The Burden of Proof: the PKK and
by Edward Graham
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is in a difficult situation. Following the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya, the organization has been refuting Ankaras accusations that it is a terrorist organization, with Ocalan as its leader. Several explanations have been offered since then. Of course, Ocalan is a freedom fighter, says his lawyer, he is engaged in a legitimate civil war in Turkey to free Kurdistan. A war criminal maybe, but not a terrorist, she said. On the night of his arrest Ocalan is seen blindfolded yelling that he is Turkish and loves Turkey because it is his home. Since then Ocalan has been indicted for treason, a charge he will certainly be convicted of. In a recent attempt to lower his future sentencing away from the normal death penalty, Ocalan has offered a cease-fire between the PKK and Ankara.
World opinion is constantly changing in regards to the Kurdish question. After the 1991 Gulf War the world was horrified to see pictures and read stories of what Saddam Hussein had done to the Kurds of northern Iraq, turning his chemical and biological weapons on them en masse. Turkeys routine attacks on its own Kurds, as well as those in Iraq, has met with mixed emotion over the years, and abject silence from Turkeys NATO allies and the United States. Meanwhile the Kurds, and Ocalan himself almost led Turkey and Syria to war in 1998. Iran generally remains quiet about its Kurdish population, simply denying them the right to autonomy, and thats that.
The arrest of Ocalan in February of this year sparked an unpredictable response from Kurds worldwide. It is these initial responses that would establish world opinion of the Kurds and the PKK in the coming months. In Geneva, Kurds stormed the UNHCR headquarters, while in Zurich they occupied a UN building and took the owner hostage, as well as a Swiss police officer who tried to negotiate with them.
Suspected of collaboration in Ocalan's arrest, Greek and Kenyan embassies were also targets for Kurdish anger. The Greek embassy in London was stormed and the grounds keeper taken hostage. Greek embassies and consulates in the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Germany were also attacked. In Vienna, five hostages, including the Greek ambassador, were taken. The Kenyan embassy was also seized and protesters threatened to burn it down if their demands were not met. In The Hague the Greek embassy was stormed and the ambassadors wife and 8-year old son were taken hostage. Russian and French police arrested more Kurdish protestors as they tried to enter Greek Embassies. In the worst situation three Kurds were killed when Israeli consulate guards fired on a crowd forcing its way through the gates in Berlin. Numerous protestors doused themselves in gasoline, and a few even tried to immolate themselves, but were thankfully rescued. Belgium, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and the US were also the sites of Kurdish protests.
Now, to be fair to the protestors, it is true that no non-Kurds were seriously injured in any of these incidents. However, this spontaneous burst of emotion and support for Ocalan had painted a very unflattering picture of the Kurdish movement to many around the world. It is understandable, Ocalan is a hero to many Kurds, and his capture struck a serious blow to Kurdish nationalism. However, it was the acts of the PKK that began the following month that have tarnished this reputation even further.
Osman Ocalan, Abdullahs brother, has been publicly quoted as saying, "every action is now justified." This campaign began with the bombing of a town in central Turkey, claimed by Maoist guerillas. In Istanbul, a bomb tore apart a taxi on March 10, killing the driver and wounding eight pedestrians. That same day another bomb went off in a parking lot of a shopping center, but caused no injuries. Two days later three people threw gasoline bombs through the window of a shopping mall in Istanbul, destroying the building and killing thirteen people. A group calling themselves the "Revenge Hawks of Apo" claimed responsibility. Apo is the Kurdish nickname for Ocalan. The PKK denied responsibility, but the damage was done, on both sides.
While the Kurds continued to deny responsibility, or knowledge, of the firebomb attack, a truck bomb was detonated in Bahcelievler, a low-income section of Istanbul. That same day a bomb was found and defused in a Burger King. Turkey stepped up security efforts in public areas, mass transportation stations, and an increased police presence was obvious on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Another attack was thwarted only when the apparent suicide bomber, a young girl, killed herself in an Istanbul bus station. Following another firebomb attack outside the European Commission offices (three cars destroyed, one woman received minor wounds) the PKK made a statement about the events. "All of Turkey has become a field of war. This includes the areas seen by the Republic as areas of tourism."
