Mamend Rasul describes devastation brought to Iraqi Kurdish village by Turkish airstrikes against PKK, Mamend Rasul was not at home when Turkish F16 jets fired the missiles that killed his sister, brother and cousin. He was at the battlefront fighting Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – declared enemy of both Turkey and its Nato allies, including Britain.
Neither Turkey nor Nato has any grievance with Mr Rasul or his relatives.
In fact the Kurdish army with which Mr Rasul was fighting, the Peshmerga, is supposed to be Turkey’s ally in the complex world of Middle East politics. It is being trained by British troops, and supplied with weapons by Germany.
But it seems anyone can now become a victim, as the always intricate alliances of the Middle East – a house of cards if ever there was one – come tumbling down. And in the face of Isil, no card is looking shakier at the moment than Turkey.
“Turkey is to blame,” Mr Rasul said on Friday, as he greeted fellow mourners in front of the pile of rubble to which the airstrikes had reduced his family’s row of houses. Eight people died in the attack, several elderly, one a younger female teacher called Sama Gear. One grandmother, Aish Ahmed Mustafa, died in the first round of strikes, at 4.10am on August 1. The others, including Mr Rasul’s sister Heybet, 63, and brother Salah, 61, died in the second round 20 minutes later as the neighbours were trying to pull the injured away.
“The same day this happened I was doing my duty serving at the front near Kirkuk against Isil,” Mr Rasul, a company commander, went on. “We did nothing to Turkey – it can’t be right that at the same time they came to do air strikes.
“I was thinking that I was the one who was in danger in the front line, while my family here was safe.”
Mr Rasul is from the Iraqi Kurdish village of Zergaly, which straddles a cleft in the Qandil mountains, near the borders with Turkey and Iran. The picturesque hillsides overhead, dotted with hazelnut trees, have a single claim to fame: they are the home in exile of the PKK, the fearsome guerrilla group that waged a four-decade war against Turkey, until a ceasefire and ‘peace process’ began in 2013.
That ceasefire is now breaking down and Turkey has been wreaking revenge.
Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says that the PKK have declared war by assassinating a number of policemen and soldiers in the last two weeks. That the PKK have certainly done, but as with so many conflicts in the region, the ultimate cause of renewed hostilities is the breakdown of order in Syria and Iraq.
he PKK says it was forced to act because it believed Turkey was helping Isil, many of whose fighters arrive in the region via Turkey. Once across the border into Syria or Iraq, they join the jihadists’ pick-up truck convoys and suicide bombers, whose fiercest opponents on the ground have been the Kurds.
Given the historic enmity between the Turks and the Kurds, that puts the Turks effectively on the side of Isil in the PKK’s view.
“Erdogan is dreaming of reigning over the Middle East, by using its Sunni proxy Isil,” said Zagros Hiwa, the group’s spokesman in the region, who had also arrived in the village to pay his respects.
It is a popular theory among the Turkish president’s many opponents that the true caliph or sultan of Isil’s caliphate is not intended to be Abubakr al-Baghdadi, Isil’s leader, but Mr Erdogan himself.
That may be going too far. It is clearly true, however, that the recent successes of the Kurds against Isil in Syria, where they have driven the jihadists from once-besieged Kobane and created a long unbroken stretch of territory along the Turkish border, threaten an Erdogan red line.
A self-ruling Kurdish zone carved out of the break-up of Syria would make a newly negotiated autonomous region on Turkey’s side of the border look too much like part of an emerging Kurdish superstate.
While the Kurds fighting in Syria are notionally the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, their affiliation to the PKK is no secret. “When we fight in Turkey, we are PKK, when we fight in Syria, we are YPG,” said the guerrilla guarding the PKK cemetery near Zergaly. The birthplaces of the graveyard’s occupants, shown on the headstones, reveal the truth of this. Men from the Syrian towns of Aleppo, Afrin and Hasakeh lie alongside those from towns notionally in Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
Mr Erdogan is nothing if not far-sighted, eager to ensure his legacy as Turkey’s most powerful leader since the death of Kemal Ataturk is untainted by any loss of Turkish sovereignty.
He is also an Islamist, and repeatedly plays down the Isil threat, saying that the real enemies of peace are the Assad regime in Syria, and the PKK.
Turkey’s historic allies believe he is at best putting the cart before the horse – at worst, that he is a genuinely unreliable friend who has deliberately aided the rise of jihadism in Syria. While both the EU and the US list the PKK as a terrorist group, both also last week urged restraint in Turkey’s bombing raids against Qandil.
Turkey’s strikes against the PKK have so far numbered 1,000, according to the Turkish government’s figures. The number of raids against Isil – which were announced at the same time – can be counted on one hand.
Questions remain about the attacks: why so few people have died, for one thing. The eight deaths in Zergaly remain the highest toll from a single attack; the PKK say they have been the only civilian casualties, and that only seven fighters have been killed.
Mr Hiwa said that was because his men are used to hiding in caves and forests, where they are invisible to Turkey’s drones. The villagers – in Zergaly and elsewhere – say the PKK stick to their mountain-side redoubts, and insist there were no bases near the Aug 1 strike.
But there also remains something in the air of an unreal war, one being done for show.
The Kurds – and others – have their theory about that, too. The war, they say, is less important than the semblance of a war, which can be used to trigger PKK attacks in Turkey and demonise the Kurds.
Many non Kurds voted for the legal Kurdish party, the HDP, in recent elections, enough to deny Mr Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) a majority, and also to deny him a vote to vest more powers in the presidency.
If that is true, it would be a cynical move even by the Middle East’s Machiavellian standards.
It is also backfiring – at least in terms of popular support for the PKK in Qandil. While other guerrilla groups may outstay their welcome, by living off the land and imposing their own rough law, the PKK have a reputation for good discipline – and of being good fighters, too.
The local MP, Arez Abdullah, told the assembled mourners, and The Telegraph, that he would continue to defend their presence there.
The defeats they have inflicted on Isil in the past year – defending not only Kobane but the Yazidi homelands in Sinjar, after the Peshmerga had fled, and even the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil itself, have given it heroic status even among non-PKK followers.
“The answer to our feelings about the PKK is in their fight against Isil,” said another of the Rasul brothers, Mohammed. “They are fighting on all fronts, and we can see they are not just fighting for themselves. Of course we have more respect for them than even in the past.”