A Short Biography of Abdullah Öcalan
Abdullah Öcalan was born on April 4, 1948, in the village of Amara, in the Xelfetî district of Riha (Urfa). He graduated from Ankara Anatolian Land Registry and Cadastre Vocational High School in 1968. In 1970, while working as a civil servant, he enrolled in the Faculty of Law at Istanbul University. During these years, he met with the Devrimci Doğu Kültür Ocağı (Revolutionary Cultural Eastern Hearths; DDKO) and the youth leaders of the 1968 generation about the Kurdish question. He later quit the Faculty of Law and enrolled in the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University. There he led a student strike protesting the March 1972 massacre of the Turkish revolutionary leader Mahir Çayan – whose ideas greatly influenced Öcalan and whom he commemorates to this day – and nine of his comrades in Kızıldere. On April 7, 1972, Abdullah Öcalan was imprisoned for seven months for his role in the protests. Following his release from prison, having failed to introduce the Kurdish problem onto the agenda of Turkish revolutionaries,
he started working on establishing a separate group around the idea that “Kurdistan is a colony.” The historically important first meeting of this group took place in 1973, in Ankara. Kemal Pir’s
assertion that “the liberation of the Turkish people depends upon the liberation of the Kurdish people” provided the group’s theoretical framework, and, in 1975, Abdullah Öcalan and Mehmet
Hayri Durmuş penned the group’s first written document titled “Analyses of Imperialism and Colonialism.” In 1977, Öcalan and his friends traveled to Kurdistan to engage a campaign to raise awareness of the newly forming group and its ideas. Speeches Öcalan gave during this Kurdistan campaign were transcribed. He visited Bazîd (Elazığ), Qers (Kars), Dugor (Digor), Dersim, Çewlîg (Bingöl), Xarpêt (Harput), Amed (Diyarbakır), Mêrdin (Mardin), Riha (Urfa), and Dîlok (Antep). Abdullah Öcalan’s “The Way of the Kurdistan Revolution,” also known as the “Manifesto,” was written in the summer of 1978 and published in the first issue of the journal Serxwebûn (Independence). Abdullah Öcalan wrote the “Party Program” in memory of Haki Karer, who was from the Black Sea Region and had been murdered in Dîlok, and declared the foundation
of Partîya Karkerên Kurdîstan (Kurdistan Workers’ Party; PKK) at a congress in the village of Fis, in Amed, on November 26–27, 1978. In the wake of the declaration, the Turkish state carried out
massacres in Maraş and Meletî (Malatya) and attacks in Semsûr (Adıyaman) and Xarpêt, and then declared martial law and detained numerous people. In 1979, foreseeing a military coup, which would indeed occur in 1980, Abdullah Öcalan and several of his friends passed through the border town Pirsus (Suruç) into the city of Kobanî, in Syria. After leaving Turkey, from 1979 to 1998, Öcalan organized and led the political education of the PKK’s rank and file, which he considered more important than military training. At the same time, he also led the movement as a whole, conducted foreign relations and was responsible for diplomatic meetings, while doing his best to stay in touch with Kurds and allies in Lebanon, Syria, and, increasingly, around the world. Going back and forth between Syria and Lebanon, where he cooperated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and met with new and old cadres for the coming struggle, Abdullah Öcalan began making the preparations for a revolutionary people’s war against junta set up after the September 12, 1980, coup d’état. During the same period, he published the brochure United Front of Resistance against Fascism. In 1981, he wrote the books The Role of Force in Kurdistan, The Question of Personality in Kurdistan, Life in the Party and the Characteristics of the Revolutionary Militant, and The Problem of National Liberation and the Road Map to its Resolution, as well as his political report to the party’s first conference. In the following two years, he also penned the works On Organization (1982) and On Gallows and the Culture of the Barracks (1983). The military coup resulted in thousands of people being imprisoned and severely tortured, as a wave of severe repression was unleashed against society. News of disappearances and executions were leaked despite intense censorship. As a result, Öcalan’s writings in this period focused on how to build an armed organization against fascism, how to fight against the Kurdish landowners and aristocracy who collaborated with the state, and how to transform the Kurdish militants, with their oppressed and colonized personalities, into freedom fighters. He also made several attempts to build a coalition with the Turkish revolutionary organizations that had succeeded in crossing into other countries in the region. However, internal disputes in the Turkish left, among other things, prevented the emergence of such a coalition. Then, on August 15, 1984, the PKK carried out its first armed offensive against two military posts, one in Dih (Eruh) and the other in Şemzînan (Şemdinli).
