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Kurdistan Turkey: Abdullah Ocalan's Last Interview

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Ocalan, Press Conference, 1993With his large frame, distinctive thick-set features and restless energy,  Abdullah Ocalan could be a wrestler. But this man’s energy and endurance has been devoted to years of living on the edge as Turkey’s most wanted man, leader of the Party of the Workers of Kurdistan (PKK). A charismatic and populist leader of the old school, Abdullah Ocalan can spend hours in non-stop oratory, expounding his theories before rapt audiences.

Speaking or writing almost daily in “his” press (Ozgur Politika, published in Turkish in Frankfurt, Germany) or “his” television (MED-TV, based in Brussels, Belgium) Abdullah Ocalan was the most public man one can imagine and simultaneously one of the Middle East’s most mysterious politicians, secluded in the Syrian headquarters from where he led the PKK’s armed struggle.

Very little is known about the man who for 15 years, has been Turkey’s public ennemy Number One. He does not know his own date of birth, nor was his birth ever registered. When it was time to send children to school, parents would claim they were older than they were to get them out of the house and into a learning environment, and when the time came to enlist in the army, they would do the opposite, in order to delay them being shipped off.

Ocalan in Roma, January 1999Abdullah Ocalan says he was born in 1946 or 1947, to a poor family at Omerli, a village near Urfa. Everyday he walked for an hour to the nearest school in a neighbouring village. During these formative years the young Abdullah Ocalan was chiefly influenced by his family and the village imam. He became veery religious. “The imam of my village said if I kept on in the same way, one day I would fly like the angels”, Ocalan told me, speaking during his last interview as a free man, in Rome.

As a student of political sciences at Ankara University, he went to the other extreme, influenced by the far-left organisations which abounded in Turkey in the early 1970s. From being a dedicated follower of islamic teachings he switched to politics and donned the rigid Marxist-Leninist ideological straight-jacket he says he will never discard. After a period in which he describes himself as being an “assimilated Kurd”, he slowly became aware of his identity and started to advocate the national rights of the Kurdish  people as victims of “Turkish colonialism” . In November 1978 he created the Party of the Workers of Kurdistan (PKK) at Lice, near Diyarbakir, with 23 friends, including some Turks. Also among the founder members was Kesire Yildirim, who he married, but later accused of being an agent of the Turkish special service (MIT). She now lives in exile in Europe.

Portrait of Ocalan, 1993A few weeks before the 12 September 1980 coup, Abdullah Ocalan had left for Lebanon, which spared him from being jailed and tortured like the thousands of other Kurdish militants arrested by the Turkish military. In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, he moved his HQ  to Damascus and then to the Bekaa, near the Lebanon-Syrian border. He did not move from there until the agreement signed last October (1998)  between Turkey and Syria, which ordered him to leave immediately. It was the beginning of a flight which ended with his capture in Nairobi in a secret operation.

Abdullah Ocalan frequently displayed a tendency to megalomania which amazed foreign journalists, who would watch with disbelief as rhe party’s top leaders stood seemingly in awe while the “chairman”  spoke or clapped frenetically when he scored a goal during a football game organised for the benefit of a television crew. Recently, “Ozgur Politika” published a full-page article about Ocalan, describing him as the  “bright sun of the Kurdish people”, and he himself is the author of many books, in which he develops his theory of armed struggle with characteristic long-windedness.

Abdulla Ocalan holds that a revolutionary struggle goes through three different stages: during the first period of “strategic defence” the leadership should “before anything else convince the people that they must be defended and that they must defend themselves”. The following stages are the periods of “strategic balance” and “strategic offensive”.

During his orchestration of the PKK’s first phase, Abdulmlah Ocalan did not hesitate to use revolutionary violence to “foment popular resistance”. He launched offensives against “collaborators”, be they village guards, Kurdish militias, armed and paid by the government, or Turkish teachers. When women and children fell victims of these retaliations, the PKK argued that “bullets don’t have addresses” and that the families of these people had been “warned”.

