Öcalan: 40 Years of Struggle and Resistance

International Initiative for Free Öcalan

What makes people go on resisting and struggling despite the hardships, oppression and threats to their lives? It must be what makes humans human; their ability to imagine. Imagine that another world is possible.

This is exactly what Abdullah Öcalan and his early group of friends such as Haki Karer, Sakine Cansiz, Kemal Pir, Mazlum Dogan and others began doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Imagining. Who could escape the revolutionary power and the after-effects of 1968? It just transformed how people viewed the world as well as liberalism. Öcalan and his friends were the by-product of this wave, the Vietnamese National Liberation and the rise of left in Turkey (especially that of Mahir Cayan, Deniz Gezmis and Ibrahim Kaypakkaya). His early group did not just consist of Kurds but also of revolutionaries from different ethnic groups as well as women.

They imagined that there can be a life which had no room for oppression, exploitation of women, colonization and nationalist chauvinism. They imagined that the Kurdish people existed and had the right to continue their existence. This may today sound an easy thing to imagine. But back then the cultural and physical genocidal policies, extent of auto assimilation as well as the internal political structures established by the colonizers—in terms of political parties and collaborators—made it really difficult to imagine anything at all.

But they dared and it cost them dearly. It cost the Kurdish society dearly. But if freedom was so easy to attain the human society would not have been fighting for freedom for the past 5 thousand years. Perhaps this is how capitalism, and before it all the other patriarchal political systems, tries to blunt our imagination. It is not possible they say; this freedom-less life is the only life. And they have the collapse of the Soviet Union, the standstill of feminism, the inability of the alternative movements to construct an alternative life to prove this and convince us. But is this really true?

Another World is Possible

Many different alternative movements around the world simply refused to stop imagining that another world is possible: Öcalan and the Kurdish freedom movement belong to this category. Thus what was born was not a classic national liberation movement.

Öcalan and his friends despite all the attempts at first by Turkey and then by the world powers to suffocate the movement early on managed to survive. Perhaps it is one of the unique movements that has seen all the ups and downs of not only capitalism, but also the collapse of real socialism and the helplessness people felt. The other national liberation movements became successful and began ruling the countries whose rulers they resisted at one time.

The PKK also saw the result of this; how they turned into rulers themselves. The PKK itself, Öcalan says, experienced real socialism while still a movement. Women's movement which was at its height in the 1980s and 1990s also of course influenced the PKK, but that too came to a standstill. Today while we have the great backdrop and heritage of struggle and achievements against enslavement, colonization and fascism we also have their revival. While most alternative movements either plunged into dogmatism and/or vanished others struggled to understand. This called and calls for a major re-analysis of not just the whole system but also that of the alternative movements. What was being done wrong? It was imagination again; Öcalan and his friends refused to accept that this was it; that there was nothing more to imagine.

Increasingly more so after 1994, Öcalan spent most of his time to search for an answer to this. Already in the 1980s he had been quite critical of real socialist practices of the Soviet Union and others in many aspects. He also was highly critical of the left created in Turkey in the aftermath of the military coup of 1980. He continued to dig deep for answers. Perhaps the complexities of the Kurdish question and the fact that PKK had the ability to act quite independently helped to reach some answers. It gave no room for false answers or deception; because a wrong step would mean its elimination by one power or the other.

Öcalan is anything but dogmatic; he is a true dialectic. He grasped well that all systems had lives. They are born, not because it was absolutely necessary or the only way to go, they continue on the basis of certain rules and they reach an equilibrium. They later move away from that equilibrium and then it is no longer possible to keep things as they are. This is exactly what we are going through at the moment. Capitalism is in a structural crisis and our world is in a chaotic situation. Öcalan has been writing and talking about this extensively since the 1990s but especially so through his Prison Writings written from the Imrali Island Prison Cell (see ocalan-books.com). This chaotic situation, however he warns, will not just necessarily evolve into something more progressive. Not only is there a chance to change the 500 year old hegemonic rule of capitalism but there is also the chance to change the patriarchal system all together, claims Öcalan. Öcalan and other intellectuals such as I. Wallerstein predict the struggle will be fierce and shall determine at least another century if not longer. And looking at what is going on around the world and the Middle East presently, it can be seen that it certainly agrees with this foresight.

Thus Öcalan from his one person cell on an island prison is trying to make sure that all oppressed peoples including the Kurds are able to implement an alternative political system as well as try and protect them from the blood bath that is prepared for them at each step of the way.

