Long live our Kurdish Women Guerrillas!

A jeep screeches to a halt in front of the house, and with a slamming of doors, three Kurdish fighters emerge, two of them women. They stride into the villagers’ house, and even though it is late and the family wants to sleep, their hosts bring out some fruit and tea.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, their rifles propped up in the corner of the room, the two women light cigarettes and crack a joke to ease the tension with the men in the room.

Since joining the Kurdish resistance in the early 1990s, these women have cut themselves off almost entirely from their families and loved ones, dedicating their lives to a cause that has cost an estimated 40,000 lives from both sides in the past three decades.

“When I was a student, I wrote a letter to my parents, setting out my reasons for leaving, and left it for them to read,” recalls Evindar Ararat, a fighter in her late 30s, of how she left for the Kurdish resistance over 15 years ago.

“I knew they wouldn’t let me go,” she adds.

The women are soldiers of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, which for 26 years has waged a bloody war for autonomy in Turkey from the mountains in northern Iraq that straddle southern Turkey and part of Iran.

Only in the last two years has the movement lowered its sights, settling for equal democratic and cultural liberties in a bid to end the conflict.

It is every parent’s nightmare to lose a child to the PKK. In southeastern Turkey, a predominantly Kurdish area, thousands of mothers have watched helplessly as their children were recruited to the cause, only to see them return in a body bag, if at all.

Every young girl that joins the PKK does so in the knowledge that she is forsaking a life with marriage and children. Sex between men and women in the movement is discouraged, and soldiers rarely leave.

“I saw the woman in my society had a very hard life, and I didn’t want to live like that,” says Raperin Derik, a female guerrilla originally from Syria, referring to the traditional role played by many Middle Eastern women.

“I joined the PKK to escape marriage.”

She paid a price for that choice, though. Within two years of joining up Derik was captured by Turkish troops, and over the next 12 years she was shunted from prison to prison, including the notorious Diyarbakir facility.

“At the beginning, they tortured me very badly,” says Derik, who was released only four years ago.

“But what kept me going was the hope that I’d return to the mountains.”

The PKK is proud of its attitude towards women. Abdullah Ocalan, the movement’s revered head who languishes in a Turkish prison, argued that the Kurds could only be emancipated if they freed their women, too.

Inevitably, there was resistance at first from the men, who viewed women as a liability in battle, and a distraction. When the females proved themselves again and again, opposition to them gradually melted away.

They receive training alongside their male counterparts in the use of explosives and weapons, and are trained in guerrilla combat. Women operate in mixed or single-sex bands of 10 or 15 fighters, and move stealthily through the mountainous region, seeking out Turkish military targets and evading shelling or capture.

Turkey, which regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation, has repeatedly sought to rout the movement militarily, more recently through cross-border attacks, but with little success. Indeed, many Kurds believe it was the PKK’s armed struggle that reversed the repressive policies of denial and assimilation.

But the movement argues that the freedoms do not extend far enough.

Kurdish language is still not taught in local schools, some 1,500 prominent Kurds have been arrested in the past year for allegedly supporting PKK ideology, and the vote threshold is high at 10 per cent, denying the Kurds adequate representation in parliament.

When Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan held out an olive branch to the Kurds last year, the PKK declared a ceasefire, raising hopes that the fighters could finally lay down their arms. But while the ceasefire still largely holds, Erdogan has backtracked on those promises, fearful of appearing weak on terrorism ahead of next year’s elections.

Nevertheless, for the first time in years, Kurds say they sense that change is in the air, and parents can now dare to hope that their sons and daughters may finally come home – perhaps not next year, but soon.

So, too, do the guerrillas.

“I read a novel once about the daughter of a partisan,” says Ararat, a faraway look on her face.

“In that book, the partisans return to the town, which is full of cheering crowds throwing flowers. I have a dream that I’ll return like that.”

Catrina Stewart

The Irish Times – November 13, 2010

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