Thursday, October 18, 2007


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.

Harald Doornbos


Inger said...

Wat een mooi tragikomisch verhaal. En wat maakt toch dat 'grote' mannen bij dit soort zaken reddeloos door het ijs gaan?

Iormungandr said...

For us 'Western folks' it is hard to understand why people would act as fake and patronizing towards Öcalan as happens in this story. I think it is a lie from all people who are there 'playing' with Öcalan. Everybody who was present that day must have known that he could not truly beat the opposing team with a perfect score.

But what 'we' see as fake and dishonest, I think 'they' must perceive that as loyal and respectful towards their leader. It's a way for them to show him that they don't question his authority and leadership. They are willing to follow him anywhere for the cause of (as you put it) a free Kurdistan first, and its great leader Öcalan second.

This is a very nice anecdote which illustrates a cultural difference between 'them' and 'us'.

Harald Doornbos said...

bedankt voor comment. De hele periode in het kamp (en nog een paar andere wereldgebeurtenissen/ervaringen trouwens) heeft er wel toe geleid dat ik zelf definitief afscheid heb genomen van flirten met communisme, anarchisme en weet ik veel wat voor ander -isme. Kan ik de PKK aanklagen voor "onbewust meewerken aan het verlies van idealen?" lol, doeg

Harald Doornbos said...

Thanks for interesting comment. I think your words are spot on.

And with rapidly expanding globalisation (which I think is totally ok), these kind of cultural
"misunderstandings" or just differences will play an increasingly important role in the future.


Anonymous said...

Ach verheerlijk de terroristen weer. Lang leve de olie he!;)Ohw en niet vergeten 'water'. Dankzij PKK is de Turkse leger zeer machtig geworden en super ervaren.

m.p. said...

oh, great, i was waiting for that story!

tolga özkurt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
world peace said...

is this leadership? another name of dictatorship i think. here in mideast the so called leaders of armed forces of any kind have charismatic(!) leaders with absolute power. people show their respect(may be fear) in them by the ways like that. and do you really think that pkk is a free revolutionist organisation? I don't think so. They are (may be not knowing the truth) used people by international capitalists-usa (who love war in the name of money). I pray for my people of mideast, one day peace will come to this region. The problem is not Turkish-Kurdish conflict, the problem is the chaos environment always created by money bosses.

Elestirel Gunluk said...

First, I have to say that I approach these kinds of information with a doubt in this virtual environment. I do not know your credibility. But I (have to) assume that you write and tell the story honestly because I do not have any negating information now. So here it goes.
If this story is true, what the guerillas did was wrong. Very wrong! It is even pathetic! I do not know if it is imperative to have a totally submissive vision towards a leader in a guerilla movement or not but this is beyond reason, it is inhumane.
Finally, I do not think it is cultural though. Even if it is cultural, a freedom fighter has to deconstruct his/her own oppressive cultural elements first. Otherwise how could they consider themselves to be a freedom fighter?

Harald Doornbos said...

@Elestirel Gunluk,
understand why you doubt the story, volleyball with Apo sounds rather strange. But it truly happened, every bit of it. i visited the camp in spring 1992, accompanied by my friend Kees de Jonge, also a journalist. The interview with Apo was, in 1992, published in a dutch newspaper called 'Trouw'. As i started 'war-reporting' in 1991, this was one of the first things i did.

If behaviour of Apo and his fighters was due to culture or stalinism, that's a good question. i think its a mix. anyhow, hope you are a little bit more convinced this is not some kind of bullshit story. cheers,

Elestirel Gunluk said...

Harald I appreciate your sensitivity and response. I am wondering if the bodyguards or other guerrillas have provided any reason to justify their act later on.

Harald Doornbos said...

no, they never mentioned it again. Neither did i by the way. Being their guest, i didn't want to push my luck too much.

That said: I knew what had happened. And the volleyball match wasn't the only anti-socialist thing going on in the camp.

anyway, except of the interview with Apo, I actually never published anything about it in any of my stories until ten days ago on my blog.

Sometimes it's just so painfully clear that - as the saying goes - 'in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is'.


Elestirel Gunluk said...

Thank you very much Harald. Isn't it awful to see how “freedom fighters” may become alike to their enemy? I feel like I am in George Orwell’s 1984…

mirdifderya said...

Dear Harald,

You were brave enough to go up there and having interview with them, but its good/bad publicity for them at the end isn't it.

Sorry for my curiosity but why call him Mr. Ocalan?:) He is not Mr. at all!

Ugur Kaymaz said...

Even though i have no sympathy to Mr. Ocalan, I disgust those who reduce a social ill in a level of one person and disregard the real problem (kurdish problem).

mirdifderya's commend is one of those approaches that convince me the existence of Turkish fascism towards minorities. Those are too occupied with their hate so that they deal with something else not the real problem, such as how Ocalan is called. I find these approach too cheap,ignorant, inhumane, and hateful.

Get a life people.

Harald Doornbos said...


Why Mr. Ocalan???
Well, I didn't notice any boobs...

Anonymous said...

Right on Harald! :-)

tolga özkurt said...
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Ozan said...

first of all ı want to ask a question.
what is terorism for u?
öcalan is the leader of an organization which not only fight with Turkish soldier but also kills the innocent citizens and sells drugs to support its financial and the murder of the 30.000 people included in both Turkish Soldiers and Turkish innocent citizens that is why we do not call ocalan 'mr' and it is illegal in Türkiye that is why pkk is a terrorist organization. so u as a brave journalist should know the difference between rebbelion or millitan and TERRORİST than as an indepentent journalist you should not be afraid of calling a terrorist as a terorist. U analyzed the sitiuation very well but u named as a good leader ocalan was a fachist leader of a racist kürt terorist organization which trys to show itself as marxist for a dream revolution which aims to divede the Türkiye
but they ara gonna understand that it is just a hopeless dream soon.

Observer said...

Turkish state is a real terrorist. It is not only terrorist against Kurds but also it is a terrorist its own people. It is a state that tortures 13 years old children for being suspicious in a burglary case... I mean it does not even provide a better - safe living conditions for its own citizen. It launches psychological warfare against its own citizen. Look at its history of human rights violation...