Thereafter, the PKK began to grow exponentially. As the organization continued to grow steadily from 1987 to 1990, gaining popularity among Kurds and extending its regional influence, new problems emerged. A series of documents with the title “Analyses” assembled Öcalan’s intense discussion of the existing problems. These documents were later published as brochures,
including The Revolutionary Approach to Religion and The Question of Woman and the Family, and as books titled The Liquidation of Liquidationism, The Fascism of September 12 and the PKK’s
Resistance; Betrayal and Collaboration in Kurdistan, and Selected Writings, vols. 1–4.
The PKK’s armed struggle against the Turkish state continued even after the military coup was nominally ended. In terms of the repression that Kurds faced in the region, the banning of their language and their organizations and the denial of their existence, the transition to democracy in 1984 was a nonevent. Indeed, not only the PKK but the entire left in Turkey defined the post–military coup period as the institutionalization of fascism and neoliberalism in Turkey. From 1990 to 1992, the armed struggle Öcalan led, which he called “a war for the protection of existence,” gained massive popular support. During this period, Öcalan became convinced that the political solutions to the Kurdish question that the PKK proposed and the strategies it had adopted needed to be revised. This phase saw Öcalan’s Resurrection Is Complete, Now It’s Time for Liberation and the 1993 book-length interview with Yalçın Küçük titled The Story of the Resurrection. In these books, Öcalan started to conceptualize a radical form of democracy that could liberate Kurds, women, and other oppressed groups. In the early 1990s, Öcalan gave several interviews to Turkish journalists and leftists regarding his search for a democratic solution and efforts to achieve peace, which were published as the following books: Meetings with Abdullah Öcalan (Doğu Perinçek, 1990); Apo and the PKK (Mehmet Ali Birand, 1992); Interview in a Kurdish Garden (Yalçın Küçük, 1993); The Kurdish Question with Öcalan and Burkay (Oral Çalışlar, 1993); I am Looking for a Collocutor: Ceasefire Talks (1994); Killing the Man (Mahir Sayın, 1997). During those years, his analysis of communality also left its mark on the Kurdish community, and he published Problems of Revolution and Socialism, Insisting on Socialism Is Insisting on Being Human, The Language and Action of Revolution, History Is Hidden in Our Day and We are Hidden at History’s Beginning, How to Live, vols. 1 and 2, and Kurdish Love. As can be deduced from the titles of the books, at this point, Öcalan was primarily concentrating on two aspects of the struggle: first, how to center on women’s freedom and transform the PKK into an organization that can provide freedom to its militants and to the people; second, how to deal with the shortcomings of the Soviet real socialist model without giving up the ideals of a socialist revolution. He also started developing his ideas about history, which he would later return to in much greater detail in his prison writings. Öcalan states that the second half of 1990s was when he obtained his own freedom, in the sense of
freeing himself from dogmatic thinking. During this period, he tried to open up a venue for dialogue between the PKK and the Turkish state. The book Dialogues, Ceasefire Statements, and Press Releases, 1993, 1995, and 1998 is a compilation of Öcalan’s analyses in the context of the attempts made at dialogue with the governments of President Turgut Özal (1993) and Prime Ministers Necmettin Erbakan (1995) and Bülent Ecevit (1998). All of these efforts were sabotaged by events that the Kurdish Movement and Öcalan have a strong suspicion were the work of NATO/Gladio units. Major examples of such events are the massacre of thirty-three unarmed Turkish soldiers by a PKK guerrilla group, the suspicious death of Özal, and the attacks, bombings, and assassination attempts targeting Abdullah Öcalan. The attacks against Öcalan and his ideas by forces that aimed to prevent peace and democracy in Kurdistan culminated in Öcalan’s exile from the Middle East and his eventual abduction. The US’s multidimensional diplomatic and military pressure on the Syrian state, including Turkey’s open threat of war against Damascus,meant Abdullah Öcalan had to leave Syria on October 9, 1998.
