Kurdish families separated by decades of conflict hold their breath for peace

Kurds wave pictures of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan as they celebrate the Kurdish new year in Diyarbakir, Turkey.

Glued to the TV screen in her small Istanbul home, Fatma watches the Kurdish new year celebrations in faraway Diyarbakir, witnessing a historic ceasefire call that she hopes will one day reunite her with the daughter she has not seen for 20 years.

"I am so excited," said the 56-year-old, who prefers not to use her real name, as she listened to a message from Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed Kurdish guerrilla leader.

When Fatma's daughter was 15 years old, the Kurdish teenager took to the hills to join Öcalan's Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK), enlisting in their 30-year guerrilla war against the Turkish state.

"I have not seen her since," Fatma said. "Sometimes we talk on the phone, sometimes her friends call me. I know that she is now a commander, that she trains fighters. But once the ceasefire is in place, once there is peace, I will go and visit her in the mountains. I will finally see my daughter again."

On Thursday, Kurdish politicians read a message from Öcalan, who has been held in solitary confinement for 14 years on a Turkish island prison.

Öcalan's message proclaimed: "We are at a point today when the guns will fall silent and ideas will speak. It is time for armed fighters to move outside [Turkey's] borders. This is not an ending, but a new beginning." He talked of Turks and Kurds acting together after decades of human rights abuses, communal strife and violence.

"Turks and Kurds fought together in Çanakkale [during the first world war], and launched the Turkish parliament together in 1920," he said. "The basis of the new struggle consists of ideas, ideology and democratic politics."

As the peace overture was read out in Diyarbakir, the main Kurdish city in southeast Turkey, Fatma and her two other daughters fell silent.

"I can hardly breathe," said Hatice, 25, clutching a scarf in red, yellow and green, the PKK colours. "I wish we could have gone to Diyarbakir too. Imagine what the atmosphere on that square must be like now."

In Diyarbakir itself, hundreds of thousands thronged the streets to mark Newroz, the new year, a celebration made more joyous by the possibility of peace after decades of conflict.

The peace talks began gingerly last October, the first time a Turkish prime minister had openly engaged in dialogue with Öcalan, deemed the state's enemy No 1 by many Turks. And Thursday's ceasefire announcement was the biggest development yet.

Öcalan did not announce a timeframe, but, according to Turkish media reports, it is expected that all of the PKK's estimated 3,500 fighters based in Turkey will withdraw within five months.

Clad in a bright red Newroz dress, Fatma's other daughter, Nilgün, listened intently to Öcalan's message.

"I wanted to join the PKK when I was 13," she said. "But they sent me home saying I was too young. I cried so much, but they did not let me join. My friend and I were caught on the road back to our village. I spent almost five years in jail."

The family moved to Istanbul 20 years ago, after Turkish security forces burned down their village as part of the scorched earth policy aimed at eradicating Kurdish rebel fighters. They lost their home and most of their belongings. Shortly after, Fatma's then 15-year-old daughter ran away from home and joined the PKK.

There are thousands of Kurdish families who share the same anxiety and the same joy. "Both my uncle and his son died fighting for the PKK. Almost every family here has someone in the mountains," said Nilgün.

The ceasefire and the withdrawal of PKK fighters are the most critical moves yet in the peace talks. If they succeed, a settlement would end a bloody conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives, seen thousands jailed and tortured, and displaced millions of Kurds from their homes.

Koray Çalışkan, of the Istanbul Bosporus University, said the ball was now in Turkey's court: "The Turkish government will now likely carry out a number of legal reforms that will set free many of the people currently jailed under arbitrary Turkish terrorism laws."

More than 8,000 Kurdish politicians, journalists and activists are presently in jail, most of them for voicing their opinions peacefully.

"We all remember bad things happening in Turkey only months ago," Çalışkan added, referring to arbitrary arrests, the hawkish stance towards Öcalan and the Kurdish issue of Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a hunger strike by more than 700 Kurdish prisoners last year. "But now is not the time to remember. Now is the time to let peace happen. It has to work, we simply have no other choice."

Hatice felt that Thursday was a milestone. "Millions of people have waited for this day. The war will end, and both Kurds and Turks will be better off." She hopes to finally meet the big sister she has never seen.

"She will be watching this with us in Qandil," said her mother, referring to the PKK mountain headquarters across the border in northern Iraq. "All the guerrilla fighters are watching this. And just like my daughter, they hope to be able to reunite with their families after all these years."

Nilgün nodded. "Kurds want peace. We are tired. We have longed for peace for a very long time. We didn't have a childhood, we suffered so much. Kurds suffered so much. But it was all worth it when I hear this now."

In the 20 years of their separation, Fatma has caught sight of her fighter daughter only once – in a video clip on a Kurdish pro-PKK satellite channel.

"Every time that the names of martyrs were announced, my heart tightened with fear. But now the fighting will stop. I am so happy, so relieved."

The women's names have been changed

Source http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/21/kurdish-families-conflict-peace


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