The face behind the PKK story

Every journalist who's visited the PKK's mountain stronghold in recent years knows Zagros Hiwa. He is the first point of contact for reporters looking to cover the Kurdish guerrilla movement, reports Karlos Zurutuza.


Zagros Hiwa speaks from an undisclosed location in the Qandil mountains, Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Iraq–Iran border. by Karlos Zurutuza

When circumstances allow, Zagros Hiwa always answers the phone or his e-mail. He is a mandatory first stop for journalists who want to interview a high-ranking guerrilla or simply to pay a visit to the central command of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. The area is easily reachable from the Iraqi Kurdish plains, but the situation up in the Qandil Mountains is often unpredictable.

‘Right now we are suffering continuous bombardments and reconnaissance activities of the Turkish army,’ Hiwa told New Internationalist just after the first PKK checkpoint. ‘Many villagers have lost their houses to the bombs, but there have been no civilian casualties in December so far,’ he added.

During several visits, Hiwa had arranged meetings between this reporter and several people linked to the PKK, which is banned in Turkey and regarded as a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States. He said it's not rare for senior commanders to walk for days across the massif to meet journalists. Now it was his turn to be interviewed.

The debris of houses shelled by the Turkish Army in Qandil.

Karlos Zurutuza

From an undisclosed location in the mountain range, the 40-year-old spoke of being born in the Kurdish region of Iran and still very young when the Islamic revolution shook the country in 1979. Even so, he recalled ‘vivid images’ from his childhood.

‘I remember people fleeing when the Iranian army entered Kurdistan; I remember executions in the streets ... We had to leave our village to go Sanandaj – a major Iranian Kurdish town,’ the Kurdish militant related.

Although the Kurds in Iran had played an active role in the uprising that overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the new leadership under Ayatollah Khomeini crushed a Kurdish nationalist uprising after the fall of the tyrant who had ruled the country since 1941.

As displaced peasants, Hiwa's parents struggled to make ends meet for their seven children in the city. But he was fortunate.

‘As a school student I had a very good teacher who boosted my interest for foreign languages, and I finally ended up graduating in English language and literature from the University of Sanandaj in 1996,’ he said.

He carried on in academia, earning a Masters degree in teaching English as a foreign language at the same time as he taught high school, but his path to a higher degree was barred.

‘I did pass my exam to conduct my PhD at the University of Shiraz, but the supervisory body labelled me as a “potential threat to the state,” so I was finally discarded,’ he lamented. Being Sunni and Kurdish, he stressed, was a double handicap in a country governed for and by Shiite Persians.

Zagros Hiwa poses next to the portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader.

Karlos Zurutuza

With his academic career a dead end, Hiwa joined the PKK, prompted by the ‘international plot to arrest Abdullah Öcalan,’ the imprisoned co-founder and leader of the group in 1999.

‘Öcalan's arrest spoke volumes of the abandonment Kurds have historically been subjected to. After reading Öcalan's books and discussing his ideas with fellow Kurds, I decided to join the movement in 2001,’ said Hiwa, just before pointing to a buzz overhead. ‘Can you hear it? It's a Turkish drone.’

An 'easy story'

Over the past 15 years, Hiwa says that he has had ‘all sort of duties’ within the military discipline. ‘I was even a teacher for a year,’ he recalled, noting that every new PKK recruit must complete a three-month course of military and ideological training. In 2013 he was appointed the guerrillas' press officer in the Qandil Mountains and he’s also the movement spokesperson.

Hiwa has seen the number of journalists in Qandil increase significantly since the so-called ‘Islamic State’ became active in the region in spring 2014.

David Meseguer, senior editor at Vice News in Spanish, is among those who have covered the PKK story in the mountains during numerous visits.

PKK fighters in the Qandil mountains, the Kurdish guerrilla's stronghold.

Karlos Zurutuza

‘You can even get to the area in a shared taxi from one of the locations down the valley. Zagros will pick you up at the first PKK checkpoint,’ Meseguer told me. ‘Paradoxically, today it is easier to work in the guerrilla mountain stronghold than in Turkey's Kurdish cities,’ he added, pointing to the case of Mohammed Rasool, a Vice News journalist who has been released from prison today since his arrest last August in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s biggest Kurdish town.

Tension has mounted due to an on-going offensive by Turkish security forces amid curfews and air strikes over major Kurdish cities in Turkey. Hundreds have been killed in the biggest spike of violence since a two-year truce between Ankara and the Kurdish movement collapsed in July. Turkish sources say a majority of the victims are PKK members, while Kurdish ones say scores of civilians have been among those killed.

Zagros Hiwa at one of the few PKK graveyards that have not yet been shelled by the Turkish Army.

Karlos Zurutuza

Miguel Fernandez Ibañez, a freelance journalist based in Ankara, is one of the few journalists who have reported both from inside the besieged Kurdish cities and PKK bases throughout 2015. Ibañez echoed Meseguer's assessment of the difficulties of reporting from the different locations.

‘That of the PKK mountain stronghold in Qandil is probably one of the easiest stories to get as long as you have contacted Zagros beforehand to arrange your visit. On the contrary, I'm fully aware that by reporting today from Kurdish towns in Turkey I can be deported, or even face a prison sentence in the worst case scenario,’ Ibañez said, adding that risks are ‘significantly’ higher for local journalists.

Communication lines between the Kurdish movement and media agents have been fluid since the PKK took arms in 1984. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, another familiar face in the Qandil mountains, as well as a respected Kurdistan observer, points to a ‘weighty’ reason behind this factor:

PKK fighters in the Qandil mountains, the Kurdish guerrilla's stronghold.

Karlos Zurutuza

‘The PKK wants to make sure that their message comes out, since they have to compete with the Turkish government that has easier access to news outlets and press agencies,’ the Dutch analyst explained.

The role of media proved extremely central in the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa and, today, the PKK is far from being the only dissident organization that pays attention to media relations. ‘Just look at Syria, where almost every single group has its own spokesperson,’ noted van Wilgenburg.

Back in the Qandil Mountains, Hiwa was blunt about what he labels a ‘real war’ going on in Kurdistan: ‘This crackdown shows that Turkey regards Kurdistan as a colony, and that it has invaded it. The Kurds do not want independence. The only thing they demand and struggle for is a democratic self-rule within the borders of a democratic Turkey.’

A Cizre resident produces ammunition reportedly used by the Turkish Army.

Karlos Zurutuza

Meanwhile, Hiwa's challenge is coping with the growing number of reporters who want to get the PKK story in the Qandil Mountains. He says there are a few who come ‘to confirm preconceived notions,’ but underlines that the majority of the reporters tell the truth.

He last met his family in 2005, when they visited him in the Qandil Mountains. It could hardly have been otherwise since he has dedicated himself to the PKK.

His days pass either hosting journalists or writing press releases. He also takes time to watch debates on Kurdish TV channels and to read. Apparently, his interest in languages has not faded. He recently finished reading ‘Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages’ by Canadian writer Mark Abley.

‘I still see myself as a life-long student. During my time in the mountains I have improved my English, my Turkish, my Persian and my Arabic. And, what is more, I've learned a lot about both the role and the language of the media,’ said Hiwa, at the end of an interview he had never expected.

If you want to know more about Kurdistan, read the other exclusive interviews for New Internationalist:

Riza Altun, co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union and executive member of the Kurdistan Communities Union: A turning point for Kurds across the Middle East

Macer Gifford, the British currency trader who left all to join the Kurdish front line: ‘My revolution across Syria and beyond’

Bese Hozat, female co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union: ‘Freedom can’t be contained by a wall’