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The development of the PKK

(1)The footnote section is at the end of the text

The first roots of the organization were laid in Ankara in the 1970’s, when Abdullah Öcalan and some other Kurdish students separated from a left-wing group, even though they did not form an organization under a specific name. Besides the name of "Apocular" the abbreviation UKO (Ulusal Kurtulus Ordusu - National Liberation Army) was used in their pamphlets. The party PKK was founded on 27 November 1978 in a village near Lice/Diyarbakir. At the beginning the PKK advocated a Marxist-Leninist socialism that had to be founded against the colonialist State of Turkey (and other countries where Kurds are living).

The socialist idea of the PKK did not follow existing models such as the Soviet-Union (SU) or China. In the years to follow theory became increasingly less important. Although the party had its Central Committee, the indisputable leader was Abdullah Öcalan (Apo) and after the military coup of September 1980, when most of the leading members in the PKK were imprisoned (some of them died as a result of hunger-strikes etc.) Apo was able to rule the party from Damascus (Syria) slowly acquiring a position that can easily be called "dictator". Even though full details on the cooperation between Syria (the secret service) and the PKK are not available, the support of Syria (and the SU) by providing arms etc. undoubtedly contributed to the growing strength of the organization.

The PKK´s current positions

On first glance the PKK continues as the "revolutionary" movement still following its socialist ideals at the end of the 20th century. A look at the party's program revised on 5th congress of the party in 1995 seems to prove this impression.

"Our party was formed in the 1970s as a revolutionary socialist national liberation movement... Our party, since its formation, has been shaped, both theoretically as well as in practice, by the great forward vision and determination of party leader Abdullah Ocalan... The phase of Soviet-dominated socialism is finished. That was a phase of primitive and brutal socialism. Now, a new phase of social-ism has begun, namely its rich phase. Our party is the embodiment of one of the most significant socialist movements during this new phase, and we plan to live up to our duties in our revolutionary work..." (2)

Such words may be useful when recruiting militants, but for the aims and means of the PKK this program does not mean much. At least for the last decade anything that party leader Abdullah Öcalan said (the Kurdish word for 'leader' -serhok- rather resembling the German word 'Führer') was binding for all members of the party. This situation may change, now that Abdullah Öcalan is imprisoned in Turkey, but it is worth-while noting that starting with the first declaration of a unilateral ceasefire in the spring of 1993 the PKK has tried to move on to "diplomatic fields" usually compared to the change of Yassir Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. While leaving "old" ideas of socialism, the PKK changed its flag dropping hammer and sickle and replaced the Central Committee by a Presidential Council (though the four members never had any power). The practical work has included strong religious motives as well, in an attempt to gain more support among the predominantly Muslim Kurdish population.

Already at this point it should be noted that this change of policy also included the verbal readiness to accept the provisions of the Geneva Convention. (3) This declaration came less than a week after the ARGK had announced that it would target German economic and political enterprises in Turkey "if Germany did not abandon its support for the liquidation and destruction in Kurdistan". (4) Offers for peace (the most recent ceasefire was officially announced on 1 September 1998) and threats against civilian targets (in particular tourist resorts) have dominated the somehow contradictory policy of the PKK ever since.

The aim was (is) to enter into a "dialogue" with the Turkish State or at least to be accepted as a party in the war and possibly to get a diplomatic status. When in the mid-1990´s the PKK kidnapped foreign tourist the aim was to have internationally accepted institutions such as the ICRC as mediators. However, the "highest" the PKK got in this attempt was a delegation composed of the President of the Human Rights Association (HRA) in Turkey, the deputy President of the human rights organization Mazlumder and a deputy of one of the then ruling Welfare Party (RP) to "rescue" six Turkish soldiers from one of the PKK camps in Northern Iraq in 1996.

The PKK´s readiness for talks included the official dropping of the original aim. Nowadays the PKK does not advocate an independent, separate Kurdish state, but some kind of federal model that would need more clarification in the details to be established during "peace-talks" or other kinds of negotiations.

The "strength" of the PKK

The Turkish "side", represented by the military (with the second largest army within NATO) and consecutive governments, has always declared that they are not willing to "talk to terrorists". This position has become even stronger after the elections of April 1999 with two nationalistic parties as the winners. The new coalition based on the Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the Nationalist Movement Party MHP finds itself supported by the fact that the military strength of the PKK has decreased decisively.

In the early 1990’s (the years of 'public uprising' called 'serhildan' similar to the Palestinian 'intifada') the PKK announced to have more than 20,000 people under arms aiming at an army of some 50,000. However, the number of armed militants has gone down since then. Estimates today might put the figure around 5,000, mainly outside Turkey (Iraq and Iran). The PKK that once controlled whole areas including district and even provincial capitals (such as Sirnak and Cizre) now has difficulties in keeping their military forces inside Turkey (like in the beginning mainly using caverns in the mountains in order to survive). Since February 1999, the indisputable leader of the party, Abdullah Öcalan, is the only prisoner on the island of Imrali and unable to direct the organization. (5)

Still, several military units are still active and reports of violent clashes between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdish guerillas continue to come in on a daily basis. (6) At the same time violence has spread to other areas of Turkey. As a result of the pressure on the PKK´s leader, first to leave Syria, then to be extradited from Italy and finally to be kidnapped in Kenia and taken to Turkey, not only prisoners of the organization but also members and sympathizers in "Kurdish" and "non-Kurdish" areas have staged hunger-strikes, set themselves on fire, (7) while others acted as "living bombs" pulling the trigger whenever they were close enough to military compounds or other targets such as governors. Such desperate actions, some of which appear to have been carried out by other "armed opposition groups" can hardly be seen as a sign of strength with the main result of increased repression against the common Kurdish population.

