A ceasefire between the Turkish state and Kurds broke down in July, 2015, reigniting a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people over four decades. The current stage of the conflict in southeast Turkey has killedover a thousand people, including hundreds of civilians. It has displaced hundreds of thousands more. The passing of a bill which allows Turkey to target pro-Kurdish opposition party MPs for prosecution and the recent downing of a Turkish attack helicopter by Kurdish guerrillas mark an escalation in a conflict that Western media has largely neglected.
These interviews were conducted in early March with Kurdish guerrillas fighting in Nusaybin, a city of about 100,000 people in southeastern Turkey on the border of Syria. While the city was then experiencing some fighting, it has now been besieged by Turkish forces who have put it on a continuous and indefinite curfew. The subject was covered by The Maghreb and Orient Courier two months ago, but these interviews, here published exclusively in full, provide more detailed insight into a conflict that has been neglected by Western media. The soldiers interviewed would only give their “nom de guerre” for security reasons.
These interviews highlight the manifold motivations that draw men and women to war. Soldiers point to family histories of persecution, personal experiences of injustice, a lack of political progress, and the ongoing violence which has radicalized civilians. War is often examined in a geopolitical context, but these interviews allow us to see the personal politics behind the conflict in Turkey and understand, at least in part, what has drawn these men and women together in armed struggle.
Christopher ALLEN – How did you get involved in this movement? Why? Where are you from?
Xebab – It’s normal to get these questions, because not many people [come here]. We don’t have to talk about the history. Even today, what happened in Cizre, Turkish State, the Turkish Army burned many civilians alive, even this itself is a good reason to be here, to be a part of the movement, and to fight for the people here. And this is just one of the examples. The Kurds living in Turkey; the reason for us being here and the others being in Cizre is the same: now we are more angry because of what happened there [in Cizre], but mainly it’s about us being Kurdish people living in Turkey, but not being recognized by the state, not being allowed to learn [or study in]our mother language, not being allowed to practice our own culture and history, that’s why these people are united, that’s why these people are fighting against the Turkish state.
Chr. A. – Are you from Nusaybin, or another part of Kurdistan?
Xebab – I’m from Nusaybin.
Chr. A. – What is the end goal of this fight, not just here, but more generally? What do you want to see happen?
Xebab – We are not fighting for pleasure. If you look at the history of the movement, you can easily see that we’ve been trying for decades to solve this Kurdish issue in Turkey in political ways, in Parliament for the last ten years. But obviously the Turkish state did not want to do it – they are forcing us to fight. Or accept what they give us, and we will not accept this, that’s why we are fighting now. We don’t want to kill anyone, but if we have to, we will do it. We promised our Kurdish people to give them the ability to have their culture alive, learn their language, keep their culture living and develop it, and we don’t really mind if we will get it by fighting or by talking. So now, we have to fight.
Chr. A. – Do you see a political settlement or just a military solution?
Xebab – It seems like it – it seems that way, because even if you just walk around, you see all these checkpoints, all these military vehicles and they’ve been also killing civilians, not just guerrilla fighters, so obviously, it’s a military period, it’s a military struggle. Now, the political solution is not possible.
Chr. A. – Do you think that the behavior of the Turkish government over the past eight moths, since the war started in earnest, has further radicalized people, for instance civilians here, or do you see more people joining the movement, or do you think it has suppressed the movement?
Xebab – You cannot really generalize this. If I talk about the youth, they are becoming more radical, a lot more are joining the movement. But of course, there are also lots of civilians that are scared of dying or scared of being killed. They live here, they hear all the noises, sounds of the war, so obviously, some of them are scared as well.
Chr. A. – There are many groups and people here. Does everybody here want the same thing?
Xebab – Yes, we all fight for the same reason, it doesn’t matter when we joined. We all want to live on our own land, with our own culture, without any racist, fascist government [imposing on us]. That’s why we are fighting.
Chr. A. – What about the involvement of civilians in this war. They helped build the barricades, they’re getting involved in the military struggle as well. Are they getting pulled into the war?
Xebab – We respect all the civilians joining the fight a lot, especially the old ones who have their sons or daughters in the war and the youngsters who can take a gun and fight are already doing it now and the old people are supporting them either emotionally, cooking some food for them, or building these barricades all together.
