History of the PKK’s Armed Struggle

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The revolution in Rojava would not be possible with out the years of resistance, experiences and the ideological works of Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. That’s why, as revolutionaries in Rojava, we have to know the history if the Kurdish struggle, from there first days on. The 15th of August is a meaningful day to talk about this history. The 15th marked the beginning of the armed struggle…

First published in Stêrka Ciwan (Youth Magazine)


PART I – History of the PKK’s Armed Struggle

There are many milestones in the history of PKK, which began as the story of the Kurds rising up against their colonizers. Of course, the PKK today stands for much more than only the liberation of Kurdish people and Kurdistan from their oppressors and occupiers. Rêber APO’s paradigm shifting restructuring of PKK for the creation of a revolutionary society based on the principles of democracy, ecology and woman’s liberation means PKK can no longer be satisfied with national liberation. The heroic struggles and sacrifices of the pioneers of this movement have already ensured that PKK will continue its triumphant march and remain invincible. The Kurds’ struggle for a life liberated from patriarchy, nation-states and capitalism in Kurdistan and the Middle East plays an indispensable and central role for the liberation of peoples from the same illnesses elsewhere in the world. On this journey, there is one thing no revolutionary may ever forget; no victory without armed struggle. 15 August 1984, remembered in Kurdistan as the day of the ‘first bullet’, is one of those milestones that deserves revisiting.

12 September 1980

PKK was founded on 27 November 1978 in Amed. Although it was not yet publicly declared, the Turkish state was aware of this development and its potential consequences for Kurdistan they had colonized. One month later, on 19 December, one of the most brutal massacres in Turkish history took place in Mereş, where the people had a great deal of sympathy to the young revolutionaries then known as ‘Apoists’. Led and guided by the Grey Wolves, the youth wing of the racist MHP, the fascists and the jihadists attacked the Alevite Kurdish population for a whole week without any resistance from the police or the gendarmerie. The state took advantage of the public reaction to the massacre, which was organized and perpetrated by the extralegal Özel Harp Dairesi (The Special Warfare Department) deep within the state, to declare martial law in Kurdistan and few other cities. Rêber APO saw this as the state’s response to the creation of the Party, and the first sign that a military coup was in sight. In less than two years, on 12 September 1980, the Turkish military took control with a coup. Although several of the Party cadres, militants and sympathizers were arrested, Rêber APO managed to remove many of them abroad before the fascist military coup took place. This move gave them a chance to protect themselves and organize for an armed struggle.

In what followed, an unprecedented wave of arrests wiped out all the political movements, parties and organizations critical of the state. More than 650,000 arrests ensured that there could be no immediate resistance to the fascist coup inside the country. Those who could make it abroad faced two options; flee and never look back or flee and organize to come back and take revenge. What separated Rêber APO and PKK from the leaders and the movements that got eliminated by the coup was that they chose the second option. From the day they left the country, they worked on a strong comeback. They took their inspiration from the heroic resistance of the PKK cadres in Diyarbakır Dungeon against brutal torture, degradation and annihilation. Above all, against betrayal.

The fascist military coup was aimed particularly at the Kurdish Freedom Movement and the hope it gave to the people. What people went through in Kurdistan in the aftermath of the coup, systematic and dehumanizing torture in the infamous Diyarbakır Dungeon bear witness to this fact. Let alone sympathizing with PKK, simply being Kurdish was enough reason to be tortured in the most violent ways imaginable. Entire Kurdistan was turned into an open air prison, and the Diyarbakır Dungeon was built with the sole aim of annihilating PKK and any hope of resistance to the coup. The specific inner design of the prison building along with the rules imposed on prisoners, the personnel specifically chosen for the job and the city it was built in gave a clear message; PKK was to be destroyed where it was born. As the fascist lieutenant, responsible for the torture inflicted upon the Greek captives during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and appointed directly by the putchist army general Kenan Evren to Diyarbakır Dungeon, arrived at the prison, he made it very clear to the prisoners:

“I am lieutenant Esat Oktay Yıldıran, the Chief of Inner Security at Diyarbakır Military Prison. You, listen to me carefully. This prison has rules. You will obey these rules. This is not a simple prison, but a military school. If you obey the rules, you will make yourself comfortable here. If you obey the rules, the state will let you live. If you obey the rules, all your needs will be provided for. Such deviant ideas as communism, Marxism, socialism and Kurdishness, you will root out of your head. If you do not, I know how to root them out. You have three days.”