Yet, the "strength" of the PKK cannot only be measured in military terms. Although financial resources seem to have gone down during recent years (8) the (financial) support of the PKK made it possible not only to publish illegal monthly magazines of the organization, but also contributed to the publication of a daily newspaper (9) and even a TV station. (10) It can be discussed whether the so-called "Parliament in Exile" and the recently established "National Congress" are solely composed of PKK supporters. Their influence may be rather weak, but still they can be called "diplomatic initiatives” that also need financial resources.

The conditions in Turkey never allowed for a political party directly supporting the PKK to be organized legally (like Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland supporting the IRA). Yet, in the early 1990s the Kurdish question and the growing strength of the PKK led to the establishment of a party which, even though it could not be called "the Kurdish party", became some kind of representative of the Kurdish issue. Since then, two consecutive parties have been banned and the current party, the People´s Democracy Party HADEP is also under threat of being banned. Like its predecessors HADEP cannot openly support the PKK, but unlike its predecessors this party is clearly being dominated by politicians that would not dare (in their hearts and in their minds) to criticise the PKK.

During the election of April 1999 HADEP ran for national parliament as well as for local elections of mayors. Similar to the 1995 election HADEP missed the score of 10% of the votes to enter the national assembly, but they did not only improve by 0.5% to get almost 5% of the votes; the party was able to win elections in 39 districts for the position of a mayor. Similar to the elections of 1995 HADEP did not get many votes in the West and South of Turkey (not the necessary support of Kurds living there), but the results in the "Kurdish" areas, despite all means of repression during election campaign, improved and in many places the party won about 50% of the votes. This can certainly be taken as a sign that the support for the PKK has not decreased in its "home territory".

The most common human rights violations committed by the PKK

Since autumn 1998 the Turkish media preferred to call the leader of the PKK; Abdullah Öcalan, the "baby killer of 30,000", thus keeping the organization responsible for all losses in the ongoing conflict. The more realistic figures differentiate between civilians and armed personnel. According to an article in the daily "Cumhuriyet" of 12 March 1999 the Chief of Staff announced that during the 15 years of fighting 5,606 soldiers and 5,316 civilians lost their lives. The statistic did not say anything about the responsibility for these deaths, thus creating the impression that all civilian losses were caused by the PKK.

The official "propaganda" that comes along with horrific pictures does not provide much insight into the problem. On one issue the book of Ismet Imset presents some figures for the past. Having said that the period between January 1987 and November 1989 was the bloodiest phase in the PKK´s warfare, figures on losses between August 1984 and June 1990 are presented. In an attempt to fight the village guards’ system the PKK killed 78 armed men, while also hitting at their families, killing another 640 persons, many of them women or children. (11) This strategy did not bring about the intended results and rather led to a decisive loss of sympathy among the population. Thus, the practice of "wiping out whole families" was abandoned, though the fight against village guards continued, partly suspended by periods of declared "amnesties" for those who would lay down their arms.

Another "prime target" for the PKK were the teachers in the area. It was claimed that the Turkish teachers did not only educate Kurdish children in Turkish language and nationalism, but that they also were active as some kind of (armed) militia for the Turkish state. In a statement of 29 September 1994 the ARGK even went as far as to say that "no teacher is allowed to work in our region without our permission" (see article in "Özgür Ülke of 03.10.94). While on 2 October 1996 "Hürriyet" presented a list from the "National Education Foundation" with the names of 131 teachers who became "martyrs", the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) published a detailed report in November 1995 on "Education and Training in the Emergency State Region" stating that 142 teachers had been killed between 15 August 1984 and 20 November 1995. The report stated that the PKK was responsible for 91 of the killings, while most of the remaining cases had to be termed "murders by unknown assailants" (an expression indicating possible links to agents of the state, the so-called counter-guerillas). Two teachers had died under torture in detention.

In particular the killings of 7 teachers in 1996 (two incidents) gave reason for a wide debate in public. While official sources made the PKK responsible for the killings, the PKK that usually would readily admit any such action, declared that they were not. During 1996 further kidnappings of teachers happened and in one case AI issued an UA on 3 kidnapped teachers who later were released by the PKK. Since then kidnapping and killing of Turkish teachers does not seem to be a central policy of the PKK any more, although further events continued to be reported. (12)

Possibly the most serious abuse seems to have occurred in the ranks of the PKK itself, but neither international NGOs nor national NGOs have seriously dealt with this problem. Only after one of the dissidents in the PKK went public on this issue, himself being under threat of being killed, the subject reached a wider public. The dissident, Selim Cürükkaya, who had spent more than 10 years in prison because of his activities for the party, became one of the main critics of PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan after his release. His experiences with the "dictator" and his way of punishing any kind of opposition are described in his book "APO’nun Ayetleri" (the verses of APO), for which Mr. Cürükkaya could not find a publishing house and paid for the printing himself. A German translation was published in Fischer Verlag in March 1997 under the title: "PKK - Die Diktatur des Abdullah Öcalan".

