Abdullah Öcalan is a Kurdish political leader seen by millions of Kurds globally as their political representative.
In February 1999 he was abducted in an international intelligence operation and sent to Turkey. Öcalan has been in prison now for twenty-five years, barred from all contact with the outside world for years at a time. He has been subjected to torture and other cruel and degrading treatment.
Turkey’s unresolved Kurdish Question – the conflicts and political instability deriving from the Turkish Republic’s violent denial of the fundamental civil and political rights of 25 million Kurdish citizens – has cost tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions.
Today, Kurdistan is divided between four states: Turkey Iran Iraq and Syria. It was European powers who created those divisions a century ago. Turkey’s ability to wage war on Kurds across the Middle East as the result of decades of unconditional support from the US, EU, and other NATO members.
Starting on October 10th, elected officials, local governments, parties and movements, unions, civil society organisations, intellectuals, and others have come together in a global effort to form the global campaign, Freedom for Öcalan: a political solution to the Kurdish Question. To kick off the campaign, 100 press conferences were held across Europe, Latin America, South Africa, Kenya, Japan, India, Bangladesh, East Timour, the Philippines, and Australia.
When Öcalan is free to participate in a political process to resolve the Kurdish question and to continue to develop his ideas, the result will be more freedom and more peace for all of us. The committee and other European institutions, including the EU and the CoE, have regularly failed to hold Turkey responsible for its systematic violations of domestic and international law in regard to Öcalan’s case. The main message of the campaign, Freedom for Öcalan: a political solution to the Kurdish Question, is that resolution of the conflict can only be achieved when Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, is allowed to meet with his lawyers and family and ultimately be free under conditions that allow him to play a role in finding a just and democratic political solution to Turkey’s decades-old Kurdish conflict.
Jean-Pierre Restellini visited Abdullah Öcalan in prison three times as a member of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). In this interview for Medya Haber he talks about those visits in 1999, 2010, and 2013, in which Öcalan, who he describes as ‘a very sympathetic person’, became a ‘good friend’.
Restellini explains that Öcalan’s physical conditions were not the problem, but that the isolation imposed on him is ‘a terrible violence’, which he is only able to survive because he knows the Kurdish people are behind him.
He discusses the restrictions under which the CPT operates, which don’t allow them to publish their reports without the response and authorisation of the state that is being criticised, and explains that if the CPT were to breach these rules it would endanger the possibility of further inspections.
Restellini responds to a question on the terrorist listing of the PKK by the European Parliament, with the argument that the term ‘terrorist’ is only used to defame certain groups of people and should be banned – noting that the European listing may have been the result of political pressure. And he describes talking with Öcalan about the similarities between his situation and that of Nelson Mandela, who was considered a terrorist by South Africa but became leader of the country.
As with the South African case, Restellini stressed the importance of campaigning, including actions such as the vigil outside the Council of Europe.
With Kurdish culture denied and banned by the Turkish state, campaigning through art sends an extra-strong message. The campaign for the Freedom of Abdullah Öcalan
is calling on creative friends to use their skills to help highlight the campaign, FREEDOM FOR ABDULLAH ÖCALAN: A POLITICAL SOLUTION FOR THE KURDISH QUESTION, and to share their actions with us so that we can help publicise them. This cultural action will start from 5 November under the heading “Multilingual and Multicultural Freedom is Possible: You Cannot Imprison Ideas!”
The aim is to use cultural creations to protest Öcalan’s isolation in İmralı island prison and also to help spread the liberatory ideas of his prison writings – ideas that set out an alternative to the systems that are setting our world on fire and turning people against each other.
The full call to action is set out below. You can download a poster here.
Art and Culture for Ocalan’s Freedom
Multilingual and Multicultural Freedom is Possible: You Cannot Imprison Ideas!
On December 10, 2023, it will be 75 years since the United Nations General Assembly first adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Despite this, hardly a day goes by when the inalienable human rights of Kurds are not systematically violated throughout Kurdistan and around the world. The Turkish prison island of Imrali and the solitary confinement of Abdullah Öcalan, the foremost theorist and philosophical leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, represents one such extreme case. Our political guide Öcalan has been languishing in solitary confinement in Turkey for more than 24 years and has been cut off from any means of communication with the outside world. This also isolates his liberatory political ideas from the Kurdish movement’s struggle for freedom and their implementation in an eventual peace process. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the established human rights institutions who are supposed to prevent torture in custody, such as the Council of Europe, as despite numerous requests they have not fulfilled their obligation to intervene against these unlawful practices of extreme human isolation (from even his lawyers and family), which are illegal and considered torture.
