The PKK, still fragmented and divided in the wake of the seizure and imprisonment of its leader Abdullah Ocalan, staggers on but for how long is a matter of conjecture.

Five or six of its original central committee have been physically eliminated, three others committed suicide, eight are still alive, acting semi-clandestinely, including

Selahattin Celik and Sukru Gulmus in Germany and Mahir Walat in Moscow. Others have been driven underground.

Some of the survivors were among the founder members of the PKK. Sukru Gulmus joined Ocalan’s movement as early as 1977, even before the PKK was formally founded in November 1978. Arrested by the Turks in February 1980 and sentenced to death, he spent 11 years in Diyarbakir’s jail  before being released on the grounds of ill health.

Selahattin Celik participated in the secret meetings which preceded the foundation of the PKK and was one of the small number of PKK leaders who organised the armed struggle and the first military operations against Turkish army bases on 15 August 1984, a historic date in the history of the PKK.

Selahattin Celik at home

Mahir  Walat and Selim Curukkaya became members of the PKK central committee later on, in 1986 and 1991 respectively, but nevertheless played an important role in the history of the party. A role that cost Selim Curukkaya 11 years in Turkish prisons.

Mahir Walat ran the camp of Zaleh, a huge base on th Iraqi-Iranian border where 2,000 men and women were trained as fighters for the cause, before becoming the PKK representative in Moscow, a post he continued to hold until Ocalan’s capture.

These fighter training camp locations are very secret and remote.  All the men and women who are supporters voluntarily lend their hands for fighting against the cause.  View website to know full details.  However one cannot say that those who lead the fight will always be recognized and rewarded. In a few groups, they are honored and remembered even after years.

However, the prestige these “old war horses” once enjoyed has given way to disgrace. Victims of a campaign of systematic denigration, they are now considered “traitors” by the mass of Ocalan’s partisans.

A long history of dissidence and exclusions

The PKK, supposed to be monolithic, has a long history of dissidence and exclusions: the first fissures inside the central committee showed up with the second congress (1982) and were followed by the first assassinations (Cetin Gunger in 1984, Resul Altinak in 1985). But it was the third congress (1986), in a Bekaa camp, which really marked the beginning of an era of bloody repression comparable, in a way, to the era of the great purges and Stalinist trials of the Soviet Communist Party in 1937.

Portrait of Mahir Walat

Arrested shortly before the congress, with Kesire Yildirim (Ocalan’s wife) and Duran Kalkan, Selahattin Celik spent three months in a cell where he had to write a report of self-criticism on his “mistakes” before appearing before a “court”. Relieved of his official position, he was sent to Europe. At one time he shared his cell with another member of the central committee, Halil Omer Can (known under the alias of Terzi Djemal), who was severely tortured by his former comrades. Halil Omer Can nevertheless stayed with the PKK until the early 1990’s, when he became one of the three chiefs of the HPP (PKK secret service) in charge of… killing the dissident Mehmet Shener’s partisans regrouped in the “PKK-Refoundation”. In spite of his cooperation with Abdullah Ocalan, Terzi Djemal was finally arrested and executed in 1993.

“There were between 50 and 60 executions just after the 1986 congress”, claims Selahattin Celik. “In the end, there was no more room to bury them. Some of them were simple militants, Lebanese Kurds, accused of being “agents”, guilty of “not implementing orders”. 

So why do these men, who yielded for years to Abdullah Ocalan’s will, now denounce the excesses of a leader they now compare with Mussolini, after years of revering him like a “prophet”? “Abdullah Ocalan, the man who used to call people “traitor” has himself betrayed us”, says Selim Curukkaya who knows that his revelations are now falling on more receptive ears.

All these opponents face huge material problems: full-time militants, most of them have no professional training and no means of making a living in Europe. In addition, they face the ostracism of the PKK, which further isolates them from their community. The arrival in Holland of Murat Karayilan, a member of the “presidential council” sent to Europe by Abdullah Ocalan to control an organisation which showed alarming signs of division, and the release of threatening press communiques against the “war profiteer and traitors” probably foretell more settlings of scores.

But it is obvious that while the opposition inside the PKK in Europe can play a role by awakening Kurdish public opinion — temporarily stunned by Ocalan’s capture and trial — it is actually on the ground, in Kurdistan, that the decisive events will take place. Already Hamili Yildirim, military commander of Dersim and member of the central committee, has refused to obey the orders of the “presidential council” to stop fighting. On 9 January 2000 his men shot down a Sikorski helicopter, killing six Turkish soldiers, including two officers, and wounding four. And according to information released by the PKK itself, more regional commanders are about to follow suit.

The Turkish contra-guerrilla experts who have until now superbly manipulated Abdullah Ocalan could realise very quickly that the Kurdish leader jailed on Imrali island does not hold all the keys of the Kurdish question — unless they are able to achieve their final aim and destroy the PKK by persuading its members to kill each other.

(The Middle East magazine, May 2000, Al Wasat, 24 January 2.000; L’Express, 10 Février 2.000; Le Temps, 22 Février 2.000)