Or: How I, many years ago, played volleyball with the PKK-leader in his guerrilla camp in Lebanon's Beka'a valley. And believe it or not: He and his buddies cheated...
After Wednesday's parliamentary vote in Ankara, it is official now: The Turkish army may and will cross the Turkish-Iraqi border to go after PKK militants.
But let me take you back to spring 1992. In April of that year I stayed, with a colleague, for a week in the main PKK guerrilla camp. It was located in the, then Syrian controlled, Beka'a valley in Lebanon. Here I waited for an interview with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan (see picture right). And - to get the feeling of guerrilla life - me and my colleague were asked by the PKK militants to join them during their military training in and around the camp.
So we woke up at seven and did exercises with the rebels. We marched with the rebels. we climbed wooden structures with the rebels. We ran through mountains with the rebels (From nearby positions PKK instructors would shoot with live-ammunition right in front of you and scream: "Come on, come on - you would have been killed ten times over in Kurdistan!").
So yes - it was an amazing time.
And most of the PKK-militants seemed truly nice guys.
That said: We weren't free to do what we wanted. We had guards. We had to ask permission to go to the toilet. And yes - there were child soldiers in the camp (a couple of fourteen year old boys). And yes - most people were total fanatics. Like one Kurdish man in his fifties, who came up to me and said, speaking in German:
- Oh, I have such good news to tell you.
- So I asked him: What is the good news?
- "I just heard that my daughter was killed by the Turkish army," he answered, "You know, she was fighting, with us, you know. She completed her training here. And now she got martyred. I am a happy man. This is such good news. She is a martyr now."
I stared at him in amazement. First I thought: This guy is joking. But he wasn't and I would lie if I told you that he was not speaking the truth. Because at that moment, he was truly happy and proud his daughter got killed.
This was the scary and, to me, the sad part of the whole camp. Everybody you spoke to was ready to die. I don't mean a little bit ready, but very, very ready to die. First - for a free Kurdistan. Second - for Abdullah Ocalan, Apo, the Great Leader. During the first days I would tell people: "Well, I mean, ehh - Dying doesn't seem like something nice?!" But all of them would smile at me. "Sorry, but you are not Kurdish, you can't feel what we feel." After a while I did not even try anymore. Of course everybody here wanted to die - and there was not a single person who had a percentage of doubt in his heart or mind.
But the most interesting event during my time in the camp wasn't the military training, the camp life, the utter commitment to country and leader or - even - the interview with Abdullah Ocalan, Apo. No, the most interesting - and for sure most sobering - event was a volleyball match with Abdullah Ocalan. Especially because he and his buddies cheated.
One afternoon, me, my colleague and around ten militants were playing volleyball on a sports ground in the center of the camp (Which was surrounded by mountains with anti-aircraft guns on the peaks for protection against possible Turkish- or Israeli fighter jets). After playing volleyball for around 15 minutes a bunch of armed men walked towards the field (I did not notice them at first, as I was busy playing). The guys carrying guns were bodyguards, the only man without a weapon was nobody less than Abdullah Ocalan - the PKK leader. As they approached the field, all players fell silent.
"Apo is a man of the people," one bodyguard said, "He would like to play volleyball too."
Now everybody got extremely exited. The players nodded like "Yes, yes, yes", while many other militants who were drinking thee or discussing Marxism ran towards the volleyball field to see the Great Leader play. I only thought: "This is hilarious - I'm about to play volleyball with Abdullah Ocalan!"
Mr. Ocalan walked onto the field and joined the team at the other side of the net. As we were suppose to start serving, one of our team members hit the ball very gently to the other side. There, the ball was - again extremely gently - hit into the direction of Mr. Ocalan who immediately smashed the ball into our direction. Nobody from our side even tried to block him or return the ball.
After Mr. Ocalan scored, the players and the crowd applauded all very loudly. They clapped with such enthusiasm that it seemed something huge had happened in the History of the World.
Because of Mr. Ocalan's smash, his side got to serve now.
As of that moment it went all the time according to the same pattern. Apo's team served, we hit the ball back, two player's from Apo's team prepared the ball (almost handed it over to him, like it was made of velvet) and Mr. Ocalan smashed and scored yet another point. This, of course, was followed every time by a big applause.
After five minutes and at already 7-0 in favour of Apo's team, I looked at my Dutch colleague.
"This is getting silly, let's block him," I said.
"Good idea," he replied.
So they served again. Followed by our team's predictable response. And - surprise, surprise - two of Apo's teammates who politely played the ball in his direction. As Mr. Ocalan was about to smash and secure a certain 8-0, me and my colleague jumped high, stretched our arms and and blocked Mr. Ocalan. The ball hit the ground in Mr. Ocalan's part of the field.
"Oh, yes!," we yelled. Because now at least we would get our service back in order to make the match a little bit less one-sided and a bit more interesting.
But there wasn't any happy clapping.
Before we even could start celebrating, furious bodyguards ran onto the field and grabbed us by the arms and shoulders. We were literally dragged off the field. A couple of seconds later a PKK militant shouted at us: "Don't EVER, EVER do that again!". While the bodyguards kept us away from the field, we now were surrounded by hundreds of angry eyes.
"Sorry," we stuttered.
"Just stand here and don't play anymore," somebody told us.
"Just shut up," another militant said.
While we silently watched from outside the lines, we could see Apo score point after point. Everytime there was applause. At 15-0 the game was over. Apo's team had won. All the PKK fighters were happy, although delighted is a better word. Not only was he a great military leader, an incredibly wise Marxist and a fantastic leader of one of the worlds' fiercest guerrilla clubs - he too proved to be a natural born sportsman.
And I just could not believe that after the volleyball game, Mr. Ocalan wanted to play soccer. So around 20 militants and Mr. Ocalan started a match. All balls went, immediately, towards Apo who would - literally - pass ten, sometimes even 15 players (it was very much unclear who belonged to which team). All players (of both teams) either did not attack Mr. Ocalan or staged fake attacks at him. As I could see from a distance, Mr. Ocalan scored time after time. And just like during the volleyball game - every point scored was followed by a huge applause.
Mr. Ocalan was arrested in 1999 by the Turkish authorities. Today, he spends his days as the sole inmate of a jail, located on a Turkish island and guarded by 1000 Turkish troops.
While most Turks view Mr. Ocalan and the PKK as a bunch of terrorists (and now ready to follow them into northern Iraq), many Kurds still consider Mr. Ocalan their leader and the PKK an organisation which represents freedom.
I can't help it, but when if I think of Mr. Ocalan and the PKK I do not think of terrorism or freedom, but only of volleyball.