The Kurdish leader proposing to end a 25-year-long conflict with Turkey that has cost 30,000 lives believes his peace offer is a once in a generation opportunity that must be grasped by both sides.
In a unilateral gesture that has prompted a re-examination of strategy in Ankara, Baghdad and Washington, the guerrilla leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has extended an olive branch, offering to drop its aim of an independent state in return for a negotiated settlement to end its war with Turkey.
“We are at a turning point,” said Murad Karayilan, acting head of the PKK, in an interview with The Times at a secret location in the mountains of northern Iraq.
“Kurds do not want to continue the war. We believe we can solve the Kurdish question without spilling more blood. We are ready for a peaceful and democratic solution in Turkey — to be solved within Turkey’s borders.”
The potential breakthrough in the conflict came this month when Mr Karayilan, 52, deputy to the PKK’s imprisoned supremo, Abdullah Ocalan, agreed to meet a Turkish journalist in northern Iraq. During the meeting he highlighted the PKK’s willingness to drop its central demand for an independent state for Turkey’s 12 million Kurds, and proposed key steps towards peace, including an immediate ceasefire and negotiations to end the war.
“Britain accepted the will of the Scots by giving them a parliament of their own, and that’s what the Turks have to do with us,” Mr Karayilan said at the meeting with The Times in a wooded valley near the Qandil mountains, an important PKK area. “I’ve studied Irish history and talked with people who participated in it. I know the development and stages of that struggle. Turkey needs to solve our problem in the way that the British solved that problem.”
The PKK’s overture comes at a key point in the region’s history. President Obama knows that it will help to smooth the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq if Ankara’s relations with Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurdish regional government in Erbil are stabilised. The PKK, from its position on the Iraq-Turkey border, has awoken to the political opportunities afforded by the situation.
The PKK took up arms against Turkey in 1984 under the leadership of Ocalan, “Apo”, who was captured in 1999 and is in prison on Imrali in the Sea of Marmara. Attacks by the PKK, originally a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist group, drew a savage reaction from the Turkish Army in the late 1980s, when more than 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed. The rebel group combined conventional guerrilla tactics with bombing campaigns, and was listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union in 2004.
Mr Karayilan has ordered his 6,000 PKK fighters into a position of “passive defence” until June 1 to give Turkey time to consider his proposition.
He approached the issue of a Turkish amnesty for PKK fighters and the release of Ocalan with carefully chosen words. “There has been a war,” he said. “Both Turkish and Kurdish societies have been damaged. Both sides have to forgive one another. Everyone should participate in that, including Abdullah Ocalan. Forgiveness is necessary for peace. Kurds and Turks must open a new white page.”
The deadline he has set for a response from Turkey is less than a week away. Nonetheless intense political debate is under way in Turkey over the unsolved Kurdish issue, which President Gül has called “Turkey’s biggest problem”.
Nationalist parties in Turkey have denounced the PKK offer and the Army has continued operations in southeastern Turkey. The political leadership, however, has described the overture as a “historic opportunity”.
“We are at a fork in a pathway,” said Mr Karayilan. “Turkey must choose one of them. If Turkey doesn’t accept our overtures and continues to attack us then of course we will use all means to defend ourselves, and that includes retaliation. They can call us ‘terrorists’ for as long as they wish but Turkey has to accept that the PKK is part of the reality of the solution to its Kurdish problem.”
First person: The woman soldier
Dilsha left her home in Syria at 17 and killed her first soldier in Turkey at 19.
“It was an ambush just after midnight,” she said. “A column of Turkish soldiers left their base at the start of an operation. They were about 25 meters away when we hit them. I gave them some fire from my Kalashnikov and threw grenades among them. We killed about 30 in all. When it was over I scrambled forward and took a dead soldier’s weapon. I can’t say I was afraid. I was psychologically prepared and had already received my ideological training. Kill them or they kill you — and that’s what they come to do.”
Now 31 and deputy commander of a platoon of women guerrillas, Dilsha has total dedication to the PKK, which includes an obligatory 40 per cent quota of women among its 6,000-strong ranks, and is typical of its members. Fanatically loyal to her imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, she claims nothing of her own. “My trainers, watch, uniform, whatever you see on me belongs to the Kurdish people, even my body and soul.”
She estimates that few of the 150 Kurdish people with whom she had crossed from Syria in 1995 are still alive. The assumption seems likely, given the 15,000 guerrillas killed during their 25-year campaign for an independent Kurdistan.
She has been wounded in action twice. On the first occasion she dug shrapnel from her leg using the cleaning rod of her assault rifle. The second time, hit in the back by fragments from a rocket, she was dragged by comrades. They cut the metal from her back and tended her for 15 days until she could walk again.
An end to the war would allow her to contact her family. She has spoken to her parents once, during a phone call in 2005, since leaving home 14 years ago.