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Saturday, February 13, 2016
- It was only seven in the morning when Mohamed Abdi spread out a rug a few metres away from an artillery crater, up in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. This Iraqi Kurd from Suleimaniyah, 260 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, was ready to celebrate the Newroz – the Kurdish and Persian New Year – along with his family.
They had travelled here for what promised to be the most special Newroz festival in years — not only for its setting in these imposing snow-capped mountains but for bringing a long-awaited message from Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
“Last year there were much less people here, probably because of a fear of bombs. Maybe it’s crowded because we are talking about peace this time,” this former ‘peshmerga’, an Iraqi Kurdish soldier, told IPS.
The Abdis were far from the only family who had risen so early. In fact, over a hundred PKK guerrillas were struggling to manage the unusually busy traffic as thousands of Kurds in hundreds of vans and minibuses crawled along the winding road up to this PKK stronghold.
For almost three decades, the PKK has been fighting the Turkish government in Ankara, in a deadly struggle for language rights and constitutional recognition for the country’s 15 million Kurds that has claimed over 40,000 lives and destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border.
Between 30 and 40 million Kurds are today divided by the borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. But on Thursday, those borders seemed to melt away as Kurds from various regions converged here, prepared to wait several hours to hear news of a ceasefire.
Starred PKK flags mingled with the yellow and green flags of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the dominant coalitions in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
The stage set up for musical performances, speeches, and even small theatre sketches attracted most of the attention. Blown-up images of the most prominent deceased PKK fighters – including the three Kurdish female activists murdered in Paris in January — stood out starkly against the snowy peaks, rising above a sea of heads and thousands of waving flags.
People lined up to have their pictures taken next to huge portraits of the Kurdish leader, imprisoned since 1999; food and tea was served and books were sold from makeshift stalls. Many also took the chance to greet long-lost friends and relatives.
Having driven up here from Van, 920 kilometres east of Ankara, Gulistan hugged her younger brother for the first time since he joined the PKK four years ago.
“We have seven family members in the PKK and we are all very proud of them,” claimed their father Muhamed.Three Kurds queued next to them to get a picture with the young fighter, a request that was made of each and every guerrilla present that day.
“We have driven from Erbil (the administrative capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, 320 kilometres away from Baghdad) to celebrate Newroz with our brothers from the north,” Nashuan, a young Iraqi Kurd, told IPS.
Ayub Salahadin, a taxi driver from Suleimaniya, echoed his sentiments.
“The PKK today reminds us Iraqi Kurds of what we were just twenty years ago. We all feel some kind of nostalgia when we see these young guys,” he told IPS, referring to the decades-long guerrilla war that Iraqi Kurds fought against Saddam Hussein’s regime. That conflict ended only after the Kurds started building up their own autonomous region in 1991, after the First Gulf War.
Ocalan’s message was officially read out by leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s biggest Kurdish city, located about 670 kilometres southeast of Ankara. At two o’clock the message reached the roughly 8,000 people gathered in Qandil.
According to the ceasefire declaration, “The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders…It’s not the end. It’s the start of a new era.”
PKK Chief Leader Murat Karayilan confirmed the statement in a broadcasted message late Thursday afternoon.
Although the mood in the mountains was joyful, many of the older generation struck a wary tone when discussing the future.
“It’s not just us who need to make a move towards peace — Turkey should do her part too,” explained Saharestan, a veteran fighter from Afrin, a Kurdish town in the north of Syria.
Years of struggle in the mountains have already turned this middle-aged woman’s hair completely white; a seasoned fighter, she is hesitant to express optimism, claiming that Turkey has fooled the Kurds “too often” in the past.
If negotiations remain on track, Saharestan and her comrades will cease armed activities in Turkey and withdraw definitively to these mountains.
In a clear move toward dialogue, the PKK handed over eight prisoners – six soldiers, a policeman and a civil servant – to Ankara on Mar. 13.
But unsettled issues and simmering tensions suggest the road to peace will not be smooth.
“I don’t feel too optimistic,” confessed Mahmud, an Iranian Kurdish fighter. “It’s mandatory that Apo (a popular nickname for Ocalan) is released from prison, in order to finally reach a peace agreement between the two parties,” he stressed.
In fact, prudence seemed to be the most popular sentiment among the guerrillas.
“We cannot comment on anything until we have examined in depth Ocalan’s message,” PKK Press Liaison Roj Welat told IPS from a tent adjacent to the stage.
“Nonetheless, it is obvious to everybody that Turkish policy in the Middle East has failed. Besides, the whole region has been shaken by a wave of revolts and unrest for the last two years — these two factors shall definitely play a key role in Ankara’s will for peace.”