“It is hard to live without our leader”
Large number of portraits ripple over the crowd. They are on banners, flags and posters. They all show the same person, the same face – an elderly man and he has full moustache. Sometimes he is serious, sometimes smiling or thoughtful. His image is also on T-shirts, car windows stickers, and even on uniforms’ badges of Kurdish militias. His name is Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. The Kurds call him “Apo”. It means “an uncle”.
On February 15, 1999, Öcalan was sentenced to death. It was later changed into life imprisonment. A seventy-year-old man has been in prison for the last 19 years. In Kobanî and other cities of the Syrian part of Kurdistan there is the so-called “black day” celebration every 15 February.
Who is a terrorist?
About five thousand people took part in the demonstration in Kobanî. The protesters marched through the main streets of the city. A part of the route ran a few hundred meters from the border wall between Kurdistan and Turkey.
This time in Kobanî there were also slogans referring to Afrin. Apart from the portraits of Öcalan, there were pictures of two fighters, whose death during the fight for the region was the most moving: Avesty Xabûr blew herself up to stop Turkish troops. The other was Barîn Kobanê. The video recorded by pro-Turkish fighters quickly went viral. You can see the mutilated body of a militant with her breasts exposed. “Man, she is beautiful” – you can hear someone’s voice.
The demonstrators were chanting slogans: “We cannot live without our leader”. They meant Öcalan. Some more slogans were against the Turkey’s President, Recep Erdoğan. A voice of a few-year-old girl was heard through the loudspeakers: “Erdoğan-Kêrdoğan”. Kurdish “Kêr” means “donkey”. “Erdoğan is a terrorist” – protesters shouted, referring to the fact that the PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey, in the European Union and in the USA. That was the reason Öcalan was convicted. He was charged with the death of all people, who lost their lives during the ongoing Kurdish-Turkish conflict. During the trial, the number of victims reached 37,000. Currently, it is over 40,000.
From quasi-Stalinism to democratic confederalism
The conflict began in 1984. It was six years after the PKK had been founded in Turkey and two years after Öcalan had to leave that country. He lived in Damascus, the capital of Syria. He had the support of the then President of Syria Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. Öcalan stayed in Syria under one condition – he could not stir up local Kurdish population against the Syrian regime. In return, the PKK was able to operate discreetly in Turkey.
The PKK was a kind of response to the discrimination against the Kurdish population. The organization was created on the wave of anti-colonialism and based its philosophy mostly on Marxism-Leninism. One of its features was the cult of personality – the cult of Öcalan. The PKK’s aim was the creation of an independent Kurdistan and an armed struggle was to be crucial in order to reach it. Mao Zedong’s quote was popular among the PKK members: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” An aggressive draft was carried out among the local population. The Kurds had to pay taxes too. The organization was known from using brutal methods and not taking care of civilians during the fights with enemies. The lack of loyalty was punished severely.
Öcalan himself is not a type of a fighter. He has no military experience and allegedly he cannot use weapons. He spent most of the time with fighters training them ideologically. During long hours of lectures, he was talking about how to create a real revolutionary type and free him from the usual patterns of thinking.
1995 was the crucial year. The fifth PKK congress took place, during which a new strategy of action was adopted. The end of the cult of personality and the withdrawal from a centralized structure in favour of the organization’s network were officially announced. The draft and taxes were abolished. The PKK decided to respect the Geneva Conventions, i.e. not to attack the civilian population. The organization also gave up the independence movements.
In the manifesto titled “Democratic Confederalism”, which describes the new ideology, Öcalan explains that the nation state does not really relieve people from oppression, but it creates new chains for the society. The Kurds, divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, have a proper position to propose a different model of a state – democratic confederalism. The powers of the central authority are to be transmitted to the local authorities – naturally formed groups, around which communities, such as clans or tribes, are built. The state is supposed to govern, and democracies to rule, according to Öcalan. Confederation is based on democracy, ecology and feminism. However, the project has not been introduced so far.
The change of ideology did not mean the suspension of the armed struggle. Turkey was still striving to put Öcalan behind bars. Eventually, it happened in 1999. It would be impossible without the cooperation between Turkey and the CIA. Nowadays the Kurds, who directly refer to the heritage of the PKK leader, are the key allies of the Americans in Syria.
Öcalan left Syria one year before being arrested. Turkey threatened with a military operation because it wanted Syria to stop giving protection to the PKK leader any longer. Öcalan was hiding in Moscow, Rome (where he was arrested), St. Petersburg, and then he went to Athens. Turkey threatened with the military operation once again and wanted Öcalan to be extradited. Eventually he came to Kenya, where he was hiding in the Greek embassy in Nairobi. He was supposed to go to the Netherlands. He fell into the trap there. He was handed over to the Turkish services, chained up and put on the plane flying to Turkey.
Initially, Öcalan was sentenced to death, but under the pressure of the Kurds and the international community, the sentence was changed into life imprisonment. Öcalan called for peace in his final speech at court and apologized to the soldiers’ families for the death of their children. He stated that the PKK should have focused on peaceful actions from the very beginning instead of the armed struggle. Many members of the PKK were outraged by these words and the organization almost fell apart.
Paradoxically, Öcalan’s staying in prison popularized the PKK among the Kurdish population in Turkey and Syria. Although its leader has been behind the bars for almost two decades, his ideology and character have been a source of inspiration for the Kurdish political and military movement.
A fight for Öcalan
On October 17, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the international coalition and the United States, conquered the “capital” of ISIS, Raqqa. Kurdish fighters from the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) hung a banner with the picture of Öcalan. It made everyone angry: the United States, Turkey – which reminded once again that it is the PKK that fights in Syria – and numerous Arabs living in Raqqa. They do not have any sympathy for the Kurdish militias.
A few days after this event, the American embassy in Turkey published a statement saying: “The PKK is on the list of terrorist organizations. Öcalan was imprisoned for activities related to the PKK. This is not a person to be respected.”
– Those who think that our leader Apo does not deserve respect, do not deserve to respect themselves. We dedicate our resistance mainly to him – claimed the representatives of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the video footage released the next day by the YPG Press Centre. It was Kurdish fighters in Raqqa response to the statement of the allied embassy.