Middle East politics and the resilient villagers of Qandîl

The villages of Qandîl, with their mountains, stones, plateaus, and valleys are witnesses of great wars. Enduring the Iraq-Iran war, the Kurdish peshmergas’ war against the Iraqi Ba’ath regime, Saddam Hussein’s genocidal al-Anfal campaign, as well as the intra-Kurdish wars between the KDP, PUK, and PKK, the villagers’ lived experience taught them the meaning of right and wrong politics. Due to their accumulation of highly politicized life experiences over the years, the villages of Qandîl, which have historically not only hosted the PKK guerrillas, but almost all parties in Kurdistan’s history, are full of historical and political wisdom and knowledge.

Esma Makyiz spoke to the villagers of Qandîl before the 2018 elections in Turkey, a time when the Turkish President Erdoğan was threatening to invade the area to annihilate the PKK. She encountered a highly-politicized and conscious community.

 

During his campaign for the parliamentary elections of 2018, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan re-gained his position of power, after threatening to “hoist the Turkish flag in Qandîl”. Was the propaganda regarding invading the Qandîl mountains limited to the election phase? The villagers of Qandîl, whom I spoke to before the elections took place, stressed that this was not the case. I state this with a strong emphasis, because this topic was intensively discussed in the dialogues between the villagers of Qandîl and the PKK guerrillas in the region. They expressed their view that the Turkish state, especially with the Justice and Development Party (AKP), did not pursue short-term politics. Rather, they believed, the AKP was following a long-term plan to keep Erdoğan in power.

The villagers of Qandîl do not merely interpret current political developments and processes with their strong, foresighted analyses. Due to their accumulation of highly politicized life experiences over the years, the villagers of Qandîl, who have historically not only hosted the PKK guerrillas, but almost all parties in Kurdistan’s history, are full of historical and political wisdom and knowledge. In this sense, the term “peasantry” should not be understood in a classical sense, when speaking of the villagers of Qandîl. It would be insufficient to consider only the PKK in the context of Qandîl. Kurdish parties and movements from Komala to the Kurdistan Communist Party; the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Iranian-Kurdish to Islamist parties have all been embraced by this mountainous area. This would be a subject for another article. In all of Qandîl’s villages, valleys, cliffs, abysses, and plateaus, it is possible to see the history of Kurdish politics. That is the reason why no matter, which home a guerrilla visits in any of the villages to have a chat in haircloth tents or gardens, the main topic that immediately arises, even in the most casual of conversations, is politics.

Political discussions reach from the defence of the Kurdish people to major questions such as the protection of the lands under occupation. No matter how old the person you are discussing with may be, everyone possesses a remarkable degree of experience and knowledge. Especially those above the age of 45 or 50 speak of the times of Mullah Mustafa Barzanî or Noshirwan Mustafa, as well as tactical steps that were taken against during the attacks of Iran and the Iraqi Ba’ath regime. Those above the age of 55 give older examples; they are able to discuss the relationship between Mahmud Berzenji and the British empire. You’ll then hear stories of Kaniya Cengî. I say stories, but these are all stories from which important history lessons were derived. They often conclude by saying “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains”. This seems to be one of their most urgent warnings to the Kurdish people.

I was able to observe the relationship between the Qandîl villagers and the PKK guerrillas more closely, during my stay in the area to film a program for the Medya Haber news channel. As the PKK guerrillas were listening to the villagers’ concerns with attention and respect, the villagers likewise approached the guerrillas with gratitude and kindness. The previous notion that “the PKK is an organization of the Kurds in Turkey and thus, only a visitor”, a claim that has been historically reinforced by the special war policies of the KDP in collaboration with the Turkish state, has been overcome in this area. The PKK is a Kurdish party, it is Kurdistanî. It is not only seen as an important political movement for the Kurds, but also positively as a social force that has the capacity to bring about meaningful and concrete changes in people’s lives.

One of the main things that surprised me during my journalistic work in Qandîl is the fact that although many villagers were supporters of different political parties, they still trusted the PKK. They saw the PKK’s political and military steps as being grounded on their self-reliant power. They would say: “Whenever the PKK takes a decision, it means that they know something”. They followed the PKK’s political evaluations closely and developed their own political analyses based on this knowledge.

I want to give a few examples. At the time of the beginning of the Turkish occupation of Afrin, a group of guerrilla fighters was due to take me to my destination. We took a tea break in the garden of an old couple. The old uncle, Mam Xidir, spoke about the historic resistance of Afrin with great enthusiasm. For a long time, the Kurds have been fighting against NATO powers like Turkey, as well as powers like Russia. Pointing out the importance of this fact, “We must never trust the ruling powers”, he said. “We know what happened in Mahabad!” His words were an important political and historical evaluation. He read the alliance between Russia and Turkey in a historical context.

