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Language course with the PKK: 'I am a guerrilla, you are a guerrilla, we are guerrilla's'

Fréderike Geerdink photo
Fréderike GeerdinkQandil Mountains, Kurdistan Region, Iraq
Language course with the PKK: 'I am a guerrilla, you are a guerrilla, we are guerrilla's'
Cut off from most news sources, watched by drones, threatened by Turkish F16’s and with a former Kobani fighter as a teacher in the open air class room, a group of PKK guerrillas and foreigners learned the mother tongue of the Kurds. A report from the mountains.

‘Keşif heye?’ It is ten to five in the morning, I have only just opened my eyes and the short Kurdish sentence that is heard so often in this PKK camp rolls from my mouth at once. Kesif heye?, meaning: ‘Are there drones?’ I am asking it because heval Rûken, one of the guerrillas with whom I share a tent, is sitting by the tent door listening intensely to the sounds in the air. Heval Navroj, like me still under her blanket, gestures with her head that there aren’t any.

If it is anywhere applicable that with learning a new language you enter a new world, it is here, in the language education camp of the PKK in a remote corner of the Qandil Mountains in the northeast of Iraq. I realize this when I find myself asking whether there are drones in the air before I even wish my tent mates rojbaş (good morning). Safety before everything. So keşif was one of the first words I learned, just like balafir (airplane, in this area always a bomber), rewşa ewlekarî (safety situation) and dûpişk (scorpion – eliminate instantly when you see one because a sting can be lethal).

Ten to five, it’s a nice time to get up. We have had our eight hours of sleep already: for safety reasons, artificial light is strictly qedexe (forbidden) in the camp and thus we climb to our sleeping places under the trees every night in the twilight between seven and eight pm. After getting up there is some time to read, to do homework or get some extra sleep in our one-person tents in the camp, before at a quarter past six breakfast is ready. At seven thirty precisely the classes start.

At this early morning hour I hear my neighbour, heval Nefel (‘heval’, meaning ‘friend’, ‘comrade’, is the word PKK fighters refer to each other) reading softly. One tent further along heval Mizgîn, the teacher of one of the two classes, prepares the lesson of the day in the morning coolness. I use the time to write in the diary I keep in order to not forget any detail of my time with the PKK.

Your correspondent in front of her tent in the language camp.

If everything goes the way I hope it will, I will stay a year with the PKK, the armed Kurdish group that has been once again caught up in a fierce fight with the Turkish army since summer 2015, and that has been more successful in fighting ISIS in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan than any other group. A long term stay with the PKK to write a book about the organization is a sequel to my time as a correspondent in Turkey, which ended abruptly in September 2015 when I was kicked out of the country because of my journalistic work on the Kurdish issue.

When I arrive in the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK has its headquarters, I am first directed to the language course. My Kurdish is terrible, despite efforts to learn the language in Istanbul and Diyarbakir (the biggest Kurdish city in the southeast of Turkey), my bases as a freelance correspondent between 2006 and 2015. So here I am, in a PKK language education camp under the trees in the mountains.

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Heval Arîn (22) is, like every day, the first to write her homework on the whiteboard, hung between a plum tree and a pole sunk into the ground. Her writing is slow and her letters are so huge that even a short sentence spreads across the full width of the board. But what does it matter? What matters is that she writes at all: before Arîn started this course, she was illiterate. In the village in Başur (South Kurdistan, or the part of Kurdistan situated in Iraq) where she grew up, there was no school when she was a kid. Two years ago, she joined the PKK. She was ecstatic when her request to follow the language course was accepted.
Arîn writes: ez gerîla me, tu gerîla yî, ew gerîla ye, em gerîla ne, hûn gerîla ne, ew gerîla ne. – I am a guerrilla, you are a guerrilla, he/she is a guerrilla, we are guerrillas, you are guerrillas, they are guerrillas. In the classes about the use of the upper case, she writes: ‘PKK Partîya Karkên Kurdistan e’ (The PKK is the Kurdistan Workers Party) but that Karkên isn’t quite correct: that should be Karkerên, workers, and it takes a while before she sees part of the word is missing. Teacher Mizgîn repeats it until Arîn sees it: karkerên, karkerên.

The class room after class hours. The white board is covered so drones can not detect the white space.

Heval Arîn is not the only one of the twelve students who came to the course to learn to read and write. Heval Awesta for example, eighteen years of age, never went to school in Bakur (North Kurdistan, the part situated in Turkey). Her dad earned a living as a shepherd and ever since she was six years old Awesta joined him almost daily on his journeys through the fields and mountains of her home region.

The other students can read and write, but none of them in Kurdish. Like heval Avyan, an experienced guerrilla, who grew up in Rojhilat (EastKurdistan, in Iran) and only learned Persian in school. As soon as she could read and write, her parents withdrew her from school, since they didn’t want their daughter to be shaped by the Iranian education system.

The language of her mother

Heval Hêlîn, 30 years old, grew up in Istanbul but never had sufficient education. She says: ‘I was born in Bingöl (East Turkey, FG) and my parents moved to Istanbul when I was little. We moved from one part of the city to the other, depending on where my father could find work, and I changed schools very often. That was not the best way to learn good Turkish. But I didn’t learn good Kurdish either, because I only spoke the language with my mother and as you know there is no education in Kurdish in Turkey.’ After elementary school, she stopped going to school altogether. In the PKK she learned to speak the language of her mother properly, and now finally she is learning to read and write it too.

And my neighbour, heval Nefel, comes from a village in Rojava (West Kurdistan, in Syria) and learned only Arabic in the four years she attended school. Five years ago, when she started fighting with the YPG, the Syrian-Kurdish group affiliated with the PKK, to literally protect her parental home and her village against the army of President Assad and later against ISIS, she didn’t even speak Kurdish yet, since at home they spoke only Arabic. ‘Assimilation, heval Avaşîn’, she sighs, addressing me with the name I carry as long as I am among PKK fighters.
The name Avaşîn was given to me by a female guerrilla on one of my first days in the mountains. She knew of my expulsion from Turkey, and that I was detained in Yüksekova. The Avaşîn is a river which flows in the Yüksekova district as well, the name means 'Blue water'. The guerrilla found it extra suitable for me because my eyes are green, and in Kurdish 'şîn' means both 'blue' and 'green' when used for eyes.