ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Thirty-three-year-old Zalal knows from experience that guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who are withdrawing from Turkey into bases in Iraqi Kurdistan as part of a peace deal with Ankara, will have a hard time adjusting to new lives as civilians.
“They will have a very hard time,” she says, after hearing news that the first groups of PKK fighters have arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they were united with their families. Some 2,000 fighters are expected to leave Turkey as part of a peace process aimed at ending three decades of conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
It took Zalal years to adapt to her new life, after she left the PKK seven years ago. “I did not know anyone here,” she recalls about her re-introduction to civilian life.
Zalal was merely 18 when she left her Turkish village to join the PKK. Nine years later she left the organization, after a fight over the way female fighters should dress for sports. She demanded they should wear T-shirts and shorts, just like the men. When she insisted, she was locked away for a month, only to be released after her team and other comrades openly took a stand in her favor.
The commander who imprisoned her said she wanted to escape the organisation, a lie that hurt her as much as the awareness that the PKK is supposed to be in favour of women’s rights, but does not always act accordingly. When she left 18-months later, it was without the consent of her top commanders, and she feared for her life.
And here in Iraq, the Kurds were scared of us. They thought they would get into trouble if they supported us.
“I was so scared they would come and kill me,” she recalls, adding she could not return to her village or her country for fear of persecution. “And here in Iraq, the Kurds were scared of us. They thought they would get into trouble if they supported us.”
The difference between Zalal and the PKK fighters now arriving is that the latter are not leaving the organization in the same manner she did. But Zalal fears that, once they join civilian life, they will hit the same lows she experienced.
There was no money or work in the beginning, and it was not easy finding a roof over her head. The only help she found was from former comrades. “There were days I hardly had anything to eat.”
Because she is a woman on her own, many took her for a prostitute. “They called me pisa, dirty. They think that a girl who has fought in the mountains must surely have lost her honour,” she says.
Everything was foreign to her, even handling money, which she did not have to do at the PKK, where supplies are provided for fighters.
“Shopkeepers were overcharging me, but how could I know? As fighters, we forgot all about money and how it works,” she says, recalling she was so naive that she agreed to rent a place for more than she was earning, causing big problems with her landlord.
Cooking was also a problem. It’s not that she did not know how; it was that she did not know how to cook in small quantities.
“I was used to cooking for a hundred people or more. But making something to eat for one or two I did not manage in the beginning.”
The biggest problems she suffered were psychological, Zalal says.
“It is as if they have left you in the middle of the sea and you cannot swim,” she says, recalling bad depressions. “I was wondering: why did I waste nine years of my life? I went in to fight for more rights, and came out with less.”
Shopkeepers were overcharging me, but how could I know? As fighters, we forgot all about money and how it works,
Now she is concerned about her brother, who left the PKK six months ago and is living with her. She tries to help him. “For us there is no therapy. What we need is love and trust,” she explains.
“I still have moments of depression,” she says, wondering how fighters who have spent as many as 25 years with the guerrillas will cope.
In the end, Zalal did learn to adapt – and flourish. She bought carts to sell popcorn, began renting them out to vendors and selling them the supplies to operate small businesses. Today, she is a successful businesswoman herself, with a comfortable house and even a maid to look after her.
Although she is living a life of relative luxury, her emotional scars still have not completely healed. Most of her friends still are former PKK fighters, because she could not build lasting friendships with others. A marriage, to a Kurdish man from Turkey without a background in the organisation, also did not last.
Today, she says, she is afraid of nothing, as she shows the scars from a gunfight that almost killed her. “My comrades say that I am like a cat, that I have nine lives.”