x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Dreaming and fighting, the Kurdish guerillas who say 'to be free you must accept suffering'

The Marxist guerrillas of the PJAK, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, dream of 'total decentralisation of power' to Kurds in Iran, but also a region built on socialist principles.

Shamal Bishir (left) and Shirzad Kamangar, members of the guerrilla group PJAK (Party of Free Life in Kurdistan), at the group's base in Iraq, from which it launches what it calls 'defensive' military campaigns in Iran.
Shamal Bishir (left) and Shirzad Kamangar, members of the guerrilla group PJAK (Party of Free Life in Kurdistan), at the group's base in Iraq, from which it launches what it calls 'defensive' military campaigns in Iran.
QANDIL MOUNTAINS // Shamal Bishir does not think of himself as a terrorist. The fresh-faced, sturdy 27-year-old Kurd sees himself as part freedom fighter and part utopian: a man struggling to build a new society for himself and his people.

He has come a long way to be here. Two years ago he left his family in Sweden to join the Marxist guerrillas of the PJAK, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan. He had been involved in fund raising for the group among the Kurdish diaspora in Europe when he decided he wanted to do more.

Now he spends his days in military training or out on patrol among the soaring peaks and lush, green valleys of the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, near the borders with Iran.

Members of the group shy from questions about their military activities, but reveal details of their other tasks. Shamal has used his language skills as a translator.

Shamal's dream is not only of "total decentralisation of power" to Kurds in Iran, but also a region built on socialist principles.

At times, when the Iranian air force attacks the high valleys and mountain passes, he shelters with his fellow guerrillas among the local farmers in their stone houses in the hamlets cut into the valley sides.

"To reach freedom in the Middle East, it takes suffering," Shamal says, his utopian ideals intact despite two tough years in the mountains.

Some in the outside world, however, would view Shamal simply as a terrorist. The PJAK is the sister organisation of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been responsible for untold deaths and many outrages in Turkey.

It claims to operate only in the Kurdish region of Iran and only against military targets. Iran classifies the group as a terrorist organisation, and, since 2009, so does the United States. "The PJAK is controlled by the leadership of the PKK and receives orders and personnel from the main organisation," according to a State Department spokesman.

But PJAK leaders contend that unlike the PKK, they never target civilians or engage in random violence. And it appears there is no evidence they ever have.

PJAK's claim that it has never harmed civilians "has been reluctantly endorsed by the Iranian government; although it describes PJAK as a 'terrorist group,' it has never accused them of attacking civilians", according to the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, DC foreign-policy research group.

The guerrillas, however, accuse the Iranian government of arbitrary arrest, torture, execution and cultural assimilation of the world's second largest Kurdish population after Turkey. Iran is home to almost 7 million Kurds.

The PJAK'S estimated 3,000 members (the organisation does not reveal details of its numerical strength) undergo two months basic military training and its armed wing, the East Kurdistan Defence Forces, regularly conducts missions across the Iranian border.

Iranian Kurds are the majority of the members, while Kurds from Turkey, Iraq, Syria and the diaspora are also among the ranks, the group says. It claims that Arabs, Baluchis and even Persians have also joined its cause to establish a "radical democracy" in Iran.

The group believes authoritarian rule has ruined Iran's development and that decentralising power to the country's ethnic groups is the solution.

It calls for a "peaceful and democratic solution" to the Kurdish issue and advocates freedom of speech and assembly. It says Tehran must recognise the country's diverse linguistic heritage, release political prisoners and annul the death penalty.

The PJAK says it has more than 100 stone huts studded across the rolling mountains.

Outside one hut, Shirzad Kamangar, a member of the co-ordinating committee, sets out the organisation's creed: "We believe in socialism's ideas: equality, freedom and society without any kinds of classes," he says.

When not engaged in military activities, the guerrillas could be confused with some kind of hippy commune.

As Mr Kamangar spoke, three women volunteers dig through the soil to build an irrigation channel for a vegetable patch and spices, which they dry on sheets in the sun. The group extracts what it can from nature, including electricity via a hydroelectric generator, and imports rice, cigarettes and technology.

The mostly vegetarian diet is sometimes complemented with the meat of wild boars that they kill.

"We don't see the nation-state as our solution. It can't realise our goals," Mr Kamangar said.

The organisation believes in establishing a "democratic confederacy" in Iran, a government where all strands of society, including women and youths, are involved in the democratic process.

Mr Kamangar admits that the PJAK and the PKK are "friends" but claims that the two are entirely separate, although they share the same leader, the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan, because he is the "leader of all the Kurds".

However, the PKK's base also is in the Qandil mountains and visitors have to cross a PKK military checkpoint to reach PJAK territory.

Although the PJAK is now proscribed by the US as a terrorist organisation, in the past, American politicians and journalists - and the government in Tehran - have accused Washington of providing it with covert support to enable it to operate against Iran.

The PJAK denies the claim. "Not only the funding but also the heart and the life of the movement are from Kurdish people all over the world," Mr Kamangar said.

There have also been accusations that the government of Iraqi Kurdistan gives tacit approval for the PJAK bases in its region.

Khalid-Saeed Twafiq, a political-science professor at Salahaddin University, agrees that the border region is difficult to control, but added that Iraqi Kurds believe it is the regional government's moral responsibility to provide refuge for oppressed Kurds from anywhere in the world.

"Kurdish people who feel in danger and cannot go abroad come here. It's open for them," Mr Twafiq said.

The PJAK says 324 of its members are in Iranian prisons, seven have been executed by Iran and another 10 are on death row. Others killed in bombardments have been buried in a graveyard on the mountain slopes. The death toll has made the guerrillas weary but they remain unbowed.

They adhere to a strict code of military readiness, shun marriage and alcohol, patrol the punishing mountains and often sleep in the wild.

"I've lost so many friends," said one of the guerrillas, who asked to remain anonymous, "but we are all fighters here.

"The people don't like fighting," he said, "but it's like when you disturb a sleeping dog."