Chief of tribes found guilty of “collaborating”  and cadres of rival Kurdish organisations in Turkey and Europe were also targets of hit squads. At the end of the 1980s Abdullah Ocalan began advocating “more selective” methods, but it was too late. Its reputation as “terrorist chief” had been forged, a reputation cleverly propagated and amplified by the Turkish authorities, which even blamed him for misdeeds perpetrated by Turkish army commandos.

Abdullah Ocalan,’s last interview.

Q: What exactly is your situation today? Are you really free or not?

Abdulla Ocalan: We are living in a very strange situation, almost unprecedented. I am neither free nor a hostage. I am almost the only man for whom it is difficult to find a place in the world. The Turks say that they must punish me wherever I am; the danger is very serious. Maybe they won’t be able to achieve it in Europe, but outside Europe, with Israel’s assistance, they could do it. We tried to open the door of Europe, but Italy is facing difficulties. A place like Africa would be very dangerous for us...

Q: Why did you leave Syria?

A: To remain there would have provoked a regional war. The fate of the Syrian regime was at stake. Turkey had decided to launch a terrible operation. They wanted to start with me, to follow up with Syria, then with Iraq, and to dominate the whole region. I left of my own accord, with a little persuasion of my Kurdish friends. But a Greek invitation did not work out. I could not enter Greece, I could not get out of Athens’ airport,  I could not file a request for political asylum. So I went to Russia, answering an invitation from the foreign affairs commission of the Douma (Russian parliament).

Q: Why could’nt you stay there?

A: I stayed more than one month in Russia. But the Prime Minister asked me to leave, despite a unanimous vote of the Douma: it is very interesting, and there were hidden reasons for his decision

Q: What do you mean?

A: Turkey made concessions, and promised a number of things, concerning the Chechens and the Russians muslims. Moreover there was the American influence.

Q: Can we compare your fate with general Barzani’s? Were you “sold out” by the Syrians when they reached an agreement with the Turks last October, like the Shah of Iran did with Saddam Hussain in March 1975 at the expense of the Iraqi Kurds?

A: There are similarities. Barzani was allowed to go to Iran, but he scattered a guerilla which was very strong. He did not resist 24 hours. Kurdistan collapsed. Talabani did the same thing at Erbil in 1996. All the Kurdish revolts were crushed like that. My situation is still more difficult than Barzani’s, but I did not stop my activities; on the contrary, I intensified them. I do not need an external support. Barzani relied on outside help, I don’t. And we keep on resisting.

Q: But don’t you think that you should have anticipated an eventual “sell out” by Syria and looked out for a country which would give you asylum?

A: It is true, there were failures. I should have thought of it in advance. But leaving Syria has allowed us to raise the Kurdish question politically on a wider scale.

Q: How do you want to struggle from now on? Politically? Or do you want to keep on fighting an armed struggle?

A: If there is no political solution, of course arms will play a bigger role. But today we want to emphasize the political dimension. If a process of politicisation begins in Europe, perhaps a political solution can be imposed on Turkey. Europe must say: there is a war, stop the war, find a political solution. It is not a matter of terrorism. Europe is responsible for the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), it owes the Kurds a revision of this treaty. With this treaty four peoples were eliminated from the map: the Greeks, the Armenians, the Assyrians, and now they want to eliminate the Kurds.

Q: Don’t you think that the Treaty of Lausanne belongs to ancient history?

A: And the elimination of the Kurds today, is it also part of ancient history?  Should history repeat itself? It is terrible. It is a history of treasons and genocides. Everybody betrayed, everybody perpetrated massacres. Europe must not behave like an ostrich and hide its head in the sand. I am in Europe to remind it of its responsabilities. But Europe is hiding itself as if I was not here. It is for this reason that it gave up organising a trial. I, I want to be judged, if this trial is fair. The ideal would be a European trial, which would judge both sides.

