Found: the Kurdish opening

It looks like a postcard, Northern Iraq. The mountains, the plains, the colours, the light. But in these mountains the PKK is hiding. And a bit further south, in the middle of such an empty plain, live ten thousand Turkish-Kurdish refugees in a gloomy camp. They want to go back home.

(published with a big beautiful picture of Northern Iraqi landscape – to explain the beginning of the story)

This beautiful, bare, mountainous and colourful area is known for its peacefulness. And that’s how it looks too. But appearances are deceiving: this is Northern Iraq. And by Iraqi standards, it is indeed rather peaceful: anyone walking around here or travelling by car is hardly at risk of being blown up, kidnapped or otherwise harmed, unlike elsewhere in the country. But the desolate north of Iraq is not without problems. Besides regional conflicts (which have so far been fought on the political level), the Kurdish question that has been going on in neighbouring Turkey for decades has left deep scars here. For example, Turkey regularly drops bombs on PKK camps in the mountains of the lightly populated border region. And in a camp close to the regional capital Erbil live thousands of Turkish-Kurdish refugees who have nowhere else to go.

Nothing new, really: the Kurdish question is not something new, and neither are the problems it causes in Iraq. But now there is a glimmer of hope, and that’s new: for the last few months the Turkish government seems to be working seriously towards a solution to the long-lasting issue. ‘By democratic means’, the government of Prime Minister Erdogan announced last summer. The operation was code named ‘the Kurdish opening’.

What these ‘democratic means’ look like is not known in detail, but they have been roughly outlined. The last restrictions on the use of Kurdish in education, media and politics will be lifted, villages and cities that are mainly inhabited by Kurds will get their original Kurdish name back if the citizens want it, and there will be a commission that will investigate the level of discrimination against Kurds. Furthermore, allegations of torture by the Turkish army and army-related security units will be investigated, there will be an independent human rights institute and Turkey will ratify the UN Convention against Torture. By the way: because all Turks benefit from that and not only Kurds, the ‘Kurdish opening’ has been renamed the ‘democratic opening’.

And with that, an old dogma in Turkish politics is shattered. That is: there is no Kurdish question, there is only PKK terrorism and it needs to be dealt with mercilessly. That strategy hasn’t proven itself very fruitful for the last 25 years (the PKK began its campaign of violence with an attack on two police posts in the Kurdish south east of the country on August 15 1984): the PKK is alive and kicking. The roughly five thousand fighters are mainly hiding on the Iraqi side of the mountainous border region and from there fight the Turkish army. They have enough support too: many Kurds believe that it would never have come to the ‘Kurdish opening’ if the PKK had not put it on the political agenda through violence – and they could be right.

Independent Kurdistan

In the meantime, the PKK also abandoned an old dogma: the ultimate goal is no longer an independent Kurdish state. What the exact goal is these days remains unclear: PKK leader Öcalan, who is serving a life sentence on a prison island not too far from Istanbul, earlier this year pleaded for ‘democratisation’ of Turkey and a ‘democratic constitution’ – his complete vision is written down, but the state has so far refused to make the document public. Anyway, the fact that the PKK no longer want an independent Kurdistan certainly makes it a lot easier for the Turkish government to convince the PKK by political means to lay down their arms. Permitting the Kurds to found their own state is totally unthinkable in Turkey, because the unity of the state is one of the pillars the republic is built on. Allowing people to speak their own language, to be really politically represented, in other words to acknowledge their rights, is a bit less unthinkable.

Back to northern Iraq, also known as South Kurdistan – (from that perspective the south east of Turkey is Northern Kurdistan). That’s not terminology you can use in Turkey. Also, the word ‘Kurdistan’ can fan the nationalist fire: Kurdistan doesn’t exist, just look on the map!

But anyone who goes to Northern Iraq and takes a look finds that it does indeed exist. The area is officially not even called Northern Iraq, but ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’: the Kurds have had self government since 1991. Above the entrance to the parliament building in the capital Erbil, on a blue board with white letters, are the words ‘Parliament of Kurdistan – Iraq’, in Kurdish, Arabic and English. Anyone who walks around in peaceful Erbil will stumble upon one after another foreign consulate. There will even be a Turkish consulate here, Turkey recently announced. Also not an insignificant step: it’s only a few years ago that Turkey accused the northern Iraqis of supporting the PKK by not dealing with them firmly enough, whereas now they wage war against the PKK in relative unity, even with the support of the United States.

