„If the PKK is Weakened, Mexmûr Will Definitely Become Turkey's Next Target of Attack“
Interview with Baxtiyar Çelê, member of the Mexmûr People's Council
Baxtiyar Çelê, you are a member of the People's Council of Mexmûr refugee camp. Can you explain to us, based on the history of Mexmûr, why the population is permanently exposed to attacks from Turkey and its allies?
It is worth explaining in more detail why the Mexmûr refugee camp is so regularly the target of attacks by the fascist Turkish state and the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), which collaborates with it. The population of the camp, which is inhabited exclusively by political refugees, originally comes from the northern foothills of the Zagros Mountains - an area characterized by deep gorges and numerous plateaus. The ancestors of Mexmûr's inhabitants had adapted their way of life to these geographic peculiarities of the region and had developed a unique culture over thousands of years. They never accepted to be subjugated by an external power, but always insisted on living according to their own traditions. They reacted to outside pressure with revolts. Thus, they managed to protect their language and culture. In their home region in the northern Zagros Mountains, there were dozens of uprisings against colonialist powers, in which the ancestors of today's Mexmûr population participated or which they actively supported. The local population joined all Kurdish movements that emerged throughout history, making the region a supply and shelter area for these same movements. When the most recent movement - the PKK - gained a foothold in the region, the population continued this tradition, providing support and actively participating in the PKK's struggle. People from the region actively participated in the popular uprisings of the 1990s. They thus played an important role in continuing the tradition of resisting against the fascist Turkish state through popular uprisings. In response, the Turkish state began a policy of forced disappearances, torture, forced recruitment for the village guard system and targeted displacement of the population in the early 1990s. Thousands of villages were depopulated and destroyed at that time. A small part of the affected population - the inhabitants of the villages on the slopes of the Zagros Mountains - were subsequently forced to flee to South Kurdistan (North Iraq).
The fascist Turkish state had not succeeded in subjugating and assimilating this population in North Kurdistan through its systematic genocidal policy. It therefore decided to expel the people from their villages and destroy their close relationship with the guerrilla. When the state began its expulsion policy in the region in the early 1990s, the villagers were repeatedly told: "Either you stay and follow the state's orders, or you will have to go to North Iraq." In certain places, the Turkish state even actively assisted people trying to cross the border into North Iraq. It had not succeeded in getting the population of the northern Zagros Mountains under its control. So now it had switched to taking them to the KDP-controlled regions of South Kurdistan to try to complete its own plans there with the help of the KDP. From the first day, the places where the political refugees of today's Mexmûr settled became the target of the Turkish state and the KDP. The Mexmûr camp is the last of a total of eight camps that were built by the residents over the years. Wherever they settled, attempts were made to bring the people under control, using a wide variety of methods. The fascist Turkish state made great efforts to break the cohesion of the people and to distribute them to different areas of South Kurdistan.
The policy that the Turkish state had not succeeded in implementing in North Kurdistan, it now tried to implement in South Kurdistan with the help of the KDP. We can look at a concrete example to illustrate the attitude of the collaborating KDP towards the camp population: the attack on the Geliyê Qiyametê camp in Etrûş in 1995.
After several requests and democratic protests, the UN had decided to establish a central camp for all people who had been forced to flee from North Kurdistan to South Kurdistan at different times. This camp was established in the Etrûş region, which is located in the north of Dohuk province. After the decision to establish the camp was made, all of the refugees who had gathered along the Iraqi-Turkish border were settled in two camps (Etrûş I and Etrûş II) in the Etrûş region.
