The three German mountain climbers who were kidnapped on the slopes of Mt. Ararat in Turkey almost two weeks ago have been set free. According to Turkish officials, members of the rebel group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) set the three men free on a hilltop and fled. The climbers are healthy and will soon be heading back to their homes in Bavaria.
The release took the German foreign ministry by surprise. A foreign ministry official told SPIEGEL ONLINE that they were not aware that the PKK was planning on letting them go and assumed that the Kurdish rebel group would hang on to them a while longer for the international attention the kidnappings focused on the Kurds. The PKK is interested in establishing an autonomous Kurdish region in eastern Turkey, but the group is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the US.
A PKK spokesman called SPIEGEL ONLINE soon after the hostages were freed to confirm their release. "We decided to allow the hostages to go," said Ahmed Danas. "The negotiations on their release were led by two Kurdish organizations in Turkey," he said. His comments fit with the analysis made by the German foreign ministry, which assumed that the PKK was not interested in harming the hostages for the negative publicity that would have generated for the group.
The three climbers were part of a group of mountaineers from Bavaria taking part in an organized expedition to climb the 5,165 meter high (16,945 feet) Mt. Ararat. On July 8, PKK guerrillas walked into their camp at 3,200 meters, chose three climbers from the group, and disappeared. The rebels told those who remained not to break camp until the next morning.
Many saw the kidnappings as a response to German moves to dampen PKK activity in Germany. The group was banned in Germany in 1993, but the country's intelligence said as recently as last year that the PKK continues to maintain an "illegal body of officials actively engaging in conspiracy" in Germany. Earlier this summer, German officials raided and then shut down the Kurdish television channel Roj TV, a move which Kurdish rebels mentioned in a warning to Germany issued not long later.
But kidnapping the German climbers was a move that split the 500,000-strong Kurdish community in Germany. Just last week, Nulifer Koç, a spokeswoman for the Kurdish National Congress (KNK), and Mehmet Demir, deputy chairman of the Federation of Kurdish Associations -- also known as Yek-Kom -- appeared at odds during a Berlin press conference on the abductions. Whereas Koç took the PKK line, Demir was unwilling to voice any expression of solidarity with the perpetrators.
This strange event in the heart of the government quarter in Berlin mirrored the problems that a rebel commando operation in eastern Turkey created for the huge exile community of over 500,000 people of Kurdish origin in Germany. Many have open sympathies for the guerrillas -- and they welcomed the renewed interest in the struggle of the Kurdish people for more autonomy, a conflict that has raged for decades. However, many are also afraid that their situation will further deteriorate as a result.
One man is particularly familiar with the mood among Kurds living in Germany and their attitude toward the guerrilla fighters. Mahmut Seven, 44, works in an austere, low white building in the industrial park of Neu-Isenburg and speaks openly of how many Kurds feel torn these days, and have reacted with concealed joy mingled with the fear of not knowing what the consequences might be. "The abduction should never have happened," he says, "but nobody can deny that the entire affair has attracted an enormous amount of attention."
Seven runs the only Kurdish daily, Yeni Özgür Politika. It has a circulation of 15,000, but has many more readers in the tea salons across Germany. There are 20 journalists on the payroll and not even Seven knows exactly how many volunteers work at the newspaper. The political affiliation of the paper is clear: It reflects the line of the banned PKK and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Texts written by Öcalan from the heavily-guarded island prison of Imrali are printed verbatim in the newspaper. Seven makes no secret of this: "The Kurds have an incredible debt toward this organization. They gave us back our pride and our identity."
But he says that there is almost no hint of gloating in the dozen letters that he has received concerning the kidnapping. Most of them, on the contrary, are full of bile for the German government.
Many Kurds in Germany who sympathize with the PKK are becoming increasingly infuriated with their treatment here -- the broadcasting ban issued last June on the sole Kurdish television station Roj TV, and on the production company Viko in Wuppertal, is just one indication of a more forceful approach by German security agencies -- a development that has been observed by Yek-Kom deputy chairman Demir for a long time.
This includes raids on Kurdish associations in Hanover, Kassel, Bremen, Koblenz and Berlin -- and it includes an increasing number of arrests of top PKK officials ordered by federal German prosecutors. There is also an ongoing wave of asylum revocations, justified by the German government by pointing to political reforms in Turkey -- an argument that provokes even moderate Kurds.
Almost every Kurdish family in Germany has relatives or acquaintances in Anatolia who have been arrested, wounded or abused in the struggle for the cause or against the Turkish military. The letters "Q", "W" and "X" -- which are used in the Kurdish language -- are still banned in Turkey. Time and again, Kurdish politicians are tried and convicted for using these letters in official letters. Even the title "Mr." is forbidden in connection with Öcalan.
Last week, a report that the Turks had shaved Öcalan's head in prison made headlines in the Kurdish media. That was torture! said guests at the Hamburg "Vereinshauses Kurdistan" -- an association with close ties to the PKK. Some of them also shaved their heads in protest. "I would give my life for Öcalan," said O. He is 22 years old.
As a German, you cant understand how terrible it is to have no right to your own identity, explains Salih Kocero, who runs a Kurdish tea salon near the main railway station in Hamburg. Four Kurds are sitting at a table there and playing Batak, a Turkish card game. When asked whether they sympathize with the PKK, they all laugh. We all like the PKK, even if we arent active members, says Kocero, who -- like many others -- came to Germany as a refugee. There is a guerrilla fighter in almost every family. Kocero pulls a creased photo from his wallet. This is my cousin. Hes still alive. Hes with the PKK troops in northern Iraq.
But there are other viewpoints of the conflict within the Kurdish community in Germany, and in Hamburg they can be found just a few blocks away in the district of Altona: Erkan Kilinç is a leading member of the Komkar federation, which includes 35 associations across Germany. Like the PKK, Kilinç would also like to see an autonomous Kurdish region in Turkey, but his organization would like to achieve this objective using peaceful means. It is insane how many people have already lost their lives in this war, he says. He also knew many of those who died.
Kilinç sharply condemned the abduction of the Germans: That doesnt achieve anything; quite the contrary, it harms the image of the Kurds. This fear is shared by many intellectuals: This incident casts a negative light on the Kurdish people and harms the liberation movement, says Zaradachet Hajo, president of the Kurdish PEN Center, which works to promote the Kurdish language and literature.
Hajo and many other Kurds are convinced that the kidnapping episode will encourage the German government to pursue its current hard-line policy on Kurds. Even KNK spokeswoman Nulifer Koç has similar views. When asked at the press conference whether the abduction on Mount Ararat served the cause of the Kurds, she gave a clear answer: No.
With reporting by Katrin Elger and Marcel Rosenbach