Safe, but not home

But an important point of contention is still Makhmur Camp. If you drive about an hour to the south-west from Erbil, you end up in the village of Makhmur. Next to that village is Makhmur Camp, sheltering about ten thousand Kurds who fled from south eastern Turkey in the mid nineteen-nineties. The fight between the Turkish army and the PKK was at its dirtiest at the time. The PKK launched bombing attacks against civilian targets as well as on police and army, eliminated opponents and deserters and killed ‘village guards’, civilians who were armed by the military to protect villages against the PKK. Turkey struck back hard: the army and Jitem (a notorious and secret anti-terrorism and intelligence service of the army) wiped whole Kurdish villages off the face of the earth, killed (suspected) PKK members and supporters and innocent civilians, and tortured with a will, especially in the prison of Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in the south east.

Thousands of civilians escaped the violence by crossing the Iraqi border. There the Kurds had self government since the American victory in the first Gulf war in 1991, so there they were safe. Safe with their own people. But however nice and desirable this self government may be, Northern Iraq was not ‘home’. And it still isn’t for the men, women and children of Makhmur Camp. Home, that’s Turkey. Home, that’s the villages that don’t exist anymore. Home, that is the equally beautiful, mountainous, rough landscape on the other side of the border.

Home and village

Makhmur Camp is a source of contention because in the first place Turkey doesn’t regard it as a refugee camp, but as a hotbed of terrorism. They say it’s a stronghold of PKK fighters and supporters where young men and women are supposedly recruited to the PKK. Turkey says if Northern Iraq is sincere in its fight against the PKK, the camp should be closed. Where the inhabitants should go, they don’t say. Iraq and the United States suggest back to Turkey, back home.

And that’s also what most of the inhabitants want, as the refugee organisation of the United Nations, the UNHCR, knows. Metin Çorabatir, spokesperson of the UNHCR in Ankara, even dares to plea for individual solutions: ‘For every refugee in Makhmur Camp we have to define exactly where he comes from, what is the state of his house and village, and what resources they will have to build a life there. Many villages don’t exist anymore, so for a part of the group we need to see where they could live instead.’ By the way, such an individual approach can also mean that a refugee could stay in Iraq: some Makhmur inhabitants are now married to an Iraqi and have found work in the region, and they must be able to officially settle in Iraq if they wish to do so.


A visit to Makhmur Camp is, at first sight, a piece of cake. Of course there have been journalists before, and, with a good contact, it’s easy to get in. The good contact is arranged: ex PKK fighter and now journalist “K” has taken colleagues before, one of whom is an acquaintance of the HP/De Tijd reporter. A few days before leaving my base in Istanbul  for Erbil, “K” confirms that I will surely get in. So, on the move, to hear from the Makhmur Camp villagers themselves how and why they want to return to their motherland.

On the wish list for an interview are elderly men and women who have been living in Makhmur Camp from the beginning, a young man who grew up there but will not be able to escape his military service if he returns to Turkey, a few PKK supporters and (if available) some PKK members. As well, men and women who found a job at one of the countless Turkish companies that have invested in Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s always nice to see how political sentiments and mutual prejudices are set aside for work and trade.

Hierarchical, strict, military

‘No problem’, says “K”, ‘but you won’t find anyone saying openly that he longs to go back to Turkey, because that’s not the PKK policy. The PKK has the opinion that the refugees of Makhmur can only return to their villages, or what’s left of them, when Turkey fulfils all the demands of the PKK.’

And the PKK’s opinion matters in Makhmur Camp. That becomes clear time and time again in the days I spend trying to get in. A few men who are at least close to the PKK – it’s not clear what their exact status is – are in charge. They don’t officially determine who gets permission to enter the camp, but they do decide who talks to the people living in the camp, who exactly is talked to, and about what. And exactly what the inhabitants say. ‘The camp’, says “K”, ‘is organised like the PKK: hierarchical, strict, military.’