Mazlum Doğan

His mission was plain and clear; every single one of the prisoners had to be brought to their knees and betray their cause. Only then could the hope created be destroyed. Several prisoners indeed could not resist the torture anymore and accepted the prison rules, several others even betrayed and told on their comrades. The group that kept resisting got smaller day by day. The leading cadres in the prison saw that the state of affairs was going from bad to worse, and the means with which they could resist this trend were almost non-existent. But one act turned everything around. Just as the sun rises in the darkest hour, on 21 March 1982, Mazlum Doğan, member of PKK central committee and one of the leaders of the resistance, lit three matches and hanged himself in his cell. Mazlum Doğan’s celebration of Newroz was a clear message to all the prisoners; “Surrender leads to betrayal, resistance to victory.”
A deep shock affected the entire prison. Mazlum Doğan was loved by every one of them, he was the soul of resistance against a system of torture aimed at dehumanization of anybody who resisted. His act was the beginning of a new era in the prison. There was only one honorable way out of there, and that was following him. Two months later, on the anniversary of Haki Karer’s murder, four of his comrades flared up the Newroz fire Mazlum Doğan has kindled. Ferhat Kurtay, Necmi Öner, Mahmut Zengin and Eşref Anyık painted Mazlum Doğan’s portrait on the wall of their ward, and set their bodies on fire in front of it. As they set the fire on, they started shouting “Down with colonialism!” all together. Their inmates woke up to the smoke and the sounds and tried to put off the fire. Coming out of the fire, the voice of Ferhat Kurtay intervened with all his determination and it became clear to all others who just woke up to witness their historic action: “Don’t pour water! Putting off the fire is betrayal! This is an action, make the fire stronger!”

In the dungeon, resistance was becoming an option again. Resistance was not only against unbearable torture at the hands of the enemy, but also to betrayal. Prior to the coup, PKK was well on its way to trigger a popular uprising in Kurdistan against the collaborators consisting mainly of the feudal lords and the religious leaders, the armed forces of the colonizers and ultimately the occupying Turkish state with all of its institutions. All other insurrections and rebellions in the Kurdish history had failed; another failure could mean that it would not be possible to speak of Kurds and their identity again. The revolutionaries entered the dungeon as pioneers of an awakening in Kurdistan, which was a huge threat to the fascist Turkish state that was built on the colonization and exploitation of Kurdistan. At the same time, it was a threat to the racist Turkish identity, which was built on the denial and destruction of the Kurdish identity. The dungeon had the mission of making all of the prisoners regret and renounce what they did and come out of it as convinced Kemalists and proud Turks. For PKK cadres and militants it meant betrayal to their ideology, martyrs, Party and people. Torture was designed in such a way that betrayal was made to be the only option out of it. That’s why Mazlum Doğan’s action was a turning point; he showed another way out, and the others responded to his call. All of the prisoners were now under the influence of Mazlum Doğan’s and the others’ actions, and waiting for somebody to start a greater resistance across the prison. Now it was time to organize the resistance in the entire prison.

On 14 July 1982, while attending one of the mock trials out of the prison, Hayri Durmuş, member of PKK central committee and the influential leader of resistance, insistently asked to speak at the court. When he was allowed to speak, he said: “I speak in the name of the struggle for freedom. As a freedom fighter of my people, in order to protest your savage practices, I am starting a death fast from now on.” Five others in the court room declared immediately that they are joining him in the death fast. In the following days, their numbers increased and the Great Death Fast Resistance brought Esat Oktay Yıldıran and his systematic torture, his fascist generals and the military regime down to their knees. The individual resistance action of Mazlum Doğan turned into a prison-wide organized resistance when Hayri Durmuş entered death fast and others joined him. In the court room, Hayri Durmuş ended his speech with the following words: “Those who say they will fight for this people must base their fight on armed struggle. Without an armed resistance, colonialism can never be defeated.”

In the dungeon, PKK learned the reality of the enemy with all its brutality. This was a call to begin the armed struggle Rêber APO had been planning. His call was heard and responded to on 15 August 1984.

