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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ocalan's Charisma Fueled Brutal Rebel Movement




IMRALI ISLAND, Turkey -- From inside his bulletproof glass courtroom cage, Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan took an abrupt step toward his lawyers and threw angry gazes, signaling them to sit down and shut up.


That moment, during his treason trial, captured Ocalan's charisma and style, which, along with guns and bombs, fueled a 15-year struggle for Kurdish autonomy in the southeast of Turkey, a battle that cost the lives of thousands who joined one of the world's most brutal and best organized movements.


"We were 60 people," Ocalan said of his Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, founded in 1978. "Now, we are 10,000."


As leader, he scolded senior rebels like children. Those who challenged his authority were sentenced to death, including his wife, condemned in 1986 for joining Ocalan's opponents, who accused him of using dictatorial policies.


"I prevented her execution," Ocalan has said. "I think she is alive. She might be in Sweden."


Ocalan's enemies portrayed him as a loutish, unstable man who seduced female followers. A Turkish television broadcast showed him telling women guerrillas, "Being with me is an honor."


Fanatically loyal, his rebels died fighting in snow-covered mountains, while he spent his time at a villa in Damascus or in the plains of Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley, where he had a training camp.


"I should say that I have not used a gun," Ocalan said during his trial. "I am a man of strategy and ideology."


One of seven children of a poor farming family living near Syria, the dropout from Ankara's university combined the thoughts of Marx, Lenin and Mao.


"I did not create the Kurdish question; I found it in front of me in Ankara," Ocalan told the court in reference to the Turkish left's sympathy to the Kurds.


Ocalan said a ban on the Kurdish language after the 1980 military coup increased "the dimensions of oppression" on the Kurds. "I was born with this language. One can call himself a nothing if he can't speak his own language."


But Ocalan reportedly knows little Kurdish and speaks fluent Turkish without a Kurdish accent. He said his mother was of Turkish origin.


The ban on Kurdish was lifted in 1991, except in broadcast and education.


After serving seven months in a military prison for distributing a leftist magazine in 1972, Ocalan conducted covert activities to form a group that would fight for an independent Kurdish state.


But during his trial, he called that goal "imaginary and unnecessary."


He formed the PKK when he had enough supporters to start a rebellion. A year later, in 1979, a police crackdown on his militants led him to flee to Syria.


When Turkey threatened Damascus to oust him or else in October, Ocalan said he had two options.


"I was afraid of going up to the mountains," he said through a microphone from his cage. "I was weary."


He opted for months of hiding in Europe and, he said, betrayal of "countries claiming to be friends." Turkish forces in Kenya captured him in February.


Branded "baby killer" and "bloody terrorist," Ocalan used his testimony to plead for his life, pledging that, if spared, he would work to end the bloodshed.


But when some Turkish newspapers compared him to "a kitten acting innocent after spilling the milk," Ocalan angrily retorted, "I am not a kitten."