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By Patrick Markey and Isabel Coles
QANDIL MOUNTAINS, Iraq, March 27 Shattered stone
houses recall Turkish air strikes on Kurdish rebels holed up in
the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. Life is harsh amid the
snowcapped peaks, supplies are sparse and armed forays across
into Turkey perilous in the extreme.
Yet rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, who declared a ceasefire
from his Turkish prison cell last week, may not find it easy to
coax his fighters down as part of any deal to end a conflict
that has taken over 40,000 lives.
"There are mixed feelings," said Ocalan's military commander,
Murat Karayilan, in a hamlet below the Qandil range. "Hundreds
of my comrades lost their lives at my side.
"I have to tell you, our comrades want to continue this
struggle. The organisation has decided on peace, but the middle
level fighters are saying we can continue our war," he told
Reuters. "I am working with them so they accept this as well."
The moustachioed image of Ocalan hewn into the mountainside
across the valley serves as a reminder of who leads the PKK,
even 14 years after his capture by Turkish special forces in
Kenya. But Ocalan himself told Kurdish politicians recently he
was frustrated by scepticism in Qandil about the peace process.
"I'm angry with them," he said.
The force is small but dogged, some 3-4,000 in Iraq and
1,500-2,000 in Turkey, where they have targeted Turkish troops
as well as bombing cities including Istanbul and beach resorts.
Ocalan's authority as founder of the Kurdistan Workers
Party (PKK), could evaporate if mail communication with Qandil
breaks down over the 1,400 Km (900 miles) separating Qandil and
Imrali island. He narrowly escaped the gallows after a 1999
trial, but may yet be dispatched to political oblivion.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan risks the wrath of
nationalists who fear any deal granting Kurdish demands for
autonomy and broader cultural freedom would quickly relaunch a
drive for full Kurdish independence. Moreover, in talking with
the PKK, he treats with a grouping designated terrorists by the
European Union and the United States besides Ankara.
Erdogan says forces will continue operations against the PKK
as long as they do not lay down arms, but he has given
assurances rebels would not be targeted as they left Turkey.
Karayilan, however, wants guarantees on this from parliament.
Guerrillas said Turkish jets flew over the mountains on
Monday, and PKK fighters retaliated against helicopters
approaching the border on Wednesday.
"We are ready for war, but we are ready for peace, too,"
Karayilan said in a small room decorated with Ocalan posters.
"If there are any attacks against our forces they have the right
to defend themselves."
Karayilan, sporting a bushy grey moustache like Ocalan and
dressed in olive green Kurdish baggy trousers and tunic, said
fighters could withdraw to Qandil by autumn, with safe passage.
It is however a long journey, and in the past a hazardous one.
The mountain road snaking into PKK-held territory is dotted
with wreckage. A shrine holds portraits and scraps from what is
described as a family car caught in a Turkish air strike. In one
village, a collapsed concrete building marks where more Turkish
bombs fell in retaliation for PKK attacks inside Turkey.
Below the peaks, PKK fighters brandishing Kalashnikovs wave
trucks and cars through remote checkpoints that demarcate Iraqi
Kurdistan from rebel-controlled land. The co-existence between
the PKK enclave and the Kurdistan government, which is
cultivating good relations with Ankara, is an uneasy one.
LEAVING THE MOUNTAIN
A woman who gave the nom de guerre Hevin Ciye, said she left
Qandil after being imprisoned by the PKK for a month over a
dispute with a superior who had refused to allow the women to
wear shorts in a volleyball match. The scars of three bullet
wounds on her left arm are a permanent reminder of more profound
ordeals during her nine-year stay in the mountains.
"It was harder than words can describe," she told Reuters in
the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil, where she now runs fast-food
concession stands in several shopping malls. "When we left the
camp (during bombing), we moved almost every night and used the
rucksacks in which we carried our ammunition as pillows."
In sorties across the border into Turkey, they ate wheat
mixed with water or boiled leaves and grass, bedding down in
caves or under trees to evade Turkish forces.
Karayilan said talk of PKK rebels handing over their arms
was still premature, before constitutional reforms to address
their demands for Kurdish rights and recognition. But behind the
scenes talks advance tentatively and, according to media leaks,
have produced the outline of a plan.
"More than a concrete agreement, there is a mutual
understanding now," said Karayilan, who was born in the same
southeastern Turkish province as Ocalan, said. "There are a lot
of risks in the process, but it is the right step to take."
After opening its military campaign in 1984 to demand an
independent Kurdish state in the south, the PKK has moderated
its demands to political autonomy and broader cultural rights in
a country where the Kurdish language was long formally banned.
Many fighters are from southeastern Turkey, the Kurdish
heartland where many say they faced discrimination and
oppression. Erdogan took a political risk in easing restrictions
on the Kurdish language and culture, winning the opprobrium of
nationalists who fear a disintegration of Turkey.
CAVES AND HUTS
Life is far from idyllic, fighters moving regularly to evade
air raids, sleeping in caves, in stone huts, in the woods or
under canvas. Meals are largely beans, rice ansd meat.
The PKK promotes women's equality to recruit in
traditionally male-dominated Kurdish society and female fighters
in combat fatigues are much in evidence in the stronghold.
One woman guerrilla, who said she'd joined PKK ranks at 13
and spent 15 years in Qandil, knows freedoms and status she
enjoys here may sit ill with a traditional Kurdish home where
women are often more confined to kitchen and children.
"In our society, women are not valued. I feel my place and
my value more here."
Another female fighter also had reservations about leaving
the mountain after so long, and returning home.
"We cannot really leave this life," she said, sitting with a
rifle in her lap. "I say to myself sometimes, if I return to
live with my family, and peace and freedom is achieved, how will
I leave behind the life I have gotten used to?"
There perhaps lies one of the problems - not unfamiliar to
those seeking to end an insurgency. The guerrilla existence, the
mountain, becomes a way of life.
"Neither female nor male fighters want to leave the free
life they have in the mountains," Karayilan said. "But we have
to make them believe."
The questions of disarmament and reintegration of combatants
have tested peace efforts from Northern Ireland to South Africa.
Foreign mediatiors could be brought in to oversee
disarmament and reintegration, as happened in Northern Ireland.
Certainly, there is a strong element of distrust on both sides.
For PKK fighters like Botan, eight years fighting in Qandil
and Turkey have shaken any belief Ankara would play its part.
"History shows me there is no room to trust the Turkish
state," the former construction worker said.
The drive for peace on both sides followed from a summer
when PKK attacks reached new heights and the Turkish authorities
responded by arresting hundreds of Kurdish activists and
renewing bombing raids on Qandil.
Truces have been declared and secret talks held with the PKK
in the past, but there is a weariness on both sides with
generations of young men, mostly Kurds, dying in the conflict.
It is a conflict that has battered the Turkish economy and
pitched the southeast into poverty.
"We are at a stage where the Kurdish and Turkish public
want peace," Karayilan said. "Erdogan has to take steps to solve
the Kurdish issue and put his name down in history."
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)