All it took was two words, nothing more. At times, those two words were enough to drive hundreds, even thousands, onto German streets and market squares. Last December in Düsseldorf, more than 10,000 people took to the streets in the name of those two words: "Êdî bese!" Many carried signs emblazoned with the slogan, and some had even written it on their foreheads. It was repeated over and over by the tens of thousands: "Êdî bese! êdî bese! êdî bese!" -- "enough! enough! enough!" But despite the size of the demonstrations, few paid attention. Perhaps the Kurds would have won more notice if they had chanted their slogan in German. But even that is unlikely.
The Kurds are an ignored minority. Germany hosts fully 500,000 of them -- the largest concentration of Kurds outside of their traditional areas of settlement in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria -- but they hardly ever hit the headlines in the country, despite their ongoing struggle for an independent homeland.
Ten years ago, it was different. Then, the Kurds attracted attention by periodically blocking German autobahns, holding hunger strikes or even lighting themselves on fire. But ever since Turkish intelligence agents, with the help of the CIA, captured the best-known Kurdish activist in Nairobi in February 1999, Germany's Kurds have gone off the radar screen. Since then Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has been in solitary confinement at the island prison of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara. No one mentions Öcalan anymore, nor does anyone talk about the Kurdish conflict these days -- at least not in Germany.
Disappeared into the Darkness
That silence, though, is now at an end. Late last Tuesday evening, five armed men turned up at an isolated tent camp on Mount Ararat. They introduced themselves, almost formally, to a group of German mountain climbers who had come to climb the legendary mountain in Turkey's far east. The climbers had planned to make their summit push the next morning.
According to members of the mountaineering group, one of the five interlopers, speaking in broken English, launched into a lecture about the situation of the Kurdish people. Then the men took three hostages and disappeared into the darkness, instructing the remaining mountain climbers not to break camp until the next morning.
Since then, the Kurds are front-page news in Germany once again, and the three unsuspecting Bavarian mountain climbers have become caught in the workings of global politics. No one knows where the Kurds have taken them. A crisis team was quickly convened at the German Foreign Office, by now almost routine. There have been plenty of kidnappings of German nationals in recent months: in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and, most recently, off the Somali coast. But for the kidnapping experts at the Foreign Ministry, dealing with the Kurds was a first.
The kidnappers were last heard from last Thursday. The letter claiming responsibility for the abductions, released by the "People's Defense Forces" (HPG), the military arm of the PKK, reads like a declaration of war. In a statement broadcast by the PKK-affiliated news agency Firat, the rebels said that the tourists from Bavaria would not be released until Germany agreed to "end its hostile policy towards the Kurdish people and the PKK."
International Attention for the PKK
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble promptly announced that Germany would not succumb to blackmail. Chancellor Angela Merkel also appealed to the kidnappers over the weekend to release their hostages.
The PKK leadership likewise seemed less than enthusiastic about the abductions. In a statement released by the group on Sunday, the PKK said that the kidnappings had been carried out by a local group on their own and said "we will take measures to ensure that the tourists return safely to their families." But the group also demanded that Berlin call on Turkey to cease military operations against the PKK.
Still, even if the PKK leadership seemed interested in distancing itself from the abductions, one can hardly ignore that the PKK has suddenly regained what it has sorely missed in recent years: international attention. The militant Kurdish organization, banned in Germany since 1993, seemed weakened and on the verge of collapse recently. Now it has managed to force its way back into the limelight.
Police and government security forces are concerned about what this could mean. The kidnapping has the potential to dramatically alter the security situation in Germany, once again turning the country into a secondary theater of the Kurdish conflict. For a country that is home to both the world's largest Kurdish community in exile and the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey, this is not an appealing prospect. Friction between the two groups has not been uncommon in the past.
Paradoxically, the Germans have little influence on how the situation develops, because the key players in this game are not in Berlin, but in Washington and Ankara. The three harmless Bavarian mountain climbers have become bargaining chips in a struggle for power and influence in one of the world's most strategically important regions. Those who seek to understand that struggle -- and who want to find the roots of Kurdish rage against Germany and the rest of the Western world -- must begin by following two paths, one that leads to Washington and international politics, and the other to the mid-sized German city of Wuppertal.
Last November, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with US President George W. Bush in the US capital. It was an encounter that has since shaped international policy toward the Kurds. But not only does the policy affect their homeland in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq and Iran, but it also affects the countries where the largest groups within the Kurdish diaspora live: Germany, France and the Netherlands.
