a witness, we don’t trust the Turkish government any longer.”