Q: What’s your position today? Are you still president of the PKK?

A: We are in the process of renewing the PKK and the ARGK (the military branch of PKK). Our problems are partly the result of the situation within the party, the central committee, the leadership. Reform will allow us to improve. We don’t want to cheat, there are shortcomings and we must correct them. Our activities during the last 15 years should have brought other results. The Turks should not be so free with us. We made tactical mistakes. Our political leadership did not play its role. These shortcomings were caused by faults in the Kurdish character: its individualism, its lack of foresight, its incapacity for collective action, its narrow minded vision. So I want to transform this personality. We are preparing our sixth congress on this base.

Q: One has the feeling that PKK is a very strongly disciplined organisation, and totally under your control?

A: Yes, there is a kind of discipline, a very strong one. They all have very strong ties with me. If I ask them to die, they will do it. But they don’t have any personal creativity. For example: once the Turks seized 5.000 bags of flour  and our fighters were left without food during the winter.  This would not have happened if they had stored the bags in several locations.

Q: How do you explain the desertion of a big leader like Semdin Sakik?

A: He was not a big leader, but a peasants’s gang chief. For ten years he has behaved this way. We did not bring him forward. Since 1993 it has been the Turks’ plan to propel him centre stage. Even the French secret services warned us that important sums of money ended up in his pockets.

Q: Then why did you keep him?

A: I made many efforts to keep him, to re-educate him, to rehabilitate him, but he had very big faults. We could not eliminate him, we would have been blamed for eliminating the man  the BBC called our number two...

Q: For a long time you have been saying that armed struggle would be propagated to the cities, but without results. Why?

A: I always had the hope of a political solution. We are always ready, but we have doubts about this decision. But if there is not a political solution to the Kurdish question soon, with me or without me, we could witness chaos. I could give the PKK militants free rein to act. We would watch a Palestinian-like process, with uncontrolled attacks. We have prevented it so far, as (we prevented) self-immolations. It could have very serious results.

Q: We often have this problem with you: you simultaneously speak of violence and peace.

A: Is’nt it like this in nature?

Q: It is clear that Turkey does not want to speak with you.

A: Then we will make it speak.

Q: Before you proclaimed the last ceasefire, had you any contacts with the Turkish military?

A: During the last two years, we had indirect contacts, but without signature. But it is very clear that it came from the General Staff. Either it is a tactical approach, a conspiracy, or it is a sincere search. Maybe they think that they will do with me what they did in the past with Kurdish leaders: “Come”, and then say get rid of me. I have not fallen in this trap. My seven points (for a political solution of the Kurdish question in Turkey), were agreed by the military; in fact they went even farther. But in practical terms we ran into a crisis. Either there are contradictions within the armed forces, or it was a game. Maybe it was general Cevik Bir’s group that sent this contact.

Q: How can you escape from this dead end? How can you force the generals to negotiate?

A: The only way is war!

Q: With which aims? Autonomy? A federal system? Independence?

A: What is needed for a contemporary man. What is true for all peoples is also true for us. A system comparable to what we see in Europe, a democratic federal system. The form is not a problem, if the will is there. The most important thing is to acknowledge the Kurdish identity.

Q: The PKK doesn’t have a good image... What can you do to improve it?

A: Amongst the Kurds, since Lausanne, Europe has not a good image. We are on the brink of being annihilated...

Q: And the PKK’s bad image?

A: It’s demagogy...

Q: And the trials in France of fifteen Kurds accused of being terrorists?

A: It’s persecution. For the sake of its interests, France is making a lot of concessions to Turkey. Politics are often based on material interests. We, the Kurds, we have nothing to give...

(The Middle East magazine, April 1999; Le point, 16 Janvier 1999; Al Wasat 25 January 1999; L'Evènement, 14 Février 1999; Le Temps, 17 february 1999)

 

 

 

 

 

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