After leaving Syria, Öcalan looked for a new place where he could continue the political struggle. The details of the international diplomacy he conducted for a democratic solution to the Kurdish question and peace in Turkey during this period are published as a book titled Towards Peace: The
Rome Talks. During this period, the CIA and Mossad pursued him relentlessly, and, as a result of the intense pressure applied by NATO and Turkey, different governments forced him to leave.
After an odyssey through several European countries, Öcalan set off for South Africa, but he was never to arrive. On February 15, 1999, in a plot that involved several secret services, including the
CIA, Mossad, and Turkish and Greek intelligence agencies, he was abducted while leaving the Greek embassy in Kenya, Nairobi, and handed over to Turkey. The abduction caused protests and
uprisings by Kurds in all four parts of Kurdistan and worldwide.
Abdullah Öcalan’s prison conditions are grim, and he is confronted with an arbitrary regime of total isolation. İmralı Island, where he is imprisoned, is a restricted military zone located in the Sea of Marmara. Öcalan spent the first ten years of his sentence as the only prisoner on the island, guarded by more than one thousand soldiers. In 2009, a new prison was built for him, and there are now three other prisoners on the island. All cells in this new prison are designed for solitary confinement. Each of the prisoners has his own tiny courtyard for fresh air, but due to the extreme height of the walls these yards look like well shafts. Öcalan still cannot receive letters and is the only prisoner in Turkey without access to a telephone. In the last ten years, the authorities have only permitted five meetings with his lawyers and five family visits, and these were only made possible by the protracted hunger strikes of several thousand Kurdish political prisoners spread across Turkey. Despite these conditions, Öcalan has produced a major corpus of writings while in prison. Starting with his defense speech in the show trial on İmralı Island, The Declaration on the Democratic Solution of the Kurdish Question (1999), these writings outline the new strategy that the PKK and other actors in the Kurdish freedom movement should adopt to transform Kurdistan, Turkey, and the broader region without changing existing political borders. Prison Writings: The
Roots of Civilization is an extensive historical and philosophical study that lays the groundwork for all of the following books, while its second volume, The PKK and the Kurdish Question in
the 21st Century (both 2001), extensively evaluated and critiqued the PKK’s shortcomings and failures, in order to improve its social impact and increase its political capacity. His submission to
the Greek courts, Defense of the Free Human (2003), shed more light on his abduction and the role of various powers and further developed the ideas he had previously addressed. Öcalan’ subsequent writings further delved into and developed his thesis about history and began to map out his alternative paradigm, first in Beyond State, Power, and Violence (2004). This book played a
major role in forming what he calls a “new kind of revolutionary party.” Bringing together ideas from prominent Western and non-Western scholars, he argued for an understanding of history as an antagonism between state formation and society formation. Since revolution is for the empowerment of society, it also should be against the state, organizing in a way that renders the state redundant. While capitalism, patriarchy, and the nation-state build capitalist modernity, he argues that the people’s resistance against these systems should build upon the history of democratic modernity, of which the world’s revolutionary struggles are the their. Finally, in his writings, Öcalan also revisited and further developed his ideas on women’s freedom and revolution – which he called his “unfinished project.” Putting women’s freedom and revolution at the center of all democratic revolutions, he emphasized that women’s autonomous organization and ideological production will transform society into a state of equality, peace, and freedom. All these ideas are mapped out in the five volume Manifesto of the Democratic Civilization (2008–2011). The ideas that Öcalan formulated in prison have greatly influenced and inspired three revolutionary projects. North and East Syria, more commonly known as the Rojava revolution, with the participation of all peoples of the region, is a revolution where the role of women and