The group is accused of abducting, threatening, and deceiving hundreds of vulnerable minors for recruitment, a special report seen by TRT World reveals.
A fourteen-year-old girl was struggling to find purpose in her life while attending an elementary school in the southeastern city of Hakkari, where the Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi borders meet.
“I had a lot of quarrels with my parents about my attitude,” she recalls, “I thought they had not loved me at all.”
Feeling lost, she started to spend more time with her friends after school in a teahouse instead of going straight home. After some time passed, she met a boy. Later, one of the boy’s friends made her an offer that would change her life forever.
“You don’t have to do your homework because your family pushes you to do so. Even you can drop it. You are a Kurd, you must fight for us. You will have a better life on the mountain.”
The offer made her think that she finally had a ‘cause’ and some purpose in her life. A few days later, they took her to another location on the southern side of the city to meet a person with a Kalashnikov.
“We travelled for three days to reach a camp in Iraq, where we got our military training,” she said.
This minor’s story is testimony from a former member of the PKK terrorist organisation who surrendered to Turkish security officials recently, a special report prepared within the Turkish government and obtained by TRT World shows. This story is just one of hundreds.
“The terror group, which has had difficulties in finding new members in recent years, has started to recruit personnel by kidnapping and deceiving minors who are more vulnerable to abuse. This method is carried out by abducting children, or by exploiting the child's environment, emotional and psychological sensitivities,” the report said.
“Minors are deceived and brainwashed more easily. PKK has been using this method as a terror strategy for a long time,” Security expert Abdullah Agar told TRT World.
“The group tries to program these kids to kill at an early age in a way that they might turn out to be devoted members in the long term.”
Around 440 minors escaped from the terror group and returned to their families over the past five years, the report reveals. In a four-year period, some 80 minors were exposed to several dehumanising methods.
“If you don’t pay money, your kid will fight for us”
The report sheds light on the group's recruitment activities in urban centres and rural areas as well.
The writers of the report say the organisation attaches great importance to the support of women and youth for its survival. In this regard, group members arrange meetings, and gatherings to spread propaganda and kidnapping is primarily aimed at youth in universities and high schools.
The group prefers psychological influence with an emphasis on themes such as "valour”, “bravery”, “self-sacrifice” and ”the cause". A majority of the bodies of members found after operations were those of young recruits, the report said.
Child soldiers in rural areas are assigned to various units and committees of the organisation to commit terror acts.
People who live in areas controlled by the PKK, or the YPG, the Syrian branch of the organisation, are required to pay money to the organisation. Those families who cannot pay are obliged to send at least one child to the group in return.
In certain rural regions where the terrorist group operates a “military law” is in place which forcefully conscripts children at age 15 to join their ranks if the organisation ‘needs’ it. With the recruitment of children, a connection is further formed between families and the organisation, the report stressed.
“I was trained to use sniper rifles”
The report includes statements from children who were abducted or deceived by the group and were subsequently caught or surrendered to the security forces.
In one shocking testimony, a former male member shared that he was abducted by the urban youth wing of the group, YDGH, and was handed to the YPG.
“I was working as an errand boy in a barbershop in Sirnak. As soon as I passed to Syria, I was sent to a training camp designed for child soldiers. There with another 80 children, we were taught to use hand grenades and guns like sniper rifles and AK-47s.”
Another young girl from a western city relayed she was molested by one of the group’s members, who recorded it and threatened to share it with her family unless she consented to join the organisation. “I would have been disgraced,” she said.
One female member said that she was kidnapped while she was looking after grazing animals in a meadow near their village in another southeastern city.
“We should not miss the financial dimension of the topic. They are paying less money to child soldiers, maybe one-tenth of a professional fighter,” Agar added.
A clear violation of international law
The 1949 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons prohibits the recruitment of child soldiers in conflicts. Recruiting children under the age of 15 is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court.
The YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK, which Turkey, the US and the EU designate as a terrorist group. The PKK has waged a terror campaign against Turkey for over 30 years and the fighting has left more than 40,000 dead, including civilians.
The group has declared its desire for an autonomous region in northern Syria since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.
However, Washington has chosen the group as an ally on to fight against Daesh in Syria despite Ankara’s protest, sweeping the links between the PKK and the YPG under the rug.
In an attempt to calm its ally, the US formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Syrian militants from different ethnic groups in 2015. However, it was just a rebranding of a group dominated by the YPG.
While the PKK mainly operates in the mountainous regions in northern Iraq, the YPG has managed to occupy one-third of Syria through US military and political support.
The YPG agreed in July last year to a UN-mandated action plan to stop the recruitment of children to fight in its ranks. However, cases continue to be reported by local and international media. The issue still has never gained sustained international traction.
A US Central Command (CENTCOM) tweet in 2017 drew harsh criticism from children rights groups, which still stands on their account, showing young girls with military uniforms.
Victims’ families are protesting
A sit-in protest outside the provincial office of a Turkish opposition political party started on September 3, 2019, after a mother, Fevziye Cetinkaya, said her 17-year-old son was forcibly recruited by the PKK, through members of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). The Turkish government accuses it of having links to the YPG/PKK. The number of people who support the protest tops 150.
The testimonies in the report also confirmed children were directed to the group from offices of the party.
The technological development of the Turkish army and countless successful operations have inflicted a heavy blow on the PKK, as thousands of its members were killed in air strikes, or ground operations.
Apart from military tactics, Turkish security officials also use the persuasion method in which members of the terror group are convinced to lay down their weapons and yield to security forces.
A total of 230 PKK members have yielded this year, according to the Interior Ministry's database.
“These abused are all our children, we must protect them. The security operations only themselves will not be remedy to the problem, which has sociological, cultural and financial reasons. The group’s contact with the vulnerable kids and families must be cut,” Security Expert Agar said.