This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 1, 1999. Partner content is not updated.
To most Turks, Abdullah Ocalan is a monster responsible for the deaths of innocent men, women and children in a fierce guerrilla war.
This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 1, 1999
Kurdish Terrorist Captured
To most Turks, Abdullah Ocalan is a monster responsible for the deaths of innocent men, women and children in a fierce guerrilla war. But for many Kurds - the 25-million strong minority spread across parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, as well as overseas - he is a spiritual leader embodying their cherished dream of an independent state. "There is a great love for Ocalan," said Christina Fernandez, a Kurdish activist based in Toronto. "He gave the Kurds back their dignity." In the wake of Ocalan's dramatic arrest in Kenya last week by Turkish agents, Fernandez helped organize an Ottawa demonstration that turned into a fiery riot, and she was unapologetic afterward. "Our people are angry," she said, denouncing the Turkish military onslaught against the Kurds. "Many people have lost families who were tortured and killed."
Kurdish fury contrasted with Turkish delight after Ocalan was spirited out of Nairobi and returned to Turkey to face trial. There were celebrations in Istanbul - and violent clashes around the world. Over the past five months, the 49-year-old guerrilla chief had drifted across Europe in search of refuge, finally finding shelter in the Kenyan Embassy of Turkey's archrival, Greece. But under still-murky circumstances, he left the embassy last week and headed for the airport. Turkish agents, who had been tipped off, were waiting. They forced him into a borrowed corporate jet, strapped a seatbelt across his chest and flew him to a military base near Istanbul. "Welcome," said one of his captors on landing, as another pulled the blindfold away from his sweating face. "You're our guest now."
The video of the hooded agents high-fiving and laughing as they handed the country's most wanted man over to police was played repeatedly on Turkish television amid dancing in the street. But across Europe and in Canada, Kurds erupted. Diplomatic missions in 20 cities were overrun. Three Kurdish demonstrators were shot and killed trying to occupy the Israeli consulate in Berlin after rumours spread that Israel's Mossad spy agency had told the Turks where to find Ocalan. In London, Kurds occupied the Greek Embassy for three days, and a 15-year-old girl set herself on fire. She was hospitalized.
Within hours of the arrest, 60 protesters in Vancouver stormed the Greek consulate. Some doused themselves with gasoline and threatened to burn themselves. In Montreal, more than 40 barged into the National Bank of Greece, smashing computers and furniture. Then came Ottawa the next day: nine policemen were hurt, including one who was hit by a Molotov cocktail, when 300 demonstrators rushed the police line guarding the Turkish Embassy. They hurled rocks and ice at the building, smashing a number of windows. Police finally drove them back with pepper spray and arrested three people. (Activist Fernandez, who tried to calm the situation, was not among them.)
The repercussions went beyond the streets. Three Greek cabinet ministers - including Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos - were forced to resign for letting Ocalan fall into the hands of the country's ancient enemy. A top Kenyan minister was also fired for allowing Ocalan and his armed guards to be smuggled into the country. Within Turkey, troops fought running battles with protesting Kurds in major cities, arresting almost 1,000 people. The military also pressed its war against Ocalan's followers, bombing Kurdish villages and pursuing his guerrillas into neighbouring Iraq.
At the centre of the firestorm was a portly rebel leader with a reputation for responding in blood to any challenge to his authority. Known as Apo, or uncle, to his followers, Ocalan (pronounced OH-ja-lan) was born to a Turkish mother and Kurdish father in a village near the city of Urfa in the remote southeast of the country. He studied political science at the University of Ankara in the early 1970s, but dropped out and later tried to launch a career in mainstream Turkish politics. When that failed, in 1978 he launched the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK in Kurdish, which promised to lead the fight for a homeland. Many supporters hoped an eventual Kurdistan could encompass all the Kurds spread across the rugged mountains of southeast Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, northwest Iran and parts of the former Soviet Union. Turkey alone has 12 million Kurds among its 62 million population.
