PKK co-leader Cemil Bayik: ‘What are we supposed to do? Surrender? Never.’
(This article was originally published on Beaconreader.com on 6 September 2016.)
(This interview was done late May 2016 but for several reasons, among which communication flaws and a lack of internet during this summer, I couldn’t publish it earlier. It’s still relevant though so I decided to publish it belatedly.)
‘Do you want to see where they hit the bees?’ I am in a car with two guerrillas, after having interviewed Cemil Bayik, the highest-ranking commander of the PKK, residing in the Qandil mountains in the north of Iraq. The guerrillas have just shown me two huge craters somewhere in the bush, in the northeast of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, at the Iranian border. ‘Sometimes the Turkish army bombs random places’, guerrilla Zagros says, ‘hoping guerrillas are hiding there. But they destroyed just trees. See the dark red parts on the stones and the earth? That’s unexploded (explosive) TNT.’
I do want to see where they hit the bees. Zagros steers the car into a small path off the road. Then a message comes over the walkie talkie. He stops the car and turns it around. ‘We have to go’, he says. ‘Fighter jets coming. They just left the airbase in Diyarbakir (southeast Turkey, FG). If they are heading in our direction, they will be here in eighteen minutes.’
They didn’t come. No bombing today in this part of the lands that the Kurdistan Workers Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, is holding under its military control, stretching along the Turkish and Iranian borders and altogether covering approximately the size of Lebanon. Maybe they hit targets along the Turkish border, but later Zagros says no such news came. ‘It looks like they bombed targets inside Turkey.’
That could have been a PKK camp on Turkish soil, but it may just as well have been the city of Nusaybin, a town on the border of Turkey and Syria which has been the scene of fierce fighting between the Turkish army and PKK-affiliated youth groups, operating under the name YPS, assisted by professional PKK members. Parts of Nusaybin are under the army’s siege, to ‘cleanse’ it of ‘terrorists’. It means a round-the-clock and indefinite curfew is imposed and the army barges in with hundreds of troops and tanks and targets people and buildings alike, assisted by helicopters. Nusaybin is allegedly the first city under siege that is not only attacked with shells from tanks but bombed from fighter jets as well.
The operations started after last summer the ceasefire between the army and the PKK, which had been holding since early 2013, fell apart. Cities like Cizre and Sur, the historical district of the biggest city in the southeast, Diyarbakir, have been reduced to rubble. Human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published reports accusing the Turkish army of a disproportionate use of violence, leading to hundreds of civilian deaths, including children and the elderly. At least close to 400,000 people had to flee the cities under siege. This month, the United Nations has also expressed its concern about the situation, asking the Turkish authorities for access to the affected towns to be able to investigate human rights violations. No permission came.
The Qandil mountains are hit on average every three, four days, sometimes more often, sometimes less. One jet can drop three bombs, and sometimes one plane comes, sometimes ten. Problem is, the mountains are not only inhabited by the guerrillas, but by civilians too, scattered over dozens of small villages. These villages are being hit as well, leading to eight deaths for example last year in the village of Zergele. Preparing for bombings is hard. Guerrilla Dalyan says: ‘First you hear the bomb fall, then you hear the plane. So it starts very suddenly.’
It’s a constant pressure, which however doesn’t show in their relaxed behaviour. They are on guard, but not agitated in any way. Today however, their stress increases: they are responsible for relations with the Kurdish, Turkish and international press, and they have arranged an interview with Cemil Bayik, the co-leader of the KCK, the umbrella organisation under which the PKK also resides. Bayik is, you could say, the second man of the PKK, after Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned on Imrali prison island since his capture in 1999 and with whom the Turkish authorities have cut off all contact ever since the cease fire began to unravel, in April 2015. While we are awaiting instructions on exactly where in the bush to meet Bayik, Dalyan says: ‘I can only be relaxed again after the interview. Interviews are a security risk. We get many requests, but can accept only a few.’
