Except for the artillery barrages and violence, their life did not seem unpleasant. Their recreation resembled the Ultimate Frisbee games I played during college. Most afternoons, they played volleyball—they told me with pride that the women were the best players, and that the men, feminists to the core, were fine with that—at the center of a beautiful Aspen-like panorama. It was the kind of spot that would be coveted real estate if it were not under intermittent artillery fire by two angry neighbors (a situation few Aspen residents have had to deal with, I suspect, unless they happened to live near Hunter S. Thompson). For dinner they served bread, sliced tomatoes, and stuffed grape leaves. One night we ate French fries, as if to reenact the scene in Bananas when Woody Allen leaves his Cuban guerrilla camp to pick up take-out.
A few older PKK members led the younger ones in a collegial, rather than authoritarian way. One, a slim man with drill-mounted glasses, said he had been a full-time revolutionary for two decades and had spread a gospel of radical socialism in seven countries. I asked which country he had been raised in, and he gave a pitying shake of the head, as if to say: You still believe in countries?
And there were a few extremely young recruits. In a camp literally built into the side of a mountain—a protective measure to make it difficult for Iranian artillery to hit them—two Iranian Kurdish kids sat uncomfortably around a dinner table. They looked about fourteen, and they had arrived so recently that they still wore their own clothes, rather than the uniform of sturdy, drab fatigues. Their civilian clothes were hilariously out of place, appropriate for clubbing rather than warfare. They looked as if it was not just their first night in a terrorist camp but also their first night in any kind of camp at all.
As I left, hiking out of the mountains on my last day in the camps, I saw two stout, gray-haired men sitting next to a smoldering campfire that looked barely capable of bringing their battered old teapot to a boil. Their billowy pantaloons marked them as Kurds—probably local villagers, I thought, until one placed a sugar-cube between his front teeth and sipped the tea, holding the cube in place. This method of tea-drinking, which over time wreaks havoc on the incisors, is distinctively Iranian.
I greeted them and asked, as politely as I could, why two fat old Kurds had crossed the mountainous border, risking detection by the Iranian military, to come here. They were no use as fighters, and they didn’t have the scholarly look of the camps’ senior ideologues.
They said their sons had run away from home, probably to join the PKK, and that the boys’ mothers had demanded that they cross the border on foot to find them in the camps—and if necessary to grab them by the ear and bring them home. The men showed me photos of two happy-looking teenagers standing in front of a fountain in Iran.
I hadn’t seen their boys, but I wished the two men well in their quest. I could guess, though, what sort of boys they were, and why they had probably crossed the mountains. The movement they joined was a sad but seductive one, and one in which I would want no loved one to enlist. Born as an expression of real suffering and intellectual yearning, it transformed fast into a movement of startling cruelty, and now had all the makings of a Children’s Crusade.