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Portrait of a PKK fighter - comrade Hesen staggers but never falls

Fréderike Geerdink photo
Fréderike GeerdinkQandil mountains, Kurdistan
Portrait of a PKK fighter - comrade Hesen staggers but never falls
Journalist Fréderike Geerdink spent a year with armed Kurdish organisation PKK. Currently she is writing a book about her experiences. This portrait of comrade Hesen will be part of the book. ‘When the army starts an operation, they will of course not spare you because they see you are just a kid.’

Comrade Hesen pulls up his trouser leg. ‘Look’, he says. ‘Prosthesis’. I had heard already that he was wounded in the struggle years ago, but I didn’t expect a prosthesis. I hadn’t noticed from his walking, although I started seeing it after his revelation. Sometimes he almost loses his balance, especially when a path goes uphill, and his gait is not quite regular. Sometimes he walks with a stick.

Comrade Hesen (36) is one of the teachers at the language camp of the PKK, where in the summer of 2016 some twelve guerrillas and five foreigners are being taught Kurmanci, the most widely spoken Kurdish dialect. He doesn’t have a group of students himself, but in the afternoons, after the morning lessons, he often gives an extra class to three of the five foreigners. He can’t manage to stand up by the whiteboard for two whole hours, so half-way through the class he takes a break to sit down.

After such a class I ask him whether I can interview him for my book. He was only seventeen years old when he was wounded, less than a year after he joined the PKK. I would like to know what it was like for a young fighter to be shot out of the struggle so soon, and how he has shaped his life ever since, physically and mentally. ‘I have never talked about it with an outsider’, Hesen answers. ‘I will think about it.’

A few days later he says that he wants to talk, but only if comrade Hacer, the commander of the language camp, agrees. Comrade Hacer gives her permission and I ask Hesen when he will have time. He says: ‘We are not in a hurry, are we? We’ll be here for weeks to come. Let’s wait a little bit.’ Fine, no problem.

The kamelya is the central part of the camp. It’s an open space in the forest, with, in the middle of it, a long table of twelve vegetable crates tied together, covered with pieces of cardboard and a sheet of plastic on top. On both sides of the table are two halves of a tree trunk cut length-wise for seating, the ends resting on sand bags. The bench is too low for my tall body. Only at one place, right by the thickest sand bag, can I sit reasonably comfortably. But for Hesen the bench is just impossible because his artificial knee can’t be put at the necessary angle. One morning a new sort of chair is placed at the head of the table: a tree stump, sawed perfectly smooth and stable as could be. Made by Hesen, who makes, builds and saws whatever is necessary in the camp. Often I show up at breakfast before him and I sit on his more comfortable chair. When he comes walking in at an easy pace from the men’s part of the camp, I move to the place on the bench next to the sand bag. Hesen always urges me to stay put because the tree stump chair doesn’t belong to him. I don’t agree to that, of course.

One afternoon after lunch I don’t ask when I can interview him, I just ask how it happened with his leg. It was 1997, he says. He and two comrades wanted to attack an army post in the district of Uludere, in the southeast of Turkey right at the Iraqi border. ‘I stepped on a mine and BOOM!’ he says, depicting an explosion with his hands. The army, he explains, sometimes puts mines in a wide circle around an army post at night, removing them again in the morning. This worked well for the army, but not for Hesen.

Initially the damage didn’t seem to be huge: Hesen slices his hand diagonally over his right shoe to point out how much of his foot was gone. But the tissue started turning black. ‘My foot had to be cut off’, he says, ‘because otherwise I might lose my whole leg.’ Two fellow fighters held him tightly, the third cut. Quickly, to make the pain as short as possible. ‘Aah, aah’, says comrade Hesen, without raising his voice and with a face that laughs but is also distorted by the memory, as an answer to my question whether he was screaming.

They should have gone south after the mine exploded, to the Iraqi part of Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan was already de facto autonomous at the time (later, in 2001, the autonomy was anchored in the Iraqi constitution) and Hesen could have been treated there within a few hours. But the war between the PKK and the Turkish army was at one of its many high points at the time and the border was almost impossible to cross. So they went north – staying in one place is not an option for a guerrilla unit. During the day they were hiding and during the nights they walked to the province of Siirt, dozens of kilometres further on. Hesen: ‘Sometimes there was a mule available. My comrades tied me to a stretcher made of wood and tied that on the mule. Other parts of the way a comrade carried me on his back.’

It was somewhere on that journey that his foot was cut off. The wound was cleaned with water from the river, salt and eau de cologne (‘Aah, aah!’) and bandaged with pieces of rag. The stump was clean when eight months later, in the spring after the snow had melted and long journeys were possible again, he was treated in a hospital in Mosul, Iraqi Kurdistan. ‘But the cutting had damaged the bones severely and the lower leg had to be amputated’, Hesen says. Did the doctor know who he was? ‘No. I had a fake ID and I said I was a shepherd and that I had stepped on a mine while tending my sheep.’

A few days later I ask Hesen if he has time that day to talk some more. ‘Not today, I have some other things to do’, he answers. ‘And we are not in a hurry, are we?’ ‘We are not’, I reply. ‘No problem, I’ll ask again later.’