In order to break the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan’s, we are announcing an Art and Culture campaign for Ocalan’s Freedom on the 5th of November 2023. The freedom of Abdullah Öcalan can precipitate a political solution in the Kurdish society’s struggle for freedom and be an alternative to current repression. Abdullah Öcalan’s writings and his political philosophy are discussed and applied by social forces worldwide, despite his isolation and defamation by ruling states who refuse to consider his ideas. These ideas continue to inspire intellectuals, free thinkers, scientists, workers, activists, artists, trade unionists, social movements, politicians, families, and entire societies seeking liberation.
Abdullah Ocalan’s ideas are based on the three pillars of women’s liberation, social ecology, and grassroots democracy. His philosophy and the example of the Kurdish movement are having an impact on all people regaining hope for free democratic changes and uniting to politically organize against societal fragmentation. With his person as part of social debates, this process of profound democratization and dissolution of dominant relationships between genders, social groups, and in relation to the earth’s resources can be given great enrichment and a new impetus.
Today, Kurdish culture with all its material and spiritual elements is denied and banned by the Turkish state. They want to complete this cultural genocide with war and unlimited assimilation practices. Even the slightest democratic demand from the Kurds to maintain their cultural existence is suppressed using violent methods. Kurds have no officially recognized linguistic rights where they live or in the international system. Kurdish culture with all its elements; literature, history, music, painting, etc. are forbidden and any attempt to pursue them is severely criminalized. We the Kurds and their friends reject this cultural genocide.
We also reject the total isolation of our de-facto President Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan’s project, which insists that Kurds and all peoples living in the Middle East live together on the basis of a common autonomous system, is the only solution and in fact the region’s salvation. That is why he needs to be released.
We as the campaign for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan call on all writers, artists, singers, students, workers, and all struggling people to join us in the Art and Culture for Ocalan’s freedom campaign, on the 5th of November 2023, under the slogan:
“Multilingual and Multicultural Freedom is Possible: You Cannot Imprison Ideas!” in protest his isolation on Imrali island and spread the liberation ideas of the prison writings which spawned from there.
We are asking people to Tweet in support of the campaign every Monday at 11 am CET, using the hashtag #FreeOcalan4PoliticalSolution. You can choose your own images and messages, or forward our tweets from @Vigil4Ocalan. Let’s help get the campaign noticed!
A message from the campaign for the Freedom of Abdullah Öcalan
Thoughts that break through the iron bars – you can’t imprison ideas!
On the 10th of December 2023, it will be 75 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Despite this, hardly a day goes by when human rights are not systematically violated in Kurdistan and other places around the world. The Turkish prison island of Imrali and the solitary confinement of Abdullah Öcalan, the foremost theorist and leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, represent an extreme case. Abdullah Öcalan has been in solitary confinement in Turkey for over 24 years and has been cut off from any means of communication with the outside world. This also isolates his political ideas and their possible implementation in a peace process and in the Kurdish movement’s struggle for freedom. It is impossible to rely on the established institutions for human rights work and against torture in custody, such as the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture CPT, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Despite numerous requests and available information, they have not fulfilled their obligation to intervene against the unlawful practice of isolation, which is considered torture, and which includes cutting off all contact with the outside world, his lawyers and relatives.
In order to break the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan, we are calling for the Öcalan Books Day on International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2023. The freedom of Abdullah Öcalan also means that a political solution in the Kurdish society’s struggle for freedom can prevail instead of isolation, repression and war. Abdullah Öcalan’s writings and his political philosophy are discussed and applied by social forces worldwide, despite his isolation and defamation by ruling states. These ideas inspire intellectuals, free thinkers, scientists, workers, activists, artists, trade unionists, social movements, politicians, families and entire societies.
Since the democratic awakening of the so-called Arab Spring, an autonomous, self-governing social system based on the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan has been emerging in northern and eastern Syria. The foundation of these ideas is based on the three pillars of women liberation, ecology and radical democracy. The Kurdish freedom movement has not only democratically organized and politically educated Kurdish society in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran as well as in the diaspora, especially in Europe. Far beyond this, the political philosophy and the example of the Kurdish movement are having an impact on people regaining hope for free-democratic changes and uniting and politically organizing against fragmentation and isolation. With the political philosophy of the Kurdish movement developed by Abdullah Öcalan, we can regain hope in the possibility of a democratic social system. This process of profound democratization and dissolution of the relationships of domination between genders, between different social groups and in relation to the earth’s resources can be given great enrichment and new impetus. If he can be freed from solitary confinement, the political situation will have changed to such an extent that a Kurdish solution can become tangible, the release of Öcalan is the necessary precondition for a peace process.