They say beginnings determine the end. PKK began as a multiethnic organization. Under the guidance of the PKK Kurdish people achieved their right to exist as a people but under again its guidance they are struggling externally and internally against sexism and patriarchy which are all power, hierarchy and state based ideologies. Kurdish freedom movement refuses to be assimilated into the capitalist system. This is due to the lessons learned from what befell other national liberation movements. This refusal is the reason behind immense anti-propaganda or not mentioning them at all when evaluating the developments in the region.

Let us give the example of Rojava (Kurdish part in Syria); at first there was much reaction against the Kurds by the super powers of the world because they just would not fall into the trap many peoples fell in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere around the world. The Kurds refused take part in wars that only brought bloodshed for peoples. Instead they opted for the third way led by Öcalan. To unite with all the peoples that lived in the region in order to form their self-governance based on radical democracy, women's freedom, alternative economy—an ecological life. They were at best ignored and left out of any discussion that was held on Syria. But the newly formed cantons are persisting and are trying to establish a sphere of peoples' governance making sure that all identities are able to flourish. A sphere of freedom.

Positioning itself against this sphere of freedom is the sphere of fascism represented by ISIL (IS since 29 June). ISIL targets the plurality of identities in the region, especially that of beliefs and ethnicities. This is why it is actively attacking the Kurds (the Sunni ones too), Assyrians, Turkmens, Ezidis, Shias and Christians. Thus trying to cleanse the region ethnically and belief wise. Total militarization of the society is actively structured. It is also extremely male supremacist, pushing women back to even worse subservient roles in the society. It is also using sexual violence as its strategy of war. Indeed it is a system of the strong male only. Thus—no matter what ISIL disguises itself under—it is nothing but pure fascism at work.

Abdullah Öcalan's paradigm is just the right antidote; whether we look at it from the point of view of beliefs, ethnicities and women's freedom. Öcalan has been trying to break this vicious cycle of adversaries being formed and then taking revenge from the other when it can. This is exactly the reason why he has made a profound analysis of state, power and hierarchy, and how they form the basis of freedom-less life.

Imrali Island Prison and Abdullah Öcalan

Öcalan is now 66 years old and he has been kept at the Imrali Island Prison as the sole prisoner for 10 years and overall for 16 years. The island is still declared a military zone guarded by 1000 soldiers. Until 2013 Abdullah Öcalan had not been allowed to meet anyone other then his lawyers and siblings and has been subjected to aggravated isolation conditions including no contact with the outside world. His only contact with the outside world—his siblings and lawyers—has often been prohibited to visit him months without end. CPT described the situation to be "indisputable isolation."

Despite this, understanding what chaotic situations demand he has continued to focus on resolving the Kurdish question and democratization of Turkey and Middle East and to this end has tried continuously to build bridges between peoples. Despite the aggravated isolation conditions his ability to see ahead and make decisions that strengthen the position of the Kurdish people and the amity between peoples have further enhanced Kurdish people's acceptance and embracing Öcalan as their leader. His strict incarceration has not stopped his prestige and stature to grow and gain strength. The reason is so very simple and must be seen in his tested leadership over the years despite the severely changing political conditions. The fact that Öcalan and the freedom movement were able to lead the Kurdish people from the point of nonexistence and many life threatening obstacles to the search they have for an alternative way of living: This is what has made the trust in him unshakable. The prison bars have never become an obstacle for him to overcome colonization and raise demands for freedom. He inspired and continues to inspire the Kurdish peoples' demand for freedom. Öcalan is the symbol of Kurdish people's struggle against denial and colonialism and most Kurds see him as the safeguard of peace and democracy.

The recent talks held with Abdullah Öcalan enabled political delegations both from the Turkish government and the HDP (Peoples Democratic Party) to visit Öcalan. However his family visits and especially lawyer-client consultations have been brought to a standstill. Two of Öcalan's lawyers were arrested in the early batch of KCK raids while a total 34 lawyers were arrested after 27 July 2011. All the lawyers were released a few months ago but since July 2011 none of Öcalan's lawyers have been able to see their client. Leaving everyone to contemplate that the rules of the game are still laid down by the state; and they are arbitrary. There may be a political process in motion but no one is legally or officially liable. And such an—as yet—unclear political process can not and should not stand in the way of Öcalan's legal rights let alone allow human rights organizations to continue to be silent at the gross violations of Öcalan's rights. This will only continue to prove that the laws imposed and practiced on Öcalan are that of a POW. Thus, talks can not continue as they have been. They must turn into negotiations. And for that Abdullah Öcalan must be free. Mandela has a befitting quote for this situation: "Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner can not enter into contracts."

A World-Wide Campaign: Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan

The International Initiative has from the first day it was formed in March 1999 (not even a month after Öcalan's abduction) never lost its belief in his freedom and peace in Kurdistan. Ever since then the International Initiative—thanks to the support it has received from ordinary people, intellectuals and personalities around the world—has worked non-stop to this end and to help repair ties between not only Kurdish and Turkish peoples but all peoples of the region as well as to serve a just peace. The work has taken many shapes and many different tools were used to achieve this.