Every new acquaintance with a villager felt like being thrown into the sphere of politics. They discuss intensively with the guerrillas. Thereby, they act in the consciousness of their role as political actors. When sharing their advantage with their relatives in the cities, they communicate their discussions with the life-worlds of these significant, mountain-dwelling actors. After all, at the unreachable heights of the protective mountains, they get the chance to hold important discussions with the guerrillas, who are strong fighters, political actors, and diplomats in Middle East politics. This is an important resource for South Kurdistan. Sharing political views with the region-wide influential PKK guerrillas is another level than discussing politics with any parliamentarian. The villagers know that their opinions will find resonance somehow.

Upon Turkey’s threats during the election campaign, I decided to speak to the villagers of Qandîl because I valued their opinion on the matter of a possible invasion of their homeland. Their responses were reflected in the military simulations on the day of the election. Their responses were often clearer and deeper than that of many academics.

The most important views to me were those of Mam Xidir. Mam Xidir is an old peshmerga. He is a person with a strong ability to read war’s reflection on politics and politics’ reflection on war. In addition, the experiences and wisdom that come with age shape his opinion. Before the elections in Turkey, I asked him “What will be the outcome of the elections? The Turkish state speaks of launching an operation on Qandîl, what do you think they will do?” His responses will interest you:

First of all, the hegemonic powers have not yet finished with Erdoğan. For this reason, he will stay in power again. The hegemonic powers have pending vested interests regarding Syria and Iran. Therefore, the elections will turn out in favour of Erdoğan. If you ask me, I don’t think any possible operation on Qandîl is related to the elections only. Of course the Qandîl operation is an attempt to launch an attack on the PKK, which is currently the strongest and unbreakable defender of the Kurdish people’s political will. They want to break the Kurds’ will. The political parties in southern Kurdistan are either extremely divided, have surrendered or have been silenced. In all four parts of Kurdistan, it is the PKK that makes the loudest noise and has the greatest influence on developments. So, to finish off the Kurds, one would need to break the PKK, but the PKK is not open to instrumentalization by the USA. These are all premises for the anti-Kurdish Turkish state, but they do not suffice. Beyond all of this, Erdoğan is eyeing and desiring Mosul and Kirkuk in pursuit of his neo-Ottoman dreams. For him to realize these dreams, he would first of all have to annihilate the PKK. So the real issue lies in the overlapping interests of the hegemons. Due to all of this, Esra gyan, unfortunately Erdoğan will definitely win the elections.”

This is what Mam Xidir had to say. Later, I found out that Mam Xidir was already developing relations with the PKK at the time when no villager would approach the guerrillas. Due to this, he obtained a lot of knowledge about the PKK’s political experiences in Turkey. In turn, he shares his knowledge about Southern Kurdistan’s politics with the PKK guerrillas. This is a wonderful example of Kurdish unity. “If there is the PKK, there will be everything. Otherwise, the Kurds will be oppressed and annihilated”, concluded Mam Xidir.

After our conversation with Mam Xidir, we were already back en route to the valleys of Qandîl. A group of guerrillas was accompanying us to the location where we would conduct our work. On our way, we met Mam Rasul. We asked him about the politics of Southern Kurdistan. “From the day of its foundation, the Kurdistan Regional Government has been completely dependent on the US”, he began. Providing examples from several historical events, he explained to the guerrillas that the US was always ready to serve the Kurdistan Regional Government and its population on a plate to the Turkish state. In turn, the guerrillas shared their views to compliment his analysis. Evidently, the people of this region have deep interpretations to offer on ongoing developments and their implications. The character of the people of Southern Kurdistan in general and the Qandîl villagers in particular is remarkable. They are strong and resilient people, whose accumulation of historical sociality and experience is well-kneaded.

The villages of Qandîl, with their mountains, stones, plateaus, and valleys are witnesses of great wars. During the Iraq-Iran war, the Kurdish peshmergas’ war against the Iraqi Ba’ath regime, Saddam Hussein’s genocidal al-Anfal campaign, as well as the intra-Kurdish wars between the KDP, PUK, and PKK, the villagers’ lived experience taught them the meaning of right and wrong politics. The villagers of Qandîl, having experienced all of these developments first hand, share their perspectives and concerns with the PKK. The PKK in turn develops close ties with the villagers through political and social relations. A meaningful, mutual and complimentary relationship exists between the villagers and the guerrillas. Of course, it is normal for such a relationship to develop; many of the children and grandchildren of these villagers became PKK guerrillas themselves. The PKK is a Kurdish organization that leads a struggle on behalf of them, too. In this way, the villagers share their experiences and practices with their own children. The children in turn share their daily and historical experiences in the realm of war and politics with their families. The relationships that I have observed were progressing in this manner. Unlike Nechîrvan Barzanî’s claim that the PKK is an occupying force, the villagers see the PKK as a Kurdish organization on native Kurdish lands. And most importantly, the villagers of Qandîl see the PKK guerrillas as their children and strongly believe in them. They say that “Aw kiç û kura azana” [Soranî Kurdish, “these strong girls and boys”] will protect and defend them.