PKK fighters face life after Turkey withdrawal

James Reynolds was at the PKK's headquarters to witness the historic announcement

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"No phones," a PKK commander instructed more than a hundred journalists waiting to be taken to see the movement's deputy leader, Murat Karayilan.

There was a brief debate about the permissibility of laptops (allowed) and iPads (no ruling).

The PKK had invited reporters to the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq in order to listen to an announcement about the timetable of a withdrawal of its fighters from Turkish territory.

The movement remained touchy about its security. It didn't want the exact location of its main commanders revealed.

During a five-hour wait in the hills, reporters got the rare chance to speak to ordinary PKK fighters. None gave their names. But they did give a vivid indication of their life in the mountains.

One older, sunburned fighter told the BBC that he was born in Turkey, which he called northern Kurdistan.

The PKK

  • The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, demanding greater autonomy for Turkey's Kurds, who are thought to comprise up to 20% of the population
  • Since then, some 40,000 people have died in the conflict
  • It is regarded by Turkey, the US and European Union as a terrorist organisation because of its attacks on Turkish security forces and civilians

He joined the PKK when he was 15. Years later, his mother brought his younger brother and sister across the border to the Qandil mountains to reunite with him. But his siblings had grown up so much that he no longer recognised them.

On the night of their visit, the fighter said that Turkey's armed forces carried out an airstrike against PKK targets. His mother was so scared that she stayed awake all night, counting her worry beads.

So, the fighter sent his family home the next morning. Since then, he no longer sends written messages them for fear of their getting into trouble with the Turkish authorities.

His only method of communication is occasional verbal messages he passes on through trusted networks.

PKK fighters There were male and female fighters at the PKK camp in Qandil

Qandil itself is seen as a recovery stop for fighters who deserve a break from the frontline. One younger female fighter, who patrolled with an AK-47 rifle, had freshly washed, braided hair held together with a butterfly grip.

The PKK fighters in Qandil have their own way of measuring distance. They do not talk about how many hours drive away a place may be - they refer to how many days it takes to walk there.

One PKK member said that the border with Turkey was 8-10 days walk across the mountains.

They live their lives in such a different way that some appear to rule out a return to normal life. This may prove to be an obstacle if Turkey wants to convince PKK fighters to give up their weapons and get normal jobs.

"Once you go up to the mountains, you don't go back down again," one fighter said.

"This is the Middle East - we will always need self defence," said another.

'A long process'
Murat Karayilan (C) gives his announcement to reporters in Qandil mountains, Iraq (25 April 2013) Murat Karayilan (C) wants to show he is serious about seeking peace

The PKK is not the only armed Kurdish movement in this region. The PJAK is a Kurdish organisation which fights against Iran and has similar aims to the PKK.

"I don't think the PKK will lay down its arms," said Shamal Bishir, the PJAK's foreign affairs chief.

"It will be a long peace process. To lay down arms will be the last step in this process.

"The Kurds need a guarantee for the democratic rights we are fighting for. Until we get the guarantee, talk about laying down arms will just be useless discussion."

In early afternoon, the PKK finally gave word that Murat Karayilan was ready to see the visiting reporters. We packed ourselves into a convoy of white jeeps and were driven to a meadow.

Mr Karayilan appeared amid a scrum of PKK fighters. He took his place in a tent, in front of a picture of the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

A senior female commander read out the withdrawal announcement in Kurdish. Mr Karayilan repeated these words in Turkish.

All around us, PKK fighters watched their commander's words. Some looked after a table set with small cans of cola. Others picked up rubbish from the grass. A handful stood guard on nearby hilltops.

The PKK clearly wanted to show that it was serious about the peace process with Turkey. But it also wanted to show that the movement remained undefeated.

It will withdraw its fighters, but not lay down its arms.

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