I have talked to Cemil Bayik twice before (the previous time in November 2015, about which I published in Dutch paper Het Parool €), but never was the situation in the southeast of Turkey as dire as it is now. There is a larger picture to the Kurdish issue, which is rather simple: the Kurds have been denied their rights in Turkey ever since the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923, and while the PKK has been fighting to get Kurdish rights acknowledged since it came into existence in 1978, still their demands haven’t been met. The Turkish constitution is the main problem: it forces everybody in Turkey to be a Turk, speak Turkish and have Turkish culture. The Kurds demand the right to self-determination, including the right to govern themselves. This is for them essential to protect their people, culture and language. Not in a separate state, but within Turkey. The logical consequence is that to resolve the Kurdish issue, the whole of Turkey needs to democratise and decentralise, for which a new constitution is needed.
But there is another picture, and that is the picture of the news coming from the Kurdish regions in Turkey every single day. New sieges in towns, neighbourhoods and villages, new exoduses to safer places, new deaths among civilians, PKK fighters and Turkish special forces, new videos and pictures of destruction. The demands of the PKK may be legitimate, but are their methods as well?
Was it necessary to replace the armed struggle from the remote areas of Kurdistan to the inhabited ones, leading to such deep tragedy for the local population? Does the PKK find it acceptable that as a result of this, more civilians are dying directly from PKK explosives, for example earlier this month, when a truck with PKK explosives exploded near the village of Dürümlü, with sixteen civilian deaths as a result? Is there an excuse for the attacks of TAK (the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons), a group believed to be a branch of the PKK, in the heart of Ankara, in which dozens of civilians died, after which the TAK announced the suicide bombers detonated themselves ‘too early’ because they couldn’t reach their military target?
Just a few days before the interview, a delegation of Amnesty International got access to Sur. The siege there has mostly been declared over, but still many neighbourhoods are off limits, the sight into the streets obstructed by large tarpaulin screens hung across the streets. The authorities haven’t declared why areas remain closed after the operations have ended, but it is believed curfews are only fully lifted once the evidence of human rights violations has been cleared up. Amnesty shared pictures of behind the screens, which shocked everybody who knows the ancient alleyways of Sur: instead of old houses and narrow streets, there is just a stretch of barren land. (one picture underneath,more here.)
‘Have you seen the pictures of Sur?’, I ask Cemil Bayik, once we sit down on plastic chairs in the shade of some trees. ‘We get pictures of how the cities look, yes, I have seen them’, he answers. ‘What is your responsibility in the war coming to this point?’ I want to know.
He sketches the developments of how the ceasefire came to an end. In short, the PKK believes the Turkish government felt the need to start fighting the PKK again after the battle for Kobani (September 2014-January 2015), the Syrian Kurdish town which was besieged by Islamic State but was eventually fully re-captured by Kurdish forces, led by the PKK affiliate the YPG. Turkey was afraid the YPG would advance further westwards and even get to control the whole Syrian side of the border with Turkey. Since the Turkish state considers the PKK ‘separatist’, this meant an existential threat to Turkey. To weaken the Kurdish forces, it was essential to fight the PKK again and thus end the cease-fire. Ever since, the Turkish government has denied there have been negotiations, refuses to return to the negotiating table, has cut off contact with Öcalan and has vowed to annihilate the PKK.
We come to discuss the ‘self governance’ that the mayors of the DBP (Democratic Regions Party, the regional sister of the nationally operating HDP) started to declare in the areas under their administrative control, starting in the summer of 2015. Isn’t it true, I ask Bayik, that the destruction of the cities started there? That the PKK-affiliated youth of the YPS started to ‘defend’ these areas of ‘self governance’ by digging trenches and building barricades, thereby inviting the state to take action, eventually resulting in the destruction of one city after another?
