DW travelled to the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq to meet Media, the German nurse who has spent the last 20 years helping and treating fighters and civilians in the PKK stronghold.
DW: Media is a common Kurdish name but not for somebody from Hamburg. Can you disclose your real name?
Media: There's no need to. That chapter of my life is over.
How and when did you decide to leave your native Hamburg behind and come to this troubled part of the world?
I had already met Kurds in Germany in the cultural center they have in Hamburg but I wanted to learn more about them and to see things myself. In 1990 I visited Kurdistan (under Turkish control) for the first time. I spent six weeks and I saw a lot of things which left a very strong impression on me. My second trip to the area was in 1992. I recall a German-made tank bombing a Kurdish village in Midyat area, around 800 kilometers southeast of Ankara. There were no fighters there, just scared civilians, wounded children, women... Many of them were hiding inside a church until the Turkish soldiers finally took it over. After witnessing that and several other episodes of indiscriminate violence I decided that, as a human being, I couldn't just fold my arms and watch. I had met people who had been brutally tortured in prison, displaced villagers, etc but all of them would keep their hope amid such a mess.
So you decided to stay?
I did but first I travelled back to Germany to learn more about the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). I found out that people linked to the PKK had a very solid political discourse. They were strong and ready to make huge sacrifices to achieve their goals.
Were you already politically active back in Germany?
Not until I met the Kurds. There are many so-called revolutionary parties in Germany but all they do is talk. I was looking for something that could really bring a change and I couldn't find it among them
You say you have not been back in Germany since you arrived in the Qandil mountains 1993. How do you remember that moment?
1993 was the year of the first ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK but there were no signs of that here, in the Qandil mountains. Bombing was as heavy as it used to be so I had to struggle to cope with the huge amount of wounded fighters in the little hospital we had then.
Did you get any combat training at some point?
No, I was already working as a nurse in Hamburg and that's what I've done here for the last two decades. Other than that, I also train paramedic staff like the three Kurds working with me here today and I also travel to Mahmur camp - a refugee camp for Turkish Kurds in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq - to help when they need me, either through medical assistance or training.
How did you manage to establish this hospital? Where did you get the funds from?
The previous one we had in the village of Lewzha was bombed by the Turkish aircraft four years ago. I was lucky enough to be training people that day in another village. After the incident, I was travelling from village to village depending on the needs of the local people until we managed to erect this building in 2012. Funds come from private sources, from either Kurdistan or the Kurdish diaspora but we have no institutional help whatsoever. Nonetheless, the Kurdish Regional Government contributed recently with medicines. In a normal day we get an average of 30 medical consultations.
Both fighters and civilians?
Even people from as far as Suleymania, some 260 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, show up. Most of them complain of a corrupt health system they can't afford. A few days ago I tended to a woman who had had 12 x-rays taken of the same shoulder and I can tell you about many similar cases; a man who had lost a kidney due to unnecessary surgery, a girl who had spent months with an infection because she had been injected with an unsterilized syringe… Corruption is rife in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, and many health personnel only seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the sick. There's another hospital in Lewzha today run by the Kurdish Regional Government but it's poorly equipped and not working as it should.
Back to politics, are you confident about the ongoing peace process between Ankara and the PKK?
Kurdish fighters are pulling back from Turkish soil and coming here as agreed last March but there's still no move from the Turkish side. I also want to say that people in the Middle East have lived together and in harmony for thousands of years but things turn wrong when either religious or ethnic lines are drawn among them. Today, the Kurds are fighting for their most basic rights but they've always stressed the fact that they're willing to live in peace with Turks, Arabs, Persians as well all the rest of the people living in the region.
You've witnessed 20 years of a war that has been going on for over 30 years. Many point to a "frozen" conflict with no visible changes. Do you agree?
In fact there's been a massive change among the Kurds. Today not only are they not afraid of saying they are Kurdish, they're even proud about it. It's a fundamental change that has made them struggle to get education in their own language and means to support their culture. Some years ago most of them would keep out of things but today they all know they have to fight for their own freedom.
How long will you stay here?
I will stay as long as they need me. People in Europe are turning their backs on the Kurds and the people in the Middle East as a whole. However, the number of European individuals joining the Kurds is growing by the day. Only last month three new volunteers arrived from Germany.