A coffin heading for burial, containing the body of a Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) member… and then the funeral exploded into pandemonium in Cizre, southeast Turkey… Last year saw many deaths in fighting between PKK militia and the Turkish army, in the region where most of the population are Kurds.
Ankara has been battling the rebels for 28 years. Estimates of the death toll are as high as 45,000. But no matter what Turkey threw at them, it never managed to stifle demonstrations or to neutralise PKK guerrillas.
The Kurdistan Worker’s Party is considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union, (though by no means all its members), the United States, the United Nations and NATO. It was founded by Abdullah Ocalan and others to work towards an independent Kurdish state in the southeast of Turkey. It says it has some 7,000 men and women under arms today.
In Turkey, 12 million Kurds make up 20 percent of the whole country’s population. The Kurds form a majority in northern Iraq, where, since the 1991 Gulf War, they have been largely autonomous. Others live in Syria and Iran.
Ocalan the PKK leader was abducted by Turkish special forces in Kenya in 1999, and flown to stand trial in Turkey.
He was convicted of treason and sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment.
Several unilateral cease-fires called by the PKK failed to bring a sustainable peace, but since last October there have been more encouraging negotiations between the Turkish government and the organisation’s leadership.
From his island prison in the Sea of Marmara just days ago, Ocalan sent a message, conveyed publicly by the head of the pro-Kurdish Party for Peace and Democracy.
Selahattin Demirtas read out: “The solution process is developing positively. Our aim is to make Turkey democratic. To serve this purpose, I am preparing an announcement on 21 March – a historic call.”
As a humanitarian gesture and proof of good will, the PKK said, last week it released eight prisoners – six soldiers, a policeman and a civil servant.
The Kurds are no longer demanding their own separate state, but broader political and cultural autonomy.