PART II – History of the PKK’s Armed Struggle

The PKK emerged as a national liberation movement that based its ideology on a powerful thesis: Kurdistan is a colony. Although this was a common argument among all national liberation movements around the world, it proved to be a groundbreaking development in Kurdistan. At the time, the prevailing circumstances in Kurdistan (especially Northern Kurdistan) were characterized by self-denial. It was the outcome of a decades-long colonialist policy of assimilation aimed at the complete erasure of the Kurdish identity. Unlike other cases of colonization, which are usually more concerned with economic exploitation, Turkish colonization had and still has cultural colonization as a priority. Under these circumstances, armed struggle proved to be a deeply emancipating and empowering development for us. And it still is. That is why we celebrate 15 August as the Day of Resurrection.
The Kurdish situation until the first bullet
In 1923, the Lausanne Treaty left Kurdistan divided into four parts, coming under the hegemony of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, respectively. The consequences of this treaty were made further unbearable for the Kurds by another contingent situation. All four states were just in the process of building their own nation-states. This process required the creation of a new national identity in each of them. As the logic of the nation-state building requires, these new identities were inherently racist and promoted a single ethnicity, single language, single religion etc. at the expense of the historically cohabiting cultures in each of them. The result was Turkish, Persian and Arabic nationalisms that were inseparably tied with racism against members of other nations in those nation-states.
In Turkey, the process of nation-state building was particularly hostile to other identities. This process is full of brutal massacres and genocides, including the Armenian Genocide, the Assyrian Genocide, the Greek and Pontus Genocides and the Dersim Genocide. These events clearly demonstrate the nature of the state policy against the members of other nations in Turkey. The racist policy of the Turkish state can effectively be summarized by a quote from Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, who was one of the most influential Kemalist cadres in the early phase of the republic, the architect of the Turkish constitution and several times minister: “The Turk is the sole master of this land, its sole owner. Those who are not of the pure Turkish race have only one right; the right to be a servant, the right to be a slave. Let the friend and the enemy, even the mountains, know this to be the truth.”

Although the Kurds resisted to being denied their existence and the right to self-determination, which they thought was secured by their alliance with Mustafa Kemal during the Turkish War of Independence, it was not successful. Several rebellions, including the Sheikh Said Rebellion, Agirî Rebellion and Dersim Rebellion, emerged in the form of resistance to the Turkish attempts to enforce its colonial rule on Northern Kurdistan. The reason why all the rebellions failed was that they only remained regional and could not mobilize larger portions of the Kurdish population under the same banner. The absence of an influential leadership proved fatal. After the Dersim Genocide of 1938, Northern Kurdistan was practically under the Turkish occupation. The military occupation was further supplemented by political, economic and finally cultural occupation. New generations of the Kurdish youth were raised in colonial institutions as Turks and anything related to Kurdishness was banned from public life. The cultural and social occupation of Kurdistan was penetrating so deep into the Kurdish society that it started to be perceived as the natural state of affairs. The fact that the Turkish state was able to achieve this result in just a few decades has to do with the sheer brutality with which the Turkish identity was imposed on the Kurds. In the early 1970s, the end result of this process in Northern Kurdistan was a silenced nation, on the brink of cultural extinction. The Kurds were afraid of expressing themselves in their mother tongue and contradict official state policies. Even speaking about the massacres and genocides they only recently went through was regarded dangerous. Kurdistan was now a colony, but it was not perceived as such.

The extreme normalization of colonialism and the virtual disappearance of resistance to it make colonization in Kurdistan a unique case. No other national liberation movement, such as those in Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Palestine or South Africa, had to overcome the unique problem the PKK faced: a nation that was unaware of its existence. The PKK had to convince the Kurds that they are not Turks, but Kurds. That is why Rêber APO’s thesis that Kurdistan is a colony was so powerful. He rejected discussing whether the Kurds exist or not, instead he taught us how we came to deny our own existence. Rêber APO’s elaboration of colonialism in Kurdistan had an immanent consequence: without armed struggle, colonialism cannot be defeated.

The beginning of armed struggle

As we discussed in part I of this text, the PKK cadres who showed a heroic resistance in the Diyarbakır Dungeon pointed at the urgency of starting the armed struggle. The Great Death Fast Resistance tore apart the colonialists’ hopes of destroying the PKK in its birthplace. The resisters in the dungeon fulfilled their historical mission by defending their ideology under the most humiliating and dehumanizing tortures and gave a clear message to those who were outside: armed struggle had to start.
Rêber APO was able to move many of the PKK cadres out of Turkey right before the fascist coup took place. He contacted and established relations with Palestinian organizations, which provided the PKK with military training. In the Lebanese camps, Rêber APO started an intensive process of ideological and military training for the PKK members, parallel to the ongoing resistance in the dungeon. In 1982, while the Great Death Fast Resistance was unfolding, a historical decision was taken by the 2nd PKK Congress to return to Kurdistan and start the armed struggle against the colonial Turkish state. At a time that the military coup liquidated the entire Turkish and Kurdish left, the PKK was only getting started. After two years of preparation, on 15 August 1984, the PKK shot the first bullet not only on the colonialists. More importantly, it was at the same time a bullet fired at the Kurdish mindset that accepted colonialism.