When the International Initiative discussed and took the decision to start a world wide signature campaign in September 2012 Mr Öcalan had already been kept under 8 months of total and aggravated isolation. No one had any news on him nor the other five prisoners that were taken there in November 2011. Imrali had now become an island prison where only Kurds were held and no rules applied: the Guantanamo Prison at the heart of Europe. There was no clue as to when this total isolation would end. Human rights organizations either had no mandate to act, they were lost in bureaucracy or simply this was being used as a precedent to cut back rights further. After all who would argue in favor of a "terrorist." This is the case to date.

It was not difficult to feel and understand that it was a critical period almost like 1999. Although the death penalty was no longer legally available it was the time when it was most used rhetorically. Thus the work began six months ahead to be able to declare the world wide signature campaign. One thousand first signatories initiated the beginning of the official start of the signature campaign on 6 September 2012 in Brussels on the basis of International World Peace Day. The aim was monumental: To break the total isolation that had never been as aggravated and as long ever since the abduction of Öcalan 15 years ago as well as to shatter the silence of the international public. This was the reason behind the demand for the release of Öcalan and all other political prisoners. Here we arrived at a point where we were no longer talking about an individual (although let us not forget that above all he is a human being with rights) or a leader. Because Öcalan had become a factor that determined the future of the Kurdish people and Middle East. Gerry Adams, Prof. Antonio Negri, Prof. Immanuel Wallerstein, Prof. Achin Vanaik and other intellectuals and politicians from South America, Europe, Asia, Russia and Middle East as well as MPs and NGOs were amongst the first thousand signatories calling for Öcalan's freedom.

Before the International Initiative began this campaign KHRG (The Kurdish Human Rights Group in South Africa) was also consulted and their support which numbered in tens of thousands attained. At the same time NGOs, trade unions, political parties from the Basque country, Cyprus, Peru, Philippines, Germany, England and France supported the signature campaign. It is important emphasize the effort and work put in by Fidan Dogan which resulted in a strong support from French Communist Party as well as many well known NGOs and personalities.

The Real Influence of Such Campaigns

To date many signature campaigns, protests and marches demanding Öcalan's freedom have been realized. All these have helped to further and better the situation of Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish people in general. When we look at the world of the 1970s Kurdish people were not only invisible and denied in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey but also in Europe and all around the world. But in 2014 Kurds are not only the most dynamic and revolutionary power of Turkey but also that of Middle East and the world. The reason is simple; the Kurds are not just revolting they are organized and have a clear picture of their alternative.

However, it was not easy to make the transition from Öcalan being under the threat of death penalty and a people under the threat of genocide to an Öcalan and a people that have the capacity to determine the future of Turkey and Middle East. Usually we do have people asking us whether such signature campaigns or similar actions have any effect at all. Perhaps the most concrete example is the stance displayed by all Kurds around the world—simultaneously—when Öcalan was abducted. This not only prevented the death penalty but also paved the way for any future dialogue because once again Kurdish people displayed that Öcalan is the indisputable leader of the Kurdish people.

Throughout the 15 years there have been many campaigns by many different organizations and each and every campaign has brought a different stage with itself. For example the Free Citizen Movement in Turkey started a signature campaign that declared "Öcalan represents my political will" in 2005-2006 gathered 3.5 million signatures despite the arrests, imprisonments, oppression, confiscation of signatures in Turkey and in even in Europe. Kurdish people as a whole have no officially recognized right as a people to elections or referendum. Thus such campaigns, despite the hardship and oppression they face, have a huge significance in declaring the demands and will of the Kurdish people.

Indeed the campaign that ran between 2005-2006 was also a response to the colonial insistence by Turkey and European states on the Kurds to "Find yourselves another leader." The result of that signature campaign has enabled the Kurds to invalidate such policies to a great extent. Whilst on the one hand racist-colonialist regime attempts to create data to legitimize its own regime Kurdish people and different peoples, intellectuals, responsible politicians and progressive NGOs have taken up actions and protests to shatter these projections. Kurdish people have thus moved on from declaring Abdullah Öcalan—despite harsh conditions—to be their "political representative" to demanding his freedom with the support of their friends around the world.

The campaign has spread from Europe to all around the world since its start. From the total isolation situation of Öcalan in 2011 and 2012 we moved into a period of renewed talks in 2013. Ever since then the signature campaign continued with a renewed aim to shatter prejudices that have been built around Abdullah Öcalan and Kurdish peoples struggle for existence and freedom. We also aimed to correct incorrect information disseminated and to educate the society about what really happened and how it can be remedied. Kurdish people and Mr Öcalan as a result of official colonial policies had been criminalized and wrongly introduced to the mainstream public. It was thus important to find creative methods and put in a lot of effort. It is time that our efforts are coupled with the policies of the European states that can be done by opening up the political, social, cultural arena to the Kurdish people.