In March 1995, the fascist Turkish state, together with the KDP, had launched a comprehensive military operation ("Operation Steel") in South Kurdistan against the PKK. This resulted in heavy casualties on the part of Turkey and the KDP. In response, KDP forces led by Mesûd Barzanî1 surrounded the Etrûş I camp (also called Geliyê Qiyametê) to use its population as leverage against the PKK. The armed KDP forces killed everybody they saw in the vicinity of the camp. Several shepherds were shot and their animals stolen. People in the camp were shot at with automatic weapons, causing their tents to catch fire. 80 tents burned down completely. At the same time, massive pressure was put on the local people to submit to the orders of the KDP forces. Demands were made to dissolve the camp, which was located near the mountains. Despite their extremely limited options, the people of the Etrûş I camp resisted: All the women and children protected the camp by starting a sit-in strike and thus encircling the entire camp. In doing so, they made it clear that they would not surrender. Mesûd Barzanî was left with only two options: He would either commit a massacre against the camp's population or retreat. He chose the latter. While these events were taking place in Etrûş I, the people in the Etrûş II camp, three to four kilometers away, decided to rush to the aid of the neighboring camp. They decided to all set off together to Etrûş I in a protest march; young and old set off together. As always during protests, the women of the camp were in the front row. After the people had walked about 400 meters, the demonstration was fired upon by the KDP peshmerga with automatic weapons. Zeynep Erdem, a young woman from the camp leadership, was fatally wounded and fell as a martyr2. Eight children and women were injured. Shortly after, the people of Etrûş I, in consultation with the management of Etrûş II camp, decided to join forces with it. So from then on there was only one camp.
We could speak of dozens of such examples. In all cases, the later population of Mexmûr resisted and did not give in one bit. In the end, after years of flight, they reached Mexmûr and settled there.
The people of Mexmûr can look back on this history. To this day, they have held on to their path and have continued to develop. Today, Mexmûr Camp is of general importance in the region and beyond. It has become a small bastion for the national struggle.
This year, Turkey has intensified its military operations in South Kurdistan/North Iraq. How does this Turkish expansionist policy affect the Mexmûr refugee camp?
Over the years, Mexmûr's Kurdish refugees have succeeded in making their enemies' plans come to nothing and have developed into a formidable force. They have not allowed themselves to be dispersed while fleeing, but have always insisted on living a communal life. Based on the national and democratic struggle and the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, they have built their own system. This system of Democratic Autonomy encompasses all central areas of life: municipalities and people`s councils, commissions for education, health, municipal administration, youth, foreign relations and the economy. Mexmûr's system has thus become a model for the region. The people of the camp have always managed to act on the basis of a common willpower and have thus had a recognizable influence on the surrounding regions. They have preserved and further developed their own culture, for example by ensuring 12 years of schooling in their native Kurdish language. As official citizens of Turkey, Mexmûr's people have succeeded in building pressure for a solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey and in denouncing Turkey's policies of denial and genocide at the international level. Because of all these developments, Mexmûr has been a permanent target of attacks by Turkish fascism until today.
Since the end of April this year, Turkey's fascist government has significantly expanded its occupation operation in South Kurdistan. The reasons for these attacks, which are mainly directed against the PKK, are manifold: In the Zagros region, the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan and the People's Defense Units (HPG) had gained a widespread foothold, constantly evolving and spreading from there throughout Kurdistan, the Middle East and many parts of the world. The HPG is fighting there today against the neo-Ottoman dreams of the Turkish state and its Islamist mercenaries, i.e. against their occupation policy. It thus represents the greatest obstacle to these Turkish plans. Its strategic location makes the Zagros Mountains a kind of natural protective wall against the Turkish occupation strategy. For these reasons, the PKK's ideology, politics, and military force are now the primary target of attack by the Turkish state. In case of weakening or pushing back this force, places like Mexmûr will definitely become Turkey's next target of attack. In this case, Turkey will immediately devote all its force to crushing the camp. As in the past, the Turkish state will seek the support of the Iraqi government and use different means of pressure against the camp population. The support of the International Coalition and UN for this Turkish effort is certain. Through various means, with the help of the KDP and IS (Islamic State), an escalation of violence in the region will then be brought about. Peshmerga forces will then be deployed in the region around Mexmûr, further tightening the embargo that has been in place for the past two years and blocking the routes to other regions of Iraq that have been used by Mexmûr's population up to now. These and many other measures, which would have an extremely negative impact on the life of Mexmûr's population, will almost certainly become a reality if Turkey succeeds in weakening the PKK and the HPG.