How did it unfold?

Today, we celebrate the 15 August as the Day of Resurrection all over Kurdistan and abroad. 34 years ago, a small number of Kurdish guerrillas in Dihê (Turkish: Eruh) and Şemzînan targeted the colonizers of their people in a coordinated effort of armed attacks. The actions were planned to announce the creation of the Hêzên Rizgariya Kurdistan (HRK – Kurdistan Liberation Forces) in memory of the martyrs of the resistance in the dungeon. The founding declaration was printed in large numbers and distributed to the people by the guerrillas. The declaration explained why there was a need for an armed struggle and HRK: “The barbaric Turkish colonialism, which gained a fascist quality with the 12 September fascist military coup, started to implement its policy of repression and massacre at its most advanced level and with the most savage methods. It is very clear what the aims of the fascist colonialism and the future it envisions for our people are: destroy us as a nation and people under colonialist slavery, turn Kurdistan and the Kurdish people into parts of Turkey and the Turkish nation, make our people live as slaves serving their masters. Under the fascist colonialist hegemony, the national and social future of our people is in danger. There is no more a possibility for a humane and honorable life in Kurdistan. Today, it is an absolute and foremost human duty to stop this development. Under the circumstances of ongoing fascist colonialist war and massacre, our people do not have an option other than taking up arms and starting an armed struggle. Under these circumstances, in order to secure the national and social liberation of our people from fascist colonialism, to continue their struggle for creating an independent and free future with the means of arms, the Hêzên Rizgariya Kurdistan has been founded.”

The guerrillas had been preparing for this day for years. After the comrade responsible for informing the guerrillas about the plans for the 15 August arrived, the declaration was read all together. In his diary, Commander Egîd mentions the wave of impatient joy among the guerrillas at that very moment. He was going to be in charge of the 14 July Armed Propaganda Unit, established in memory of those who fell a martyr during the Great Death Fast Resistance. The target of his unit were the colonial institutions in the small town of Dihê. Two more such units were created. The 21 March Armed Propaganda Unit in memory of Mazlum Doğan, whose target was Şemzînan, and the 18 May Armed Propaganda Unit in memory of Haki Karer and the four who set themselves on fire in the dungeon, with its target being Şax. Out of the three planned attacks, only those in Dihê and Şemzînan actually took place, both at 21:30 on 15 August 1984. The attack in Dihê is more widely known than the one in Şemzînan for two reasons. First, Heval Egîd later became a legendary guerrilla commander for his military and ideological practice, and second, the guerrilla action in Dihê was more successful in reaching its aims.

Under Heval Egîd’s command, the guerrillas captured the military post with the soldiers inside in a relatively short time. Some soldiers actually told them they would like to join the guerrillas, but it was not accepted. In the meanwhile, the founding declaration of the HRK was being read with the loudspeakers of the mosque. In his diary, Commander Egîd explains that moment: “The comrade reading the founding declaration embedded parts of a poem into the declaration out of his excitement.” Shortly after that, after consulting with the townspeople, they opened the gates of the prison and liberated the prisoners, while the other guerrillas were distributing printed declarations and hanging banners in the local coffee houses. The guerrillas captured so many weapons and ammunition from the enemy that they also had to take a truck belonging to the colonial Road, Water and Electricity Directorate to load them. Two TV sets inside the military post, the car of the army general, a military truck, the government building, the bank and the post office were set on fire. After holding the town for a few hours, the unit under Heval Egîd’s command left for the mountains. The only problem they had was how to carry the heavy load of weapons they just captured. In the diary, Commander Egîd notes: “At that moment I was thinking to myself the following: The Eruh town, whose existence most people aren’t even aware of, will now be a place that everybody will know very well. And thus the Kurds will be talked about in the world.”
It was a historic day. Regarding its importance, Rêber APO made the following assessment in 1986:

“The 15 August Initiative, which was undertaken to carry the resistance forward and to keep its flag up high at all costs, added to our history new pages of resistance with deeper meanings. Henceforth, the prolonged people’s war and its heroes, whose grandeur set the agenda in Kurdistan, will have the say. From now on, every day and hour in this country will witness the epic of our national liberation war and its heroes unfolding.”