Thousands of children are serving as soldiers in armed conflicts around the world. In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38, proclaimed: “State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” Since then, UNICEF and the UN Security Council took steps to end the recruitment of children in conflict and war.
The PKK, recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. , E.U. , and Turkey, often recruits children. In the past, the PKK even recruited children as young as 7-12 years. In 2010, a Danish national daily newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, published a story about the PKK’s child soldiers. According to that report, there were around 3,000 young militants in the PKK’s training camps. The youngest child at the PKK training camps was eight or nine years old. They were taught Abdullah Öcalan’s life story (the jailed leader of the PKK) and how to use weapons and explosives.
Despite the Deed of Commitment, the PKK continues to recruit minors
After that story was published, the PKK encountered strong reactions from human rights organizations worldwide. The same year, UNICEF released a statement voicing its “profound concern” about the PKK’s recruitment of child soldiers.
In October 2013, the PKK, represented by HPG (the PKK’s military wing) commander Ms. Delal Amed, signed the Deed of Commitment protecting children in armed conflict. This document, drawn up by the Geneva Call NGO, is dedicated to promoting respect by armed non-state actors for international humanitarian norms in armed conflict. Despite this commitment, the PKK continued to recruit minors.
The PKK abducted children while the peace process was continuing
On March 21, 2013, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan called for a cease-fire that included the PKK’s withdrawal from Turkish soil and an eventual end to armed struggle. The PKK announced that they would obey, stating that 2013 would be the year of conclusion, either through war or through peace. But that did not happen. Instead, the PKK abducted 2052 children aged between 12 and 17 while the peace process was still going on, according to Turkish security records. The PKK took these children and trained them. After that, because those children were not involved in any criminal activities, when they were captured by, or surrendered to, Turkish security forces, Turkish courts did not prosecute them, so most of them were released. It was the Turkish state’s goodwill gesture for the sake of the peace process.
However, once released, most of these children joined the YDG-H, the PKK’s new youth wing, and began to perpetrate illegal and/or violent events in Kurdish populated cities and towns. The YDG-H began to emerge in early 2013 and spread rapidly after the peace process’ beginning. Then, after the 7 June 2015 election, the YDG-H began to attack security forces and civilians in cities and towns such as Cizre, or in Diyarbakır’s Sur neighborhood, with heavy weapons, and to dig trenches and erect barricades in side streets.
The HDP assaulted the mothers demanding their children
In May 2014, mothers from across Turkey whose children had been recruited by the PKK held a sit-in protest in front of the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality building and called on the PKK to release their children. Their children were mostly 14-15 years old at that time. Some families claimed that their sons and daughters were kidnapped by the PKK against their will. The Diyarbakır Municipality, administered by the HDP, used water cannon to disperse the mothers. HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş even claimed that these mothers were hired by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization. Despite the resistance coming from the PKK and the HDP, the families continued their protest, and some families’ children were released by the PKK.
A search of the PKK’s official gazette, Serxwebun, reveals many stories about child soldiers that have died in battle. The paper used to give the birth dates of these children but discontinued the practice because they want to hide the ages of these children to prevent reaction from human rights organizations. Also, if they use the birth dates of these children, it will reveal the fact that the PKK breaches the Geneva Deed of Commitment. On the other hand, in both Serxwebun and Hpg-sehit.com these children’s photos clearly show that they are not older than 14-15 years. Using photos of these children gives the impression that they want to avoid reaction from human rights organizations and international humanitarian law, but want to display pride in their child “martyrs.”
The PKK established a child-wing called YPS-Zarok
Another photo from the Yüksekova district shows the child-wing recently established by the PKK called YPS-Zarok (Child) with the headline “YPS-Zarok announcement from the children of the resistance.”
The PYD, the PKK’s Syria branch, is also known for its recruitment of child soldiers. The sad part is that nearly every actor in the Syrian Civil War recruits children. The U.N. verified 278 cases of children recruited and used by armed groups in Syria, such as the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army, the YPG and YPJ, al-Nusra Front, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. There are many underage children fighting for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
U.S.’ ”reliable partner” YPG also recruits children
A Human Rights Watch report, “Syria: Kurdish Forces Violating Child Soldier Ban” provides a list of 59 children, ten of them under the age of fifteen, recruited for YPG or YPJ forces since July 2014. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court classify the recruitment of under-15-year-olds as a war crime. While the Obama Administration does not recognize the YPG as a terrorist organization, and supports them as a local partner in the region, the YPG continues to recruit child soldiers.
It’s clear that the U.S. sees the PYD as a “reliable partner” in the fight against ISIS. However, the Obama Administration should notice the fact that the PYD is not an independent organization. It is linked to the PKK and recruiting minors under 18. The decision to found the PYD was made in 2002 during a PKK congress in Qandil. The PYD also has a bylaw stating that “Abdullah Öcalan is the leader of the PYD.”
The Ankara bombing’s perpetrator was also a child soldier
In addition, the Turkish government claimed that the perpetrator of the recent attack in Ankara that killed 28 people was a member of the YPG named Muhammet Salih Neccer. However, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), a splinter group of the PKK, claimed responsibility for the bombing. The attacker was named Abdulbaki Sömer, according to TAK’s website. According to Abdulbaki Sömer’s father, his son joined the PKK at the age of 16. This means that the Ankara bomber was also a child soldier recruited by the PKK.
After that claim, Turkish authorities took DNA samples from Sömer’s father to test if it matched the DNA of Muhammet Salih Neccer, and it matched. With this information, it was understood that the Ankara bomber entered Turkey with a fake identity. The perpetrator was a Turkish citizen but despite the general perception, the YPG does not only have Syrian members; many are Turkish citizens. The YPG has approximately 45K militants and 8-9 thousands of them are Turkish. But the Ankara bomber’s true identity only illustrated that reality. As Turkish PM Davutoglu explained, “The claim of responsibility by TAK, a PKK splinter group, aims to divert attention from the YPG. Whether it’s KCK, YPG, PKK, TAK or PJAK, they are all part of the same terrorist structure.”
In summary, the YPG is the Syrian wing of the PKK, and recruits children just like the PKK. Whether it is named as the YPG, the PKK or something else, they attack a NATO member country with the support they receive from the United States. The Obama Administration should be asked whether the U.S. wants to stand with its NATO ally Turkey, a legitimate, democratic political entity, instead of a non-transparent, non-state, violent militant organizations like the PKK or YPG, regardless even of whether they recruit children as soldiers.