Bayik calls the defence of the self government areas a ‘natural right’ of the YPS, and explains why declaring self government was essential for the Kurdish political movement: ‘The whole point of the peace process was to reach self government, because we believe that democratic autonomy is the solution for the Kurdish issue. This is also what the Dolmabahce agreement was about’, he says, referring to a document agreed upon between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish government in February 2015 and presented to the press in Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul. The agreement was the result of intense talks between Öcalan and the state. Bayik: ‘But suddenly Erdogan started to reject everything: the negotiations, the Dolmabahce agreement, he even denied there is a Kurdish issue. Then the government refused to accept the outcome of the elections on 7 June, in which the democratic forces (the HDP, FG) won eighty seats in parliament and in which the AKP lost its majority. We wanted to realize self government via the parliament in Ankara, but that road was closed off. The government began the war again. What else could we do but declare self-government in Kurdistan? This is what we believe in and we have to stand for what we believe in.’
That the state reacted disproportionately is not the PKK’s responsibility, Bayik believes, and adds: ‘There were trenches, yes, and they excuse their actions by saying they have to close those trenches and destroy the barricades. But they started attacking already before there were trenches, and areas without trenches are being attacked as well. Do civilians need to be killed to close trenches? What is the goal of bombing graveyards from the air? There are no trenches in the graveyards; the only purpose in bombing them is to annihilate a people.’ Bayik mentions the use of phosphorus bombs by the Turkish army, for example in Nusaybin, as an example of disproportionate violence aimed at the civilian population. These accusations remain unconfirmed by independent sources, also because the Turkish authorities don’t allow journalists or observers in.
The youth and the people
There are Kurds, I tell Bayik, who are angry at the PKK for taking the war to the cities. He replies: ‘But those are Kurds with ties to the AKP, KDP (the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Mustafa Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, who has good relations with the Turkish government) or with (intelligence service) MIT. Of course, nobody wants to see his house destroyed, everybody wants to stay in their house, nobody wants to get killed. They say if PKK hadn’t taken the war to the cities, then the neighbourhoods wouldn’t have been destroyed, people wouldn’t have been killed. But this has no value. The youth and the people have together carried out a self-defence action to protect themselves against Erdogan’s policy of genocide. And what does the government say after they kill a child, or a pregnant woman? ‘We have killed a terrorist’.’
But why did you bring weapons to the cities? They were already there last summer.
‘Kurds always have weapons.’
But heavier weapons. The youth were even carrying rocket launchers on their shoulders.
‘Yes now they are, but initially not. Now there are, they have a right to defend themselves, and there will be more weapons. What is a rocket against a tank, a helicopter, a fighter jet? What were we supposed to do when the government closed off all roads to a solution in parliament? Surrender? Never.’
I have talked to many Kurds, and they are definitely not AKP voters, who are angry at the PKK as well.
‘Yes they are angry at us. They say we should have come to the cities to save them. And they are right in saying that. The state knew that in the winter the guerrillas could not come down from the mountains and they could do whatever they liked in the cities.’
But why would the AKP want to destroy the cities?
Bayik: ‘Because the project of democratic politics is carried out in the cities, that is where the democratic autonomy was declared. So they target the cities. And they can, because they get support from other states, the US and the EU, who are using the situation in the Middle East to bargain to solve their own problems. The Turkish state uses tanks, helicopters, to destroy houses, the people see no other way than to flee the cities, and the young fighters remain. Then they can say: ‘The cities are under occupation by the PKK, we have to clear the cities of the PKK’, and no state will not support them, because states are considered legitimate forces and what they do is thus seen as legitimate. Nothing that the PKK does is ever considered legitimate.’ He adds: ‘Tell me, what is the difference between what Saddam did in Iraq and what Assad is doing in Syria and what Erdogan is doing in Turkey?’
