The 1990s saw the peak of violence between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish state — the bloodiest period in an old war that has waxed and waned for more than three decades, claiming more than 40,000 lives.
For PKK leader Cemil Bayik, those days have returned. "The administration used to destroy villages, kill people with white Toros," he says, referencing a model of Renault linked with the abduction and murder of Kurdish dissidents. "Today, they are burning and destroying the cities, forcing people into migration."
Parts of Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast are once again in the grip of open conflict. Government forces supported by tanks, artillery, and helicopter gunships moved into towns and cities in the region, imposing a series of strict round the clock curfews and clashing with lightly armed Kurdish militants in fierce urban fighting.
Access is barred to journalists and other external observers, but amateur video footage and pictures show scenes reminiscent of battlefields in neighboring Syria, with districts devastated by heavy weaponry and the bodies of civilians said to have been killed by security forces. The curfews have imposed an effective state of siege on some areas, leaving local residents trapped and struggling to access food or medical care. The lives of as many as 200,000 people remain at risk as government forces enact what amounts to connective punishment and in some cases seem to specifically target children, women and the elderly , Amnesty International said recently.
Meanwhile, Turkish jets are launching heavy strikes on PKK positions in more remote areas, and the group is continuing its attacks on police and military targets, killing dozens in the past six months alone, many of whom were young conscripts. Last week a truck bomb blamed on the group detonated outside a police station in the southeastern town of Cinar, an indiscriminate attack that killed one police officer and five civilians, including a baby and wounded many others.
Well over 550 people have lost their lives in the fighting since July, including more than 150 civilians, according to data collected by international monitoring groups and local sources — the heaviest toll in 20 years.
Violence could escalate still further. Meeting with VICE News late last year at the PKK's Qandil mountain stronghold in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bayik — one of the organization's founders and member of its three-man executive committee — said that the militants currently battling security forces in the cities were a faction known as the YDG-H, widely thought of as the PKK's youth wing, but described by him as an entirely separate organization.
He threatened, however, that if Turkey continued its operations in Kurdish regions and against the PKK, its guerrilla fighters would move into urban areas too. "They want to defeat the guerrilla forces and the movements in the Kurdish cities. We won't allow this to happen. If they want to make the war bigger, then the guerrilla forces will enter the cities," he warned.
Bayik added that the PKK also wished to establish a "democratic bloc" in Turkey, including non-Kurds, which would stage "democratic demonstrations and activities" and support recent declarations of autonomy in some Kurdish towns.
The silver-haired and bearish Bayik is one of Turkey's most wanted men. A list released at the end of October featured him in the top row and highlighted in red, the highest threat level. And even outside of the country's borders, he's still very much a target. Airstrikes regularly pummel Qandil, including hours before VICE News arrived, prompting tight security protocols.
Many of the group's buildings are dug in underground, and the interview with Bayik was conducted in a difficult-to-reach hillside grove to which plastic chairs and flags were carried especially for the occasion. The commander, clad in the PKK's usual olive green fatigues, arrived separately with a small escort and then disappeared into the trees afterwards.
Cemil Bayik speaking in Iraq's Qandil mountains. (Photo by John Beck)
Turkey's "Kurdish problem," as it is known, goes back decades. Successive governments have systematically marginalized the country's at least 15 million Kurds, outlawed their language, and, at times, denied even their existence. This repressive treatment gave rise to the PKK, which was founded in 1978 as a Marxist-Leninist separatist group (a philosophy it has since abandoned) by now-jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan along with Bayik and others. It went on to wage an insurgency against the Turkish state that earned it a place on Ankara, Washington, and the European Union's terror blacklist.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — then prime minister — initiated talks with Ocalan, still in his island prison, leading to a 2013 ceasefire agreement, and to a period of relative peace. The head of state has since hardened his stance, vowing to eradicate the PKK and stating Turkey had no Kurdish problem, just a "terrorism problem."
