Atlantic Monthly

Among the Kurds

The Atlantic (online)

When I visited the PKK training camps in northern Iraq last year, about half the terrorists I met were women, and most of the rest looked barely old enough to shave. This week, according to reports, after years of threatening to bomb the camps, the Turkish military started pounding the PKK’s camps near the Turkish border hard. The PKK have used those facilities to train for their guerrilla struggle in Turkey. The earnest ideologues I met in the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, having long practiced for war, are now probably living through it, and facing the gravest dangers of their young lives.

The average age when I visited last year hovered somewhere between college sophomore or young grad student. Indeed the PKK members called their training facilities “the world’s greatest university,” offering an intense outdoor education, where everyone triple-majored in political philosophy, guerrilla tactics, and history. They bunked in communal dorms and tents, and they spent their days and nights in classes (principally on the works of their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan) and bull sessions peppered with buzzwords like “praxis,” “radical feminism,” and “cultural hegemony” that reflected the movement’s origins in European academic leftism. They trained every day in warfare, maintained their ramshackle campus, and prepared mentally and physically for the day when they would leave their studies in the remote heights of the Qandil Mountains and go kill Turkish soldiers.

The PKK was then ramping up its efforts against the Turks and Iranians, and nearly every week came reports of ambushes, attacks, and deaths on all sides. The Iranians had started shelling the camps, killing livestock and probably people as well. All the Kurds in the camps had fled Turkey, Syria, or Iran, and they planned to return to plant mines and grenades and to fight for Kurdish autonomy. Turkey lifted its ban on using the Kurdish language in public only a few years ago. But in each country, to be a Kurd is still to feel oppressed. Syria affords its Kurds rights only insofar as they are willing to deny their Kurdishness. Iran recognizes Kurdish identity, but the PKK’s atheism and feminism chafe against the Islamic Republic’s enforcement of Shiite law.

The bucolic setting—a few dozen square miles in northern Iraq but not under Iraqi control—contrasts with a decidedly ugly appetite among the PKK for war. The PKK now disavows violence except in “legitimate self defense.” But its record is clear, and in the camps violence is part of life. Ocalan, whose writings the PKK still follows slavishly, killed even other Kurds with enthusiasm if, say, they called for democratic advocacy of the Kurdish cause, instead of his Maoist approach. A product of 1970s radicalism, Ocalan demanded a bitter and bloody remedy to the Kurds’ mistreatment by the Turkish military and Turkish state, a tradition of second-class citizenship extending to the earliest days of the republic. The bookworms in Qandil carried weapons, and they wanted to use them.

They made confident, keen predictions that Kurds in Turkey would support a bloody escalation of the low-intensity conflict that has already killed nearly 40,000 since 1984. Their confidence was not entirely misplaced: in Diyarbakir a few years before, Turkish Kurds pulled me aside, totally unbidden, to show me PKK-branded wallpaper on the displays of their Nokias. One answered my greeting in rudimentary Kurdish by buying me a cup of tea and giving me a peek at Ocalan photos he kept in a secret compartment of his wallet. They made these shows for a foreigner they had never met: they are almost certainly more passionate when in their own company.

The PKK members saw no contradiction between their bloodlust and their apparently sincere devotion to social justice. The former chilled my spine, but I felt sympathy for the latter. Most people there welcomed me eagerly, especially when I didn’t nod off or beg for mercy after the first hour of reading libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. (A few did not welcome me, and were not merely unfriendly: they seemed to seethe with a violence in search of an object. I made a point of keeping our interactions simple.) If anything, most PKK members seemed to wonder why I, a young man apparently receptive to serious talk of ideology, had not already joined the struggle myself.

Except for the artillery barrages and violence, their life did not seem unpleasant. Their recreation resembled the Ultimate Frisbee games I played during college. Most afternoons, they played volleyball—they told me with pride that the women were the best players, and that the men, feminists to the core, were fine with that—at the center of a beautiful Aspen-like panorama. It was the kind of spot that would be coveted real estate if it were not under intermittent artillery fire by two angry neighbors (a situation few Aspen residents have had to deal with, I suspect, unless they happened to live near Hunter S. Thompson). For dinner they served bread, sliced tomatoes, and stuffed grape leaves. One night we ate French fries, as if to reenact the scene in Bananas when Woody Allen leaves his Cuban guerrilla camp to pick up take-out.

A few older PKK members led the younger ones in a collegial, rather than authoritarian way. One, a slim man with drill-mounted glasses, said he had been a full-time revolutionary for two decades and had spread a gospel of radical socialism in seven countries. I asked which country he had been raised in, and he gave a pitying shake of the head, as if to say: You still believe in countries?

And there were a few extremely young recruits. In a camp literally built into the side of a mountain—a protective measure to make it difficult for Iranian artillery to hit them—two Iranian Kurdish kids sat uncomfortably around a dinner table. They looked about fourteen, and they had arrived so recently that they still wore their own clothes, rather than the uniform of sturdy, drab fatigues. Their civilian clothes were hilariously out of place, appropriate for clubbing rather than warfare. They looked as if it was not just their first night in a terrorist camp but also their first night in any kind of camp at all.

As I left, hiking out of the mountains on my last day in the camps, I saw two stout, gray-haired men sitting next to a smoldering campfire that looked barely capable of bringing their battered old teapot to a boil. Their billowy pantaloons marked them as Kurds—probably local villagers, I thought, until one placed a sugar-cube between his front teeth and sipped the tea, holding the cube in place. This method of tea-drinking, which over time wreaks havoc on the incisors, is distinctively Iranian.

I greeted them and asked, as politely as I could, why two fat old Kurds had crossed the mountainous border, risking detection by the Iranian military, to come here. They were no use as fighters, and they didn’t have the scholarly look of the camps’ senior ideologues.

They said their sons had run away from home, probably to join the PKK, and that the boys’ mothers had demanded that they cross the border on foot to find them in the camps—and if necessary to grab them by the ear and bring them home. The men showed me photos of two happy-looking teenagers standing in front of a fountain in Iran.

I hadn’t seen their boys, but I wished the two men well in their quest. I could guess, though, what sort of boys they were, and why they had probably crossed the mountains. The movement they joined was a sad but seductive one, and one in which I would want no loved one to enlist. Born as an expression of real suffering and intellectual yearning, it transformed fast into a movement of startling cruelty, and now had all the makings of a Children’s Crusade.


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