To make a long story short: the camp turns out to be an impregnable fortress. I can’t get in. Just why remains unclear, but it seems to have to do with intensive deliberations about the camp between all sorts of politicians and administrators. Snoopers are just not wanted that week, so it seems. The only journalist that did make it into the camp came in secretly through a hole in the fence, dressed as an Iraqi. Inspiring, but I don’t take the risk.

Exuberant PKK party

A few weeks later, half way through October, it becomes clear why the barrier remained closed. Turkey is in turmoil: a group of 34 Turkish Kurds from Iraq cross the Turkish border. It’s a gesture from the PKK: they call it the ‘peace group’, and through the group they want to show their support for the “Kurdish opening”. The ‘peace group’ consists of twenty six men, women and children from Makhmur Camp (Turkey apparently doesn’t make the link between the PKK and the camp for no reason) and, straight from the PKK bases in the mountains, eight active PKK members. Right across the border in Turkey they are welcomed by thousands of ecstatic Kurds. It turns into an exuberant PKK party, including portraits of Öcalan and PKK flags.

For the occasion a Turkish court is set up at the border, where all group members are questioned. In less then 24 hours they are all free: not one of them was directly involved in terrorism and therefore are subject to an amnesty law. That law was introduced a few years ago to urge PKK fighters to leave the mountains and return home.

A bridge too far

The arrival of the ‘peace group’ doesn’t go down well in Turkey. Not well at all. The sentiments against the PKK and ‘baby killer’ and state enemy number 1 Abdullah Öcalan have always been intense, but reach an all time high now. In many cities civilians take to the streets with huge Turkish flags and portraits of founding father Atatürk (also the founder of the principle of the unity of the state), old soldiers and wounded veterans feel betrayed and rip off their medals and the opposition in parliament accuses the government of negotiating with terrorists and jeopardizing the unity of the country. The arrival of the ‘peace group’ was clearly a bridge too far. Not only because of the active PKK members among them, but also because of the people from Makhmur Camp, who are, in the eyes of many Turks, not refugees but terrorists, or at least terrorist sympathisers.

Cengiz Aktar, academic and political analyst in Istanbul, is also quite angered by the events. He supports the Kurdish opening and the voluntary return of Makhmur refugees to Turkey, but it has to be done with respect for international law, he states: ‘The refugees are officially protected by the UNHCR, so their exit from the camp also has to be supervised by the UNHCR. That didn’t happen. They should have been received by the Turkish authorities. And the authorities should have taken them to the villages they originally come from, or to another place if their village or house doesn’t exist any more. That didn’t happen, in fact these people were left to their own devices and went off to find family on their own.’ As well, says Aktar, refugees have to be monitored for a lengthy period of time after their return, to determine are they doing well, are they safe? This was not arranged for the ‘peace group’. ‘So it was pure symbolism’, says Aktar of the group of 34. ‘When in the future another group from Makhmur Camp returns, international law has to be respected.’

Safety and well being

And of course that’s where the shoe pinches. The support for the Kurdish opening was already not very strong among the Turkish population, and now is decreasing. What if at any one time thousands of people from Makhmur cross the border, are received by the Turkish authorities, are given a house and job by the state, and are monitored at length to keep an eye on their safety and well being? Unimaginable.

Still, that’s exactly what will certainly happen if Prime Minister Erdogan and his team take the Kurdish opening seriously. And yes, they are working on it. The name Makhmur Camp has never been in the Turkish newspapers as much as in recent days, and Internal Affairs Minister Atalay, who coordinates the Kurdish opening, regularly hints that he is talking about Makhmur with Iraq and the United States. On one hand: hopeful. On the other hand: once again, nothing new. There have been negotiations going on about Makhmur Camp for years, but only now does everybody know about it – what you could call progress in itself, of course.

For the people of Makhmur Camp, these are extremely exciting times. All at once twenty six fellow refugees left the camp. Back to Turkey, travelling over the plains and mountains through which they left for Iraq about fifteen years ago. Reunited with their family, breathing the air of home, their own ground under their feet. The hope of living a safe and fulfilling life in the motherland has never been this strong.

(december 2009)

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