In addition, despite the conditions in Rojava, and the other parts of Kurdistan we are happy to say that they too have recently joined in the campaign. Especially in Turkey people have yet again were arrested for collecting signatures or giving signatures.

There were many inspiring people throughout the campaign. It was possible to see Kurdish, French or people from other nationalities in trams, in front of universities or city squares or in shopping centers collecting signatures. Some found creative methods to make their signature collection more appealing. Like those in Sweden: Those who have their signatures were given a lemon. Lemons that had 'terrorist' written on them. Why? Because in Turkey who ever was caught with a lemon was immediately arrested since lemon was good for the burning effects of pepper spray used by the Turkish security forces against protesters. A brilliant and plain correlation between lemon-protest-usage of pepper spray and Kurdish question. They not only obtained signatures but sent the 'terrorist' lemons as guests to homes for something to contemplate on.

Let alone getting so many signatures from such a huge number of people to even come into contact with them and explaining the situation of the Kurdish people and that of Öcalan to them was in itself significant. To this end many different materials in many different languages were prepared by the International Initiative. These can be reached from www.freeocalan.org or ocalan-books.com. The data created from such campaigns shall be utilized for many years to come.

The "Art for Öcalan" Campaign

In parallel we have also initiated the "Art for Öcalan." The details to this campaign can be found at the Art for Öcalan website. This campaign aims to express the so far not so well expressed relationship between Abdullah Öcalan, Kurdish people, freedom and women's freedom. But it also aims to educate the wider public on the past, present and demands of the Kurdish people and Öcalan's ideas. We already have an extensive work that has come in from Brazil, South Africa, USA, South America, Italy, Germany as well as Kurds from different parts of Kurdistan. Through this campaign we wish to encourage the development of different branches of art. We have used the work that has already come in printing postcards and based smaller campaigns on them such as 'send Öcalan 20 thousand birthday cards' for Öcalan's 64th birthday in April 2013. We also printed selected works on t-shirts and on canvas and made them available for solidarity sale. On top of this we plan to organize exhibitions that shall display the work that has come in the near future. There is still work that is being done to this end. The International Initiative is in search for a campaign song which shall be the official song of the freedom for Öcalan campaign.

Since the re-start of talks early 2013 and Öcalan's 2013 Newroz message the Kurdish question has officially taken a new turn. The official world and Turkey's policy on the denial of Kurds have been shattered to pieces. In its place the fiercest struggle to determine the future life of the Kurds and the people of the region have begun. Although the eminent danger to eliminate the Kurds lingers on, the new period and struggle to implement an alternative system involves more a change of mentality of each and every individual: Alternative life is not an abstract concept. Just as there is a chance that the Middle East will become a graveyard of cultures and beliefs there is even a bigger chance that the sphere of freedom will be widened. The struggle given will determine the end result.

Thus, imagination seems to be an important half of realizing dreams the other half is to put them in words and to show the courage to implement them. Indeed, Freedom for Öcalan is not just demanding freedom for an individual but to guarantee the freedom of the Kurdish people and amity between peoples irreversibly.

Each and every campaign have been a great response to the changing conditions in Turkey, region or the world. The world-wide signature campaign has officially come to an end today. Although this campaign has been initiated and led by the International Initiative we are proud to say that the campaign has become that of everyone's. Many Kurdish organizations as well as French Communist Party, KHRAG—South Africa, other world-wide organizations, institutions and personalities from Phillipines, the Basque country as well as many German and British people and many others have given a top priority to this campaign. There has been participation from all continents around the world. This is what makes it a world-wide campaign.

We would like to once again acknowledge the efforts and work of individuals around Europe and the friends of the Kurdish people around the world in their effort, creativeness, persistence and continuity and congratulate all involved. The campaign has reached 10,328,623 signatures (9,548,303 of these already confirmed by a notary). This is probably one of, if not the biggest, signature campaign for the freedom of a political prisoner that the world has ever seen.

February 15th, 2015, the Kurdish people and their friends marked yet another day in our calender as they completed 12 days of march from three different starting points under extreme winter cold; Luxemburg, Frankfurt and Bern. They all demanded one thing marking the 16th anniversary of their leader's abduction—Freedom for Öcalan and Freedom for Kurdistan—and this is only a matter of time.

Editorial Comment

An earlier version of this article was first published in German in Kurdistanreport, August 2014.