(from an Undisclosed Location in the Qandil Mountains)
The PKK sent their driver to get my cameraman and I from our Erbil hotel late in the afternoon. It was dark by the time we reached the Qandil Mountains. We were taken to a house in a village and told to wait, eventually receiving word that we wouldn’t be meeting our PKK contact until the following morning.
And so, when Zagros Hiwa, spokesman of the PKK, walked into the house unexpectedly about an hour later, I was in pajamas and my cameraman was in a pair of long underwear. Hiwa apologized for the arrangements constantly changing. “We decided to bring you up here at night because the drone activity is much less,” he explained. “This whole area is targeted by armed Turkish drones, and they have been active lately.”
Hiwa told us we’d need to move again that night. “Leave your phones, laptops, passports, Mastercards, anything that can give off a signal, here with the driver. This is for your safety and ours,” he instructed. We left our devices and wallets, packed a small pickup truck with our equipment, and drove to a family’s home further in the mountains.
We settled onto mats in the family’s sitting room and drank tea. Hiwa told us the family had been displaced to Iran twice in the past, and that their home had been bombed three times by the Iraqi government. “Twice, they bombed it while we were still building,” the man of the house said. “The Turkish airstrikes have never hit us here, but they did bomb my neighbor’s house.”
Hiwa left us around midnight, promising to return the following morning. “If there is cloud cover, the drones can’t operate because they can’t see,” he said. “If it’s a clear day, it’s difficult to move because they’ll be able to target us.” We went to sleep that night hoping for clouds.
The morning brought clear skies, so we filmed an interview with Hiwa in an area with heavy tree cover so we’d be hidden.
“The PKK was formed as a response to the policies of denial and annihilation of the Turkish state against the Kurdish people,” he said. “It was a movement, an attitude. To defend the existence and the freedom of the Kurdish people.”
The PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, was formed in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999. The group’s first armed insurgency against the Turkish state was in 1984, but there have been many since. Thousands of guerilla PKK fighters live in the Qandil Mountains.
The group is a designated terrorist organization in Turkey, the US, and many European countries. A number of reasons for the designation have been cited, among them armed attacks on Turkish military, civilian deaths caused by PKK attacks, and alleged funding through drug trafficking. Zagros Hiwa disputes this.
“The PKK has been listed as a terrorist organization because of the political and economic interests of European and Western countries,” Hiwa said. “Turkey is a NATO member country, and they demanded it. The PKK has not waged a single attack against America, Europe, or their citizens.”
Hiwa says the PKK has undertaken unilateral ceasefires that have been breached by Turkish attacks nine times since 1993. “The guerrilla war will continue as long as our people are under threat of elimination and cultural genocide. When there is the smallest hint of a political solution, it will end,” he said.
According to Hiwa, Turkey’s latest incursion into Northeastern Syria via its Operation “Peace Spring,” is akin to a third world war for the Kurds. Through Turkish airstrikes and ground offensives by Turkish-backed Syrian National Army factions, the offensive has killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands so far. “Turkey is trying to expand its borders by drawing on its new Ottoman ambitions,” he said. “And now it wants to totally wipe out the Kurds from their own lands to fill those lands with radical Sunni Islamist jihadis and their families.”
Hiwa believes Turkey has supported ISIS from their inception. “Turkey’s support for ISIS is well-documented by media and government officials all over the world,” he said. “Turkey has used ISIS to attack Kurdish gains in Syria, especially in Sinjar, Kobani, in Serekaniye, in Afrin…in all those places. And when ISIS was defeated by the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] in Syria, and the Peshmerga forces in Iraq, along with the coalition, Turkey began to attack the Kurds in exactly the same places where ISIS had attacked them before.”
Hiwa believes that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s assassination in Idlib, and ISIS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir assassination near Jarabalus, both cities with heavy Turkish military presence, are further proof of collusion between Turkey and ISIS. “We have to ask why Baghdadi was there? Why Muhajir was there? Isn’t that proof of the level of confidence they have had in the Turkish government to protect them?”
Turkey has repeatedly claimed that the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) in Syria is an offshoot of the PKK, and that there is a PKK presence in Northeastern Syria. Hiwa unequivocally denies this. “It is absolutely untrue. The YPG and PKK are not the same,” he said. “This is Turkey’s excuse, to give legitimacy to their incursion. There is no PKK presence in Northern Syria.”
Unlike virtually every SDF/YPG official I’ve interviewed in Northeastern Syria, Hiwa says the PKK was not surprised by the US’ withdrawal from the area. “I think Donald Trump prefers chaos over democracy, prefers instability over stability. [The US] has bowed to Turkish pressures,” Hiwa said. “It would be too naïve to say that the United States has not had any information about the degree of cooperation between the Turkish state and ISIS, but because of Turkey’s membership in NATO, and its economic and political relationship with the West, especially the United States, they have turned a blind eye to all those aggressions, to all those violations of human rights.”
Hiwa says that the PKK expects that Turkey will continue to attack Northeastern Syria. “The people of Northeastern Syria should get prepared and defend themselves against all those Turkish aggressions,” he said. “The new Ottoman ambitions are going to be materialized at the cost of the elimination of the Kurds. And the Kurds should know this fact to their bones.”
After we finished our interview, we spent the day filming in the mountains, taking cover under trees and in shops and vehicles when Hiwa was notified that an armed Turkish drone was spotted nearby. We went to the village of Zargali, where two Turkish airstrikes destroyed 6 homes and a mosque in 2015, killing eight. The homes hit still lie in ruins.
“The drone activity in this area started in 2007,” Hiwa said. “Now, we have armed drones that attack both the PKK guerillas and the civilians here. In many instances, they have targeted the civilians. We have witnessed a lot of civilian casualties.” Hiwa says reporting on such casualties is somewhat sporadic, because journalists have faced a number of issues after visiting PKK territory. According to Hiwa, they’ve had problems with the Turkish government, including entry bans. He says some have received pressure from the Kurdistan Regional Government, as well.
We planned to end the day filming at a PKK cemetery that had been bombed by Turkish forces in 2016 and 2017. In the newer half of the cemetery, the graves are marked with cinderblocks instead of gravestones. “Turkey would bomb before someone could place a single gravestone,” Hiwa explained. Unfortunately, a Turkish drone moved to the airspace above the cemetery and hovered there well into the afternoon. After a lot of waiting, Hiwa had an idea.
“It takes Turkey 20 minutes to call in an airstrike,” he said. “We can go to the cemetery and spend 15 minutes filming there…if you accept.” We agreed, and Hiwa thought for a moment. “Maybe we’ll just film for 10,” he said.