Bayik compares the current situation in the cities in southeast Turkey with the battle for Kobani. Also in Kobani, the Kurdish movement was trying to build a society in the spirit of ‘democratic autonomy’, and, according to the PKK, Turkey wanted to destroy that, and tried to do so by supporting radical Islamic groups. Bayik says: ‘These groups now help the Turkish army in the cities in Kurdistan. There are members of Daesh and Al Nusra fighting alongside the special forces of the gendarmes, army and police.’
But Bayik draws a larger picture, which looks even more grim for the Kurds. He says: ‘You really can’t use the trenches and barricades as an excuse to destroy the cities like this. What harm can a trench do to the state? Even a child can understand that. The aim is to put their own supporters in the areas that are vacated now, and refugees from Syria. The Kurds will be put in new apartment blocks on the outskirts of the cities. This is a policy to change the demographics of the region, weaken the Kurdish movement and to destroy the Kurds. This is the genocidal policy we are rising up against.’
Indeed, the AKP government has publicly and proudly announced they will turn the remains of Sur into a second ‘Toledo’, and have ‘promised’ the people who originally lived in Sur alternative housing in so-called TOKI-complexes, concrete apartment blocks just outside the city. Davotuglu during his days as Prime Minister vowed on a trip to Diyarbakir that no building in ‘the new Sur’ would reach higher than the minarets of the ancient Ulu Mosque on Sur’s central square. He thus vowed to make Islam the dominant religion and culture in a district that is famous for a diversity of religions and civilizations that have reigned there and which subsequent Kurdish mayors of the city have worked so hard to revitalize, renovate, respect and preserve.
Cemil Bayik points to a situation currently unfolding in Malatya, a province just outside the Kurdish majority regions of the southeast. The state has begun to build a huge camp for Syrian refugees in an area known for its villages inhabited by Alevis (Alevism is a liberal path in Islam). Bayik: ‘There are many villages with a population altogether of some ten thousand. The camp for Sunni Syrian refugees will be for forty thousand people. This is a demography policy too, a policy of genocide. In a century or so, no Alevi will be left there. Everything for the state’s policy of one nation, one language, one flag, one state.’
I am thinking of the Kurdish people. They have nothing to expect from the state and now some of them are angry at the PKK as well. Where can they go now?Bayik: ‘They have nowhere to go. The only thing they can do is rise up. Surrender is out of the question.’
But what can a mother of eight children do?
‘There are many things a mother of eight can do.’
You can say that from your position here in the mountains, but what can she really do? She has to pick up her children and run for safety.
‘But these are two different things. We pay our price here, we are paying a high price. And there is nothing the people can’t do. A mother of eight can for example take responsibility for her family, for the ground she lives on. That is a contribution to the uprising as well.’
Maybe the people are fed up with resisting.
‘Impossible. The people can’t get fed up with resisting.’
How do you feel about more civilians dying now? For example in Dürümlü recently, where sixteen people died due to a truck with PKK-explosives exploding?
‘Who got killed there? They say they were civilians, right?’ Bayik grabs his own guerrilla uniform firmly, and says: ‘If I change these clothes for civilian clothes, would that make me a civilian? No it would not.’ He means to say the people who died in the explosion in Dürümlü were in fact so-called village guards, Kurds paid and armed by the state to help in the war against the PKK.
How about the civilians who were killed in the TAK attacks in Ankara?
Bayik: ‘We have nothing to do with TAK’.
(For more info on TAK and several views on the PKK’s alleged ties with it, read this article.)
They attack, civilians get killed and then say the civilians weren’t the target. How can this be?
Bayik: ‘You mean the attack in front of army headquarters? They say civilians died there. But these civilians worked at the army headquarters. Are people who work at the army headquarters civilians?’
But after that there was another TAK attack in which civilians died.
