After spending nearly 10 years in prison for being a member of the PKK terror group, Aytekin Yilmaz has dedicated the rest of his life to narrating stories about child soldiers in the PKK ranks.
An increasing number of families in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s Kurdish-majority city in the southeast, have been protesting against the PKK since early September, asking the terror group to return their children.
It is not the first time that Kurdish families are demanding their children back with sit-in protests. And this time, it all started with one mother showing up outside the headquarters of the HDP party and accusing it of being the political front of the terror group. The incident triggered a public outcry as more and more families with similar stories arrived and the protest swelled up to 40 families demanding their children to be returned to them.
They say their children were first kidnapped and then brainwashed into joining PKK ranks in the nearby mountains, where they’re denied access to them.
The PKK's three-decade-long terror campaign against Turkey has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people across the country, including civilians. The group deploys various coercive tactics to recruit young men and women as foot soldiers.
Aytekin Yilmaz, a former PKK member, spent 10 years in jail before becoming a full-time writer. After his release, he devoted his life to telling the stories of the children inside the PKK camps. Yilmaz recently wrote They Were Only Children, a fictional account based on real life events.
TRT World spoke to him about his book and the ongoing sit-in protest in Diyarbakir.
- Can you please tell us about yourself?
I was in prison for 10 years in the 90s. I wrote books on the fighting in the mountains, between the PKK and Turkey. I've written three novels, and three documentary books on the issue so far. In my book They Were Only Children, I’m telling the tragic story of children taken to the mountains
- What’s your comment on the mothers who are protesting the abduction of their children by the PKK, in the context of your book They Were Only Children?
It was published four months ago. The realities that I’ve been striving to tell the world are now proven true with the protest of those mothers whose kids are either kidnapped or voluntarily went to the mountains. There has been a 35-year silence on this issue. The NGOs and individuals who defend human rights in the leftist circles, have been ignoring this issue and I’ve criticised this stance in my book. In this country, there is a leftist circle creating “freedom fighters” from children. Observably, these leftist circles still ignore the protest of the mothers and create excuses but sooner or later they will face the sad truth.
- What is the hardship that child PKK militants are going through?
It’s a humanitarian crime to turn a child into a soldier. In today’s world, many organisations in conflict zones are using children in the front lines and the PKK didn’t hesitate to do it for 35 years. There is no category called ‘child soldier’ in the [PKK] organisation. The soldiers under 18 are being called ‘civan’ (‘young’ in the Kurdish language.) When I was in prison in the 90s, these child soldiers were also being housed with adults in prison. After being further radicalised in prisons, we were hearing some of them have returned to the mountains [where the PKK is based].
All the stories I tell in my book are based on true stories, accounts of real witnesses. According to witnesses these children are catching colds and getting sick in the mountains -- it’s an extremely cold place for children. They also suffer from depression due to the mental and physical hardships of the adult environment of the organisation.
Children are eventually disappointed when they were forced to keep in line with the organisation's discipline, which is designed for adults. In my book, I told the stories of how some of those who regret joining and want to go back were executed.
- What kind of other obstacles do these children face?
It’s easy to join an illegal organisation, but hard to leave. It’s even harder for the ones in the mountains. In the fighting zone, the organisation has its own rules. For example, leaving the organisation without notifiying is a primary disciplinary offence and the punishment for these offences is the death penalty.
Especially in the 90s, the punishment for these offences was even more strict. I remember when three young boys were strangled to death in their prison ward in Erzurum in 1994. The stories of these children are being told in this book.
- How are the reactions to your book?
The book mostly focuses on the organisation aspect of the fighting in the mountains and it’s not taken well in the leftist circles when the subject is the PKK or organisations linked to it. But they are not able to object to these facts either.
They’re trying to undermine the stories that I tell in my book saying “Is it really the right time to discuss these issues?” or “who’s benefitting by this book?”
In They Were Only Children, I published papers regarding the 298 children who were killed in the 90s during the clashes between the Turkish state and the organisation. The leftist circles and human rights organisations were not interested in the fact that one-year-olds, three to five-year-olds were killed during PKK attacks on civilians.
- How is the PKK convincing children to live in the mountains with them?
A kid wouldn’t go the mountains voluntarily. A child is a child. Their parents are still responsible for them until adulthood. Convincing children to fight and live with PKK is a form of violence even if they're not physically being forced.
The organisation requested one child from every Kurdish family to join PKK under what they call “compulsory military service law” after 1987. This has been implemented forcefully in some areas for a long time.
- How effective could the state be in solving this problem?
This problem can’t be thought of as a separate one from the Kurdish problem in Turkey. We wouldn’t be witnessing the drama of these children if the Kurdish problem was solved. But the continuing Kurdish problem is still not an excuse for children being taken to the mountains. No solution to a problem should be a violent one.
The state has made enormous mistakes in the past, denied the existence of Kurdish people, assimilated them etc. In the state we are in, the existence of Kurdish people is no more being denied. We have to be insistent on the legal solutions. There is no place for violence to lead to a guerilla revolution.
- What caused these families to protest now?
What’s more natural than families demanding their children back? It’s an initiative that’s 35 years late and a rightful one. For 35 years, children have been taken to the mountains. Let’s assume the mothers were afraid to speak up, couldn’t raise their voices, what’s the excuse of political parties, NGOs, academics, writers and journalists? We need to talk about this long silence instead.
There are many NGOs including the word children in their names but they didn’t come up with an offer for the solution, it is as if they all agreed to keep silent. The mothers’ protest revealed what happened.
- How do you think the protests will create an impact?
There will be comprehensive results. We don’t know anything about the fate of these children if they’re dead or alive. But it’s not hard to imagine that it won’t be easy to take the children to the mountains anymore. To me, this is one of the most rightful and peaceful protests in 35 years in Turkey. These families say, “we don’t want to see our children holding a gun instead of pen and paper”. This a very human reproach, and it’s a civil voice. Any political approach that will overshadow this struggle should be avoided.