It was only three days after Zülküf Gezen, 32 years old, had taken his own life in prison, and there he was displayed already, printed on plastic and attached to the wall behind the stage at the Newroz celebrations in PKK territory in the northeast of Iraq. There, in the Qandil mountains, he had instantly been declared a ‘martyr’. After all, he had given his life out of protest against the isolation in which the leader of the Kurdish movement, Abdullah Öcalan, is being held. Now, more than a week and another three deaths later, the PKK calls on Kurdish political prisoners to stay alive.
The stage at Newroz in the Qandil mountains, 21 March 2019. Zülküf's portrait is the fourth from the right. Leyla Güven is pictured fifth from left. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink
Zülküf had been in jail since 2007. He was sentenced to two aggravated life sentences and a hundred years in prison for involvement in a bombing in Diyarbakır. On 1 March, he had decided to join a hunger strike, which had been started in November last year by Leyla Güven, MP for the leftist party HDP, who was imprisoned at the time. The goal: force the Turkish government to give Öcalan access to his lawyers, whom he hasn’t seen since 2011, and to his family. Since then, some three hundred political prisoners from all over Turkey have joined the hunger strike.
Reportedly, Gezen had to give up after ten days due to health problems. A PKK-fighter in the Qandil mountains says, while the Newroz fire burns behind him: ‘Apparently Zülküf saw this as the only way he could contribute something to the struggle.’ Whether he really took his life because of Öcalan remains unclear. Maybe he couldn’t bear being imprisoned indefinitely anymore and took this opportunity to put an end to it.
Zülküf’s act, and the way the PKK dealt with it, were apparently inspiring. In the days after his death, another three Kurdish prisoners ended their lives. They too became ‘martyrs’. Leyla Güven spoke out against the suicides. She declared: ‘Revolutionaries shouldn’t die so easily.’
Because it was not helpful, the PKK too has now explicitly spoken out against it. In a declaration put out by Kurdish media, the KCK (the umbrella organisation which includes the PKK) states that the fight against fascism must be organized and not individual and that every new deed in the spirit of Zülküf will be meaningless. It looks like this has helped: since the KCK statement, no new incidents have occurred. Inside the PKK, even wiping the floor is given revolutionary meaning and nobody wants to have a meaningless act on her or his conscience.
But eventually, there is only one person who can really break the cycle. Only Öcalan’s word is law. The government, however, shows no signs of willingness to end his isolation.