The Turkish state's recent attacks on South Kurdistan are based on a long-term occupation strategy. Its stated goal is to achieve concrete results with these attacks by 2023. That is the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne. Through this treaty, the four-partition of Kurdistan was finalized in 1923. Its validity was supposedly set at 100 years at the time3. Thus, by 2023, the Turkish state would like to occupy South Kurdistan and thus put into practice its strategy of securing the regional relations thus changed by means of a new international agreement. Part of this strategy is to take complete control of the north of the Zagros Mountains and to settle there the jihadist organizations organized by Turkey, such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra. Thus, the result of the Treaty of Lausanne, which divided Kurdistan by political borders, is to be replaced by the creation of a jihadist belt from Efrîn to the Iranian border. Through this forced change in the demographics of the region, the strategy is to definitively prevent the unification of the different parts of Kurdistan. Moreover, the jihadist groups based there would pose a permanent, massive threat to the peoples of the region and the entire world.
Mexmûr is a target not only for Turkish attacks, but also for the KDP. A KDP-embargo against the camp has been in place for almost two years. What goals is the KDP pursuing with this policy and what are the reasons for the South Kurdish government's hostility toward the residents of Mexmûr?
Even though the governing coalition in South Kurdistan consists of three different parties, only the KDP has real power. All strategically central positions are controlled by the Barzanî family: The president of South Kurdistan is a member of the Barzanî family. The prime minister of South Kurdistan: also a member of the Barzanî family. The interior minister of South Kurdistan: is a member of the Barzanî family. All oil-rich areas and many other strategically important areas are under the control of the Barzanîs. The military forces are also largely controlled by them. Even part of the Talabanî family is under Barzanî control. South Kurdistan remains a colony of the international system, directly controlled by the two Barzanî and Talabanî families. Therefore, collusion between these two families is sufficient to initiate any action in the region. Neither parliament nor the government as such have any real influence in South Kurdistan. The absolute majority of actions on the ground result from the Barzanî and Talabanî families' relations with neighboring countries. The KDP maintains close relations with the fascist Turkish government in the area of military-intelligence issues, the handling of black-money transactions, illegal oil trade, etc. It also follows from this fact that the KDP and the Turkish state are acting together against the PKK on the basis of joint plans. Most crucial, however, is the KDP's fear of the Democratic Nation perspective and the PKK's paradigm based on democracy, women'sliberation and ecology. This would put an end to the KDP's nepotism-based sultanate. Consequently, their hostility toward the PKK is strong.
The Mexmûr camp is guided by this very paradigm of the PKK and has been putting it into practice for years. The camp is therefore a nightmare for such backward leadership circles as those of the KDP. For the reasons mentioned above, it represents a significant obstacle to the interests of Turkey, the KDP and similar forces. Therefore, attempts are being made to force the Mexmûr camp and similar places to surrender. The embargo against the camp, which has been in place for two years, is not the result of a decision by the government of South Kurdistan, but rather the result of a decision made by the Barzanî family at Turkey's request. The embargo aims at causing economic difficulties for the people of Mexmûr, since in the past all of the camp's economic relations (purchases, employment, etc.) went through Hewlêr (Erbil). The aim is to weaken the camp, break up its cohesion and ultimately bring about Mexmûr's surrender.
The Iraqi central government remains silent regarding this KDP policy. How do you assess the Iraqi government's attitude toward Mexmûr?
To understand the Iraqi government's attitude toward the Mexmûr refugee camp, we must consider Iraq's chaotic situation. The country has always been rich in national, cultural, and religious diversity. Despite this, Iraq today has a social structure and system that does not view the country's diversity as its richness. On the contrary, its system and structure are a source of problems, are in a permanent state of chaos, and cause incessant instability. Iraq is characterized by the historical contradiction between the Sunni and Shiite denominational groups of Islam. A wide variety of other religious communities - Christian, Ezidi, Kakai, Sabian, Bahá'í, etc. - live in the country, but this is largely seen as a problem. In addition, there are contradictions between the Kurdish and Arab populations, as well as between numerous other population groups. The intervention of various powers from outside - the U.S., the EU, Iran, Turkey, etc. - in the country's problems and messy situation is another crucial cause of today's problems. The fact that none of the historical-social contradictions have been resolved to date places Iraq in a highly unstable situation.
After the intervention of the U.S. and NATO forces in 1991, the country's political system underwent certain changes. The result was a federal system based on a corresponding constitution. Since their intervention at that time, the aforementioned forces have had great political and military influence in the country. Iran has been trying for some time to fill the large political voids in Iraq and to expand its influence with the help of the country's Shiite population. The Shiites form the majority of the country's population and have the greatest influence in the state power apparatus. This enables Iran to maintain its own military forces in the country and exert decisive political influence. It is therefore not wrong to state that Iran has made great strides toward establishing the "Shiite crescent" - an area stretching from Iran to the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Meanwhile, Turkey is trying to gain influence in Iraq with the help of the Sunni population. At the same time, it has tied the collaborating KDP and part of the Turkmen population to itself and today considers South Kurdistan practically a Turkish colony. Turkey is expanding its occupation of South Kurdistan by all means. This includes the current military operation in the South Kurdish regions of Zap, Metîna and Avaşîn, which began on April 23 and through which efforts to annex the entire region have been massively intensified. All of this indicates that the chaos in Iraq is very likely to grow in the near future. The additional day-to-day domestic chaos that exists in the areas of security, economy, corruption, etc., also contributes to the fact that stability will continue to be elusive. This state of affairs will continue indefinitely.
The U.S. and France played a central role in the UN-brokered Erbil-Baghdad Agreement4 on Sinjar of October 9, 2020. Its content shows the strong influence Turkey and the KDP exerted in negotiating the agreement. Thus, without informing the Ezidi population of Sinjar, a deal was agreed upon that does not benefit the people of Sinjar, but only Turkey and the KDP.
It is clearly evident that the Iraqi government lacks the necessary willpower to exert effective influence on regional political developments and to resist pressure from other forces. It lacks the necessary strength even to solve the problems of its citizens. How could the Iraqi government protect a refugee camp whose residents, as political refugees, do not even have Iraqi citizenship? According to the Iraqi constitution, the people in Mexmûr officially have the status of political refugees. However, they currently do not benefit from this fact and do not receive the slightest support. The Mexmûr camp has already been bombed dozens of times by Turkish warplanes, with a high number of children, women and elderly falling as martyrs. The Iraqi state, which is responsible for the security of Mexmûr's population, repeatedly allows itself to remain silent in the face of such attacks. Numerous other countries that maintain economic and military relations with Turkey and repeatedly pursue policies similar to Turkey toward the Kurdish people also practice silence because of their own interests.
A direct reason for the general silence in the face of the Turkish attacks is the unfavorable circumstance that Mexmûr is located in the so-called "disputed territories"5. The Iraqi government only has a military presence in the area around Mexmûr; the administration of the region is in the hands of KDP cadres who act there on behalf of the government of South Kurdistan. This greatly exacerbates the chaotic state of affairs in the region.
Due to massive pressure from within and without, the Iraqi government does not fulfill its constitutionally stipulated responsibility toward the Mexmûr refugee camp. Internally, it is pressure from Sunni forces and the KDP. Externally, the U.S., EU, and the fascist Turkish government exert pressure on Iraq. In addition, Iraq maintains extensive relations with Turkey. All of this contributes to the Iraqi government's failure to protest against the illegal measures against the Mexmûr camp.
Despite all these difficulties, the Mexmûr political refugee camp remains a place of stability in the region. For years, the camp's population has lived peacefully with the other peoples of the region. All problems have always been solved together in direct exchange with the other peoples. In the future, Mexmûr will therefore continue its existence as the safest and most reliable refugee camp.
1President of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan from 2005 to 2017, since 2017 only chairman of the KDP.
2In the Kurdistan Freedom Movement, all people who were killed in the freedom struggle are called martyrs. Due to Mexmûr's history of resistance, residents of the camp who lose their lives are also considered martyrs.
3Erdoğan made this false claim in order to make the neo-Ottoman dreams possible soon enough and to legitimize the colonial aspirations. However, the treaty does not contain a fixed duration.
4Usually referred to as the "Sinjar Agreement". It was agreed upon last October between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the KDP under pressure from the U.S. and Turkey. The agreement, reached without the involvement of the affected Ezidi population, provides for the dissolution of the security forces (Asayîşa Êzîdxanê) established after the genocide of IS against the Ezidi community and for Baghdad and Hewlêr (Erbil) to be entrusted with all administrative, political and security-related tasks.
5This refers to areas that are disputed between South Kurdistan and the Iraqi central government, including the oil-rich region around Kerkûk.
This article was first published in the July/August 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.