PKK defiant over long war with Turkey

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Media captionTurks wage intense offensive against PKK in regions that declared "self-determination"

Mild-mannered and polite, the young man with the nom de guerre Sinjar asked us how we liked our tea, with sugar or without? To his small band of guerrillas, he was the local commander whose word was law. To the Turkish government, Sinjar represented the enemy within, a leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which it has vowed to destroy.

Since mid-December, the Turkish military has intensified its campaign against PKK separatist militants, focusing on those towns and cities in predominantly Kurdish south-eastern Turkey that declared "self-determination".

Last September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his troops had killed more than 2,000 PKK militants, but the group seems as resilient as ever.

Sinjar told the BBC: "This is war orchestrated personally by Turkey's President Erdogan.

"We know the state's mentality from years of bitter experience.

"The Kurds have been here for centuries.

"This is now the 21st Century, and there's actually supposed be something called 'democracy' and the government's not going to be able finish the Kurds by killing them."

Image caption A woman mourns for her dead son, a suspected PKK fighter, having just heard that his body has been recovered from the streets of the Sur district of central Diyarbakir

He said the PKK would not stop fighting until it had achieved its objectives, a separate state with its own parliament in a Turkish federation.

The PKK has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by many countries, as well as international organisations including Nato and the European Union.

A two-and-a-half-year ceasefire broke down last year, following national elections in June 2015. But Sinjar denied the PKK were terrorists.

"The war's been going on for years, but the world didn't know what was going on or understand what was happening here," he said

"People talked about the Arab Spring and what happened in the Middle East and how people were just claiming their rights.

"But people don't apply that to the Kurdish people and their demand for human rights.

"No-one can choose what they are, and we are Kurds.

"Please, don't not forget… this war has been going on for 40 years.

"People should stop thinking about us as terrorists.

"We are not terrorists.

"We are just people who want their human rights."

Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK):

  • The group, which has Marxist-Leninist roots, was formed in the late 1970s
  • It launched an armed struggle against the Turkish government in 1984, calling for an independent Kurdish state within Turkey
  • Since then, more than 40,000 people have died. During the conflict, which reached a peak in the mid-1990s, thousands of villages were destroyed in the largely Kurdish south-east and east of Turkey, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled to cities in other parts of the country
  • In the 1990s, the organisation rolled back on its demands for an independent Kurdish state, calling instead for more autonomy for the Kurds
  • It suffered a major blow in 1999, when its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was arrested and jailed for treason
  • In March 2013, he called a ceasefire and urged PKK forces to withdraw from Turkey
  • The ceasefire appeared to be over in July 2015 when Turkey launched air strikes against PKK camps in northern Iraq

Tensions increased significantly back in August, when a number of predominantly Kurdish cities in south-east Turkey declared "self-determination".

Later, an umbrella group that encompassed the PKK announced the establishment of people's assemblies in the Silopi, Cizre, Nusaybin and Sirnak areas and declared they would:

  • not recognise any state institution
  • declare self-governance
  • "exercise their legitimate right to self-defence if [their] self-governance is attacked"

The declaration led to the arrest of local Kurdish officials, including Sara Kaya, the joint mayor of the southern city of Nusaybin, on the Syrian border.

She has since been disqualified from holding office and charged with supporting terrorism and provoking the people.

Currently out on bail, she told the BBC: "I am not a member of any terrorist organisation, but I have been accused of supporting terrorism and of provoking the people.

"I have had my passport taken away. And, twice a week, as part of my bail conditions, I have to go to the local police station and sign a form.

"No matter what happens, I will be here with my people. Please explain to people I was never involved in any violence. We haven't done anything wrong."

Image caption Diyarbakir, the Kurd capital in south-east Turkey

But Ravza Kavakci Kan, a prominent MP in Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, told the BBC: "The reason is terrorism. Turkey, just like many other countries, has been dealing with the horrible effects of terrorism.

"And it's not only PKK terror, it's also other organisations like Daesh [the so-called Islamic State group]. That is the reason why right now, there are military operations continuing in some of our towns and cities. Especially after the 7 June elections last year, the PKK started killing men, women and children. That is the reason for the military offensive."

She added that political solutions were reached through democracy and not terror.

Dr Kavakci Kan acknowledged that in the past Turkey had mistreated minorities, including the Kurds. But she insisted there had been a huge improvement in the rights of the Kurds, particularly since 2002, when the AKP first took power in elections.

Image caption Barricades with sandbags in the city of Nusaybin, on the Syrian-Turkish border

"Kurdish citizens who were not able to speak their own language can now speak their own language," she said.

"There is now more freedom of speech and of the press. In many areas, we all have more freedom of expression of speech than we could have ever imagined. Through the democratisation process, they are treated as equals in Turkey."

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