Hesen reads a book in Kurdish, titled ‘A Graveyard in Diyarbakir’. I ask him if I can borrow it from him to practice my Kurdish. A few days later he gives it to me. I try hard but eventually I give up: I hardly know any of the words and I can’t find most of them in the dictionary either. When I give it back, Hesen explains that it was indeed not the easiest book. ‘It’s almost a century old and the Kurdish used is somewhat outdated.’ ‘How come you understand it?’, I ask. He grew up in Turkey and there is no education in Kurdish there. ‘I taught myself’, he replies. ‘Just by reading, reading, reading, also older Kurdish literature.’ Of all the people in the language camp, the Kurdish of comrade Hesen is the best. Teachers and students can always ask him anything and he answers everybody patiently.

For the rest, Hesen plans his own days. He is the language expert, but also the builder. The whole camp, I hear, was built by him – with help from others of course. I only arrived when the course had been under way for a week already, so unfortunately I didn’t see the camp coming into being, but one of the other students, a foreigner too, tells me: ‘We arrived here and Hesen said that this was a good spot for a camp. I didn’t understand: it was a piece of forest on a rather steep mountain. A camp, here? But a week later it was ready.’

I get a better understanding when in the men’s camp a part of the forest needs to be cleared to make space for a big tent. There too the slope was steep. Comrade Hesen works with a huge electric saw and pickaxe, smashes tree stumps to smithereens, dislodges rocks and instructs others in a quiet tone of voice. That he is missing half a leg doesn’t show in any way – well, now and then he staggers a bit. But he never falls.

In the camp, by the kitchen, I often watch how he saws huge tree trunks, carried to the camp by the students in the morning before classes start, into firewood for use in the kitchen stove. He climbs onto the mound of tree trunks, ponders the right angle to put the saw in the wood, and makes light work of it. He works quietly and with precision.

After a week or so I ask him again when we can talk. ‘Not yet’, he says. ‘But then when?’ ‘I don’t know, but not yet. But I promise, before we leave here, we will have done the interview. If necessary you just put me on a chair on the last day and then we talk. Really, I promise.’

A few days later after lunch we are talking with a group of people. I ask Hesen: ‘What was it like when you joined the PKK? You were part of the war immediately, despite being only sixteen years old? It’s not like that anymore is it?’ He answers: ‘There was no other option at the time. Don’t forget, the PKK didn’t have its headquarters close to Turkey, like now, but in the Bekaa Valley and in Damascus. For fighters who were not there, there was no place to not be in the war. So I was in this unit and when the army starts an operation they will of course not spare you just because they see you are only a kid.’ Comrade Hesen laughs hard, depicts exploding bombs with his hands: ‘Boom boom boom, oh wait, we won’t bomb you, you’re sixteen’.

He reaches for his tablet, which contains a few photos of those days. A dark picture, he points to the little one in the group. Taken during the few months when he was still an intact fighter.

I would like to know why he decided to join at the time. What it was like to learn to walk again. How a young guerrilla aged seventeen years comes to terms with the fact that he will never join a battle again. During breakfast, about a week before the language course ends and I leave for my next destination in the mountains, I ask: ‘Today, comrade Hesen?’ ‘I am about to leave’, he says. ‘But don’t worry, I will be back in three, four days.’

I ask where he is going. ‘To the camp for new recruits. I always teach a few classes there about life in the PKK. That it’s often tough, and that there is nothing romantic about it. That the war is dirty, despite the freedom of the mountains.’ A bit later he leaves, on foot. He holds his walking stick. Around his head a black shawl with red and pink flowers to protect him against the harsh sun. An hour’s walk away a car will be waiting for him to take him to his destination.

It is the last day of the language camp. Two days earlier, in the twilight, comrade Hesen returned. I saw him pass on the path next to the field where I was sitting beside my tent, and he looked exhausted. The next day, I didn’t ask about the interview. I thought: I will, as he proposed himself, put him on a chair on the last day so we can talk.

But Hesen is absent that day. There is a graduation ceremony, there are speeches, guests, songs, dance and theatre, chicken, rice, salad and cola, but no Hesen.

After the party I am picked up by comrade Dalyan, who will take me to my next location. We go via the language base camp, some ten minutes walk through the forest. ‘I was supposed to have an interview’, I say to Dalyan. ‘With comrade Hesen, do you know him?’ ‘Yes, I know him’, says Dalyan. ‘He agreed to an interview? That’s remarkable. He doesn’t really like to talk about the past.’ ‘He agreed’, I reply, ‘but every time I brought it up, there was some reason it was not the right day.’ We pass a long, steady, strong hanging bridge over a river. Dalyan says: ‘Great bridge, isn’t it? Did you know Hesen made it?’

In base camp Hesen is sitting on a plastic chair at the long wooden table. He pours us tea. I smile and say: ‘We were going to talk, comrade Hesen. Why are you here, why were you not at the ceremony? You really missed out on something!’ He says: ‘I am on guard duty today. We could have talked. But you weren’t here.’

The book ‘This Fire Never Dies’ will be published in Dutch in the spring of 2018. The date of publication of the English and Turkish translations has not been set. Click here for more information. 

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