Öcalan’s prison writings are a stunning vision of a freedom movement centred on women’s liberation, democracy, and ecology. Öcalan helped reinvigorate the Kurdish freedom movement by providing a revolutionary path forward with what is undoubtedly the furthest-reaching definition of democracy the world has ever seen. “Beyond State, Power and Violence” and especially his five-volume Manifesto of Democratic Civilization are a breath-taking research into life without the state and the Kurdish freedom movement, and a vision of a democratic-ecological society which is also offering a fresh and indispensable perspective on the quest for a new socialism. Öcalan’s calls for non-hierarchical forms of democratic social organization deserve the careful attention of anyone interested in constructive social thought or rebuilding society along feminist and ecological lines.
In this sense, we as the campaign for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan call on all publishers, writers, booksellers, educators, students, workers, and all struggling people to join us on the Öcalan Books Day, December 10, 2023, under the slogan “Thoughts that break through the iron bars – you can’t imprison ideas!” in protest against the isolation in Imrali and spread the liberation ideas of the prison writings.
#Take a stance against the isolation in Imrali, read a book from Öcalan!
On the 10 October 2023 an international campaign entitled FREEDOM FOR OCALAN – A POLITICAL SOLUTION TO THE KURDISH QUESTION was launched with 74 meetings in different places around the world. The central event was held in Strasbourg, home of the Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights. The evening before, the French state withdrew permission for the Strasbourg event. The foreign guests and hundreds of Kurds were forced to hold their demonstration in a small, isolated side-street, while MPs in the Council of Europe gave their statements in the council building.
This week a campaign calling for Ocalan’s freedom and for a political solution for the Kurdish Question was launched with 74 meetings across the world. The main meeting was scheduled to be held in Strasbourg, France, outside the Council of Europe, which was established to defend human rights. Plans had been made for statements from international speakers, including politicians attending the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly, to be accompanied by four days of public action on the street outside the council, bringing together hundreds of people.
At the eleventh hour, the organisers received a message to say that the permission for this long-planned event had been cancelled by the French state. There must be no demonstration in Strasbourg, nor in Paris. Worse, the main reason given was that the organisers had shared on social media a message from leaders of the Kurdish Movement expressing support for Hamas. They have not produced any evidence to support this accusation, however, it should not be necessary to say that the Kurdish movement, which lost 12000 people defending the world against ISIS and which inspires the Women Life Freedom movement against the Iranian regime, has nothing in common with the world outlook of Hamas and condemns violence against civilians. Regardless, the state’s accusation has been publicly tweeted by the Préfacture of Bas-Rhin, an action that could have serious consequences for all Kurdish people. Every act of repression by one state normalises repression by others. And the way this been done is unbelievably dangerous.
Sadly, Kurds are used to setbacks, and arrangements were quickly made to rearrange the Strasbourg statements in two locations. Invited speakers gave statements in the space in front of the railway station, while the MPs who are here for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, spoke in the foyer of the council building, outside the debating chamber (see image). The support from the MPs was clear and strong – both for the original message of the campaign for Öcalan’s freedom and a political solution to the Kurdish Question, and in condemnation of the French state’s ban.
Strasbourg MP, Emmanuel Fernandes, made clear that the French state’s decision is being challenged by France’s own parliamentarians. Paul Gavan, from Ireland, noted how this attack on fundamental rights was taking place in the home of the European body that exists to defend them, and used the example of the Irish peace agreement to stress the need for all-encompassing dialogue. Catalan MP, Laura Castel, spoke about the findings of the recent Imrali delegation, of which she was a member, which discussed how the extraordinary regime of isolation being imposed on Öcalan has become a pilot for the mistreatment of all Turkey’s political prisoners. And Jeremy Corbyn, from the UK, emphasised the importance of Öcalan for bringing peace. Also present were MPs Andrej Hunko from Germany, Søren Søndergaard from Denmark, Andrea Orlando from Italy, and Alexis Tsipras from Greece.
We are challenging the decision of the préfacture in court, and will share the video of today’s event when it is available. Meanwhile actions are continuing across the globe.
UPDATE The Strasbourg demonstration that was supposed to be outside the railway station was moved again, to be hidden away in the small street outside the Kurdish Community Centre.
