Weary of War, Turkish Kurds Try Talking
If a cease-fire brings a political accommodation for Turkey's Kurds, it could lead to similar reconciliations for Kurds in Iran and Iraq
NORTHERN IRAN-IRAQ BORDER — IN a remote mountain valley a few hundred yards across the Iraqi border into Iran, Comrade Cicek sits near her tent encampment with some of the 400 women guerrillas she helps train for the task of liberating Kurdistan.
Cicek - her name means "flower" - is 26. She has been a Kurdish guerrilla for seven years. Her commitment is obvious. She has an 11-year-old son whom she has left in Syria to be brought up by the PKK, the radical Marxist Kurdish Workers' Party. She rarely sees him, or her husband, who is also a PKK fighter.
Such dedication is the norm here, and it starts young. Sitting nearby is Sozder, a 13-year-old who joined the PKK three years ago.
"I don't feel like a child. I don't miss my toys. These are my toys," she says, nodding to her 8.5mm Beretta and the inevitable AK-47 assault rifle she cradles.
"I could never be a housewife," Comrade Cicek says. "My aim is to fight on until we achieve a free Kurdistan."
But she and hundreds of other PKK guerrillas may be disappointed in their quest for that far-reaching goal.
Their revered leader, Abdullah Ocalan, known to follower and foe alike by his nickname Apo, recently launched a peace initiative that could end the PKK's eight-year secessionist insurrection against Turkey through a political accommodation with the Ankara government.
Turkish leaders have shown signs of taking the initiative seriously, and are looking at ways to accommodate Kurdish aspirations without compromising the country's unity and integrity.
Such a peace would mean tranquillity and a better deal for Turkey's 12 million Kurds, whose identity has been denied for decades by Turkish authorities and whose areas in the southeast of the country have fallen into economic neglect. Shelving the dream
For the PKK, a peace accord with Turkey would not only mean giving up the unrelenting armed struggle it launched in 1984, unleashing a cycle of violence and repression in which more than 5,000 people have died. It would also mean shelving the dream of a free, independent Kurdistan embracing all the region's 20 million Kurds, who are divided mainly between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Pan-Kurdism has always been at the center of the PKK's philosophy.
But Kurdish leaders in Iran and Iraq express hope that an agreement in Turkey could become a model for peace negotiations in their countries.
Mr. Ocalan announced a unilateral halt to hostilities with Turkish government forces from March 20 through April 15, and indicated that if Ankara responded positively, he might extend the truce indefinitely and would seek a settlement within Turkey's borders. That is now expected to happen, given the initial success of the cease-fire and the interest Turkish leaders now show in addressing the Kurdish issue.
"We are very much prepared to turn to political methods," Ocalan told a news conference in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. "As for [Turkish] unity, I must say that we are not in favor of separation from Turkey for the time being. We are realistic on this issue. And this is not just a tactical ploy."
The PKK truce was timed to cover the Kurdish New Year, Nowruz, which in recent years has been an occasion for violent antigovernment Kurdish demonstrations and clashes with government forces in the southeast.
Nearly 100 people died in such disturbances last year. This time, Nowruz passed March 21 with only scattered incidents. Since then, the general level of violence has dropped sharply, reinforcing the impression that the PKK enjoys a high degree of influence in Turkey's Kurdish areas.
"Even if it is unilateral, the fact that the guns have been silent has created a new climate of hope," says Hashim Hashimi, the Kurdish mayor of Cizre, a town in southeastern Turkey where roughly 40 people were killed in Nowruz violence last year.
While Ankara's response has yet to crystallize, government leaders and security chiefs have held numerous meetings and made public comments indicating willingness to explore a new deal for Turkey's Kurds.
In a significant gesture, Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel and top aides toured the Kurdish southeast last week. "Thanks to you, we had a peaceful Nowruz," he told thousands of Kurds who turned out to greet him.
He said the emergency rule - a sort of martial law - imposed on the Kurdish provinces five years ago may be lifted in June "if everything goes smoothly until then."
Turkish leaders have indicated that among the measures being considered are the granting of "cultural rights" to the Kurds - such as TV and radio broadcasting and education in Kurdish, a language officially banned in Turkey from the time the republic was established in 1923.
Interior Minister Ismet Sezgin - a hard-liner on the Kurdish issue - said that hundreds of Kurdish villages that had been forced to adopt Turkish names would have their original Kurdish names restored. Amnesty for fighters
Officials in Ankara reportedly also are considering easing the conditions under which PKK fighters - long denounced by Ankara as simply "terrorists" - would be allowed to come down from the mountains and rejoin society. In addition to those outside the country, about 7,000 to 10,000 PKK guerrillas are believed to be holding out in mountain bases inside Turkey.
If the PKK has shelved the notion of separation, independence, and Kurdish unity in a Greater Kurdistan, the loss does not seem to be mourned by most Turkish Kurds, who are more concerned with bettering their economic lot and achieving recognition of their identity as Kurds.
"At present, both the people and the Kurdish parties want to live together with their Turkish brothers, rather than seek an independent state - provided they're granted their basic rights," Mayor Hashimi says.
If Turkey's Kurds gain new status and accommodation from Ankara, its impact will be felt well beyond Turkey's border. Among those most directly affected will be the 4 million Iraqi Kurds in the self-proclaimed "federal state" they set up in northern Iraq last year. A model for Iran, Iraq
Landlocked and heavily dependent on Turkey as their main lifeline to the outside world, the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas last autumn joined Turkish forces in ousting PKK fighters from bases along the mountainous border. But Turkey remains suspicious of the Iraqi Kurdish "state," fearing it may encourage separatism among its own Kurds.
Helping bring about a settlement of the Kurdish problem in Turkey is clearly in the interest of the Iraqi Kurds. Not surprisingly, therefore, one of the main Iraqi Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani, played a key role in preparing the way for Ocalan's initiative, and sat at his side as he launched it.
Rebel Iranian Kurds also have welcomed the PKK's change of direction, believing a settlement in Turkey could provide a model for Iran's 6 million Kurds.
"I very much hope that Turkish officials will respond positively, and that all people of goodwill will cooperate to solve the Kurdish question in Turkey within the framework of an independent and unified Turkey, which might be an example to the Kurds of Iran and elsewhere," said Abdullah Hassanzadeh, deputy leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, in an interview at a remote mountain base on the Iraq-Iran border.
Like many other Kurdish leaders interviewed in recent weeks, Mr. Hassanzadeh believes the dream of eventual Kurdish unity is still alive in the heart of almost every Kurd - but that goal is not at the forefront today.
"We must be realistic, we must use our brains and be wise," says Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. "The Kurdish issue cannot be solved by violence, either by us or by the governments of the countries we are divided among. This does not mean we don't have the right to have our free, independent country, but this must be achieved through dialogue and peace, not through violence."