The seeds of a true terrorist movement have been planted. Fear and danger have been introduced into the cities of Turkey, the army, the police were the opposition, and now random Turks and tourists, innocent of the policies or decisions of the Turkish government are now targets for the PKK's anger. The governments of numerous western nations have now issued travel advisories against travelling to Turkey, thus damaging the income the Republic receives from this trade. Metal detectors and police mark the entrance of many of Turkey's most prized public sites. Posters have appeared across the country offering leniency to members of the PKK if they come forward with information.
The PKK has stepped up its campaign against the Republic, and of course, the government has responded. The Kurdish New Year, Nowruz, was ushered in by police in the streets enforcing a general ban on celebrations of the holiday. In Diyarbakir the town awoke to Turkish armored personnel carriers already being positioned around the city. In Istanbul protests between Kurds and police turned violent, two police officers were shot, and three other wounded by stones. Several protestors were injured in response. In all the numbers differ, but 725-2000 people were arrested. In another event an explosion damaged a pipeline linking Turkey and Iraq, and sabotage is suspected.
The Kurdish campaign continues, on March 24th a McDonalds was damaged by a bomb hidden in a soda can. A Kurdish suicide bomber, supposedly on his way to government offices in the town of Tunceli, killed himself when his bomb detonated while he was at a bus station waiting for transport to town. April 18th will mark the next general election in Turkey, and the PKK has called on its supporters to increase attacks leading up to the election. "There is no choice but to increase our war of national salvation," the PKK was quoted in statement carried by a German news agency.
In Bingol, a suicide bomber tried to kill the provincial governor, instead killing a sixteen-year-old girl, himself, and wounding 12 others. In the southeastern town of Yuksekova, a bomb was found wrapped in a plastic bag outside a primary school. School children noticed the device and notified the administration.
For a moment consider the Turkish side of the equation. In the last month the PKK, seemingly or a faction thereof, has targeted bus stations, a Burger King, a shopping mall, a low-income district, a McDonalds, and a primary school. Are these justified military targets? The PKK claim that they are fighting a war, not terrorizing the Turkish public. Is the evidence clearly pointing towards something else? The PKK's recent events hearken back to the IRA or PLO in their emerging days and operations. And now, these acts look dangerously similar to acts by groups such as HAMAS' Izz al-Din al-Qassem brigade, the Gama'a Islamiya, the PFLP, and Shining Path. Are these legitimate models of civil unrest, or are they blatant terrorist organizations? Regardless of their claims to statehood, or of being a military organization, the PKK has shown the world that, for right now, they are terrorists.
Now comes the new mission for the PKK and Kurds everywhere. Prove that I am wrong. The Kurdish issue was in the forefront of attention in recent months, but has now been marginalized by recent events. No one will spring to the rescue of a terrorist organization, and events in Kosovo have overshadowed the situation. The world is aware of the issue, we see the reports from groups like Human Rights Watch about the abuses Kurds suffer in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. However, the headlines now stand out screaming of death and terror and the humanitarian side is lost in the noise.
Turkey is currently engaged in a NATO operation to rescue the Kosovar Albanians from oppression and terror at the hands of the Serbian Army and Police. The irony of the situation should not be lost. This presents the perfect opportunity for the Kurds to take center stage in the world press. But not with violence. If you blow someone up, shoot someone, kidnap, burn, or anything else, we will stop paying attention. Groups such as the PLO or the Ulster Unionists have learned the advantage of having the world, and your opponent, listen to you. Diplomacy and communication can move mountains that bombs would never be able to scratch. History has shown that a society terrorized is society that will not bend. This is the lesson learned by the Lebanese and Palestinians in their dealings with Israel. This message should not be lost on the PKK and Kurds looking to the future.
Ocalan is not leaving his cell on Imrali Island for a long time. Although the punishment for the crime he is accused of is death, this sentence will not be carried out. The Turkish government does not want to give the PKK a martyr. The violence that would erupt following his execution would topple more than the government. But, Ocalan cannot be let go either. He is too important as a symbol of Turkish strength over the Kurds, which is an important bargaining chip for them right now. The key to the Kurdish future, and perhaps a future of a Kurdistan, is international opinion. Do not let the world forget what you suffer, continue to show the pain and difficulties you face daily because of Turkish or Iraqi repression. Included in that community are the people of Turkey and Iraq, Syria or Iran. Prove to them you are better than bombs, and above killing for the sake of killing. Capturing the hearts and minds of the people will force governments to listen, and will accomplish much more than capturing a person.
This piece was written by Edward
Graham, President, Middle East Information Network.
The ideas or opinions written here do not necessarily reflect those of the Middle East Information Network, its officers or donors.
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