Large-Scale Military Intervention
By the time of Erdogan's meeting with Bush, Turkey had already lost more than 200 soldiers and civilians in 2007 in its fight against Kurdish guerillas. As a result, Ankara was exerting growing pressure on Washington to take action against the Kurdish separatists, who were using northern Iraq as a safe haven for their training camps and weapons depots. If the Americans remained passive, the Turks threatened, they would invade northern Iraq -- a nightmare scenario for the United States, and for Europe. To that point, the north was the only region in war-torn Iraq that had remained relatively calm and stable.
The two heads of state reached a compromise. Erdogan promised not to stage a large-scale military intervention in Iraq. In return, Bush agreed to accept limited military strikes by Turkish forces. He also promised the Turkish prime minister extensive aid in Ankara's struggle against the PKK. Under the pact, the Americans would provide Turkey with extensive intelligence, take action against PKK facilities in Iraq and cut off the rebels' sources of financial support and their logistical supply lines.
Soon after the Washington meeting, Bush said in comments about the PKK that "they're an enemy of Turkey, they're an enemy of Iraq and they're an enemy of the United States." Erdogan went home satisfied, but only after he had announced limited "operations" in Iraq. A few weeks later, the Turkish military launched strikes into northern Iraq. In February, in one wave of attacks alone, Turkish fighter jets bombed more than 70 presumed PKK positions.
At the same time, the United States launched a diplomatic offensive in Europe. In February, Frank C. Urbancic, Jr., the US State Department's deputy counterterrorism coordinator, told the Turkish daily Hürriyet that the United States would act as a "bridge, translator and catalyst" to help European countries better understand the "true pain" of Turks. Before that, the American ambassador to Turkey had announced that the United States would do its best to convince the Europe to take the PKK issue "more seriously."
Germany's Domestic Struggle against the PKK
Germany has traditionally been one of the PKK's most important safe havens and recruitment areas, despite the group's having been banned in 1993 by then Interior Minister Manfred Kanther. According to an assessment last year by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the PKK continues to maintain an "illegal body of officials actively engaging in conspiracy" in Germany. The group's German bases also play a central role in providing funding for the Kurdish "people's liberation fighters." Activists close to the PKK continue to regularly collect a so-called tax from ethnic Kurds in Germany -- a semi-voluntary contribution to the rebels' armed struggle. German security agencies estimate that this practice results in about €10 million ($16 million) in annual funds to the Kurdish guerillas.
This has long been a sore issue for the Turks. When Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were in Hannover in April 2007 to jointly open the city's annual trade show, the PKK was one of the topics Erdogan raised, just as it was discussed when Interior Minister Schäuble traveled to Turkey this February. At the time, Schäuble assured his Turkish counterpart that Berlin would take stronger action against the militant PKK hierarchy in Germany.
Schäuble lived up to his promise. At 6 a.m. on May 7, at the instruction of the interior ministry, police officers took up positions in front of a pale yellow brick house on Uellendahler Street in the western city of Wuppertal. A lineup consisting of 10 special investigators, police officers and various technicians were interested in the building's ground floor, storage rooms and an apartment in a rear courtyard building. The name on the brass plate below the doorbell read: Viko Fernsehproduktions GmbH, or Viko Television Production Company.
Guerilla War in the Mountains
The inconspicuous rooms contained sets, lighting equipment, makeup rooms and cameras. The building was the home of the German branch of Roj TV, a Kurdish satellite television station. The station has been broadcasting programs in Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish since 2004. In addition to music and entertainment, it airs clips of the guerilla war in the mountains.
The importance of this station for a Kurdish television audience scattered around the world can hardly be overstated. For them it is a central organ of sorts. By now some consider the station, which operates from Copenhagen under a Danish license and claims to reach about 18 million viewers worldwide, to play as strong a role in defining Kurdish identity as the armed struggle of the PKK guerillas. The Erdogan government has long urged the Danes to revoke Roj TV's license, but so far Copenhagen has refused to comply.
In Germany, on the other hand, the interior ministry banned Viko, which supplied Roj TV with programming like the entertainment program "Good Morning Kurdistan," only six weeks after the Wuppertal raid, and took Roj TV off the airwaves. In addition, the assets of both companies were seized.