According to Selim Cürükkaya any kind of misbehaviour including love among male and female militants (allegedly even just looking at each other is "forbidden") is brought to "court" (that are all other militants present). A "prosecutor”, chosen among the leading members of the camp (or unit), reads out some kind of indictment accusing the person with treason, spying etc. Only defendants, who are willing to confess (in the vocabulary of the organization this is called "to conduct self-criticism") by calling themselves "weak" and the PKK-chief Abdullah Öcalan "the greatest", get a chance of appearing in "court". The most common punishment is the death penalty. Absolutely minor offences can be punished by sending the person to a labour camp. The only person to confirm the "verdict" or to announce an "amnesty" is (was) Abdullah Öcalan himself.

In the appendix to the German version of the book Selim Cürükkaya lists a number of individual cases, saying that only two persons among the founding members of the PKK survived the "justice" of Abdullah Öcalan. When Selim Cürükkaya was himself under arrest of the organization he was able to study the archives, because he had been asked to write a report on another "traitor". He claims that the documents he studied revealed that only within the year 1992 a total of 141 militants were "punished" (meaning killed) on orders of the organization. Some of the killings also included additional forms of torture, although it appears that torture was not applied systematically. But most certainly the "trials" (also described in the weekly "2000e Dogru" -towards 2000- of 7 January 1990) would have to be called "unfair".

Further allegations of abuses by the PKK against the civilian population such as forcible evacuation of villages mainly on Iraqi soil are too vague and difficult to prove. But the fact that the PKK uses landmines, just as the Turkish troops do, might also be mentioned here.

General remark: The best book on this subject is called “The PKK: A Report on Separatist Violence in Turkey“. It was written in English by Ismet Imset and published by Turkish Daily News at the end of 1992. The Turkish version appeared in June 1993. Quotes are taken from the Turkish version, since the book is not available any more. For further reading you might want to have a look at a lengthy Article of Ismet Imset from the year 1995. It is entitled: "The PKK: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?"

Another source of excellent information on all kinds of legal and illegal organizations in Turkey is the report by Denise Graf and Bülent Kaya, simply called “Türkei/Turquie“. It was publissed in April 1997 by the Swiss Aid for Refugees in German and French.


(1) Quoted from the introduction of the party´s program of 1995 (for the full text see appendices) or

(2) On 26 January 1995 the pro-Kurdish newspaper “Özgür Ülke“ (Free Land) reported that a letter of Abdullah Öcalan, the Secretary General of the PKK, dated 23.01.95 had been handed over to the International Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva declaring that the PKK accepted the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the additional 1977/1 protocol. In the 5-point declaration the PKK announced members of the Turkish security forces, counter-guerillas, secret services, police and the village guards as their targets in war and promised to treat them as prisoners of war.

(3) Quoted from the German newspaper TAZ (“Die Tageszeitung“ of 20 January 1995).

(4) At the time of writing this report the trial against Abdullah Öcalan is continuing. It is impossible to predict the effects of this trial (death penalty and a possible execution) even if Abdullah Öcalan continues to show readiness for cooperation with the Turkish authorities.

(5) As an example one might have a look at the papers of 15 May 1999: the semi-official Anadolu Agency reported that 37 terrorists were killed and 5 members of the security forces became “martyrs“, while the pro-PKK newspaper “Özgür Politika“ said that the ARGK killed 15 soldiers (5 are named).

(6) The slogan “you can´t darken our sun“ became the most common phrase in these days.

(7) I do not want to enter the discussion on how the money was raised, but there is no proof for the thesis of the Turkish authorities that most of the money comes from drug trafficking.

(8) The issue is, of course, very sensitive, because any legal media can't be produced in the name of an illegal organization. Yet the formulation that those “means of communication“ mentioned above would not have appeared if the PKK had not supported them, should not be inccorect. The history of repression against these publications could be the subject of another report.

(9) The issue is, of course, very sensitive, because any legal media can´t be produced in the name of an illegal organization. Yet the formulation that those “means of communication“ mentioned above would not have appeared if the PKK had not supported them, should not be inccorect. The history of repression against these publications could be the subject of another report.

(10) The TV station MED TV was banned indefinitely in April 1999 (but a similar channel was opened shortly afterwards) and the daily newspaper “Özgür Bakis“ (Independent View), that started publication on 18 April 1999 was banned in May from being taken into the region under a state of emergency.

(11) The tradition of blood-feud in this area speaks of "ocak söndürme" (best translated by "wiping out the whole family", including even their animals).

(12) On 18 May 1999 the kidnapping of 2 teachers by the PKK was reported in the Turkish press. In mid-June the teachers' union Egitim-Sen called for their release (result unknown when the report was finished).