‘The important question to ask is: who carried out these attacks? Turkey says the TAK is the same as PKK. But the PKK has an ideology, a philosophy, a goal, a system it wants to realize, and the TAK has no resemblance with all that, it has no similarities with the PKK. We have criticized TAK in our statements. The state is using TAK to try to show the PKK as a terrorist organisation and it remains unclear who is behind it. We have information that Turkey carries out attacks in the name of TAK, aims at killing civilians, then says the PKK is the same as TAK and thus makes the PKK responsible, and then uses this against us in the international arena. But we as PKK, we always take responsibility for our actions. If we attack and civilians are killed, we make a statement to the people and we apologize for the civilian deaths. This is the kind of organisation we are.’
No hurdles left
I ask Cemil Bayik how the war will continue now. He says the situation will worsen, more civilians will die. He brings up the subject of the lifting of the parliamentary immunity of the HDP MP’s, by a parliamentary vote on 20 May. ‘Parliamentarians will be arrested, some of them will be sent to jail. All of this is to remove the voices in parliament who oppose war. By doing this, a war parliament will be realized that will support the genocidal policies of the state, with no opposition voice left. This is also why Davutoglu had to be removed. He was carrying out Erdogan’s wishes successfully, but he still had some thoughts of his own and he expressed them. That is why he had to be replaced. Erdogan needed somebody more obedient, and made Binali Yildirim the prime minister. Whatever Erdogan wants, Yildirim will say ‘Okay’. This will lead to an even bigger war since there are no hurdles left.’
Do you still want to return to the negotiating table?
Bayik: ‘We do, but not in the same way as before. There will be no more one sided ceasefire, it has to be mutual. There has to be a third party to observe the negotiations. But Erdogan is not interested in negotiations, he doesn’t want peace, he wants a sultanate and he needs a war against the Kurds and the PKK to get it, because we are the strongest movement standing in his way.’
I tell Bayik what has been on my mind for some time. That it looks like the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state are involved in an abusive relationship. In an abusive relationship, the man hits the woman again and again, and even though the man shows no sign whatsoever of taking responsibility and trying to improve the situation, the woman doesn’t break with this man but keeps hoping for a better future, keeps believing that one day they will live together in harmony. I ask him, isn’t the Kurdish movement behaving like the woman in this abusive relationship, by insisting on their goal to democratize the country and live in peace with the Turks? Isn’t it about time to break the abuse, give up the impossible dream of living together in peace and demand an independent Kurdistan?
Bayik answers: ‘The PKK is a women’s organisation. We give the freedom of women priority above every other freedom.’
So shouldn’t this woman in the abusive relationship run away?
‘No, she shouldn’t, she should resist. A woman gains strength when she resists, if she stands up for her identity as a woman. If this woman divorces the abusive man, does it mean she is liberated? No, it doesn’t. She may have saved herself physically, this can be, but she is not free. She can only be free if she also resists the male mindset behind the abuse, if she stands up against it. If she doesn’t, abusive relations will continue to exist. Only once the woman becomes free can the society be free. Where can the woman go if she runs away? Where can the Kurds go if they run away? To Europe? This means giving in to slavery, this is bowing your head. The state is a man too. The mindset of the state is a man’s mindset. You can build a new state, but that will be a male state too and it will not save the people from atrocities. The only thing to do is to break your dependency on the man, your dependency on the state. This is why we define ourselves as a women’s organisation, this is why we say ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’, Woman, Life, Freedom.’
Next to the trees under which the interview takes place is a small field with flowers. A bomb could drop there any time. It doesn’t, and the next day too the skies above the Qandil mountains remain free of Turkish fighter jets. We eat fruit after the interview, like after the previous interviews. Water melon this time, and strawberries and cherries. Since I will stay with the PKK for some time to research my next book, I have two questions remaining for Cemil Bayik. The first is: why did he accept my request to live with the PKK for some time and watch the organisation from within? The answer is simple: ‘We are accessible to everybody who wants to understand us. We never had such a request before, but why would we not welcome you?’
Second, I want to know what his most crucial advice is for this journalist who intends to fulfil her quest alive and kicking among all the violence that is keeping Kurdistan in its grip. He doesn’t think for long and says: ‘Be prepared, 24 hours a day.’