Hated by his ennemies, who variuously describe himas a “bloody terrorist”or a “baby killer”, adored by his partisans who propagated a personality calling him a “Sun” and a “prophet”. The truth lies somewhere in between. Abdullah Ocalan is not in any way an ordinary personality. This man, who embodied the hopes of a large section of the Kurdish people, was undeniably an exceptional guerrilla leader: he will be recorded in history as the man who knew how to muster, and more importantly, organise, a formidable fighting force of several thousands Kurdish fighters.
An exceptional guerrilla leader
While he could never really establish fully “liberated areas” for his people, he dangerously weakened the power of the Turkish state in several regions of Turkish Kurdistan in the early 1990s; and it was only through the mobilisation of some 300.000 soldiers equipped with the most modern antiguerrilla weapons that the Turkish army was able to restore order by resorting to tactics including the destruction of villages, the deportation of sections of the population, as well as widespred brutality and torture, which will forever leave a scar in the heart and on the land of the Kurds.
But the myth of Ocalan the folklore hero was suddenly blown to pieces following his capture in Kenya, where he was hunted down by Turkish intelligence after the refusal by various European states to offer him political asylum. Apo did not behave heroically. On the contrary, he immediately gave up the political defence he had planned to adopt in Rome, if he had been tried by an Italian court.
Abandoning the idea of transforming his trial into a trial of the Turkish state, giving up on pleading the cause of the Kurdish people for whom he had fought for 20 years, Ocalan repudiated the cause for which thousands of young Kurds had been sent to prison or to their deaths; he repudiated the armed struggle and repudiated the independence of Kurdistan. Destabilising the arguments of his lawyers, who withdrew one after another, Ocalan issued the most surprising orders: he first instructed his troops to lay down their weapons, then to withdraw from Kurdistan; finally he ordered one of his former lieutenants to give himself up to the Turkish troops. He followed up this instruction by sending a second detachment of his partisans from Vienna to give themselves up to the Turkish authorities on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic (29th October). And there are rumours that he will send further massive number of partisans — perhaps as many as 2.000– to surrender.
Ready to do anything to save his neck
How did he reach this point? The subject is taboo among the Kurds, but one must yield to the facts: Ocalan is afraid, he is afraid of dying and he is ready to do anything to save his neck. “We were arrested and tortured, we were afraid but we resisted”, says one of his former lawyers who gave up on the task of defending him. “Ocalan was not tortured, but he is not a brave man: he is scared to death… and he does everything dictated to him, the Turkish State is using him to destroy the PKK”.
A few Kurdish personalities have publicly denounced Ocalan’s behaviour. PKK dissidents like Selahettin Celik who recalled that during the “golden time” of the PKK the party denounced as “traitors” all the Kurdish prisoners in Turkish jails who agreed to wear prison uniform or sing the Turkish national anthemn.
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of his party near Köln, in Germany recently, Kemal Burkay, secretary-general of the “Socialist Party of Kurdistan” called Ocalan’s behaviour “disastrous” and stated that one “should never sacrifice a people for the life of a person”, although, he addied, he wished Ocalan could be set free.
However, within the PKK, the “presidential council” which runs the PKK during Ocalan’s imprisonment has approved his statements and begun implementing them. The PKK fighters have begun withdrawing from Kurdistan, some of his partisans have given themwelves up, and the PKK’s media follow Ocalan’s pronouncements to the letter.
How can one explain such events? However charismatic the leader, it can never be wised to invest all one’s hopes in a single individual. In 1975, after the Algiers agreement (6 March 1975) the Shah of Iran stopped all the military aid to Kurdish leader general Barzani. For a few days the Iraqi Kurds believed there would be “something for them” in the agreement which would become apparent at a later date, just as today the Kurds of Turkey hope there is “something for them” in what is going on at Imrali, the island where Ocalan is being detained. They are convinced that secret negotiations between Ocalan and the Turkish generals will lead to a solution of the Kurdish drama. In 1975 when general Barzani decided to stop the armed struggle, none of his lieutenants dared take the decision to continue fighting. And yet general Barzani was never the object of a personality cult comparable to Ocalan’s.It was several months before some of general Barzani’s former lieutenants resumed the struggle: amongst them a certain Jelal Talabani, later to be followed by general Barzani’s sons.
This blindness of the Turkish Kurds to the potential weaknesses of their leaders reflects both their hopes and their despair. Is it possible to look objectively at one’s destiny, when one has sacrificed everything for the cause; when one has lost one’s village, one’s house, one’s job, when one has given the life of two or three children for the freedom of Kurdistan? There is more than a hint of a tragi-comedy to all this, when the leader who has repeatedly called for dedication to the cause and stressed the need for all to be prepared to make the supreme sacrifice says: “The armed struggle was a mistake… We are going to find a peaceful solution through dialogue within the framework of a democratic republic”!
Already the first murmurs can be heard amongst the PKK cadres of the diaspora. Inside Kurdistan, two military leaders, including the military leader of Dersim, one of the PKK’s strongholds,are reported to have taken a position against amendment to the manifesto. But what makes it all the more difficult for PKK fighters to stand up publicly against Ocalan is knowledge of the declared final phase of the plan of the Turkish generals, which involves bringing them into violent confrontation with each other — the partisans of a surrender, faithful to the end to Ocalan, and the partisans of a continued struggle. The tragedy would then be complete — and the decision of the Turkish authorities to defer a decision on Ocalan’s fate only serves to further the Turkish intention to allow sufficient time for the Kurdish leader detained in Imrali to finish destroying his life’s work.
(The Middle East magazine, February 2000, Le Monde, 10 Novembre 1999)