Chr. A. – If this is a transnational movement, are there any foreign people here?
Xebab – I don’t know if there are any internationals fighting here, in North Kurdistan, right now, which is normal because there is not much information going abroad. Even if they are leftist or conscious people, they don’t really know what’s happening, so they are not really here now.
Chr. A. – In the west, there is this conception of the PKK and subsidiary organizations as terrorist group. Can you respond to that allegation?
Xebab – The western world would call the PKK [terrorists]if they don’t fit in to their future plans and profits. They don’t trust them at all. They would call anyone anything depending on their own benefits and profits. So they are calling the PKK a terrorist organization because of all these things. But now here, as you see, the PKK is not here, these are the people of the towns, and the Turkish state especially is using the name and image of the PKK here to make their violence here more legitimate and to show to the Western world that we are fighting the old terrorist organization, the PKK, not the people of the towns. But they just say that this is a big lie… you see for yourself, how can an old lady be part of this terrorist organization. This is not PKK, PKK is not here.
Chr. A. – If there is no group above you, where do the weapons come from, where does the coordination come from, the supplies? Because old grandmothers don’t have everything [i.e. guns and rocket launchers].
Xebab – We don’t talk much about how the munitions or guns are coming here because we don’t know much. The structure of the movement here can be similar to the PKK, because they’ve been doing this for decades and of course they are the idols of the people here, because they’ve been fighting for them as well. And about the guns and ammunition, you should not compare it with a normal city world: this is Kurdistan, these are a lot of villagers living around here, and even in these people’s family houses, they already have their Kalashnikovs and ammunition, so if they ever want to buy these kinds of things, it’s not that difficult – we don’t really need somebody to be helping us and bringing everything. Also, not only the political struggle, but there are always lots of fights between tribes in Kurdistan, and these tribes are also killing each other with Kalashnikovs and ammunition, so it’s not really like getting guns to somewhere where they never existed before. We don’t really have big tanks and artillery – what we have is Kalashnikovs and RPGs. but also the heavy explosive stuff that we have here, it’s a primitive way of fighting, so we don’t really have to look for a deeper connection for how we get these big guns [or explosives]– we have here already things that you can find at home [to make explosives].
Chr. A. – How long have you been involved?
Xebab – I’ve been living here [in Nusaybin], I grew up here and I’ve been living here for two months [as a soldier].
Chr. A. – How did you get involved in the movement and why?
Serfiraz – The first reason is that today, right now in the world, it’s pretty standard that all the nations should be able to decide about their own future and what they are doing. And APO (Öcalan, the leader of the movement) has been struggling for this nation of the Kurds. I grew up with the Kurds, I grew up with these stories, so of course, I am influenced by the ideology of his books, by his defense against the Turkish state, so the first reason is that we are Kurds and we want our rights.
We don’t have to go back much, we don’t have to search in history – even today, what’s happening in northern Kurdistan, here in Turkey in the last eight months, the Turkish state has been killing lots of civilians, lots of young kids, lots of old people, it doesn’t matter if they have guns or not – that’s what brings us here right now, specifically. We know what happened in Cizre, they killed the people, they did not let them out on the streets, we know that many families kept their dead bodies in the basement of their house in the fridge to wait until the curfew was over so they could go out and bury them in peace. But this wasn’t even allowed. They massacred us there and they are still doing it. It doesn’t matter if we are Kurdish or not – if there is any piece of humanity in someone’s self, that person would come here and fight for us.
Chr. A. – When did you join?
Serfiraz – If I say how long I’ve been in the movement, this is always used against us to manipulate the civilians here. So, it doesn’t matter how long I’ve been involved in the movement – I’ve been in this place for three months now, but I can proudly say that I’m part of a political struggle and its tradition which has existed for forty years in Kurdistan, which is the PKK.
Chr. A. – Do you think that the behavior of the Turkish government has further radicalized people? Do you see lots of new people joining or do people seem discouraged and want to leave?
