The young generation versus the old guard: for years now, those are the two groups referred to in analyses of a solution of the Kurdish issue. The idea is that the Turkish state had better hurry up making peace as long as the ‘old guard’ is still leading the PKK, because the younger generation, which will inevitably take the lead one day, won’t be so eager to end the conflict.
It’s about time we left this theory behind. And replace it with a new one, based on two other groups within the Kurdish movement: those with and those without arms.
I have always had my doubts about the suggestion that the younger generation of Kurds would be less willing to make peace than the older generation. Yes, they grew up during the last thirty years of war and have seen, experienced and suffered a lot, but would that not make them more willing to make peace, rather than less?
Also, in my many encounters with activist Kurdish youth, even during clashes with police, I have seen that they are not violent for the sake of being violent and that there are clear rules. A good example was a clash in Diyarbakir some years ago, during which a guy threw a stone at a bus stop. His friends, all with their faces covered with shawls and with stones in their hands themselves, called him to order: throw stones at the cops who represent the system, not at a bus stop that is owned by the municipality which is in Kurdish hands.
I still smile when I think of the time when, leaning against a wall, I talked to two young men who were cutting T-shirts into face covers and whose friends were preparing petrol bombs. When the talk was over and I walked away, one of the guys called me back: ‘Abla, wait!’ he said. I walked back, and he carefully patted some dust from the wall off my T-shirt.
These are not in essence angry, aggressive young men and women. They fight the state system fiercely and do it with stones and Molotovs if they feel there is a need to do so, but violence is not their goal.
I became even more convinced of that recently when I had a long talk with a group of these young members of the Kurdish movement. We were sitting in a room with a YPG-H flag (Yurtsever Devrimci Gençler Hareketi, the Patriot Revolutionary Youth Movement, closely connected to the PKK) on the wall, and it turned out that a few of them had been present at clashes with the army in Lice earlier this summer. They were not just shallowly saying they ‘wanted peace’, like anybody could say; they had a solid story. One of them, a 23 year old woman using the name Zilan, said: ‘Thanks to the struggle of the older generation we now have the possibility to put into practice as much as possible of our democratic ideal. That is constructive struggle. And would we endanger that by lowering ourselves to the methods of the state, by killing people? In other words: by not listening to Öcalan? We are faithful to him, tied to his word. We grew up with him.’
These smart young Kurds are fully dedicated to the struggle, and to the goal: full rights for their people, thus ending the armed struggle for good. They have no intentions to go to the mountains but want to work in the cities and villages to build democracy. They bear no arms. They are no danger for the peace process; they strengthen it with their persistence and their energy. One of the other young Kurds I talked to, 26 years old and calling himself Agit, said: ‘Of course we are impatient, but we are also aware that there is no timeline. We only know that we believe in the struggle and that we will eventually win.’
But how about those in the movement that do carry arms? The leaders in Qandil, who are, apart from a few exceptions, all part of the old guard? I talked to two of them this year: in March with Riza Altun, and this summer with Cemil Bayik. Altun was rather cautious, stating that ‘if’ the government didn’t take steps towards democratization and ‘if’ the government turned out to be not serious about the peace process, they ‘might’ have to ‘re-consider’ their strategy, etcetera.
Cemil Bayik, often considered one of the more ‘hawkish’ KCK-leaders, on the other hand talked of a war in Turkey resembling the horrific wars going on in neighbouring Iraq and Syria. He said: ‘We don’t want it, but we can’t control everything’. And about the youth: ‘We try to educate them and make them very aware of our goals: a society in which we have a place. It would harm us if the younger generation radicalized. But it is a risk, definitely. With the generation that is currently in power, the government can make peace, but with the next one?’
Weakening the movement
It kind of angered me that he said that. The young Kurds I talked to said: ‘Any Turkish analyst who says we are a danger to the peace process doesn’t know what he is talking about and only aims at weakening the movement’. And now one of their leaders was saying the exact same thing, I’m sure not even out of conviction but because he is playing a political game and wants to pressure the government.
Why doesn’t he, as the second most important KCK-leader (sorry Bese Hozat), take responsibility for the ceasefire himself? It’s not the youth that is able to crush the ceasefire with a petrol bomb, it’s not Islamic State that will be able to take swaths of Turkish land like they do elsewhere, and create a war similar to that in Iraq and Syria (although with guerrilla warfare they could create a lot of chaos). It is the fighters in Qandil (and those remaining in Turkey) who hold professional weapons and who are properly trained to wage a war and end the ceasefire. Why threaten violence but put the blame on somebody else, even your own youth?
Where does Öcalan fit in? Ever since 1999, he hasn’t been holding arms, but books and pens. He can of course order the end of the ceasefire at any time, and his order would be instantly followed, but there is no sign that he will do that. Every statement that comes from Imrali is a show of endless patience, of the art of positive thinking, (even after fourteen civilian deaths during the peace process, he says he hopes the latest deaths will be the last), of the will to push for reforms by negotiation. He’s more like the youth: constructive, not threatening violence but painting a picture of Turkey’s democratic future.
I believe at least till the general elections the ceasefire is solid. Both the government and the PKK can’t afford to be held responsible for the flaring up of violence. But still, one of the relevant questions concerning the weaknesses of the peace process is not whether the old guard can keep the younger generation under control. It’s about whether those holding books, pens and Molotovs will remain stronger than the ones bearing arms.