Twenty-five years ago today, Abdullah Öcalan was forced to leave Syria and embark on the quest for asylum that would end in his abduction to Turkey by an international plot led by the CIA. A lot has happened in those years, but a lot has remained sadly unchanged.
The last thing that the plotters expected was that, twenty-five years on, Öcalan would have more supporters now than ever before, and not only among Kurds. Nor could they have envisaged that five million people would be living in Syria in an autonomous society inspired by his philosophy. But Turkey’s oppression of the Kurdish struggle has not lifted, and Turkey can still rely on international support. In recent years, the conditions of Öcalan’s incarceration have only got more extreme, and for thirty months he has been forbidden contact with anyone outside the prison.
As a leader recognised by millions of Kurds, Öcalan holds the key to a peaceful settlement between Turkey and its Kurdish citizens. But the Turkish Government doesn’t want peace. Rallying against the Kurds wins populist support and has become a useful substitute for addressing Turkey’s severe economic and social problems. Turkey would have us believe that Öcalan is held in prison because he presents a danger of violence. In fact, he presents the possibility of peace, and it is peace that the Turkish Government is truly afraid of. Meanwhile, international politicians who love to demonstrate their support for Nelson Mandela’s peace-making, mostly look away. A new campaign will be launched tomorrow, in Strasbourg and around the world, to bring attention to this international failure.
‘Freedom for Ocalan – A Political Solution to the Kurdish Question’ campaign unites social movements, political parties, municipalities, unions, activists, intellectuals, and millions of Kurds and their friends worldwide around a shared goal: making a just and democratic political solution to Turkey’s century-old Kurdish question possible by enabling Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan’s participation in a renewed dialogue.
In Öcalan’s last conversation with his lawyers, which occurred in 2019, he said that he could solve the Kurdish question in a week if given the chance – and that he had developed his ideas for a political solution to the Kurdish question even further since the Turkish government last abandoned peace talks. As Turkey expands its occupation of Iraqi Kurdistan and North and East Syria and its crackdown on dissent at home and abroad, a political solution is needed more than ever.
We are also more concerned about Öcalan’s security and well-being than ever before. Isolation is internationally recognized as a form of torture. For this form of torture to go on for so long is extremely dangerous. We do not know anything about Öcalan’s fate beyond the fact that he has recently received ‘disciplinary measures’ to block meetings on false pretences, and has allegedly been sent death threats.
This situation is unsustainable.
The campaign makes make the following demand:
Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan must be allowed to meet with his lawyers and family and, ultimately, freed under conditions that allow him to play a role in finding a just and democratic political solution to Turkey’s decades-old Kurdish conflict.
The campaign has published a dossier about Ocalan’s situation. You can download a copy here:
For most of the people walking past on the leafy boulevard on their way to the public gardens, the world of the men and women taking part in the Vigil for Öcalan would seem incomprehensibly alien. Some of those men and women have spent years in Turkish prisons facing unimaginable treatments. Others have lost close relations at the hands of the Turkish military. Many are unable to travel back to Turkey and may never again meet elderly parents face to face. Sidar Amedi arrived in Strasbourg as a refugee from Turkey two years ago, and has become a regular face at the Vigil. In this company, his extraordinary story becomes more ordinary. It is a personal microcosm of the Kurdish predicament, and gives a better idea of what it means to be a Kurd than can be found from any number of textbooks.
Sidar learnt his politics young. In the turbulent days before Turkey’s 1980 coup, even a primary school pupil could not escape clashes with fascists, and he was hurt aged only seven or eight. After the coup, his brother became involved in student struggles at the university, and taught young Sidar about Kurdish patriotism and socialism and music. His other major inspiration was the songs of Şivan Perwer. Sidar is a musician.
In 1991, as a 20-year-old activist in the Kurdish Freedom Movement, Sidar joined 100,000 people at the funeral of Vedat Aydın, the Kurdish politician and leader of the Peoples Labour Party (HEP), whose severely tortured body was found two days after his abduction by the Turkish deep state. Aydın’s fatal sin, in the eyes of the state, was his insistence on using Kurdish. The funeral’s followers were met with automatic weapons, killing over twenty people. Sidar was injured in the crush, but the bigger impact was on his mind. He was confirmed in his commitment to the Movement.
The 1990s was an especially dangerous time to be a politically involved Kurd. Sidar was active in the Mesopotamia Cultural Centre in Diyarbakir, mostly with music, until he was detained in September 1993 and sentenced for three years nine months. After his released he was imprisoned again for another year.