Bayik clearly sees Erdogan as a direct adversary, continually lambasting his "Sultanic" ambitions or comparing him to Kenan Evren, the army officer-turned-president who seized power in a 1980 military coup and went on to abolish parliament, senate, and constitution, while eroding civil rights and liberties.
A placard of jailed PKK leader Ocalan in the Qandil mountains. (Photo by John Beck)
The 2013 ceasefire held until shortly after June 2015's general election, which saw the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) pass the 10 percent vote threshold required to secure a parliamentary presence for the first time. In the process, it blocked Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) from gaining a majority large enough to fulfil his ambition of altering the constitution and transferring executive powers to his office. Bayik describes the results as reflecting "the true will of the Turkish people" and a move towards a more democratic republic.
The AKP was left unable to form a government alone and forced to engage in coalition talks with the country's second and third largest parliamentary blocs — the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) and far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The discussions were unsuccessful and Erdogan eventually called a snap election for November.
On July 20, a suicide bomber trained by Islamic State (IS) militants killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists at a cultural center in the border town of Suruc. Many Kurds blamed Turkish security forces for laxity or collusion, and in the immediate aftermath, the PKK shot dead two police officers in a nearby town, claiming they'd collaborated with IS, but providing no evidence that they had done so.
Violence spiraled. Four days after the bombing, Ankara announced a two-pronged "war on terror," said to focus on both the PKK and IS, but concentrated almost entirely on the militant Kurds. Attack jets began the ongoing campaign of strikes against PKK targets in Turkey as well as neighboring northern Iraq that state media claims have killed hundreds of fighters. In turn, the group launched a number of assaults on security forces.
Bayik admits the aerial bombardment has had an impact on the PKK, but said the government-claimed casualty figures are vastly inflated "psychological warfare" "These [claims] are lies that have no results... They [Turkey] used to allege 'we have broken their [the PKK's] backbone, we have killed thousands of them, we did this and that'. All those allegations were hollow."
He said instead that the greatest damage has been inflicted on the houses, gardens, and livestock of local villagers, like the Turkish strike on the Qandil village of Zergele that killed eight residents in August, in an attempt to stir up unrest against the PKK. Bayik added that there have been some attempts to persuade local villagers to provide information on PKK positions and forces in the area to be passed on to Turkish intelligence.
The Qandil Mountains. (Photo by John Beck)
As the strikes continued, security forces stepped up activities in Turkey's southeast, escalating military operations, arresting hundreds in Kurdish areas — including a number of politicians and activists — and eventually imposing curfews. In response, some residents dug ditches and built barricades to prevent police vehicles entering, and armed youth fought any who tried with guns, rockets, and Molotov cocktails.
At the time of the interview, Bayik said that these urban clashes were still exclusively carried out by the YDG-H. "So far, guerrilla forces have not entered the cities," he said, referring to the PKK. "Those who fight against the regime's savagery in the cities and protect the nation are young people there. There is no connection between them and us. However we recognize their fight as legitimate defense and we advocate for them."
Clashes intensified in the election run-up, both in and outside the towns. Then, on October 10, two IS-linked suicide bombers blew themselves up at a peace rally part-organized by the HDP in the Turkish capital of Ankara. 102 people were killed that day, including two of the pro-Kurdish party's parliamentary candidates. The PKK's commanders declared a unilateral ceasefire that same day, which Bayik says was an attempt to ensure the upcoming elections went ahead in "an environment of calm and peace". The Turkish airstrike campaign continued regardless.
The HDP quickly canceled its election campaigning for safety reasons. But the AKP government carried on, relentlessly stressing that a vote for it was the only way to secure stability and avoid Turkey turning into a war-torn state like Iraq or Syria. It won a surprisingly resounding victory. And while the HDP again secured a parliamentary presence, it was a diminished one.
