The Independent Gateway to Kurdish News and Analyses

Village Life in the Qendil Mountains

 

Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 3, July 2009 -

by Thomas James

 

Qendil Mountains, Iraqi Kurdistan - In any other country, an area such as the Qendil Mountains in the northernmost part of Iraq would be a tourist attraction, on a par with the Swiss Alps or the Spanish Pyrenees. Rugged, snow-capped peaks and deep gorges give way to carpets of wild flowers and small farm holdings. The people here are broadly self-sufficient, able to meet their needs from the fertile land and mountain streams. Ostensibly, it should be a simple and peaceful way of life for the population of the area’s two hundred odd villages.

 

Yet it is high in these mountains on the Iran-Iraq border that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has based itself in its ongoing war with the Turkish State. The PKK enjoys support from many of Turkey's Kurds and is supported by a large network of civilians throughout Turkey and the Kurdish Diaspora. Many armed PKK fighters are based in southeast Turkey, though the majority are believed to be based in the mountains of Kurdistan near Iraq's borders with Iran and Turkey. Of the various bases of operations in this region, the Qendil region is believed to host the largest number of camps and is the current home of many of the group's leadership.


 

Qendil Mountains - Iraqi Kurdistan - Photo Courtesy Shivan Sito

For the PKK, the benefits of the Qendil region are clear. The region itself is quite far from Turkey and is not accessible for most vehicles, and the mountainous terrain provides shelter from aerial bombardment and land-based attack. Long before the PKK entered Qendil, it was a safe haven for Iraqi Kurdish rebels and was never conquered by enemy forces. While Turkey has threatened to expel the PKK from Qendil, the rebel forces there remain safe and secure. Turkey launches periodic airstrikes against suspected PKK positions in Qendil and elsewhere in Iraq with very little effect. In February 2008, Turkey launched a major military offensive, sending thousands of soldiers into Iraq with the stated aim of striking a major blow against the PKK. While initial reports indicated some success, the Turkish offensive failed to dislodge the PKK from bases close to the Iraqi-Turkish border, such as Zap, and came nowhere close to Qendil. The Turkish incursion, codenamed Operation Sun ended after just over a week, and the PKK survived with renewed confidence.

 

For the villagers of Qendil, the benefits of hosting the PKK are less certain. The Qendil Mountains are not only home to guerrillas from the PKK, but also to its Iranian sister organization, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK). Consequently, the area faces both artillery bombardments from Iran and aerial attacks from Turkey, as well as the threat of invasion should the conflict escalate seriously. During this writer’s visit, the birdsong of the day was accompanied by the whine of a surveillance drone and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the spectre of war hangs just over the hills. PKK reports suggest that Iranian artillery bombardments continued right up until the beginnings of the current Iranian presidential election. Meanwhile, Turkish air strikes continue against various alleged PKK sites in Turkey and various regions of Iraq on an almost daily basis.

 

Locals in Qendil talk of one night of air strikes on 16 December 2007 that led to the death of one elderly woman and to another woman losing a leg. This round of air strikes destroyed a hospital in the village of Lavche and unexploded munitions led to homes being abandoned and farmland untended. A local PKK official also reported the demolition of a school and the partial destruction of a mosque in the village of Klatuka. Since then, continued bombardments have led to more deaths and to many villages being abandoned. With the current lull in hostilities, the majority of villagers have returned but remain ready to leave their homes again.

 

One man, a local farmer named Mohammed from the village of Lavche, commented that, while he was a supporter of the PKK, he was also scared for his children and scared of what the future might hold for his young family. When asked about the indiscriminate nature of the bombings, he replied that they were not indiscriminate, but instead were designed to “kill Kurds and turn the locals against the PKK”.

 

Remote village in the Qendil mountains - Iraqi Kurdistan

 

 

Inside Mohammed's one-story stone farmhouse, a picture of a young woman took pride of place. Dressed in combat fatigues and standing in front of a PKK flag, it is clear where the sympathies of his family lie. His children played on a rope swing and over glasses of warm milk, their daughter showed me a pin-badge depicting the image of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Their grandfather, formerly a Peshmerga fighter, explained that “the guerrilla is in my soul. I will always support them, even if there is a risk of bombing”.

 

The more people I spoke to made it seem clear that the locals support the PKK. Others spoke of their admiration for the group and the security that they provided. People still remember Saddam’s Anfal campaigns of the 1980s and the feeling remains in some quarters that the Kurds are likely to become a target again; clearly the bombings of hospitals and mosques only encourage this fear.

 

From the Turkish side, there are allegations that the PKK live in the villages, and even that the villagers are PKK guerrillas. This is strongly denied by the PKK and by the villagers themselves. One PKK official told me that their camps are away from the civilian populations and that members are drawn not from local villages in the Qendil, but from all across the Kurdish areas in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

 

Indeed, there can be no doubt that there is compliance and assistance from the local population, who are able to benefit financially through providing services and supplies. Despite PKK claims that there is very little interaction with the villagers, anecdotal evidence and my own observations seemed to suggest otherwise. Hospitality offered to journalists visiting the PKK is provided by ordinary villagers and, during my visit to the area in May 2009, my driver for the day was a local man from outside the PKK-administered area taking advantage of the opportunity to earn some extra money.

 

Sympathies for the PKK extend well beyond the immediate area. Although there are no official figures, support (whether active or passive) for the PKK is very strong and many ex-PKK members are able to live within Iraq. The KRG generally describes the PKK as a Turkish problem and, while they have closed offices of pro-PKK political parties, they have thus far refused pressure to take military action against the group. Just recently, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, welcomed the extension of the PKK's official ceasefire, describing it as "important step towards peace and stability in the area", while concurrently praising "recent positive steps taken by Turkey".

 

For the people of Qendil, military action against the PKK would be a disaster. Past experience indicates that civilians in the region are the first to be adversely impacted and military operations against the region have yielded little success.

 

For now though, with talk of peace between the PKK and Turkey growing, the people of Qendil are cautiously hopeful for the future. They will continue to farm the lands of the Qendil and until there is peace, the PKK will continue to dwell among its high peaks. Perhaps some time later, Qendil will really become famous for its natural beauty.

 

 

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