the youth continues to determine the direction, and which serves as beacon of hope for the region. The Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Peoples’ Democratic Party; HDP), which was founded in 2012 and brings the Kurdish movement together with other freedom movements in Turkey, including socialist, women’s, ecological -movments and Alevis, Armenians, and other opposition movements led by the peoples themselves, and which has received the support of 12 percent of the electorate in Turkey, is also shaped by Öcalan’s ideas. Another example, the Kurdish Yazidi people’s autonomous council, formed in the aftermath of attacks, is oriented toward self-defense and self-government, so that Yazidis can continue to flourish on their land. For its part, the Kurdish women’s movement, equipped with Öcalan’s analysis, not only set a precedent in self-organization and self-defense under the current conditions but also showed how to translate this into political mechanisms that allow women to exert their weight for a lasting transformation in the Middle East. All of these political actors aim to build democratic autonomous regions in the Middle East where radical democracy is exercised and to unite in a confederal structure on the basis of an ecological, feminist, and decolonial constitution. While in prison, Öcalan further developed and augmented the strategy that the Kurdish movement adopted during the second half of 1990s to achieve peace with the Turkish state. In 2009, he announced that he intended to write a document outlining a “road map” to peace and encouraged people to share their thoughts on the subject with him. This triggered an extensive debate in Turkey and abroad, which energized different sections of society. He completed the “road map” on August 15, 2009, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the launching of the armed struggle. This road map served as a basis for a process of dialogue with the state. From 2009 to mid-2011, a delegation appointed by the Turkish government engaged in secret negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan on İmralı Island and with leading PKK members in Oslo (the so-called “Oslo process”). The parties involved agreed on several protocols. These protocols contained a step-by-step plan to end the armed conflict and make the necessary institutional transformation to resolve the Kurdish question. However, the Turkish government decided not to implement this plan, instead extending the waves of arrests of Kurdish politicians and activists and starting massive military operations in June 2011. In another series of talks, Turkish state authorities conducted a direct dialogue with Öcalan on İmralı Island (the “İmralı process”). In late 2012, the state acknowledged that these talks had taken place. The assassination of three Kurdish female politicians, including PKK founding member Sakine Cansız, by the Turkish secret service, the MİT, in Paris on January 9, 2013, threatened to quickly bring the talks to a standstill, but Öcalan stuck with them. At the Newroz festivities in March 2013, Öcalan called for the withdrawal of the armed groups from Turkey and expressed his hope for democratization in Turkey. The call was heeded, and hopes for peace resurfaced. That year, Time magazine named Öcalan as one of the one hundred most influential people in the world, and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the following months, however, it became clear that the Turkish state’s sole objective was to disarm the PKK, and that it had no interest in a political solution. The last pinnacle in the so-called “peace process” was the Dolmabahçe Declaration in February 2015, when an agreed protocol on peace was read in the presence of the vice prime minister, who was acting on the directive of then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and HDP lawmakers, who represented Öcalan. However, soon afterward, then prime minister and later president of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shifted strategy, scrapped the entire dialogue process, and renewed military escalation. As of today, Öcalan and the whole of İmralı Island remain in
total isolation, with no possibility of communication whatsoever. Meanwhile, both support for his ideas and the chorus of voices calling for his freedom is growing every day.
This biography is extracted from a brochure written by the International Initiative for the freedom of Abdullah Ocalan. The full brochure can be read here: https://ocalanbooks.com/downloads/ENG-brochure-freedom-shall-prevail.pdf