Bayik dismisses the November elections as a "coup" designed to sideline the HDP, and aided by collaboration between the AKP and IS, designed to cause instability and target the ruling party's opponents. The PKK scrapped its ceasefire shortly afterwards. "Erdogan only left two alternatives for the Kurds or the Kurdish freedom movement, either surrender or get killed," he said. "As everyone knows, we will not surrender, we will not bow to this pressure, we will defend ourselves."
But he stresses too that peace is still possible, urging the international community to help facilitate talks between the PKK and Ankara. "The time has come for Europe and the United States to put pressure on Turkey so that the Kurdish question will be resolved through democratic means and political methods. They should call on Turkey to stop the fighting against the Kurds, agree to a bilateral ceasefire, so that Turkey would accept a third eye on the dialogues and negotiations."
* * *
While violence within Turkey mounts, the PKK is also engaged with a newer enemy: IS. The Kurdish fighters have been battling the jihadists on several fronts in Northern Iraq, as well as to a lesser degree in Syria, alongside the affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG), which are backed by the US and have carved out an enclave for themselves in the north of the country, known as Rojava.
But Turkey is wary of a strong Kurdish presence on its southern border and Erdogan has consistently labeled the YPG "terrorists." Kurdish activists often accuse the AKP of providing help to, or at least tolerating, IS in order to contain the YPG, allegations repeated at length by Bayik.
In Northern Iraq, the PKK has played a decisive role in a number of engagements against IS, including November's operation to free the Yazidi city of Sinjar, which was overrun by IS the previous year, as peshmerga fighters from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) retreated.
Speaking overlooking the town after it was retaken in a peshmerga-led offensive, KRG president Masoud Barzani said no other armed groups had been involved. Inside the town shortly afterwards, flags from the PKK and its Yazidi offshoot, as well as the YPG were all visible. A local PKK commander told VICE News at the time his fighters had played a key role in the battle.
Guerrilla fighters in Sinjar. (Photo by John Beck)
PKK members say they've played a similarly vital, but overlooked part in a number other assaults, including on the town of Makhmour, not far from the regional capital of Erbil, seat of the KRG.
Barzani's administration is on good terms with Turkey, but Bayik suggests the KRG chief's response was the result of desire to distract attention from his own issues, including a financial crisis and refusal to step down when his term limit expired in August. "In order to evade those problems and to create some artificial agenda... Mr. Barzani comes to hide the role of the PKK forces," Bayik said, going on to restate the PKK's role in Sinjar, where he says the PKK lost 180 fighters since the IS advance over a year ago.
"As you know guerrilla forces played a determining role in Sinjar. Peshmerga couldn't resist against IS [in 2014], they just ran away and guerrillas intervened and went there and fought against IS. If it hadn't been for the guerrilla forces, Sinjar would have been completely invaded by IS and all of the Yazidis would have been massacred."
He went on to criticize the lack of protest from the KRG at Turkish airstrikes within its territory, arguing that they're only possible with Erbil's approval.
Despite the increasing struggle with Turkey, Bayik vowed to also step up the fight against IS, describing the extremist group as "a great threat against all humanity," and asking for assistance from the American-led anti-IS coalition. "Those who want to degrade and destroy IS should help the Kurds, the guerrilla forces, and support Rojava, these are the main forces that have proven they can inflict heavy blows on the capabilities of IS," he said.
The PKK already has "indirect relations" with coalition members, he adds — primarily the US but others as well — and wishes to communicate with them directly in future. Bayik acknowledges that the group's status as a blacklisted terror organization precludes this, but implores a rethink based on its role against IS. "The time has come to change that and to delist... so I call on all of those countries to do so..." he said, adding that this is no longer the "old PKK."
It may be a changed organization and the fight against IS has done much to rehabilitate it in public opinion. But in Turkey's southeast, violence is continuing along paths decades old, with the state showing little appetite for peace or apparent concern for civilian casualties. And local residents living with the risk of displacement, injury or death in the fighting will fear that little has changed at all — for many, the bad old days are back.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck