The life and death of Rebwar Gholizadeh, environmentalist, intellectual, PJAK fighter from Iraq

    24 Aug 2021

    Let’s check the story by Rudaw from a war-thorn Iraqi Kurdistan.


    Children and parents alike giggled as they played in a stream lined by weeping willow trees, a vein of life in a remote village otherwise slumbering in the overpowering late June sun.

    Nearby, a white Toyota pick-up truck carrying four plainclothes militants made its way towards this village, Kuna Masi, hills transitioning into the rugged mountains of the Iranian border. The men were on their way back to base from a secret mission. Had they listened carefully, the four men would have heard the buzzing sound of a drone tracking their vehicle. They had been compromised.

    The militants were fighting the Iranian security forces. They belonged to the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), a relatively new group closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighting the Turkish state for the recognition of Kurdish rights since the early 1980s.

    One of the militants was Rebwar Gholizadeh, who is believed to have joined the group in the summer of 2017. Rebwar was a young intellectual, a captivating singer, and prior to heading to the mountains to join PJAK, an environmental activist in his home town of Bukan, western Iran.

    Turkey is in close alliance with Iran when it comes to the threat they see posed by Kurdish opposition groups, targeting PJAK bases in Qandil with its jets as far back in time as May 2008 to deadly effect. In recent years, Turkey’s domestically manufactured drones have replaced its jets as master of the skies above Iraqi Kurdistan, ceaselessly targeting both the PKK and PJAK.

    PJAK has lost 300 fighters in clashes with Iranian security forces and in shelling by both Iran and Turkey since the group’s foundation in 2003, according to a written statement sent to Rudaw English by senior PJAK member Ahvand Chiako.

    The four men would no doubt have been worried about their safety when they ventured out from their mountain refuge, given that Turkey had launched large-scale air and ground operations across Kurdish areas of Iraq on June 15, just ten days earlier, using heavy artillery, F-16 fighters jets and its signature Bayraktar armed drones.

    Travel into civilian areas brings no shield of safety from the damning precision of Turkish drone strikes. In October of last year, a strike killed two senior PKK officials on a crowded hilltop overlooking the city of Sulaimani.

    “We try really hard to avoid causing civilian casualties. If we didn’t use preventative measures, 10 to 20 civilians would die every day,” Chiako told Rudaw English via WhatsApp. “But sometimes, we have no option but to come out [from mountain hiding] to maintain group relations.”

    The Toyota pulled up on a bridge at Kuna Masi’s threshold. Rebwar stepped out of the vehicle and walked to a shop on the bridge to buy some eggs.

    “’Please wrap them tightly, we have a long way to go’,” the shopkeeper later recalled Rebwar as saying. “I wasn’t sure what he meant by a long way, but I was a bit surprised.”

    A Turkish armed drone likely struck somewhere between the shop and car at around 5 pm. Smoke bellowed, and terrified families ran through the stream to take cover on dry land. A fire broke out, engulfing oak trees on the slope overlooking the valley in which Kuna Masi sits.

    Having rushed to the shop to check on her son and his family, Aisha Mustafa saw carnage. Her daughter-in-law was unconscious, and appeared to be missing a leg. Aisha’s son, the shopkeeper, was bleeding from the chest. Her two young grandchildren lay nearby, bloodied and screaming.

    A young man’s body had been severed in two. The body belonged to Rebwar, the environmentalist turned militant.

    A few days later, the Turkish Consul General in Erbil nonchalantly told reporters that Turkey would continue targeting the PKK and its ‘wings’, with no specific mention of PJAK. The United States expresses broad support of Turkish operations, and Iran was happy that Turkey was doing its bidding in eliminating opposition to the regime in Tehran.

    Rebwar had not spoken to any member of his family or to friends in over a year. No one knew of his fate until the militant group’s official announcement of his death.

    One female friend, an environmental activist who asked to be known as Rojin, saw Rebwar’s photo on a friend’s Instagram story and knew instantly that he was dead. Another close friend, Karo Azadi, found out about Rebwar’s death through the courtesy of a journalist who worked for a PJAK-affiliated channel in Europe.

    “I know you were close to Rebwar, so I wanted you to hear this from me before we run his news,” the journalist told Karo.

    Rebwar, the environmentalist and intellectual

    Rudaw English spoke to two of Rebwar’s friends, who last saw him couple of years ago. Rebwar had been an avid reader since high school, they said, who cared deeply about the environment.

    “It was sometime in the summer of 2016 that Rebwar and his sister turned up for an environmental action we were holding in the city of Bukan,” recalled Rojin, a member of grassroots organization Welat that campaigned primarily, but not exclusively, for protection of the environment. “We would go to the mountains for a week and hold debates about the environment and current affairs.”

    The group was one of dozens that sprung up across the Kurdish areas in western Iran in the early 2000s. Due to the strict surveillance of the Kurdish areas by the intelligence wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as the Tehran’s intelligence ministry, Kurdish youths like Rebwar often channeled their political energy into NGOs that worked on environmental and civil society issues.

    “You wouldn’t be able to find anyone like him even if you searched the whole of Bukan. He was warm and proud of his moustache,” Rojin recalled of Rebwar. “He would encourage the girls to stand up for themselves.”

    Rebwar speaks in Bukan at a February 20, 2016 event for Welat, a grassroots environmental and civil society organisation. Photo via Welat on Telegram

    The authorities honed in on members of the collective, imprisoning most on trumped up charges of supporting armed opposition groups. Rebwar and Rojin were fortunate enough to have slipped through their net.

    Before joining the grassroots environmental group, Rebwar became close to Karo Azadi, another Kurdish political activist from the nearby city of Saqqez.

    “Rebwar was an avid reader and loved poetry,” Karo recalled from Europe via WhatsApp a few days after Rebwar’s death. Rebwar particularly loved the work of prominent Kurdish poet Sherko Bekas, Karo said.

    The central government in Tehran had never allowed the Kurdish language to be taught at school. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Iranian Kurds were unable to read or write in Kurdish, and those who promote the Kurdish language are often thrown behind bars with lengthy sentences. Against the odds, Rebwar “knew Kurdish very well, and was politically active even during his high school years,” Karo said.

    Rebwar and his friend, who would affectionately call him Kako, would host get-togethers shot through with heated debate at a house Karo owned.

    Their peers would participate in events marking international women’s and workers’ days, and campaign against the death penalty. “We mobilised the entire city of Saqqez to protest the death penalty of Sherko Moraefi,” a political activist hanged by the authorities in 2013 on charges related to membership of a Kurdish opposition group, Karo recalled.

    “We were a group of young men and felt responsible towards our society,” Karo said. “He was very responsible, kind-hearted, honest, and exceptionally punctual.”

    Neither of the two friends Rudaw English spoke to had seen Rebwar’s inscription to an armed group coming.

    Rebwar, the PJAK fighter

    Karo left Iran in 2013 to join a leftist Kurdish armed opposition group called Komala, based in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. He accompanied a Komala delegation that went to Qandil mountains in the summer of 2017 to hold talks with PJAK leaders.

    “I was expecting to see another friend who had joined PJAK, but to my shock, I saw Kako,” Karo recalled. The two friends hugged and spent around two hours catching up on old news about friends.

    Back in the September 2014, Kurdish forces in northern Syria inspired by the teaching of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan fought Islamic State militants in the famous battle of Kobane. “He told me that the battle for Kobane had made a lasting impact on him and made him think about joining the group.”

    Rojin remembered that one member of her environmental activist group had joined PJAK in 2016, the summer before Rebwar disappeared. A year later, Rojin was simply told by one of her fellow activists that Rebwar too had “gone to the mountains”.

    Rebwar had barely been born when hundreds of Iranian Kurds began joining the PKK, particularly after Ocalan’s February 1999 abduction in Kenya following an international manhunt by the American, Israeli, and Turkish intelligence services.

