Published January 11, 2013
ANKARA, Turkey – The photograph shows a young woman in guerrilla fatigues, long hair tied back, toting a machine gun. She stands next to Abdullah Ocalan, the feared leader of Turkey’s separatist Kurd militants — testimony to her senior role in the insurgency.
The scene was a guerrilla training camp at the height of the Kurdish rebellion. The woman was Sakine Cansiz — the exiled Kurdish activist who was found shot dead along with two other women on Thursday in Paris.
Cansiz, who went by the nom de guerre “Sara,” was legendary among Turkey’s Kurds as a founder of the separatist movement, a champion of women’s rights and an unbreakable warrior who endured years of torture in a Turkish prison. A 2007 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, released by the secret-spilling Wikileaks website, shows that U.S. officials had identified Cansiz as one of the outlawed PKK’s top two “most notorious financiers” in Europe and wanted her captured to stop the flow of money to the rebels.
And her life and death put the spotlight on a seeming paradox: Women have played a prominent leadership and combat role in the insurgency of an ethnic group known for its conservative, male-dominated values.
The 55-year-old Cansiz was found at a Kurdish information center in Paris with multiple bullet wounds to the head. Two other Kurdish activist women lay dead beside her. French authorities called the attack an execution and hundreds of angry Kurds immediately gathered outside the building claiming the killings were a political assassination.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Kurdish activists blamed Turkey for the deaths while some Turkish officials pointed at a possible feud between factions within the PKK, the Kurdish acronym for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
The killings come at a time when Turkey has resumed talks with jailed rebel leader Ocalan in a bid to persuade the group to disarm and end the nearly 29-year-old conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. Some speculate that the slayings may have been an attempt to derail peace efforts.
Cansiz and Ocalan’s now-estranged wife, Kesire Yildirim, were the only two women among a core group that founded the PKK in a village in southeast Turkey in 1978. The organization has since grown into one of the world’s bloodiest separatist groups, where women make up around 12 percent of the estimated 5,500 fighters.
Details about Cansiz’s early years are sketchy. Turkish and Kurdish reports say she became a Kurdish and youth activist in the mainly-Kurdish province of Elazig in the 1970s before helping to found the PKK at a “congress” while in her early 20s. She was arrested during Turkey’s 1980 military coup and thrown into a prison in the city of Diyarbakir that was infamous for torture and ill-treatment, according to Ahmet Deniz, a PKK spokesman.
After her release in 1991, she spent time in PKK camps first in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which was controlled by Syria at the time, and later in northern Iraq, where she led and organized the group’s women’s wings, Deniz said.
The PKK’s female fighters made headlines in the mid- 1990s through a series of suicide bombings that killed dozens of security force members and civilians. Some posed as pregnant women, disguising bombs strapped to their bellies.
Ocalan was initially wary of women members within the PKK, fearing they would distract male fighters. He changed his mind and actively sought to recruit women in the 1990s — partly for ideological reasons.
Inspired by Marxist ideology, Ocalan was convinced that more freedom for Kurdish women would help bring down the feudal, clan-based system that still reigns in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast region, according to Necati Alkan, an author of a book on women within the PKK.
Alkan said Ocalan’s motto was: “Free women amount to a free land and a free land amounts to freedoms.”
In the mid 1990s, at the height of the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish security forces, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of the group’s fighters were women, according to Nihat Ali Ozcan, a terrorism expert at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.
“Sometimes they fought alongside the men as part of a major attack, other times they fought alone,” Ozcan said.
In March, Turkish security forces killed 15 women Kurdish rebel fighters in a clash in a forested area in southeast Turkey, believed to be the largest one-day casualty toll for women guerrilla fighters. A Turkish security official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, said security forces did not realize they were fighting women until all were killed and they recovered the bodies.
Women undergo the same rigorous training as men in camps in the mountains of northern Iraq, but train and live separately from male comrades. The PKK bars relations between female and male fighters, fearing a weakening of the cause.
According to Ozcan, the PKK has executed fighters “who fell in love” — for breaking the groups’ strict rules.
To some Kurdish women, joining the PKK was an escape from Kurdish culture’s rigid social mores — forced marriages, honor killings and other restrictive practices that remain rife in the southeast. Many others joined the PKK inspired by a dream of a separate state for Kurds or to avenge Kurds killed, imprisoned or tortured by Turkish security forces.
The PKK originally set out to fight for a separate state for Kurds, who make up an estimated 20 percent of the Turkish population. It later revised its goal to autonomy and greater rights for Kurds, including the annulment of Kurdish language bans imposed in the 1980s.
A series of European Union-backed reforms have widely expanded cultural rights and freedom for Kurds in recent years: A state television station broadcasts programs in Kurdish, students can now chose to learn Kurdish in schools, and there are plans to allow detainees to defend themselves in Kurdish in courts.
Cansiz is believed to have moved to Europe in the mid-1990s, becoming a leading activist for Kurdish women’s rights. Unconfirmed Turkish media reports say she was dispatched to Europe following a dispute with some PKK leaders in northern Iraq.
Cansiz received asylum from France in 1998, according to Devris Cimen, head of the Frankfurt-based Kurdish Center for Public Information.
The Wikileaks cable suggests that Cansiz and another PKK member, identified as Riza Altun, were the PKK’s key financiers in Europe, helping to funnel “upward of US$50-100 million annually” to the organization. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and its allies, including the United States.
“We must redouble our efforts to shut down the financial flows from Europe into PKK headquarters” in northern Iraq, the cable reads. “We need to narrow our focus by identifying and going after the two top targets of Riza Altun and Sakine Cansiz.”
The cable suggests that the PKK raises money in Europe through fundraising and business activities as well as drugs, smuggling and extortion.
“We can help by … coordinating with law enforcement and intelligence counterparts in Europe, to ensure these two terrorists are incarcerated,” it says.
The co-leader of a pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey, however, eulogized Cansiz for her bravery. “She spat at the face of her torturers and her oppressors,” Gultan Kisanak said Thursday.
In a 2011 documentary, Cansiz recounted the torture she suffered in the now shut Diyarbakir prison — including a beating endured while being forced to wade through “neck-high sewage water.”