When finally freed, he continued with his music and his politics – and of course making Kurdish music is itself a form of politics – but was detained again in 2011. This time he was one of the hundreds of people accused of aiding the PKK as part of the KCK case, which is still going through the courts.
Sidar had become a marked man, along with his family. Also in 2011, two of his sons, who were carrying some fireworks, were accused of planning a bomb attack. The older one, then aged thirteen, was held in prison for one and a half years. The younger, Mazlum, then eleven, was released after five days. Because they were minors their final sentences were converted to a fine, but this didn’t stop them from being tortured in prison.
For Mazlum, and for his family too, this was the first step into a nightmare. Mazlum İçli is now famous as the boy who has been sentenced for life without parole for a murder that all the evidence proves he did not commit, in order to please the Turkish government.
Mazlum’s case is tied to the Kobanê Case, which is a key piece in the Turkish Government’s attempted destruction of the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In 2014, the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobanê, just over the border in Syria, was under siege from ISIS and no one was coming to their aid – least of all Turkey whose only action was to prevent Kurdish volunteers crossing into Syria, although it had been made it easy for people going to join ISIS. Across the world, Kurds were protesting in support of Kobanê, and in Turkey the HDP issued a tweet calling people to come into the streets. The anti-ISIS protestors were met by armed security forces and violent counter protestors, especially from Hüda Par, the far-right Kurdish Islamist group whose predecessor was responsible for hundreds of deaths in the 1990s. In the resulting struggle, up to fifty people lost their lives. The majority were supporters of the HDP, but among the dead were four members of Hüda Par, including one, Yasin Börü, who was only 16. In an argument that has been thoroughly dismantled by the European Court of Human Rights, the people who wrote and shared that HDP tweet are being held responsible for all these deaths, as well as being accused of the usual crime of disrupting the unity and territorial integrity of the state. 108 people are on trial, and 36, including many leading members of the HDP, could face life imprisonment without parole.
Mazlum, together with others, has been found guilty of the murder of Yasin Börü and the other Hüda Par members. The Kobanê case needed a convicted murderer with connections to the Kurdish Freedom Movement. The fact that, at the time the crime was committed, Mazlum was clearly and provably 140km from Diyarbakir playing music for a wedding has not been allowed to get in the way of his conviction. The prosecution was based on the evidence of a secret witness who was shown photographs of people with a police record, and picked out Mazlum – and who subsequently denied his witness statement. If the court were to reject this witness that would also raise a question mark over other convictions. This week, Turkey’s Court of Cassation approved the verdict.
At one point in the long legal process, Sidar’s lawyer called to say that Mazlum had been found innocent and would be released. Sidar had already bought an airline ticket when the lawyer phoned again an hour later. As soon as the court had ordered a stay of execution, the prosecutor, who had earlier called for Mazlum’s release, had appealed the decision. The signs of political intervention from above were blatant.
When Mazlum, then 14, was detained for the murder, he was tortured in front of his father. The next day, when he was in detention, his appendix burst and he had to have an emergency operation. Citing ‘security reasons’ the authorities moved Mazlum’s case to Ankara, 900 km away from his family. He spent a year and a half in solitary confinement, with his family only able to see him twice in all that time, and then was sent even further away, to Silivri Prison outside Istanbul.
Because of his son’s case, and his own high profile, Sidar became a target for Hüda Par mobsters. In 2018, after they attacked his office, he found 98 bullets. Luckily, he had not been inside. His other businesses and shops were attacked and set on fire, and when he tried to put out the flames he was prevented by the police.
In 2019 he was detained again for shares on social media, and given a five-year suspended sentence. With the KCK case still hanging over him, Sidar’s lawyers advised that he would never be free in Turkey. Still reluctant to leave his country, he visited Mazlum in prison, who told him: They will always bother you. Go to Rojava or Europe and continue the struggle there.
And that is what he did, as a most reluctant immigrant. He told me that he would swap a year in Europe for a day in Diyarbakir. Now no community event in Strasbourg is complete without Sidar’s music; and among his many roles he is often to be found helping with the organisation of the Öcalan Vigil. As he recounted his own extraordinary ordinary story to me over tea outside the stone pavilion that the vigil has made its base, he emphasised: Öcalan succeeded in making the Kurdish people aware of their own identity and showing them the way to freedom with his struggle.
Öcalan is at the centre of the Kurdish struggle. As Sidar’s life story demonstrates, this struggle is yet to achieve physical freedom for Turkey’s Kurds, but it has freed Kurds from the colonial mindset and enabled them to create a movement that has rekindled faith in a better world.