According to the court order against Viko and Roj TV, the station is opposed to "the concept of international understanding," glorifies the armed struggle against Turkey, fuels the personality cult of Abdullah Öcalan and indoctrinates its viewers into PKK ideology. The Wuppertal studios have been off the air since the ban was imposed, and state security officers have locked the station's doors. Roj TV continues to broadcast from its studio in Brussels. The editor-in-chief of Roj TV in Belgium, Sores Toprak, disputes the interior ministry's claims. "Of course we do not glorify the use of military force, no matter what they say about us," he says. "But there is a war going on in Turkey, and we broadcast those images."
For Monika Morres, the managing director of the "Azadi Legal Aid Fund" for Kurds in Düsseldorf, the closing of Viko and the German broadcast ban represent the "latest climax in the repression of Kurds and Kurdish institutions" in Germany. In recent months, says Morres, there have many raids against Kurdish organizations in German cities, including Bremen, Cologne, Koblenz and Hannover. In addition, suspected PKK members have been arrested and charged. According to Morres, her organization is currently helping nine Kurds imprisoned in Germany.
The pressure from the Americans, the Turkish bombardment in northern Iraq and the actions of German security forces have all served to bring German PKK supporters to a boiling point. For months, domestic intelligent officials have noticed a gradual increase in the "Êdî bese!" mood. Only a week before the group of Bavarian mountain climbers headed for Mount Ararat, Kurdish leaders of the "United Communities of Kurdistan" had issued an open threat against Germany.
The group's "executive council," which, in Öcalan's absence, is perhaps the second-highest-ranking organization within the Kurdish movement, issued a largely unnoticed ultimatum to the "Merkel government" in late June, demanding that it discontinue its "hostile policies against the Kurdish people and their liberation movement."
According to the ultimatum, the German state has "fully identified with the extermination and denial policies of the Turkish state." The Western powers, "especially Germany," the Kurdish group continues, are seriously obstructing a "peaceful democratic solution" to the Kurdish question. "We declare that the German government is responsible for all negative consequences that result from this policy."
The message to the chancellor apparently came from the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, where Murat Karayilan, the head of the executive council, occasionally receives journalists for interviews over sweet tea. It is a message that appears to have presaged the kidnapping by Kurdish commandos on Mount Ararat. At the beginning of the year, Karayilan declared 2008 the "year of resistance and rebellion."
In early July, the Turkish police told Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) that there was trouble brewing within Kurdish groups in Turkey, and that this could signify future attacks and kidnappings. On July 2, the BKA sent warnings to the interior ministries of the German states.
Fearing for the Lives of their Loved Ones
In the warnings, the BKA wrote that it had received information that future attacks and abductions in Turkey could not be ruled out. The reports from Turkey were the basis for these vague warnings. August Hanning, deputy at the Federal Ministry of the Interior, confirmed that there were warning signs coming from Turkey before the Mt. Ararat kidnappings. "We may even have to prepare ourselves for a new threat within Germany."
In the midst of this charged atmosphere, the Bavarian mountain climbers set off for the holy mountain of Armenians. The trip, organized by seb-tours, a Munich tour agency, cost them about €1,700 ($2,700) each and was scheduled to last 11 days. German authorities were notified directly from the scene of the abduction that something had gone wrong. One of the mountain climbers, a police officer, notified her Bavarian colleagues by mobile phone.
The Office of the Federal Prosecutor launched an investigation into hostage-taking and attempted coercion, and the BKA sent half a dozen specialists to eastern Turkey. But German security experts remain puzzled over the hostage-takers' motives. Some see it as an "act of desperation." According to one domestic intelligence official, the PKK has come under such massive pressure as a result of the Turkish offensive that it is now attempting to prove that it remains a threat.
The Germans hope that the Turks will remain patient. In a telephone conversation to discuss the crisis, the Turkish interior minister assured his German counterpart Schäuble that Ankara would continue to cooperate with Berlin in this delicate situation.
However, immediately following the kidnapping Ankara sent helicopter units and paramilitary forces to the region, which it then proceeded to seal off. There was fighting in Sirnak Province on Friday, in which at least seven PKK fighters were killed. This quickly elicited a response from the kidnappers, who said that such military actions could only put the lives of the hostages in danger.
Meanwhile, the families in Bavaria are left to fear for the lives of their loved ones, and to hope that the situation will end as favorably as the unbelievable story of Albrecht L. He too was on Mt. Ararat on the day of the abduction, but with a different group.
He had traveled to that "unbelievably beautiful mountain" once again, hoping to overcome a personal trauma. Exactly 15 years ago, he was kidnapped there by PKK rebels. They held him for four weeks until he managed to escape.
By Andrea Brandt, Conny Neuman, Marcel Rosenbach and Daniel Steinvorth
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan