Yet he decided to part ways with the terrorist organization after seeing the life in the mountains and distorted relations among the members of the PKK. He eventually managed to escape from the PKK camps. According to Sami, an equal number of people want to leave the ranks of the PKK as want to join them. “It is a matter of chance if those trying to flee the PKK camps survive. It is difficult to leave, and the moment you are captured, you are executed. Many of my friends who wanted to flee the camps were killed. It is particularly the children and teenagers who want to escape,” said Sami.
The statements of the young boy only begin to explain the plight of the child militants in the ranks of the PKK, which was brought into the spotlight by the 2012 Human Rights Report of the United States State Department.
According to the report, the PKK, which has been waging a bloody campaign in Turkey’s Southeast since 1984, regularly recruits children, and 36 percent of its members of under the age of 18.
The use of children as terrorists both in cities and mountains by the PKK is an issue which escapes public attention. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which capitalizes on any incident involving children, opts to remain silent when it comes to the young children recruited to fight for the PKK.
Some human rights groups, intellectuals and writers who bring various problems involving children such as child abuse, child labor, violence against children or child marriage to the public’s attention are also conspicuously quiet when it comes to the situation of child militants in the PKK.
Attorney Serdar Bülent Yılmaz, the head of the Diyarbakır branch of the Freedom Association (Özgür-Der), regrets the fact that although the issue of child warriors is a problem the world has been trying to address for many years, the children recruited by the PKK go unnoticed in Turkey and no one brings their misery to the public’s attention. “I personally became aware of this issue when I saw the bodies of children who joined the PKK in Pertek [in Tunceli province] in 1992 that had been killed within a week or so. This incident sparked outrage among families whose children had joined the PKK and led to a significant fall in the number of children joining the terrorist organization. So I think families of these children should speak out first and openly criticize the PKK,” said Yılmaz.
Recruiting “child warriors” is among the crimes against humanity and considered a violation of a fundamental human right, according to international laws and conventions. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on May 25, 2000, and came into force on Feb. 12, 2002, sets 18 as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, for recruitment into armed groups and for compulsory recruitment by governments.
Article 4 of the protocol states that “armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years and that States Parties shall take all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use, including the adoption of legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalize such practices.”
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted in April of war crimes and crimes against humanity before the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone. The court found Taylor guilty of the war crime of using child soldiers in addition to terrorizing civilians, murder, outrages of personal dignity, cruel treatment and looting.
Taylor played a crucial role in the armed conflict in Sierra Leone, orchestrating and conducting violent operations that utilized child soldiers.
Taylor’s conviction suggests that leaders of the PKK and the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that encompasses the PKK, may be tried before an international court one day for recruiting child militants and that they may be convicted.
According to sources from the PKK, half of the PKK militants based in its camps are under the age of 18 while the youngest PKK militant is an 8-year-old boy referred to as “K.”
Recruitment of children by the PKK has significantly increased since 1990, according to data from the police, gendarmerie and depositions of ex-PKK members. Fifty-nine percent of the child recruits in the PKK are boys while 41 percent are girls. Twenty-five percent of the children who joined the ranks of the PKK managed to flee its camps while there is no clear information about the fate of the 75 percent of the children that remain in the camps. Yet it is known that around half of the children who join the ranks of the terrorist organization lose their lives within two or three years, either in armed conflicts or due to intra-PKK executions or disease. It is possible to explain the reason behind the interest of children in becoming PKK militants with the KCK contract (which is regarded by the outlawed Kurdish National Congress [also known as the Kongra-Gel, the so-called legislative organ of the PKK] as the constitution of the organization), according to which every Kurd is a citizen of the KCK. This contract states that every citizen is obliged to pay taxes to the state and provide it with “soldiers.” If a family is not rich enough to pay taxes to the KCK, they are supposed to send one of their children to the PKK camps or give them to the urban service of the PKK. Although the number of voluntary child militants was high in the past, a survey recently conducted by the police among former PKK members showed that 70 percent of ex-PKK members had been coerced into joining, 19 percent of them had been tricked into joining, while 11 percent of them joined the PKK because a relative had previously joined the terrorist organization.
T.Y., a former PKK member who surrendered to security forces in May, told the authorities that the average age of PKK militants has fallen to as low as 12.
Another PKK fugitive, Z.T., said the main problem of the child militants in the PKK camps is being subjected to sexual harassment and rape.
“Both girls and boys are subjected to sexual harassment and rape. I witnessed at least 15 such cases. Older militants rape younger militant girls and threaten them to keep quiet about it. As long as such incidents are not uncovered, there is no problem. Some older militants carry condoms with them because pregnant militants would be burdensome. Young militant boys are subjected to rape or harassment in the same way. The abuser is sometimes a man, sometimes a woman,” said Z.T.According to İbrahim Güçlü, a Kurdish politician, the PKK’s recruitment of underage militia is not a new problem as it is a part of its fundamental ideological, cultural and social discourse.
“The PKK promises an independent and free Kurdistan by taking children to the PKK camps in the mountains, deceiving them with certain promises and brainwashing of children. It is employing the same political discourse today,” said Güçlü.
He also regretted the fact that Turkish politicians and intellectuals have failed to bring the issue of the PKK’s child militants to public attention.
A former PKK member, Şükrü Gümüş, said the order for recruitment of underage militia was given by the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who once told top PKK operatives, “Bring me 14-year-old children.”
Captured in 1999, Öcalan has been serving a life sentence on İmralı island in the Sea of Marmara since then.