'More than any other people, I would have expected Israel to identify with us,' Murat Karayilan says in his first-ever interview with an Israeli journalist, to be broadcast by the television series 'Uvda.'
Haaretz - By Itai Anghel
"No photos. I say again." This was the only sentence he knew in English, this Kurdish soldier leading us on a mountainous path, amid trees and streams, to a meeting with someone whose identity we did not know, and about whom we were forbidden to ask.
He grabbed a branch and held it so as not to lose his balance, then led us over a rock that blocked the path. When he stood for a few seconds and his military jacket opened slightly, two grenades could be see on the belt with the red star sown on it. With his other hand, he tightened his gun belt and tugged it about his body before hopping over the obstacles. In spite of the effort needed to keep his balance, every few seconds he turned his head backward and looked at the camera I held in my hand. "No photos!"
I had no intention of taking photos, even though I really wanted to. Not because Iran was just three kilometers away, or because I was finally entering the well-guarded trails of the PKK guerrillas, but because it seemed a shame not to be able to photograph the amazing natural beauty. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen: enormous mountains that, had they not been on the bloody border of Iraq, Turkey and Iran, would certainly have been prime locations for tourists seeking natural beauty all over the world.
But taking a photograph here would expose the route used by the PKK. The mountain fighters in northern Iraq - Kurdistan, they hasten to correct me - have no permanent base. Every few days they shift their location to avoid giving the enemies who surround them on every side a chance to locate their positions.
The Iranians to the east, beyond the mountain, fire mortars at them, while the Turks to the west attack them with fighter-bombers and drones, with Israeli help. To the south, Saddam Hussein tried for decades to wipe them out in every possible way - sending an entire division of troops, bombing Halabja with chemical weapons - but to no avail. Al-Qaida is also interested in controlling this area, since it considers these Kurds utter heretics for trying to sever Kurdistan from Iraq.
But no one can subdue these mountain people. As far as the PKK is concerned, its only major defeat was the capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is now in a Turkish prison. That operation, too, involved assistance from Israeli intelligence, and I was still debating over whether it would be a good idea to tell the Kurdish commanders whom I was about to meet where I come from and where I live, or whether I should simply identify myself by my foreign passport.
I had asked the go-betweens who guided me on the five-hour trip to these mountains that I be given as much access as possible - namely, an interview with the current leader of the PKK, Murat Karayilan. They told me they didn't know, and it seemed unlikely to them, but I might be able to talk to one of his deputies. They were vague on that, too. No one outside these mountains is supposed to know what any of the senior commanders is planning to do at any given moment. And obviously no such information should be given to journalists - especially not a journalist from Israel, which has been screwing them over for years.
So I walked, breathing with difficulty in these mountains of northern Iraq, without knowing a thing: whether they knew who I was, whether they would let me turn my camera on, whether I was going to interview a senior commander or a lowly soldier, who perhaps would not show up because the situation was too dangerous, leaving me to try to come back another day. Or another year. They told me this, too, was a possibility.
I am in good shape, but the going was tough for me. I tried to imagine whether everyone walks and lives this way around here. Do the women, who fight just like the men? What about the older fighters? What about Murat Karayilan, who is already 67 years old? There is no transportation here. Everything is done on foot. Anyone living here must be in amazing shape.
It was 40 degrees Celsius there, but in two months, everything will be covered in snow and ice. I leaped over another stream, bent to avoid branches and got lost for a few seconds, until the soldier pulled me through an opening I had simply not seen. A new soldier suddenly stood before me.
Murat Karayilan! For a second, I was startled. Instead of being happy it was him, I froze entirely. In view of my low expectations of meeting him, this was a complete surprise. The number-one wanted man in both Turkey and Iran stood facing me with a smile. And what a calm smile it was. "I thank you for trekking all this way to come here," he said, pulling me out of my shock. "Please sit down. Drink something."
In contrast to his absolute calm, there were at least 20 bodyguards standing around, all very tense and nervous. Behind him, to the sides, in the stream down below and on the hill above us. All armed and ready. One, with a scar on his lip, a memento of a recent clash with Iranian troops, asked that I not use the wireless microphone on the camera. I explained that the quality of the sound would be affected. He apologized, but said any wireless equipment could be harmful to them.
I tried to calm him, telling him he had nothing to worry about because it only receives at a distance of several dozen meters. He smiled, raised his eyes and gestured toward the nearby mountain - beyond which is Iran. "Precisely," he said, and removed the battery from my equipment.
Only then, having caught my breath, did I begin to realize where I was. In retrospect, having visited the nearby Kurdish villages bombed by Turkish-Israeli drones, I do not understand why they agreed to let an Israeli with any sort of technological equipment get near them.
"You know," sighed Karayilan, "it is really a big mystery to me. Because more than any other people in the world, I would have expected Israel to understand and identify with us. After all, you, who have experienced the Holocaust, massacres, expulsions and persecution, now see our people, the Kurdish people, experiencing that same fate. Everyone in this area - Syrians, Turks and Iranians - wants and is trying to destroy us, and you, of all people, are the ones providing them with the weapons to destroy us."
For the interview, a few soldiers set up a table between the trees and stuck a flag with the PKK star into the ground. I decided to tell him who I was and told him about the television program, "Uvda" ("Fact" ), where I work. I saw no point in hiding being from Israel. The guards' faces stiffened, and I was not sure whether I was at fault, or whether that is the way they always look. But Karayilan smiled once more.
"Once we were friends," he said. "In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel went out of its way to assist the Kurds. We admired you. But since the 1980s, from the moment you tightened your relationship, and your military cooperation, with Turkey, you have been considered here to be among those who systematically assist in our oppression and eradication.
"What, is business everything? Everything? It is clear and natural to us that there should be relations between Israel and Turkey. Why not? But why should these relations come at our expense, at the expense of our lives? I wonder if Israelis are at all aware of the use that is made of the weapons and training they provide to Turkey."
In all the chaos of Iraq following the American withdrawal, the one significant development that has somehow been taking shape is Kurdish autonomy in the north. This new entity is making Iran, Syria and especially Turkey, with its population of more than 20 million Kurds, very nervous. The latter is concerned that the Kurds of southeastern Turkey will see autonomy for themselves as a natural extension of the success in neighboring Iraq.
The United States and the European Union are careful to pay lip service to Turkey by labeling the PKK as a terrorist organization. But for the vast majority of Kurds, the PKK is the group that has kept their nation alive, and its struggle is what will someday secure them a country of their own.
Karayilan found it bewildering that even after the May clash sparked by a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, Israel was still trying to reconcile with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"More than any other Turkish head of state, this prime minister, Erdogan, openly shows how he is tightening relations with Hezbollah and Syria," he said. "He hugs [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and praises Hamas. Are you sure this is your friend?"