The new face of the Kurdish rebel fight in Turkey could easily be Zeynep, a thirty-year-old university graduate with a full-time management job in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish southeast. Born in Bingol Province, in the mountains where rebels of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) regularly battle Turkish soldiers, she moved to western Turkey for university. There, she joined a Kurdish student youth group. Someone from the PKK came and told the students that they weren’t needed in the mountains to fight. “We were told, ‘Stay where you are, because you are more useful in the legal and civil areas. The mountains are full.’”
This made a lot of sense to Zeynep (not her real name). The rebel war had just been suspended by imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured in 1999 after being force to flee his haven in Syria, so there wasn’t much need for more fighters. And anyway, it wouldn’t have occurred to her to question the PKK, which had launched its armed struggle in 1984 when she was two years old and was part of the mythology of her youth: “For me, history started with the PKK. If it wasn’t for people going to the mountains to fight, we wouldn’t have anything. But things changed and it was clear at a certain point that some new mechanisms were needed.”
Nearly thirty years after the PKK, which the US and EU list as a terrorist group, launched a guerrilla war to wrest control of the Kurdish region from Turkish rule, the battle with the Turkish state has been increasingly channeled into the legal and political arenas. PKK rebels haven’t given up fighting—according to official figures, more than three hundred rebels and close to one hundred Turkish soldiers have died in fighting since February and, over the summer, rebels held their ground for almost three weeks against Turkish troops in Hakkari Province. But the PKK knows its demands will not be won solely through arms. This is why the group has spent the past decade carefully working to assert itself as a political organization. Where it once sought to direct all political and cultural activism toward support for the rebel war—be it by raising money for the guerrillas or encouraging new military recruits—the PKK now understands the importance of the political battlefield.