This afternoon, the head of the division responsible for Turkey at the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) met with representatives of the Syrian Initiative for Freedom of Leader Abdullah Öcalan. Khanem Ayo and Idris Said brought with them a petition with 2,646,211 signatures calling on the CPT to play their part in helping to end Öcalan’s isolation and enable visits by his lawyers and his family, and to work towards his release. The signatories come from Aleppo, Damascus, Lebanon, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and – about 2 million of them – from North and East Syria. The population of North and East Syria is only around 5 million people, of whom around 35 % are under 16 so unlikely to be signing a petition. 2 million is over 60% of the remaining population. Ayo and Said were accompanied by Fayik Yagizay, the representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to the European Institutions.
After hearing about the huge support shown for Öcalan, not just by the Kurds but also by the other inhabitants of North and East Syria, and the importance given to him, the representatives of the CPT talked about the organisation’s many visits to İmralı and the other work they do in between. With respect to their most recent visit last September, they said that the delegation met with Öcalan and the other three prisoners, and that the CPT report was with the Turkish government for their response, as procedure demands. Of course, we want more news than this – and lawyers have pointed out that, if circumstances make this necessary, there is scope within the rules to provide some basic information even while the full report has not been made public. However, the CPT’s words make clear that the story that Öcalan refused to meet with their delegation was simply a malicious rumour, like earlier rumours of his death. When there is no contact allowed, there is always a risk that any information leaked out of the prison may be intended to confuse.
Before they went to the meeting, Ayo and Said answered my questions about the support for the petition and for Öcalan’s ideas. I began by asking how the signatures were collected. Said explained that after the petition was suggested, they put together organising committees to focus on different groups of people: youth, women, different ethnic groups, different cities and villages, and they went round from door to door. They began collecting signatures on 12 January and finished with a press conference in Qamishlo on 13 March. Öcalan had built a huge base of respect and support from all Syrian peoples when he was based there for nearly two decades (from 1979-1998), and participation in the signature campaign was intense, including enormous participation among the Arabs.
In response to my question about the extent of Öcalan’s impact when he was in Syria, Said spoke from his memory of taking part in activities all over Syria, and stressed, again, how, for Öcalan, contact with all the different ethnic groups was a priority.
I asked how Öcalan’s ideas were kept alive after he was thrown out of Syria in 1998. Ayo said that although Öcalan was physically captured, his ideas and philosophy spread even more than before – and that the women’s struggle played an important role in this, due to the important place of women in Öcalan’s philosophy. Because the philosophy was kept alive, they could use the opportunity that arose to put it into practice. Öcalan’s philosophy was linked to the Kurds’ desire for freedom. The Rojava Revolution had two targets: the freedom of peoples and the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan.
Said explained that when Öcalan was in Syria, he had thousands of face-to-face meetings. Thousands of young people joined the PKK, and over 5,000 were killed in the struggle. After Öcalan had been thrown out of Syria, relations improved between Syria and Turkey and Kurds in Syria suffered severe government oppression. Thousands were imprisoned and tortured, or disappeared. Said himself was detained four times. A lot of people were in prison when the Rojava Revolution started, and a lot of other people [like Mazloum Abdi, now Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces] came to Syria to support the revolution.
I asked about the roles of people who were active in Öcalan’s time, and those politicised in the revolution. Said began his answer by stating that there would have been no revolution in Rojava without Öcalan, and that even before the revolution, families influenced by Öcalan were active in defending their areas from attacks by the Syrian regime or by Jihadi groups. And he again stressed how the participation of different ethnicities – which is now systematised to ensure different groups play a full part in organisational structures – dated back to Öcalan’s time in Syria.
Khanem Ayo is herself an example of someone who became politically active after the revolution. For her, the spur was the assassination of her uncle in 2012, when he was trying – as president of his local council – to negotiate peace with members of Jabhat ul-Nusra (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda that is now part of Hayʼat Tahrir al-Sham).
When I asked about difficulties in spreading Öcalan’s ideas to non-Kurdish areas, such as Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, Said said that, initially, people were reluctant to go to these areas, but that Öcalan reminded them of their revolutionary duty. This was during the 2013-15 Peace Process so communication with Öcalan was possible.
Ayo observed that Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor suffered a lot under ISIS – especially the women – so they were ready to welcome this different ideology and its democracy. Although there still are people who are sympathetic to the Syrian regime or to ISIS, most people, she observed, ‘are on our side’.