In her latest analysis, Fréderike Geerdink explores the symbolic significance of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s isolation, drawing parallels with the broader Kurdish struggle in Turkey. She underscores the strategic importance of focusing on Öcalan’s freedom as a catalyst for a democratic resolution to the Kurdish issue, likening his situation to Nelson Mandela’s.
It’s been four years this week that PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan hasn’t been in touch with his lawyers, and two years since also his family hasn’t been allowed to contact or visit him. This is not only a violation of the fundamental rights that every prisoner has but also a form of torture, and on top of that a direct danger for the whole of the Kurdish people. That may sound as an exaggeration, but it is not. For many Kurds, Öcalan’s freedom is directly connected to theirs.
If you follow the Kurdish political movement, it must have drawn your attention that the main focus of the struggle is the freedom of Öcalan. At rallies, for example of the Kurdish community in Europe, flags with his portrait are always seen and there are petitions going around that call for his freedom. Some of the slogans are also connected to him, for example Bê Serok jiyan nabe, meaning: There is no life without the leader.
Why is he so important? Just because he is the founder of the PKK? Well, that’s part of it. But he’s not ‘just’ the founder of the PKK. In the 1970s, when the PKK was founded, there hadn’t been a significant Kurdish uprising or resistance in Turkey for decades. Forced assimilation policies of the Turkish state were in full force, and they were so successful that many Kurds weren’t even aware of their Kurdish identity anymore. The foundation of the PKK in 1978 and start of the armed struggle in 1984, changed that. The Kurdish identity was awakened again.
How important he is, became very clear in 1999, when he was kidnapped in Nairobi, Kenya, in an international conspiracy and brought to Turkey to be imprisoned on Imralı island, where he is still locked up. It was a total shock for the Kurdish community in Turkey and it triggered an increase in the number of young Kurds who decided to join the PKK.
But what is Öcalan’s importance now? He may have started it all, but that was 45 years ago, right? New leaders emerged, again a new generation is standing up to take the struggle further into the future, so isn’t it time to not focus on Öcalan anymore? What is it about him that the movement insists on his freedom, while it doesn’t even seem very likely that he will be freed any time soon? Why focus on an unrealistic goal? Let me explain, because this is where it gets really interesting.
Firstly, his release from prison is only unrealistic as long as it doesn’t happen. Once the tide changes, developments can go very fast and he may actually leave the prison on Imralı island as a free man. And that’s exactly what the focus on Öcalan’s freedom is intended to set in motion: a political process that leads to a democratic, sustainable solution of the Kurdish issue. Part of that solution must be that standing up for Kurdish rights, even armed, will no longer be seen as ‘terrorism’ but as a legitimate struggle for basic human rights. If that change of approach is made, Öcalan will also not be seen as a ‘terrorist’ anymore, but as the leader of a justified struggle. Only then, he can be a free man.
There are new leaders and some of them are in prison in Turkey too, but their freedom isn’t so inextricably connected to the fate of the Kurdish people as Öcalan’s situation is. These new leaders, you could say, are all children of the movement Öcalan started: they wouldn’t have emerged without Öcalan.
I hesitate to make the comparison to Nelson Mandela because we don’t know if Öcalan is a leader like Mandela used to be, but there is one quote from Mandela that is very telling, and that helps to explain Öcalan’s importance and totally justifies the focus on him. Mandela had been offered freedom by president Botha in exchange for renouncing violence, but he refused, saying: “Let him renounce violence.” And eventually, that is what happened: Mandela only accepted his freedom when it was clear that apartheid was dead. This is the same with Öcalan. He would refuse to be freed in a Turkey that hasn’t solved its Kurdish issue via democratic ways. Only when the Kurdish issue is solved, he would leave his prison cell and any other offer he’d refuse.
His freedom, in other words, is directly connected to the freedom of the Kurds. That he has been in solitary confinement again without even having access to his lawyers and family, is equally exemplary for the current political situation in Turkey: the day Öcalan leaves prison is, or seems, as far out of sight as the solution of the Kurdish issue is. Öcalan’s situation is a direct reflection of the situation of all Kurds in Turkey. His freedom matters because the freedom of the Kurds matters.
Ever since I fully grasp this, I understand the focus on Öcalan. I understand that the slogan Be Serok jiyan nabe must be taken very literally. Breaking the isolation Öcalan is in now, would mean a first step towards his freedom and towards a democratic Turkey. It’s crucial for the survival of the Kurds.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist.