In an hour-long conversation under a big oak tree at the edge of a river in the Bestler-Dereler mountains near Sirnak, an area where the PKK has moved freely for decades, five uniformed PKK members explained the instructions under which they are operating.
The men, who said they were about to pull out of a temporary position, were all in their 20s and 30s. Siar, 36, began by chiding a visiting reporter for arriving unannounced, but he acknowledged that the first day of the pullout was reason enough to stop and talk.
“Have you ever been to Kurdistan before?” one of the men, who called himself Ali, asked, referring to the area of Turkey where the interview took place as well as Kurdish majority regions of Iraq, Iran and Syria. “Is this Kurdistan?” replied the visitor.
The men carried Kalashnikov rifles and tucked their black and white sashes under their bandoliers. They would not allow photographs or recordings and insisted that cellphones be shut off (though their location was far beyond cell range). A few minutes into the conversation, one appeared with a big teapot and an offering of cucumber and tomato salad, fresh flatbread and hard cheese with herbs of a type that is sold at local markets here.
In 2011 elections, politicians sympathetic to the PKK enjoyed more than two-thirds support from voters in the province of Sirnak.
“Our movement will abide by six principles,” said Ali, who said he was 27. So long as the PKK guerrillas are not attacked, “they will observe the policy of non-aggression,” he said. But if attacked, the forces “will use their legitimate right of retaliation, and restart military operations.” Moreover, it is up to the Turkish army and state to ensure there is no provocation. Finally, units will withdraw “to the south,” a reference to northern Iraq, “in the same way as they came.”
There was no sign the men were thinking about abandoning their weapons or their calling. Ali, who said he’s from the Sirnak area, has been in the PKK for the past eight years, and Siar, a Kurd from Afrin, in northern Syria, has been in the PKK for 17 years. “We’re going to go wherever the party sends us,” he said.
For men who eschew contacts with the outside world, they seemed well informed, asking a visitor about the possible motives of the ethnic Chechen brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon – and offering condolences for those who died.