Kurdish Rebels Defiant Against Turkey: 'Freedom Is Our Right'

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Sertav Aso, PKK high commander of Makhmour and Kirkuk, in Makhmour refugee camp.Credit: Sofia Barbarani

MAKHMOUR, Iraq – Aysa Toran stands in a large hall carpeted with framed photographs of fallen fighters in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militia based in Turkey and northern Iraq.

A patchwork of unsuspecting faces in green uniforms tells the story of the brutal war between the Kurds and the Turkish government; an ongoing battle that began over 30 years ago, claiming the lives of more than 40,000 people.

Following a fragile two-year cease-fire, the decades-old conflict was reignited last month when Turkey’s air force bombed PKK bases in the Qandil mountain region of northern Iraq, in what the Turks called a counter-terrorism operation against PKK and ISIS (Islamic State). The bombings in Iraq have wounded and killed both fighters and civilians, while some 40 members of Turkey’s security forces have been killed.

“I’m sad but we shouldn’t sit and cry, we should not surrender,” says Toran, whose son was killed in 1998 at age 26 while fighting against the Turkish military.

Aysa stands outside the memorial hall, her son was killed in battle in 1998Credit: Sofia Barbarani

The elderly woman is one of the 12,000 Kurdish refugees living in Makhmour camp, a cluster of mudstone houses on the outskirts of the eponymous city in northern Iraq. The inhabitants of the camp were forced to flee their homes in southeast Turkey in 1994 when new counter-insurgencies against the PKK began, destroying thousands of villages and displacing over 2 million people.

“From 1994 to 1998 we continued changing places – we changed eight times until we finally settled here,” explains camp leader Ramazan Bozan, a wiry middle-aged man with a thick moustache and striking blue eyes.

No way home for now

The renewed violence between the Turks and its Kurdish minority scrapped any hope the refugees might have had to return to their homes. The dirt road that leads to the camp snakes between barren fields littered with garbage. A lone checkpoint manned by two PKK fighters stands between Makhmour city and the camp entrance, where a large portrait of jailed PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalan welcomes visitors. But the refugees’ host, the leading Iraqi Kurdish party [KDP], is not as welcoming of its brethren, says Bozan.

“They’re treating us as though we’re a threat to their security when we’re actually protecting Erbil,” he says referring to the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, only 30 miles northeast of Makhmour. Last August the jihadists overran Makhmour and its adjacent camp, sparking fear that they might reach the capital. They were swiftly ousted by the PKK – with help from the local military forces and U.S.-led coalition – who had been deployed to Makhmour when ISIS began encroaching on Kurdish land.

Critics say that Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic dependence on Turkey has ensured that Kurdish President Masoud Barzani tacitly back Ankara over the PKK, in a problematic alliance that continues to exacerbate old tensions between Kurdish factions. “The KDP has chosen Turkey over the PKK, but this is not new, it has been like this since the late 1990s,” said political columnist Kamal Chomani.

Inside the canton-like camp, they have their own mosque and hospital, the streets are named after fallen PKK fighters, shop signs are written in the Kurdish dialect spoken in Turkey, and schoolbooks are adorned with the smiling faces of PKK martyrs – a proud display of what Turkey’s Kurds claim is their rightful struggle against the Turkish government. The camp leaders have formed a council, which is set to make decisions for the refugees, and cut ties with local authorities, isolating their people from the rest of Makhmour.

A portrait of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan greets visitors at the camp entranceCredit: Sofia Barbarani

“I condemn the terrorist attacks, they’re [Turkish government] the terrorists, not us,” says Toran, who refuses to return to her hometown in Turkey until Kurds have obtained their “independence and rights.”

Jameel, an English teacher in his late 20s, relocated to Makhmour when he was just seven years old and has not returned to Turkey since. “The Turkish government damaged everything [in his town] and said we should leave,” he says, standing under a thin strip of shade.

He says his students hoped to become teachers and presidents, but most of them wished to join the PKK, “even those who were born here [in Iraq] have the dream of home, the notion of Kurdistan.” The younger residents of the camp who were born in Iraq have also been registered as refugees and receive ongoing aid from the United Nations and smaller organizations.

“They [Turkey] have forced us to fight because they don’t give us our rights, we want the international community to condemn what they are doing,” he adds.

Desert strategy

Sertav Aso, PKK high commander of Makhmour and Kirkuk, in Makhmour refugee camp.Credit: Sofia Barbarani

Not far from the camp a dozen guerrilla fighters take shelter from the afternoon heat inside a dimly lit house. “This is a new area for us, it’s desert, not mountains, so we’ve had to change our strategy,” explains Sertav Aso, the PKK high commander of Makhmour and Kirkuk.

Aso sits in front of a portrait of Ocalan, he has a kind smile and takes the time to answer each question meticulously. “We’ve not sent any of our fighters to Qandil because we are responsible for this region,” he explains.

“The Turkish government made ISIS, I want to go to Qandil and fight against Turkey,” says a defiant 21-year-old fighter.

While the fighters’ hearts may rest in Qandil – the mountainous region where they are largely based – the battle against ISIS in Iraq is far from waning and Aso is adamant that the local Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, are not capable of defending Iraq’s Kurds.

Back in the hall dedicated to PKK fighters, Toran steps through the door and back out onto the concrete patio. The elderly woman and a number of other mothers who have lost sons and daughters in battle have been entrusted to take care of the memorial hall.

She draws the door behind her, locking in the memories of the men and women who are no longer alive, including her own son. “We seek freedom for ourselves, it’s our simplest right,” she says with a smile.

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