while they weren’t paying attention, she slipped away!

i’ve been wanting to investigate the kurdish revolutionary militias which have been establishing liberated spaces in syria and iraq. it has been a difficult task, because i’ve seen some fairly critical articles about the kurdish revolutionary movement – which grew out of the communist PKK (kurdistan worker’s party) and their political gadfly, imprisoned leader,  Abdullah Öcalan 

the reason i have conflicted emotions about this is because i corresponded with PKK prisoners while i was incarcerated earlier this century.

turkish prisons have a reputation for brutality, as i’m sure many people know, and communist, ethnic minority, armed revolutionaries were dealt with particularly poorly. there were a lot of them, though, and through co-ordinated efforts, the prisoners were able to get the state to back off a little.

in retaliation, one or two leaders would be taken for “enhanced interrogation.” and prisoners the guards had grudges against as well. they came down particularly cruelly on the women POWs, though more men were outright killed, at first.

after i attempted to reach out to the kurdish POWs, they publicly announced they were going on a mass hunger strike. there was an international uproar, but only in the prisoner support movements. the liberal media sometimes mentioned the kurds, but not often, and the hunger strike went on largely under-reported. then they began to die.

usually in hunger strikes, when one of them dies,  enough people plead with the remaining hunger strikers to convince them to end their strike and live on. but the kurds did not, and they began to die by the dozens.

i was able to have a few exchanges with the PKK prisoners as they were dying (not the ones actually dying), and after they called off the hunger strike.

i’m still trying to work out what it was, but reading their propaganda – some of it in the form of comic books created by the POWs – changed me inside.

a few things i learned about them were uncomfortable and difficult for me to process. one was the devotion to ocalan, who they often wrote poetry about or dedicated it to. another uncomfortable revelation was how their leader was flirting with islam, so as to internationalize his people’s struggle more readily throughout the kurdish region, which sprawls across syria, turkey , iraq, and iran.


it was already apparent to me then that ocalan was firmly under the influence of his oppressors and likely highly isolated. as someone who had taken upon himself the task of bringing liberation and empowerment to his people, i’m sure he had to ponder the regional and geo-political forces at work in and around kurdistan, and at times had different ideas about what would be best, especially if he were to die inside – a possibility which was almost realized two times that i know of; food poisoning, and also due to a wound that became infected.

in the end i decided it was not my place to criticize someone who was experiencing a level of oppression far greater than i’m ever likely to face – and this while i was in a maximum-security prison, mind you.

but the thing that really messed me up was the very playful attitude of their propaganda. to them, their hunger strike and the subsequent deaths was their way of out-witting their captors while also escaping from them. and they were laughing at the frustration and undirected rage of the jailers, who eventually were reigned in, as turkey was trying to fanangle their way into the EU and could not just let ALL the PKK prisoners die, as they had said they would.  after the government negotiated an end to the strike, it was actually too late for a few who had grown too weak to survive.

i could not help but admire the dedication to the struggle that led people to conclude that they would put their lives on the line in their prison cells rather than the battlefield, with the ultimate aim of removing themselves from the life of never-ending hell the turkish state created for them. i can totally respect that, and they laughed it off, portraying their tactics in a manner somewhat like a bugs bunny cartoon. i mean, i didn’t want to laugh along with them, i wanted them to value their lives and stop their hunger strike. but they would have just laughed at me if i had been able to tell them, so i laughed with them and thought, “good one!”

the amount of discipline and organization it took to pull off their massive hunger strike was what had initially impressed me, and my first reaction to their casual, joking demeanor was that they didn’t appreciate their own lives. but i do totally get that a resistance fighter would not want to have their life end by the hand of their enemies while a captive. dying was their victory and also their escape. and their martyrdom won some fairly major concessions from the government. of course, the PKK was also not hesitant about the retaliatory car-bombing now and then, or a targeted assassination here or there. every tool in the box!

in the end, the hunger strikers won their battle inside the prison through defiance in the face of unacceptable oppression, and i will always have great respect and affection for the kurdish revolution that continues to delight, surprise, and inspire me and others around the world!


2012: Kurdish prisoners in Turkey end hunger strike

Oct. 2014: 160 detained Kobane Kurds still on hunger strike in Turkey


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