Yesterday Turkey freed a group of Kurdish rebels who had crossed into Turkey from Iraq. Some say they were surrendering to the Turkish army; the 34 Kurds say they weren’t. Rather, they say, they were acting under the orders of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, who said ‘peace groups’ should be sent to open the way for democratic politics in Turkey. Regardless, it is an important symbolic gesture that could be the catalyst in helping efforts to end the 25-year old conflict in the region.
The 34 Kurds who crossed into Turkey via the Habur Gate on Monday were PKK members and refugees. Most came from the UN-run refugee camp of Mexmur some 95 miles (150km) inside Kurdish Iraq, while eight came down from the Qandil Mountains, a PKK stronghold.
Turkish prosecutors at a civilian court set up at Habur Gate had originally sought to charge five of the eight PKK members from the Qandil Mountains. The charges would have been membership in an illegal organisation, the PKK. However, after being questioned at the border, those five were released. The other 29 had already been set free. The eight PKK fighters from the Qandil region are: Hamiyet Dinçer (f, 1971), Elif Uludağ (f, 1958), Hüseyin İpek (m, 1973), Şerif Gençdağ (m, 1973), Mustafa Ayhan (m, 1985), Vilayet Yakut (f, 1980), Lütfü Taş (m, 1952), and Gülbahar Çiçekçi (f, 1975).
On the Turkish side of the border thousands of well-wishers gathered waving flags and banners to await the arrival of the 34-strong ‘peace caravan.’ It was a chaotic celebration filled with hope and emotion. Men, women, and children filled the dusty streets…some dressed in red, yellow, and green; some in military fatigues…all cheering, applauding, and singing. On hand too were members of the Democratic Society Party (DTP). DTP leader, Ahmet Türk urged parties not to repeat past mistakes and to stop military operations. He said that this move “shows that the PKK is insisting on peace, not war.”
Prime Minister Erdoğan said of the peace group, “Is it possible not to be hopeful when you look at the pictures from Habur border crossing? Good things are happening in Turkey. This is hope.”
But not everyone is hopeful, or happy, with the AKP’s “Democratic Opening” initiative or the PKK’s gesture of peace. The two main Turkish nationalist parties, the CHP and the MHP, accuse the prime minister of negotiating with terrorists. Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli on Tuesday during a parliamentary group meeting called the returning 34 Kurds “treacherous terrorists who carry the blood of thousands of innocents.” No surprises there in his comments.
What is surprising though is that the Turkish military appears to be going along with all of this. There is a deep mistrust of this government in senior military circles and the army takes a hard line against the PKK. However, top generals have acknowledged (in private) that the Kurdish conflict cannot be solved through military means.
Meanwhile, the peace caravan marches on, winding its way through the country, PKK fighters atop the DTP bus, greeted by massive crowds everywhere.
And the momentum continues. The DTP announced today that they have started preparations to meet a group of PKK members coming from Europe. A statement released by the party said, “We will meet PKK members from Europe with the same glory.”
DTP Istanbul co-chair, Heval Mengi said “We, as the Peace and Democratic Solution Platform, will meet the representatives of Kurdish people from Europe who will come for the democratic solution for the Kurdish issue and demand for peace.”
Co-chair Mustafa Avci added, “Like the people in Silopi, we will welcome the ones coming from Europe gloriously. We will not leave from there until they meet with people.”
Bahçeli calls PKK surrender ‘return of bloody terrorists’. Today’s Zaman, 21 October 2009.
Head, Jonathan. Turks and Kurds run risks for peace. BBC News, 20 October 2009.
PKK sends unarmed peace group to Turkey to contribute to democratic politics. Kurd Media, 19 October 2009.
Kurds released after surrender to Turkish authorities. EKurd, 20 October 2009
Second PKK group to come to Turkey from Europe. World Bulletin/News Desk, 21 October 2009.
Turkey prosecutors seek to charge Kurdish PKK rebels. EKurd, 20 October 2009.