    As US President George W. Bush invaded Iraq and threatened neighbouring Damascus and Tehran, a leadership faction within the PKK put forward the idea of establishing versions of the party in Syria and Iran, in case Bush moved upon his threats. The PKK acted fast, and before major Coalition operations in Iraq were over, around 250 Iranian Kurdish members of the PKK assembled in the Qandil mountains on April 4, 2003 to establish PJAK, according to a senior PJAK leader who was present at the meeting.

    PJAK expanded its operations in Kurdish areas of western Iran, recruiting hundreds of young men to their cause. It fought bloody battles with the most elite forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), killing dozens of their better equipped adversaries. They became a force to be reckoned with, attracting many young men from Iran like Rebwar to join the group.

    Rebwar, nom de guerre Arivan Shoreshgir, with fellow PJAK fighters in the mountains of Sulaimani province in July 2018. Photo via Ruptly

    While Iran is considered the focus of PJAK militant efforts, the group has come under attack from Turkey too. “Iran can’t use its aircrafts [in Iraq], but NATO and the US have given permission to Turkey to do so,” Chiako told Rudaw English. “What Iran is unable to do, Turkey does for them.”

    “The Kurdish issue is a mutual issue for both countries [Turkey and Iran], they may have many differences but they are of the same opinion on the Apo movement,” Chiako said, referring to the groups including PJAK that follow Ocalan’s teachings.

    Operations against Kurdish armed groups based in the mountains of the Kurdistan Region have been conducted by Turkey and Iran since the 1980s and the 1990s respectively. The beginning of Turkey’s most recent invasion occurred as Tehran shelled areas of the Kurdistan Region bordering Iran, and after the foreign ministers of both countries met in Ankara in mid-June pledging to fight terrorism.

    Washington has actively participated in Turkish operations against the PKK, and by extension PJAK, which fights American arch-enemy Iran. In May 2007, the US Director of Intelligence had expanded a Counter Terrorism (CT) SIGINT exchange with Turkey to include “actionable intelligence” against the PKK in northern Iraq.

    Both parties subsequently formed a joint working group in Ankara called the Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell (CIFC), staffed by the American and domestic specialists to gather actionable intelligence for the Turkish strikes. The Americans, who were in charge of Iraqi airspace including that of the Kurdistan Region until late 2011, would clear the sky for Turkey to strike the PKK. The Americans were proud of their close cooperation with the Turks, pushing them to include a “positive” reference to Turkish assistance in their official public statements on these operations.

    As the US withdrew from Iraq that year, Ankara came to rule the skies of Iraqi Kurdistan. It struck alleged PKK targets at will, killing and maiming dozens of civilians in the process.

    After joining PJAK, Rebwar was stationed in the Qandil Mountains, before being moved to the mountains of Sulaimani province, bordering Iran. He was known by the nom de guerre Arivan Shoreshgir.

    In the summer of 2018, I travelled to the mountains of Sulaimani province to interview the head of PJAK with two other journalists. After finishing the interview, I asked to take some photos of the fighters standing nearby. I snapped a fighter with an impressive moustache looking onto the mountains, its once verdant slopes destroyed in a fire likely caused by Iranian artillery, or perhaps a strike by Turkish aircraft. The fighter was Rebwar Gholizadeh. He turned his back as he gripped his AK-47, telling me he did not want his face to be recognised.

    Tens of thousands of people have been consumed in this vicious war between the PKK and its affiliated groups with the government of Turkey and Iran. No end to the killing appears to be in sight, as Turkey continues fierce operations in the Kurdistan Region.

    Rojin has been left devastated by Rebwar’s loss, pondering on a very different ending for Rebwar had he continued to struggle unarmed.

    “Maybe it was important for him to join the group, but I believe that had he stayed and worked on the cultural norms of this society, he would have been far more effective.”You may read here about Iraq’s environment pushed to the brink by war, mismanagement and climate change.

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