That cursed clown! The plastic doll is perched on a shelf just above his head, contemptuously smiling down at him. The bright red, plastic lips are taunting him: You, they seem to say, you used to fight with the PKK against the Turkish army. And now look at you in your small, dark shop selling cheap clothes imported from Turkey. A traitor, the clown smirks, a Kurd selling Turkish goods in Northern Iraq, when six of your friends died in the mountains in just one month. They died, while Soran (not his real name) was sitting on his wobbly plastic stool, drinking sugary tea and jumping to attention whenever customers walk into his shop in Dohuk.
Soran dislikes the clown, but he will not take him down either. His mother, who lives in Istanbul, sent it to him, along with the Turkish clothes he is selling: brightly coloured, long-sleeved t-shirts and modestly shapeless skirts, that hang like sacks from the mannequins. He has not seen Istanbul in more than a decade: Soran had to flee from Turkey when he was 16 years old.
'They just shot him'
He and three friends had painted Kurdish slogans on a wall in Istanbul. "Free Kurdistan, or something like that, I can't really remember," he shrugs. In Turkey in the 1990s speaking Kurdish or giving a child a Kurdish name was a criminal offence. The PKK, classified as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and Turkey, was violently fighting for Kurdish rights.
Soldiers had been watching Soran and his friends. "They threw us on the ground, counted, one, two, three and when they got to four, they just shot him, just like that." They were just normal Kurdish teenagers, Soran says angrily, not terrorists - not yet. The remaining three boys were condemned to long prison sentences. "I fled to Europe on a forged passport," Soran says.
It was only once he arrived in Germany that he made contact with the PKK: He met some Kurds who were members of a cell. They took him in, provided him with a place to sleep - and recruited him. His job was to collect money from Kurds living in Germany: he used to visit small corner shops and vegetable vendors, but also Kurdish mafia bosses. They all paid up. "They knew they didn’t have a choice."
He wanted to fight
He spent some time in a German jail, where he learnt his fluent German - and a potpourri of colourful swear words. But he is unwilling to talk about his time in prison. When he was freed, he left for the Kurdish mountains. High up in the Kurdish mountain range the PKK runs its training camps, implicitly tolerated by the regional government of semi-autonomous Kurdish Northern Iraq. He wanted to fight, really fight, he says, "not just collect money." With his glasses and unkempt hair, it is easier to imagine Soran as a sociology or history graduate student, than cleaning his Kalashnikov in the mountains.
PKK fighters guard the access roads to the mountains. "You need to know the right people to get past the roadblocks," he says. "In the mountains," he continues, reminiscing as he tells the story, "there are even hospitals. The infrastructure is amazing."
'They thought you’re a spy'
But in the mountains Soran was greeted with suspicion. "They don't trust you, of course. They say: you've had such an easy life in Europe, what do you know about fighting? And they think that you've been recruited as a spy." His idealism was shattered.
And yet, somehow, he continued to believe in his surrogate family, in the ideals of freedom and that the legitimacy of armed struggle. After a couple of months in the mountains he was imprisoned, he says bitterly, by his PKK brothers. Some friends helped him escape. He was picked up by the Kurdish authorities and brought to Dohuk. He is not allowed to leave the small, conservative town and believes that both the Kurdish and Turkish secret services are watching him.
It was in Dohuk that his father finally found him. He had not had any contact with his family for 15 years, he says. His mother had the idea of the small shop and regularly sends him the clothes to sell. He is aware of the irony of selling Turkish clothes. "But what can I do, I need to survive." His parents want him to settle down, marry, start a new life in Iraq.
For even though Kurds have been granted more rights in Turkey, due in no small part to pressure from the European Union, he is unable to return to Istanbul: "I’m still on some blacklist." Soran would like to study, have a girlfriend, "you know, just lead a normal, boring life." Maybe one day, he says, he’ll get himself a forged passport and go back to Europe.
The freedom of the mountains
And, moreover, he cannot forget the mountains: the feeling of unity, of freedom, and of purpose, the camaraderie born out of the fighting. Today, he is feeling particularly lonely - and guilty. The Turkish military is bombarding the mountains, in retaliation for attacks launched against Turkish army bases in Southern Turkey, while he is safely tucked away in his shop. He is unsure what to do. Should he return to the mountains?
In winter the mountains are bitterly cold, covered in snow. "It's not a place for a winter holiday", Soran says, contemptuously. The Turkish army will suffer, he is sure. And they cannot win. "We," he means the fighters, "move around all the time, they wont be able to find us." PKK fighters are more mobile than the Turkish army, he explains, with their light weapons - mostly Kalashnikovs - they can melt away into the mountains easily.
Asos Hardi, the editor of the Kurdish newspaper Awene agrees: "The Turkish army can't defeat the PKK in the mountains. You have to remember that even under Saddam Hussein it was impossible to control those areas, high up in the mountains."
The Kurdish government has strongly condemned the attacks. And yet, its relationship with Turkey is complicated - and based on strong economic ties: Long lines of lorries carrying goods wait patiently at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing. Turkish construction companies have built the luxury hostels of the Kurdish region's capital, Erbil, and have paved the roads connecting the region with Turkey.
But increasingly, the ties are political, too. Hardi is convinced that the Turkish government is exerting pressure on the Kurdish and Iraqi government to deal with the "PKK problem".
"The more extremist elements in the Turkish government want to put pressure on the Kurdish government to cooperate in the attack on the PKK." This, he continues, is a huge embarrassment for the Kurdish authorities. For Iraqi Kurds support the PKK fighters. "They are seen as our Kurdish brothers, fighting for their rights."
Should the fighting continue, he will leave his clothes, Soran says. "I won't stay in this bloody shop. I will join the war." His parents would mind, of course, he adds, as an afterthought. For now he will stay put, like the clown, mockingly smiling down at him.
Author: Naomi Conrad
Editor: Rob Mudge