Serfiraz – About the young Kurdish people – of course, seeing their relatives, brothers and sisters, being massacred in different parts of Kurdistan, is radicalizing them. The PKK has always been a humanistic organization. They always try their best to avoid civilian casualties. But especially in the last eight months, the violence that they’ve faced by the Turkish state is of course radicalizing all the young people. Which means that many of the young people are joining these movements in these towns. But also, it is radicalizing the movement itself. So there is the organization ‘TAK’ [Kurdistan Freedom Falcons – a pro-Kurdish extremist group which broke away from the PKK], which is responsible for the Ankara explosion. All this violence is a response to the Turks. They [the PKK]will not be able to stop the Kurdish young people in a humanistic way – if the Turkish state makes their violence stronger, we should all expect that there will be a lot more of these kind of radical and brutal events happening in Turkish metropolises, in the western part of Turkey as well.
The most responsible person in this is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, but also the prime minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who should be managing the country, but because of the connection with Erdoğan, he just gave all his power to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, so he is the person who started this, who is pushing this, who is responsible for all the stuff happening.
Chr. A. – But do you think that these kinds of things, the bombing in Ankara, the more extreme elements, could be a potential benefit for the movement, especially facing the military pressure they are facing now?
Serfiraz – There is no benefit in any war, anyway. PKK has always been able to kill thousands of civilians, but they’ve never done this. They’ve always been hitting the army positions or police forces, the security of the system. The PKK has always been hitting the groups who secure the system.
But now, as the violence is getting higher from the Turkish side, they [the PKK]also have their limits on the control of the people. If the people are radicalizing themselves, they [the PKK]will not be able to stop them. This means that the new young generations are willing to do these kinds of things. I defend PKK as a humanistic organization, but also PKK is in the mountains and they cannot control everyone; people will do these kinds of [extreme acts of violence]eventually.
Chr. A. – What do you think about the fact that local civilians are involved in this fight – kids are building barricades; grandmothers are feeding soldiers. How do you feel about the fact that all the population is engaged, from very old to very young?
Serfiraz – As Turks are being more violent, this definitely brings all of us together, it doesn’t matter old or young people, and we appreciate that a lot. And we are all ready to defend our fight, the revolutionary fight of the people. What’s happening now is related to that. We would never stop anyone who wants to join, because everyone has the right to join and this violence brings all of us together.
Chr. A. – Is there a political solution to all of this or just a military one now?
Serfiraz – First of all, in the last few years, there were already peace talks. We’ve been demanding this for a long time and it seemed possible for a while, so we gave it a chance. But obviously, the Turkish state was not sincere and they stepped back and they started the war. So now we are fighting – it’s a period of military action and military operations.
Also, right now, we have our first expectation — to be able to talk and solve this problem in a peaceful way, is the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan who was jailed for a long time now by the Turks. Our first expectation is letting Abdullah Öcalan free so then we can really talk. This would show us [the Kurds]that they [the Turkish state]are serious about solving the problem.
Chr. A. – In the West, there has been this talk that the PKK and the groups fighting against the Turkish state are terrorists. What do you have to say about that?
Serfiraz – I’ve already said that PKK is trying its best to keep itself humanistic, so it’s of course not true [that they are terrorists]. PKK represents the third way –we are offering a society that doesn’t fit into today’s modern world, which would have problems to integrate because what we are talking about is against the system. So if we are against the system, the western world is ‘the system’ itself, they definitely don’t agree with us – they will definitely try to harm us or portray us badly to create a legitimate base for their operations towards us. So of course they will call us terrorists, but what we do here is offer a society to people where individuals can really be part of the management and everything. So this will never make the rich, western world happy, because what we say is also against their existence.
We are really talking about a radical democracy – this would be something appealing for anyone if people of the world would be able to listen to what we are talking about without any prejudgments. Prejudgments are always the reason for people not to look deeper, not to search, not to try to understand. Obviously, as we are against the system of today’s world, of course, what we say is dangerous to them because if they would let their own people listen to us and hear and understand what we are talking about, they might really like it. It might be a problem for the [establishment]in the western world. That’s why there is always this anti-propaganda about us. Because now the terrorist name is something to be scared of – we’ve already been called terrorists for decades, so whoever sees us from this lens, or hears about us, they are always stuck in these prejudices – they’re not willing to look deeper and try to understand. And that’s why they keep this propaganda going on for years.
Chr. A. – Do you have any westerners who come to support your movement?
