Kurdish PKK rebel leader, Karayilan, softens tone in Turkish
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Kurdish PKK rebel leader, Karayilan,
softens tone in Turkish conflict
By Steven Lee Myers, NY Times
January 1, 2011
QANDIL MOUNTAINS, Turkey-Iraqi Kurdistan
frontier, — High in the craggy mountains of
Iraq’s northern frontier, where men (and, in this
case, women) with guns have long operated beyond the
control of any government, Murat Karayilan sounds
more interested in pursuing peace than the war he
has led against Turkey.
“We are not weak,” Mr. Karayilan said in an
interview in this village, where he and other
fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the
P.K.K., represent the law of the land, despite
official claims to the contrary.
“Our youths are always ready, hot-blooded and
combative, but we want the Kurdish problem — as a
nation’s problem, as a people’s problem — to be
solved not by guns, but by dialogue.”
Many will doubt Mr. Karayilan’s sincerity,
especially in Turkey. The party’s violent struggle
has lasted more than a quarter-century and cost
40,000 lives. But now, perhaps more than ever
before, there are indications that the war may have
reached its endgame.
“We want the Kurdish problem — as a nation’s
problem, as a people’s problem — to be solved not by
guns, but by dialogue.” MURAT KARAYILAN. Photo:
Shiho Fukada for The NY Times.
And that has put Mr.
Karayilan — either a noble insurgent fighting
oppression or a narco-terrorist commander — at the
center of a different kind of offensive.
He has been making the case for Kurdish rights in
Turkey in surreptitiously arranged, if not exactly
clandestine, interviews from his mountainous
redoubt, irritating officials on both sides of the
border who would rather see him fade into obscurity.
“The Kurdish people are an ancient people in the
world,” he said. “All their national and linguistic
rights have been denied. Our goal is to achieve
Mr. Karayilan’s party, long designated a terrorist
organization and since last year a drug trafficker
by the United States, has declared a new cease-fire
and already extended it into the new year. Whether
by design or under duress, the party has reduced its
own political demands, tempered by the profound
political and economic changes that have swept
Turkey and Iraq.
Mr. Karayilan no longer calls for a separate Kurdish
state, but for a degree of autonomy within Turkey
that is inspired by, but stops considerably short
of, the federal system the Kurds set up for
themselves in Iraq after the American invasion in
Iraq’s Kurdish leaders, eager to expand trade and
cross-border cooperation, have supported efforts to
end the fighting, offering their own model of
self-determination and rising prosperity as an
example. Even as officials in Turkey rule out
negotiations with the party itself, intermediaries
have held secret talks to discuss the possibility of
a lasting peace, according to officials in Iraq and
The presence of the P.K.K. has long been an irritant
in relations, prompting cross-border raids and
bombings as recently as last summer. Increasingly,
though, it would seem to be a surmountable one.
“We continue to remind all: Violence will not be the
way to solve this issue,” said Barham Salih, the
prime minister of the Kurdish regional government in
Iraq’s Kurds are “mindful of our relationship with
Turkey,” Mr. Salih added. The experience of the
Kurds within Iraq’s democratizing if not yet fully
democratic system “dispels the notion that the Kurds
are a destabilizing element in this part of the
world,” he said.
“We don’t have to be stuck in the conflicts in the
past,” he said.
MR. KARAYILAN is a garrulous man, portly but fit,
mustachioed and nattily dressed in the handmade
olive-gray uniform that the party’s fighters wear.
His past is murky enough that the United States
Treasury Department’s official terrorist
designations give two birth dates for him, making
him either 56 or 60.
He has been the day-to-day commander of the
Kurdistan Workers’ Party since its charismatic
founder, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999,
tried and sent to an island prison in the Sea of
The leadership moved to Qandil shortly afterward,
and its fighters live more or less openly in what
amounts to an undeclared haven. Its fighters — a
large number of them women — adhere to a
lifestyle. While they have always used the mountains
as refuge, the toppling of Saddam Hussein has made
this much easier — to the chagrin of the Turkish
government, which routinely complains to the United
States and Iraq to do more to curtail the P.K.K.’s
“For the first time in history, the Kurds have
breathing space,” said the movement’s spokesman, Roj
Mr. Karayilan’s exact base is, of course, kept
secret, but the party’s presence in the gorges
around Qandil is not. Uniformed fighters maintain a
checkpoint on the road from the Kurdish regional
capital, Erbil, not far beyond the last official
The party’s flag flutters over its territory, while
Mr. Ocalan’s portrait hangs ubiquitously. Mr. Ocalan
remains the movement’s revered leader, but he “is
not in a position to giver orders” from prison, as
Mr. Karayilan put it, though his messages and
writings are still circulated.
The party runs a clinic with a German doctor and a
factory to make the uniforms. It neatly tends a
cemetery with a 30-foot white obelisk that looms
over the graves of Kurdish fighters from Iraq,
Turkey, Iran and Syria.
Mr. Karayilan said donations from Kurds in their
homeland or abroad sustained the movement. American
and Turkish officials say smuggling does. As for
weapons, Mr. Karayilan smiled coyly when asked. “You
can get whatever you want,” he said. “It’s the
The party unilaterally declared a cease-fire after
an eruption in cross-border violence from 2007 to
2009. The lull has largely coincided with
concessions from the Turkish government under Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to expand rights for
the country’s Kurdish minority by, for example,
allowing a Kurdish-language television station and
Kurdish-language studies at universities.
Mr. Erdogan’s government has ignored the party’s
announced terms for an end to violence altogether,
including the release of arrested Kurdish political
activists and the creation of a reconciliation
commission like the one in post-apartheid South
Africa. Instead the government has struck a more
nationalistic tone before elections in June.
Nevertheless, the government is expected to offer
some new gestures for Kurds in hopes of
marginalizing Mr. Karayilan’s group.
“Some of the things listed as preconditions are
already part of the democratic standards by our
government for all of our citizens, not only for
Kurds,” said Omer Celik, a member of Parliament and
one of Mr. Erdogan’s leading political advisers.
Mr. Karayilan said the Turkish government lacked the
political will to pursue a true peace, though,
tellingly, he did not close the door on a negotiated
He spoke for nearly two hours in a cinder-block
house here in Qandil, not far from another house
badly damaged by two Turkish bombs in the summer.
He traveled with only a small retinue of guards in
Toyota Land Cruisers and took few other precautions.
When the interview ended, he apologized for not
being able to stay for dinner.
For all his polite charm, he remains strident at
times, denouncing what he called Turkish occupation,
oppression and genocide. But the outline of an
accommodation that he sketches no longer seems so
He urged the United States, as well as other
nations, to stop seeing the conflict through the
prism of the “war on terror,” but rather through
that of self-determination. “It is the cause of a
nation that needs to be addressed,” he said.
Stephen Farrell and Namo Abdulla contributed
reporting from Qandil, Kurdistan region of Iraq, and
Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul.
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