Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan bear brunt of PKK's insurgency against Turkey*

Perched in the family home of Omar Ismail is a photo of one of his sons, Dimokrat, wielding a heavy machinegun during the war against ISIS in northern Iraq in 2014.

Dimokrat volunteered with the Peshmerga, the armed forces of Iraq's Kurdish region, as the extremist group rapidly gained territory throughout the country and Syria. He survived the war to liberate Iraqi territory from ISIS and returned to civilian life, only to be killed in 2020 by a Turkish drone strike in his hometown of Sheladiz, in the mountainous far north of the Kurdish region, close to the border with Turkey.
He is one of many civilian casualties in the decades-long conflict between Turkey – one of Nato's most powerful members – and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an armed rebel group established in 1978 that says it seeks the independence of Kurds but is designated a terrorist organisation by Ankara, the EU, and the US.
The PKK has waged an armed insurgency against Ankara since 1984, largely from the mountains of Iraq's Kurdish region and south-eastern Turkey. After the collapse of numerous ceasefires between Turkey and the PKK, Ankara has increased the intensity of the war in recent years. Turkish outposts and bases dot the country's border with Iraq and the PKK has been pushed further underground due to increased bombardment.
The conflict has hit several towns hard, including Sheladiz, which is hemmed in by mountains. The PKK is believed to be in the valleys on one side of the town, its members using a series of tunnels and caves they have operated in for years, while Turkish military positions overlook the other side.
Dimokrat's father, Omar Ismail, and his eldest brother, Farsat Omar, also served in the Peshmerga.
“He came and joined the Peshmerga voluntarily,” says Mr Omar, who is still a force member.
Mr Ismail, now retired, has 10 sons and three daughters and lives with his wife, Gorch Ahmed. Joining the Peshmerga is one of the few ways for people in the economically deprived region to make a living and support a family.
About 30 million Kurds live in the Middle East, mainly in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They are one of the world’s largest peoples without a state.

A town held captive
Dimokrat's hometown of Sheladiz is not the only town at the forefront of the conflict.
Mohammad Taha, a retired Peshmerga member who lives in Deraluk, a town about 15km west of Sheladiz, is among those affected by the conflict. Initially calm, it does not take much for Mr Taha to break down as he talks about the disappearance of his son, Redar.
Redar planned a fishing trip with three friends at a nearby gorge, “despite me telling him before not to go there”, Mr Taha says. The area was hit by an air strike, and family members who travelled to the site were told by the PKK that two people were killed and two injured. But only two bodies were found: Redar and one of his friends are still missing.
“Until now, we cannot find them,” Mr Taha says. “The KDP [ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party] is saying they were injured and taken by the PKK, but we have spoken to the PKK and they say they are not with them. They are missing.”
Mr Taha, a father of seven, says “we have a funeral every day at home”.
“Every time I remember him, me and my wife start to cry."
As he spoke, smoke spiralled upwards from a rugged, vegetated slope near the town, marking the location of another drone strike by Turkey.
On top of the string of peaks closest to Deraluk, locals point to what they say are relatively new outposts erected by Turkey's military. Stuck in between are the residents of Deraluk who witness the daily air strikes. They have few economic opportunities and can no longer visit the mountains, where they once loved to spend time.
“Now we can’t even get out of the streets and go to the mountains,” says Barzan Jalal Nooraldin, 30, from his family home in the town.
Mr Nooraldin says the informal “green zone” areas, where civilians should theoretically be safe from Turkish areas of operation, are getting “smaller and smaller". He adds that “it's all because of Turkey and the PKK. Before, it was much better; people were much happier, and they could go to the mountains. Now, we are very restricted”.
“The atmosphere in the town makes people feel they cannot breathe, they cannot go anywhere, like they are in a prison. Especially in this area, the situation is very tense; it’s every day that they bomb the PKK,” explains Mr Nooraldin.

Displaced for decades
Grasping his staff, Sheikh Tahir Mohammad Hashim points to the mountains facing Deraluk, naming each village and the tribes that once lived there. The 81-year-old mosque imam comes from Rashava, a village directly behind the peaks he was gesturing at.
“We are all from the villages behind there,” he says, surrounded by fellow worshippers after leaving Deraluk's mosque.
“We can see every day air strikes hitting this mountain. Behind this mountain are all the villages of the different tribes,” he adds as he traces a line with his cane at the peaks only a few kilometres away.
He has seen a lot over the years, but not in his own village. His is one of about 200 villages in the border region to have been evacuated. He left Rashava in 1979 and has only been back twice since.
“Last time I went there, I cried because I couldn’t recognise anywhere in my village. It was all destroyed. I love my village,” he explains. “Kurdistan is gold, but it is not secure. We Kurds have been through a lot of bad times, from the past regime until now, we are suffering."

A complicated relationship with the PKK
The impact of the conflict has hardened local attitudes towards the PKK.
While many expressed sympathy for Turkish Kurds and criticised the Turkish military strikes, they decried the PKK for bringing with it what they see as a foreign conflict that has forced them from their homes.
Mr Taha, the former Peshmerga soldier whose son disappeared after a Turkish drone strike in January 2019, says that “at the beginning we saw the PKK as Kurds, as friends, as Kurds from Turkey. But now they basically came, brought their fight to our villages, to our areas, to our land. Now I cannot go to my village”.
According to Farhad Mahmoud, the mayor of the border town of Batifa, it is particularly dangerous at night because this is when the PKK is most active. While Turkey has advanced technology, the darkness still makes it comparatively easy for the armed organisation to make moves.
“We ask for people to take their fight out of our land and homes. We feel humiliated; we are the only ones who are suffering the real harm. Our people cannot go back to their villages, and it is affecting our people a lot,” says Mr Mahmoud.
He comes from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the autonomous region's largest party and the senior partner in the local government. It is known for holding much stronger anti-PKK views.
“The PKK would serve Kurdish interests if they went far from civilians, went far from our homes and villages, so people can go back. This is how they can serve the Kurds' interests. But now I don't THINK they are serving our interests,” says Mr Mahmoud.
This sentiment is echoed by Mr Tahir.
“At the beginning, when the PKK came, we didn’t have any problem with them because they are also Kurds," he says. "But now it’s not like before. As you see people are getting harmed because of the PKK.”
* By Jamie Prentis
The National News

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