They have been demanding the creation of their own state since 1920, when the Treaty of Sevres created Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, wanted all Muslims in the country to integrate into the Turkish majority. From the outset, the Kurds, who are Muslims, resisted, and their language and schools were officially banned. Such repression has continued. An Istanbul court is now deciding whether to ban Hadep, a democratically elected pro-Kurdish party. "Forget about being arrested for being armed," says Haydar Gulec, deputy chairman of Hadep. "You can be imprisoned because you speak Kurdish."
In 1980, when the Turkish army mounted a coup, Ocalan fled to the Bekaa Valley, a part of Lebanon controlled by Syria. Four years later, Ocalan's guerrillas began attacking villages along the border of Turkey, often murdering innocent civilians in the process. The Turkish military fought back, and the war escalated. Over the past 15 years, nearly 30,000 civilians and soldiers have been killed and another 560,000 Kurdish villagers have been forced to flee their homes. Massive air attacks on Kurdish settlements in 1996 and 1997 began to turn the tide in the government's favour.
Last fall, Ocalan suffered two major diplomatic defeats. In September, two warring Kurdish factions in northern Iraq agreed to sign a U.S.-brokered peace accord. In exchange for driving the PKK guerrillas out of their territory, they were given de facto control of their region, which is protected by U.S. war planes patrolling the northern no-fly zone in Iraq. Washington, which uses Turkish air bases for the operation, lists Ocalan's group as a terrorist organization. Then, in October, Syria bowed to military threats from Turkey and expelled Ocalan, who flew to Moscow.
Despite support from the Communist-dominated parliament, Russia, too, expelled him, and in November he flew to Rome. He was arrested, and then released, while an Italian court weighed extradition requests from Turkey and Germany, where he is also wanted in connection with terrorist attacks. The court concluded that under the Italian constitution it could not return Ocalan to any country, including Turkey, which imposed a death sentence. Germany then refused to take him, fearing reprisals from its 500,000 Kurdish residents. He left Italy and tried to enter France, Germany and the Netherlands but was refused.
On Feb. 1, he made his way to the Greek island of Corfu and was flown out the next day to Nairobi on a private jet. In a statement on Feb. 13, Ocalan pleaded for asylum and promised that the PKK would lay down its arms if the European Union would help negotiate an end to the conflict. But events were moving too quickly.
Just what happened before Ocalan's capture remains clouded. Turkey hinted that a second country may have been involved in helping find him. Many Kurds believed that American and Mossad agents may have tipped off the Turks in exchange for Turkey's support of the U.S. effort to contain Iraq; Israel issued a strong denial, but Washington merely said it was not "directly" involved. The Greek government admitted it had sheltered Ocalan in its Nairobi Embassy, but Greek Ambassador Giorgos Kostoulas said that before his staff could move Ocalan to a new location, he became anxious and wanted to fly to the Netherlands. While the exact details have yet to emerge, soon after leaving the embassy in a car bound for the airport, he was caught by the Turkish agents. "He did this on his own and against our advice," added Foreign Minister Pangalos, before his resignation.
Ocalan's capture may prove to be a diplomatic nightmare for Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. The guerrilla leader was taken to a prison on the island of Imrali, off the coast of Turkey. All other inmates were removed before his arrival and he will be held there until his trial before a military-run court. Diplomats assumed he was being interrogated, and Canada and several European countries said they wanted to ensure he has a fair trial and is not tortured. Germany formally requested observer status at his hearings. Turkey, however, took a tough line. "The trial won't last long," said Ecevit, "because the crimes of the PKK's leadership are well known."
That stance, however, will not endear Turkey to the European Union, which it dearly wants to join. Ankara's treatment of the Kurdish minority has been a key reason for the consistent rejection of its application for membership. Yet with Ocalan out of the way, there may be more scope for a solution to the Kurdish problem. "The struggle is not about separatism - it's about identity," argues Abdulmelek Firat, whose moderate group DEMOS favours a peaceful solution. "Even most of those who go to the mountains aren't fighting because they want a separate state. They want to be acknowledged as Kurds." That, at least, would be a useful first step.
Where the Kurds Are
Turkey; 12 million
Iran; 6 million
Iraq; 4.5 million
Syria; 1.2 million
Maclean's March 1, 1999