Serfiraz – What’s going on here is not very well known in the international press, so of course this does not get too much attention from the leftists of the western world. But they already have a lot of martyrs and fighters in the PKK in Rojave and northern Syria right now. The international revolutionists came and joined the struggle and they even formed their own units. They are there and they help and they support. PKK and any of the organizations here – they’re not alone – they have been connected with other revolutionary groups from all around the world.
Chr. A. – I am curious how, why, and when you got involved in this.
Zenda – My village was burned by the Turkish army in 1993. All my family and relatives from the village moved to western Turkish metropolises. I grew up in a big city in Turkey within the culture, but because of my background I was always interested in and involved with the [Kurdish] movement, but on a legal basis. I was doing a more legal struggle in the towns – I would attend protests and do other work for the movement. I was actually going to Cizre to support them a little more than a month ago. Kurds in the west, they organized a protest – they came to Kurdistan and wanted to go to Cizre for support. At that time, I had nothing to do with guns or this armed struggle. But when we were on the way, we were attacked two times by the army. So I spent a few weeks here with the people. I was already thinking that this legal struggle is not really helping the movement, it’s not bringing us anywhere. And I had to face this myself in Kurdistan when I came here a bit more than a month ago. I decided to stay and take a gun and joined the armed struggle.
Chr. A. – How did you get training in one month? Where?
Zenda – I was already ideologically conscious. For the last one month, I’ve been in the armed wing of the movement. Before this, I’d never had any kind of armed training, but I was ideologically conscious, I knew about the politics, about the ideology of the struggle. And then after I decided to join, I got a simple, basic military training for one week. I joined here [in Nusaybin]and I got the training here for one week from the elder people. I know that I’m not experienced, that I don’t really know about fighting, but I hope to learn it by doing it.
Chr. A. – What about this relationship of women to the movement? It’s interesting that you have female fighters. How do you feel being part of an all female group? How do you feel treated by the movement?
Zenda – In terms of systematic freedom, that is the freedom that exists in the system, I was a free woman [in Turkey]. I could have my own responsibilities, I could do more or less whatever I liked, I could go out alone – I was free in this way. But I was also questioning, is this really freedom? You could go out alone, but you were always scared, you are always paranoid, like is there any guy who will harass you or molest you? So, I was already questioning it, [my freedom and security as a woman in Turkey], and now I’ve joined here and as a woman, I feel myself confident and free from this problematic world. I’m confident about myself being a woman, being here, and being part of the struggle.
A while ago, I decided that without the whole of society being free, it’s not possible for individuals to be really free. That’s what really brought me here, as a woman, as a human being.
Chr. A. – What about the difference between the YPS and the YPS-J [the female group?]. What’s the relationship between them, how do they work together, what do you think of them, what do they think of you?
Zenda – Anybody who is suppressed by somebody else should be able to have his/her autonomy. The world is a patriarchic world anyway, all the time it’s been male dominated, so us as women, we are also a suppressed community [in addition to the Kurds]; that’s why we need to form our own organizations, so by having the YPS-J, it gives us the ability to be ourselves, to stand on our own feet, but it doesn’t mean that we are separated from the YPS. This is a female checkpoint, so all the responsibility is on the females. If there are barricades to build, we go and build the barricades. If there is something to do, women go and do this, so we do exactly what guys are doing and can do. But still, if it’s about fighting, it’s a collective fight, so we fight all together, we just have our own units and as women, we decide on our own things, so no one can bother us.
Chr. A. – You were involved in the PKK or pro-Kurdish movement before – how would you describe the relationship between the PKK and the YPS-J?
Zenda – Of course, the PKK is an organization that has been around for almost 40 years, and of course they are the biggest example for any Kurdish group or struggle. So they are our idols, our example – for example, that’s why we founded YPS and YPS-J, because if you look at Rojava, there is YPG and YPJ, the same separation because of the same reasons. As the women of this part of Kurdistan, we look at that and see that it really makes sense, so we formed the same structure here with different people.
I’ve been in Kurdistan many times – as a Kurdish person, I was always scared of the state, if they would stop us, they would check our IDs or whatever, so that would make us really stressed and suppressed.
But since the first time I took my position behind the barricades, I started to feel really free, without any suppression.