These days, there is a new hope in Turkey that the three-decade-old armed conflict between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK) might come to an end. Yet the man who is expected to build this peace is someone that many Turks would try and kill with their bare hands: Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s jailed leader.
Öcalan, whose political career began in Ankara
in the early 1970s as a communist activist, founded the PKK
toward the end of that decade, mainly as “the vanguard of socialism in Kurdistan.” After the 1980 coup that crushed political activists from almost all sides, but especially the left, the PKK
re-emerged in 1984 with a vengeance. With bloody attacks on not just Turkish security forces but also fellow Kurds who refused to support the organization, the PKK
unleashed a terrorist campaign that has left Turkey hurt to this day.
This “low-intensity civil war,” as some have called it, has been disastrous for both sides. The PKK
lost at least 30,000 “guerillas,” whereas the Turkish security forces have given more than 6,000 “martyrs.” Thousands of civilians were also killed, either through PKK
attacks or the state’s “collateral damage.”
Since Öcalan was somehow responsible for all this carnage, the overwhelming majority of Turks hated him passionately, giving him the nickname “baby killer.” For the pro-PKK Kurds, however, who constitute roughly one-third of all Kurds in Turkey, Öcalan was a savior and a saint. They saw him as the “people’s leader” who bravely stood up against the Turkish yoke. “He is our Atatürk,” some Kurds even used to say, referring to the founder of the Turkish Republic, or “the Father of the Turks.”
That is why when Öcalan was finally captured by Turkey, with American
assistance, in 1999, two opposing reactions emerged. The overwhelming majority of Turks felt relieved and cheerful, in a way similar to the common American
delight in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Pro-PKK Kurds, on the other hand, felt traumatized. A few of them even burnt themselves alive to manifest their despair.
Since 1999, Öcalan has been in a Turkish prison on the island of İmralı in the all-Turkish Marmara Sea. He is mainly cut off from the outside world, including the PKK, but his prestige, and cult of personality, among the Kurds persist.
The better news is that Öcalan gradually realized in his cell that he could regain his freedom only by being instrumental in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. Hence he began to give dovish messages to the state and society, trying to recast his image as a peacemaker rather than a terrorist leader.
That is why “dialogue with İmralı” (not explicitly Öcalan, because the man’s name is still too toxic) has become a euphemism that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government publicly announced as a “tool to end terrorism” in the past few years. The AKP, to its credit, had taken a brave step by conceding that terrorism will end not merely through the “war on terror,” but also through “dialogue with the political representatives of terror.”
It also gradually turned out that the definitive “political representatives of terror” are not th pro-PKK deputies in the Parliament, but Öcalan, whose authority is binding for both them and their beloved “guerillas.” That is why the government is now allowing Öcalan to meet with the deputies in question and give them his political messages. And everybody is curious to see whether this will really lead the PKK
to say a farewell to arms.